name given to a fragment, consisting of twelve pages written on both sides, of a Middle Persian translation of the Syriac Psalter.


PAHLAVI PSALTER, name given to a fragment, consisting of twelve pages written on both sides, of a Mid. Pers. translation of the Syriac Psalter. It was discovered, with a mass of other documents, at Bulayiq, near Turfan, in eastern Turkistan (present-day Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China) by one of the four German expeditions to Central Asia (see TURFAN). The twelve pages (11 x 9.6 cm), many of which are deteriorated in the center and have gaps, contain psalms 94.18 to the end, 95.2-7, 95.7 to 96.10, 97.12 to 99.6, 118. 124-142, 121.4 to 132.2, 133.2 to 134.2, 134.9-11, 134.11 to 135.9, 135.9 to 136.3. This fragment is the oldest linguistic testimony of Pahlavi literature, the manuscript probably having been written in the 6th or 7th century C.E. It is in a more archaic script than that of Book Pahlavi (see below), and several characters have been borrowed from the Psalter script to devise the Avestan signs for γ, j, and d (Comp. Linguarum Iranicarum, pp. 32-33).

In his brief preliminary presentation (1910), F. C. Andreas dated the somewhat archaic writing of the Pahlavi Psalter to the first quarter of the 5th century (410-20). In this period of religious tolerance, during the reign of Yazdagerd I (q.v.), Nestorian Christian communities flourished, and translations appeared for the use of converted Mazdeans. Andreas pointed out the importance of the Psalter translation for the history of the Syriac text of the Pešittā; but he also held that the insertion of the ecclesiastical Canons of Mar Abā (patriarch, 540-552) marked a terminus post quem for the definitive compilation of the present manuscript. He died before publishing his edition of the Psalter. From his Nachlass (see ANDREAS ii), K. Barr (1933) proceeded to complete it. He checked Andreas’s transliteration with the photographs and provided a Syriac interlinear text in Hebrew characters; this was based on Barnes’s edition, and the Canons were taken from the Breviarium Chaldaicum (1887). The bilingual text is accompanied by a German translation. The glossary (pp. 117-50) contains all the words and all their forms, including the verbs with their phonetic complements.

Andreas thought that the translator may have been a non-Persian who had to use a Frahang. Likewise Gignoux (1969) noticed the use in the text of many a hapax in Iranian, as well as calques on Syriac, words which could hardly be considered as Aramaic ideograms. These may testify to perplexities on the translator’s part, indicating that he was more expert in Syriac than in Iranian and hence might have been one of the Nestorian missionaries whose mother tongue was not Iranian. However, Skjærvø (1983) argued that the perfectly correct language of the Pahlavi Psalter indicates that its translator was so familiar with Middle Persian that it had to be his mother tongue. He showed that the Psalter was written as early as the 4th century, because it follows the same orthographic and grammatical rules which apply to the Sasanian inscriptions of the 3rd century. In both sources the distinction between the direct and oblique cases is well attested in family names, personal pronouns, plural nouns and adjectives, and plural pronouns. The only important difference between the inscriptions and the Psalter is the spelling of phonetic complements with the verbal ideograms. There is no coherent system in the inscriptions—a consequence of the archaizing script; the Psalter, however, shows a regular system with few variants. Even so, this feature does not lead one to suppose a considerable lapse of time after the inscriptions. It appears, then, the text of the Psalter was recopied several times in the course of a period of 300 years.

Since the publication of Andreas-Barr (1933), only few philological studies have been devoted to the Pahlavi Psalter. MacKenzie (1966) used it to explain the ideograms for “sheep” and for the verb nimūdan “to show” (ideogram MḤWḤYT, Syr. ḥawwī). More recently, Sims-Williams (2001) pointed out that the meaning of MP padisāy had been clearly established on the basis of the Psalter, where this preposition translates the Syr. mṭl.

