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In Hebrews it talks about certain apostates that can’t be renewed to repentance because they have undergone certain things, which they have then rejected, signifying something terribly wrong and complete in their rejection of Christianity. One of these things in most English Bibles is that they were ‘once enlightened’ (φωτισθέντας) but the Peshitta uses the word ‘once baptized’.

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit. (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001, Heb. 6:4.)

Interlinear text: but not be-able he one time baptism
(Kiraz, G. A. (2002). The Peshitta (Heb. 6:4).)

4 But this is impossible for those who have once been baptized

This switch of words also occurs in Heb. 4:8.

Being interested in a possible transcription error, I found the word for enlightened from the Syriac in the Peshitta in Ephesians 1:18 and it looks quite different:

Image of Syriac word

Is it possible the Peshitta is rendering the correct sense, or is enlightened the more accurate word to use?

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  • Just a small correction: in your translation, you write "he...be able." It's a plural participle and plural pronoun. So it's be better to translate "those who are finding..." Really good question to ask, though.
    – Epimanes
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 13:06

3 Answers 3

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The Greek word used in Hebrews 6:4 is φωτισθέντας which is pronounced "phōtisthentas." This word looks nothing like the Greek word for "baptize"-βαπτίζω. I cannot address if the Syriac words for "enlightenment" and "baptism" look alike and would be likely to cause confusion.

What I do know is that textual criticism, the art/science of determining the original text based on copies, operates on the principle that, all other things being equal, a copy is more likely to remove ambiguity and difficulties than it is to introduce them. Hebrews 6:2 mentions baptism (some translations of the Peshitta use the word "ablution" but that means the same thing) in connection with the basic teachings of the church. I can see a Syriac translator/copyist attempting to make things more clear because the question comes "what does it mean to be enlightened?"

However, the author of Hebrews answers that question for us in Hebrews 10. "Enlightened" appears in Hebrews 10:32 where it parallels the statement of 10:26.

10:26 For if we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us, 27 but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume God’s enemies. 28 Someone who rejected the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the Son of God, and profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy, and insults the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

10:32 But remember the former days when you endured a harsh conflict of suffering after you were enlightened.

This also parallels with Hebrews 6. Hebrews 10 teaches that after receiving the knowledge of truth (which is enlightenment), if we deliberately continue in sin, there is no sacrifice for us. Hebrews 6 says that those who have been enlightened and then commit apostasy cannot renew their repentance.

In fact, in some parts of the ancient church, "illumination" was a synonym for "baptism." The connection most likely comes from these two verses (Hebrew 6:2 and 6:4). However, it was recognized that having baptism did not mean that one had enlightenment. John Chrysostom said, "Heretics have baptism, not illumination: they are baptized in body, but not enlightened in soul: as Simon Magus was baptized, but not illuminated."

In conclusion, I take "enlightenment" as the original wording in Hebrew 6:4 based on the parallel teaching in Hebrews 10:26.

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    +1 - Interesting .. I looked up 10:32 and Peshitta also used 'baptism' there. Maybe the Syriac copiests identified 'knowledge of the truth' as synonomous with baptism? or maybe the words do look alike? Good question.
    – Mike
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 15:10
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    I was going to answer this question, but you pretty much nailed it. The Peshitta often takes some liberty and adds commentary for clarification. Especially in the book of Hebrews. Another example is Hebrews 4:8, where "son of Nun" is added to clarify that Joshua is the subject of the verse, not Jesus. Great job.
    – Dan
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 15:17
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    They very well could take them as synonyms. Chrysostom was from Antioch and served as archbishop of Constantinople. Definitely a man of the East.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 15:25
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    I added a picture of the word enlighten to rule out a copyist mistake. It seems this it was an intentional commentary as @DanO'Day suggested.
    – Mike
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 2:57
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    The Early Church thought of baptism as enlightenment. Why they did that would require an essay, but it readily explains the Peshitta. Commented Jun 4, 2013 at 14:29
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The same Greek aorist passive participle appears again in Hebrews 10:32, and is also translated as "baptized" in the Peshitta. That is, the Greek verb φωτίζω occurs 11 times in the New Testament in various conjugated forms, and in nine instances the Peshitta translates the verb as most English translations do (i.e., to show, to light up) with the exception of these two verses in Hebrews, where the Peshitta translates the verb form as "baptized."

In the Book of Hebrews there is a fine nuance between partaking of Christ (Heb 3:14) and partaking of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 6:4), which is the heavenly calling (Heb 3:1). One should lead to the other, but not always.

