Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: The Gospel of Mark in the Syriac Harklean Version (2015)

Samer Soreshow Yohanna. The Gospel of Mark in the Syriac Harklean Version: An Edition Based upon the Earliest Witnesses. Biblica et Orientalia 52. Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2015. xi + 196. €48 (hardback); £5.75 (e-book)
“No other branch of the church has given so much effort to spread and to accurately transmit the Gospel. From the hills of Lebanon and Kurdistan, from the Mesopotamian plains and the coast of Malabar, even from faraway China, Syriac manuscripts that are valuable for textual criticism have come to the European libraries.” —Eberhard Nestle

1. Background

The Syriac speaking church has left us one of the richest traditions of Biblical translation. The translation of the New Testament starts with the Gospels as early as the second and third centuries with Tatian’s Diatessaron and the Old Syriac Gospels. The Peshitta came next and was to become the most prominent of all the Syriac translations. Even so, the heat of theological controversy led to a number of more exacting translations which were intended to help settle matters of exegetical dispute. The Philoxenian was completed in 508 and was the first to include the small Catholic Epistles and possibly Revelation, the former being all that survives to us today. The last of the major translations and the most literal was that of Thomas of Harkel who finished his work in 616, shortly after Paul of Tella’s completion of the Syro-hexepla.

Even with native Aramaic, Thomas gives
the Greek (e.g., μαραναθα in 1 Cor 16.22)
Although the youngest of the Syriac translations, the Harklean has proven to be one of the most fruitful for textual criticism. This is due to Thomas’s innovation as a translator. His colophon tells us that he based his work on the Philoxenian but revised it with the help of what he considered to be “well proven and accurate” (ܣܓܝ ܒܚܝܪܝܢ ܘܚܬܬܝܬܝܢ) Greek manuscripts. These he represents with an exacting translation style designed to give the Syriac reader as much access to the Greek as possible. To this end he adopted the text critical symbols made famous by Origen (the asterisk, metobelus, and obelus) to mark words not found in his Greek manuscripts but either required by Syriac idiom or found in his Philoxenian predecessor. In the margin he adds more detail, supplying textual variants, translation notes, word meanings, and often simply giving the Greek word itself. In short, Thomas holds the distinction of producing the very first critical edition of the Syriac New Testament.

Despite this distinction, there is no edition of the entire Harklean New Testament. The most complete remains J. White’s editio princeps of 1788–1803 (wrongly identified as the Philoxenian). But this is based on a single late manuscript and, with it, lacks the end of Hebrews and Revelation. The text of the Gospels is offered from a single early manuscript by A. Juckel in the comparative edition of G. Kiraz, but it lacks the marginalia. P. Hill produced an edition of Luke 1–11 for his 2002 doctoral thesis, but it remains unpublished. For the Pauline epistles (with Hebrews) and the large Catholic Epistles, A. Juckel and B. Aland’s editions give all the available evidence. For Revelation one must choose either A. Vööbus’s facsimile edition of a single manuscript with marginalia or I. Beacham’s comparative edition without. For Acts and the small Catholic Epistles, there remains only White’s edition (full bibliography here). Although much progress has certainly been made since 1977, we still can’t entirely dismiss Bruce Metzger’s complaint: “it is no credit to New Testament scholarship that there is still lacking an adequate edition of that [Harklean] version” (Early Versions, p. 73).

2. Summary

Thankfully, work on the Harklean does continue, and the latest effort comes in the published form of Samer Yohanna’s 2014 dissertation completed at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. The text offered here constitutes the first edition of any of the Gospels based on all witnesses of the first millennium. The book is divided into two main parts: the first describes the evidence for the edition and its editorial method; the second presents Yohanna’s edition of Mark’s Gospel.

The first chapter gives an overview of the Harklean Syriac (pp. 9–19) and the second gives a description of each of the fourteen manuscripts collated (pp. 20–49). In a few cases Yohanna was able to examine manuscripts in person; the rest required the use of digital images or microfilm. Importantly, Yohanna re-dates manuscript C (Chaldean 25) from the 13th century to the 9th/10th and this becomes the basis for his own text (more on this below).

The beginning of Mark in manuscript C (Chaldean 25), the base for the edition

Chapter three explains the editorial choices and, like chapter four, is more descriptive of the data presented than interpretive. The discussion of the edition’s structure (pp. 50–67) might have been clearer at certain points (e.g., the “witnesses tab” is referred to three times but never explained) and the whole chapter might have been helpfully moved to the ultimate rather than penultimate chapter. But the editorial decisions are sensible and there is much to help future researchers.

Chapter four is the longest (pp. 68–115) and contains a range of detail on features of the Harklean Gospel manuscripts. We get lists of paratextual features such as the Eusebian apparatus, kephalaia and titloi, liturgical rubrics, indications of Old Testament quotations, and what Yohanna labels the “informative notes” of the Harklean margin. Beyond this, he offers a text and translation of Thomas’s important Gospel colophon; diagrams of the contents of the Harklean Gospel manuscripts and their relationships; a list of orthographic developments in proper names; and finally a helpful set of illustrative color images. These color images are especially valuable since print editions can easily veil the occasional ambiguity of a manuscript’s paratextual features.

