(1892 – 1975) By virtue of his birth place, linguistic ability, and his scholarly achievements, George M. Lamsa was ideally suited to accomplish his outstanding contribution to the field of Biblical research. As all serious students of the Bible know, no one particular version of the Bible may accurately be called THE Word of God as originally given by God. In order to arrive at an accurate understanding of certain scriptural passages, one must at times examine various translations of the Bible, as well as the underlying original, ancient Biblical languages. Lamsa’s pioneering work, including the notable Holy Bible from Ancient Eastern Manuscripts, provided invaluable resources for Biblical scholars and kindled a widespread interest in the long neglected, yet crucial, primary Aramaic texts.
The history of the Aramaic language extends all the way back to the time of the patriarchs and the region of Mesopotamia, commonly referred to as “the cradle of civilization.” It is the ancestor to all Semitic languages, and the language and its alphabet continue in use to the present day. Being a Galilean, Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic. The Gospels and Church epistles were originally written in Aramaic, and then immediately translated into Greek as they were sent out to the Greek speaking regions of early Christianity, such as Macedonia and Achaia. As Christianity continued to grow and spread simultaneously in the Aramaic speaking regions of the Eastern Church, and the Greek speaking regions of the western church, the Scriptures were carefully copied and preserved in both of these primary languages. Written in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic, the Peshitta version is the oldest complete Aramaic manuscript in existence. The word Peshitta means “straight, simple, sincere, or true.” The earliest manuscripts were written in a script called Estrangelo. In the fifth century A.D., the church in the East, or Assyrian Church as it came to be known, split from the church in the Western world over doctrinal issues. This occasioned the development of two new scripts — the Jacobite and the Nestorian. Aramaic remained the lingua franca of the Middle East up until the time of the ninth century. At that time, Arabic became the most commonly used language in the region; yet, Aramaic continued to be spoken in an isolated area known as Kurdistan throughout the centuries and up to present day time.
Although little known to most Christians in the Western world, the church in the East thrived for centuries; reaching out as far as India, China, Indonesia, and Japan; and even outnumbered European Christians at times, according to some scholars. World-changing, geopolitical events and the resulting severe persecution of Eastern Christians drove the Assyrians to seek refuge in the Zagros and Taurus mountain ranges, cutting them off from the rest of the world for centuries.
It was this remote part of ancient Biblical lands, located in the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now northern Iraq, which George Lamsa identified as his birthplace. Here he grew up speaking Aramaic in a culture where the customs, manners, and idioms, as well as the language of the Bible had been preserved throughout the centuries. It was only with the events surrounding World War I in the early 20th century that this isolated society and the rest of the world became aware of one another.
Lamsa’s Work and Study
Lamsa began his study of the ancient Aramaic texts under the tutelage of the Assyrian Church. He continued his education at the Archbishop of Canterbury College in Iran and Turkey, graduating with the highest honors ever bestowed and receiving the degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Theology of the Church of the East. After immigrating to the United States following World War I, he furthered his studies at theEpiscopal Virginia Theological Seminary and Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning, now known as The Center for Advanced Judaic Studies (CAJS) at the University of Pennsylvania, which is the world’s only institution exclusively dedicated to post-doctoral research on Jewish Civilization. George Lamsa was also distinguished as a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts, (FRSA).
Dr. Lamsa dedicated his life to the work of translating the ancient texts into English and traveling the country to generate awareness and interest in Aramaic. Called by God, and encouraged by hundreds who heard him speak in churches, seminaries, and lecture halls; he labored for over 30 years to translate the entire Old and New Testaments. His first work in Aramaic translations, Four Gospels, was published in 1933; followed byNew Testament According to the Eastern Text in 1940. His culminating work, Holy Bible from Ancient Eastern Manuscripts in 1956, presented a translation of the Aramaic texts into easily understood modern English based upon the wording style of the King James Version. He also wrote several other books, including commentaries describing the customs and manners of early Christians.
Dr. George M. Lamsa’s legacy is widely seen today in the field of Biblical research. The Lamsa Bible continues to be widely used as a valuable research tool by Christians throughout the world. Moreover, his life and work has directly led to even more valuable works by others, providing additional works in the translation and study of Biblical Aramaic. The background of Lamsa’s life and heritage evidence God’s calling and hand on the life of a man chosen for an important work. Most significantly, we see the Almighty God’s protection and preservation of his Holy Word.