Syriac New Testament

By Samuel Lee

Published by the British and Foreign Bible Society.
552 pages. 1816.




Syriac, a dialect of the ancient Aramaic language, has a remarkable Christian literature spanning a thousand years from the fourth to the thirteenth centuries, including important versions of the Bible. It remains the liturgical language of several churches in the Middle East, India, and the west, and ‘Modern Syriac’ is a vernacular still in use today.

It is no wonder that this language has a long and rich printing history. The challenge of conveying the beautiful cursive Syriac script, in one or another of its three varieties, was taken up by many well-known type-designers in the letterpress era, from Robert Granjon in the sixteenth century to the Monotype and Linotype corporations in the twentieth, as well as by many lesser-known ones.

SAMUEL LEE was born May 14th, 1783.  Syriac was the seventh language for Samuel Lee. He learned it through a project he did for the British and Foreign Bible Society . He was commissioned to produce a Syriac New Testament for the Malabar Syriac Archbishop and his diocese. It was published in 1816 when Lee was 33 years of age. It was the beginning a great scholarly career. He produced twenty three major publications. Three of these works were specific contributions to Syriac studies: the Syriac New Testament, the Syriac Old Testament, and Eusebius’ Theophania.

The publication of the ‘Syriac New Testament’ raised the reputation of Samuel Lee abroad as well as at home. The University of Halle, in Saxony, accordingly presented him with the degree of D.D., through the hands of Dr Gesenius, the Hebrew professor of that University. The Syriac Old Testament was not completed till the year 1823, when four thousand copies in quarto were issued.

The commencement of the next year, 1818, introduces a new era of his life. The Arabic professorship at Cambridge became vacant by the resignation of Mr Palmer. His friends proposed that he should become a candidate; but as it was necessary that he should have an M.A. degree, the first step was to procure a royal mandate for conferring that degree upon him before the mandatory time had been completed. For this purpose, the consent of a majority of heads of houses, and a vote of the Senate, were required. Samuel Lee’s modesty and retired habits had made him little known in the University. He was opposed also by a gentleman already of the degree of M. A., who had been many years in India, and was an accomplished Oriental scholar. Under these circumstances, a paper was printed and circulated among the members of the Senate, simply giving a list of the various Oriental works which he had edited, and a few testimonials from well-known Oriental scholars. Amongst them was the testimony of four native Persian gentlemen at that time residing in London, who testified to his thorough knowledge with the idiom and pronunciation, as well as with the grammar of that language, in the following emphatic terms :– ‘Upon the whole, this being the entire persuasion of your servant, and in like manner the belief of all his companions, who have spoken with the above-mentioned Mr Lee, both in Persic and Arabic, that, whether as regards pronunciation, or reading, or writing, he is learned and perfect.’ The claims of Mr Lee upon the vacant chair, and his preeminent learning, were recognized by all parties and he was voted to the chair by a count of 9 to 4.

Later in his academic life Lee became Regius Professor of Hebrew.

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