Following a brief conclusion, list of abbreviations, and up-to-date bibliography, the final thirty pages are devoted to the presentation of Mark’s Gospel in the witnesses of the first millennium. As noted, the main text and margin follow manuscript C except where it stands alone against all Harklean and Greek manuscripts (the basis for the latter is not clarified).

The layout of the text of Mark is generally easy to follow. Below the text and marginalia is a “manuscripts tab” showing lacunae in the manuscripts (oddly noted with quotations). Below this are two separate apparatuses for the text (top) and marginalia (bottom) which include all but the most common orthographic variations. Both apparatuses are clear and easy to follow. Versification follows the NA28; square brackets mark the page breaks in manuscript C; and kephalaia numbers (in Syriac) and the Eusebian apparatus are placed in the inside margin. A four-page insert explains the sigla and abbreviations used. The type is a good size and the only serious improvement in formatting would have been the use of running references at the top of the page so that checking a specific verse was easier.

The layout of the edition showing (1) marginalia and text; (2) manuscript “tab” where quotations mark lacunae; and apparatuses for (3) text and (4) margin.

3. Critique

By way of criticism, I mention three points of varying importance.
  1. The choice to follow manuscript C is somewhat surprising. This is not simply because C is one of the edition’s youngest manuscripts, but even more so because A. Juckel has been arguing for almost 20 years that the 8th/9th century Ms Vat. Syr. 268 (Yohanna’s V2) ought to be the basis of any critical edition of the Harklean Gospels. (This is the manuscript behind the NA28’s Harklean Gospel citations.) The lack of engagement is even more puzzling given Yohanna’s earlier citation of Juckel’s conclusion on the matter (p. 19). Perhaps the choice came down to his own close connection with manuscript C (he is a member of the Chaldean Order that owns it). Whatever the reason, the decision deserves more justification than the short summary statements in the conclusion (p. 117). Fortunately, the readings of witness Ms Vat. Syr. 268 are clearly represented allowing users to make up their own mind.
  2. The provisional manuscript relationships in part one are poorly explained and questionable. The diagram given on p. 102 but only explained on pp. 30–31 n. 38 cannot be meant as a stemma codicum; but what exactly it does mean or how it was constructed is not clear. We are only told that the degree of shared readings between manuscripts is equivalent to their “direct” (solid lines) and “indirect” (dashed lines) influence. But this makes little sense; shared readings do not in themselves indicate genealogy. Since these relationships apparently did not influence the editorial decisions, they probably should have been left out altogether.
  3. Yohanna’s diagram of manuscript relationships
  4. The Harklean apparatus presents a real challenge to any would-be editor, but Yohanna has in some cases made his job—and the reader’s—more difficult than necessary. In the margin he uses five sigla to distinguish (1) Greek words, (2) Syriac words, (3) editorial emendations, (4) informative notes, and (5) theological or linguistic notes. The problem is some of these are used elsewhere for other purposes (e.g., the diamond [܀] and “star” [*]) and, more importantly, they give the impression that the manuscripts themselves make these distinctions. In retrospect, I wonder if the marginalia would have been better served by a single reference siglum with Yohanna’s categorization of them listed elsewhere.

4. Conclusion

In all, this is an admirable presentation of the evidence for Mark’s Gospel in the Harklean Syriac. The collation in particular should reward careful use; hopefully it will be cited in future editions of the NA/UBS. Beyond that, one hopes that the publication of this work will spur work toward a complete edition of the Harklean Gospels. Until then, Yohanna deserves our gratitude for taking us one step closer.


  1. Any information on the long ending of Mark?

  2. Of the eight manuscripts that have Syriac marginalia, it appears that all introduce the shorter ending in the margin with "It is given somewhere..." All but two of these same eight mark the longer ending with the marginal note: "In a few of those more accurate manuscripts, the Gospel of Mark finishes at 'for [they were afraid].' But in others, instead, they add even..." Thomas only used 2-3 Greek manuscripts for the Gospels and I haven't bothered to check what family 2138 or the Harklean Group of Greek witnesses has. Maybe James Snapp knows.

  3. The Harklean Gospels are obviously translated from earlier Byzantine fam. Π Greek exemplars. However, since this Byzantine group is not extant in Acts and the Epistles the Harklean version remains an extremely important Syriac version for TC studies today.

    Paul Anderson

  4. I just heard from Martin Heide and he tells me he is working on a new critical edition of Revelation on which he presented at SBL last year (abstract here).

  5. Interesting to note the huge distinction between the real book price and the ebook price. It seems to me that lots of academic publishers have pitched ebook prices quite close to real book prices. This seems a better approach - potentially picking up buyers who are on a tight budget.

    1. I couldn't believe the disparity. I even wonder if it was a glitch. I have only found the e-book on Google Play so far.