The alphabet of the Psalter contains a greater number of distinct characters than does Book Pahlavi (i.e., 18, compared with 13). Thus d is different from g and from y; is different from ʾ; w is different from n ; and has a special shape. Recently, this same type of writing has been found on a bronze processional cross inscribed in Pahlavi on both sides (Gignoux, 2001). While in this instance the d and k have special shapes, and are exactly the same as the corresponding signs in the Psalter. There is no doubt that we have here another, eloquent example of this type of writing, which enables us to date this remarkable object to ca. 8th century, hardly later. The upper branch of the cross is unfortunately missing, making it difficult to interpret the text, which contains several words that have not yet been successfully analyzed. But the main interest of the text resides in its Oriental origin. On the front side of the cross is mentioned a certain Mārē from the church of Herāt, who in the year 507 or 517 (of a non-specified era) entrusted the community, which was no doubt Nestorian (though this is not stated), to a saint with a Syriac name of Greco-Latin origin, Karisisē. The back of the object presents a theological formula (an affirmation that there are not three gods) and a wish for prosperity for this church. Certain Pahlavi words relate this text to that of the Psalter, for example ram “flock, people,” which translates the Syr. ʾmʾ in the Psalter, and Mid. Pers, pāk “pure, saintly,” which corresponds to Syr. qdyšʾ. The formula concerning the three gods also shows a curious correspondence with a passage of the Actes of Mār Mārī (Gignoux, p. 297). This remarkable document constitutes a considerable source for the very poorly documented Christian history of Herāt.



F. C. Andreas, “Bruchstücke einer Pehlevi-Übersetzung der Psalmen aus der Sassanidenzeit,” Sb. d. Berliner Akad. d. Wissenschaften 1910, pp. 869-72.

F. C. Andreas and Kaj Barr, “Bruchstücke einer Pehlevi-Übersetzung der Psalmen, mit 11 Tafeln,” Sb. d. Preussischen Akad. d. Wissenschaften 1933, pp. 91-152.

J. P. Asmussen, “The Pahlavi psalm 122 in English,” Dr. Unvala Memorial Volume, Bombay, 1964, pp. 123-26.

Barnes, The Peshitta Psalter according to the West Syrian Text , Cambridge, 1904.

Breviarium Chaldaicum, Pt. 3, Paris, 1887.

Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, ed. by R. Schmitt, Wiesbaden, 1989.

P. P. Essabalian, “Armenisch-persische Lehnwörter im Pahlavi-Psalter,” Handes Amsorya 56, 1942, pp. 61-69.

R. N. Frye, “A Brief Note on the Pahlavi Psalter and Bare Ideogramms,” Sir J. J. Zarthoshti Madressa Centenary Volume, Bombay, 1967, pp. 70-74.

Ph. Gignoux, “L’auteur de la version pehlevie du psautier serait-il nestorien?” Mémorial Mgr Gabriel Khouri-Sarkis (1898-1968), Louvain, 1969, pp. 233-44.

Idem, “Une croix de procession de Hérat inscrite en pehlevi,” Le Muséon 114, fasc. 3-4, 2001, pp. 291-304.

Idem, “Prozessionskreuz aus Herat,” Byzanz. Das Licht aus dem Osten (Katalog der Ausstellung im Erzbischöflichen Diözesanmuseum Paderborn), Paderborn, 2001, pp. 150-51.

O. Hansen, Mittelpersisches Lesebuch, Berlin, 1963, pp. 94-95.

W. Lentz, “Die nordiranischen Elemente in der neu-persischen Literatursprache bei Firdosi,” ZII 4, 1926, pp. 251-316.

D. N. MacKenzie, “ ‘Sheep’ and ‘show’: Two Pahlavi Ideograms,” Acta Orientalia 30, 1966, pp. 151-57.

Nyberg, Manual I p. 128.

N. Sims-Williams, “Middle Persian padisāy and Old Persian vašnā,” in Tafazzoli Memorial Volume, ed. ʿAli Ašraf Ṣādeqi, Tehran, 2001, pp. 59-65.

P. O. Skjærvø, “Case in Inscriptional Middle Persian, Inscriptional Parthian and the Pahlavi Psalter,” Studia Iranica 12, 1983, pp. 47-62 and 151-81.

(Philippe Gignoux)

Originally Published: July 20, 2002

Last Updated: July 20, 2002