The idea is that you "taste" the living water through the Spirit, but it is not until you "drink" the living water that you are a partaker of Christ.

The difference is that when you taste the living water, the fruit is thorns and thistles (Heb 6:8). But when you drink the living water, the result is fruit in abundance (Heb 6:7). So when the ground tastes water, there is no fruit; but when the ground drinks water, there is fruit. Perseverance in the faith is also the result (Heb 10:32-33). In this particular passage of Hebrews the Peshitta translates the Greek word as "baptized." That is, after baptism the believer withstood and endured suffering, and thus was persevering in the faith.

So water baptism is an outward demonstration of an inward faith, however if the invisible living water (eternal life given by the Holy Spirit) is not swallowed, then one is not joined with Christ, and, ergo, there is no apparent fruit in the life, and there is no desire to persevere in the faith. Such a person develops a hardened heart through the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3:13).

So through the translation of the Greek word φωτίζω, the Peshitta translation of the Book of Hebrews highlights (bad pun intended) the fact that outward professions of faith (baptism) do not necessitate the inward transformation, which comes only through faith.

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Your question is far more a question about translation theory than text criticism. The text in that verse is stable. In fact, there seem to be no variations in the Greek manuscripts handed down to us. “φωτισθέντας” (Ἑβραίους 6·4 THGNT-T) ("enlightened") is the word.

As you asked, how then could the Peshitta have ”ܠܡܰܥܡܽܘܕܺܝܬܳܐ“ (Hebrews 6:4 PESHNT-T)? The Peshitta is, what today we would call a "mediating" translation. It lies in the middle between formal (dragging the source language, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the target text)and functional (carrying over the meaning from the source to the target language even if it means picking new words in the target text). Here is an example of them taking a functional approach, carrying over the idea, rather than the Greek word.

How could this be? Let's ask a different question: When is it that a person is enlightened? Up until relatively recent times, baptism was understood as the tool that God uses to create faith and convey forgiveness to a person. So the translators of the Peshitta are taking what is implicit and making it explicit.

And just in case there might be some people who might challenge the notion that, to the early church (and for many, many centuries after), baptism brings enlightenment, here are some quotes from the church fathers to illustrate the context:

THEODORET OF CYR: It is out of the question, he is saying, for those who have approached all-holy baptism, shared in the grace of the divine Spirit and received the type of the eternal goods to make their approach again and be granted another baptism.

<Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, eds. Hebrews. vol. 10 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. ICCS/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 84.>

EPHREM THE SYRIAN: “It is impossible to restore again to repentance” through a second baptism “those who have once been baptized, who have tasted the heavenly gift” through the medicine which they received, “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit” through the gifts received from the Spirit, “have tasted the goodness of the Word of God” in the new gospel and were armed with the power of the age to come in the promises prepared for the pious ones, but now “have fallen away” again. Those who propose two baptisms ask for the crucifixion again of the Son of God and for his dishonor.

<Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, eds. Hebrews. vol. 10 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. ICCS/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 84-85.>

SEVERIAN OF GABALA: The apostles raised the dead. And this was the power of the resurrection. He said, “hold him up to contempt,” because if baptism is a mystery, it suffices once and for all. And if the matter happens a second time, it is an act of despising and ridicule. FRAGMENTS ON THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS 6.6.

<Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, eds. Hebrews. vol. 10 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. ICCS/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 85.>

AMBROSE: ... So, then, that which he says in this epistle to the Hebrews, that it is impossible for those who have fallen to be “renewed unto repentance, crucifying again the Son of God and putting him to open shame,” must be considered as having reference to baptism, wherein we crucify the Son of God in ourselves that the world may be by him crucified for us. We triumph, as it were, when we take to ourselves the likeness of his death. We put to open shame upon his cross principalities and powers and triumphed over them, that in the likeness of his death we, too, might triumph over the principalities whose yoke we throw off. But Christ was crucified once and died to sin once, and so there is but one, not several baptisms. . . .

<Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, eds. Hebrews. vol. 10 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. ICCS/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 85-86.>

CHRYSOSTOM: “They crucify,” he says, “the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.” What he means is this. Baptism is a cross, and “our old self was crucified with him,” for we were “united with him in a death like his” and again, “we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death.” Therefore, it is not possible that Christ should be crucified a second time, for that is to “hold him up to contempt.” For if “death no longer has dominion over him,” if he rose again, by his resurrection becoming superior to death, if by death he wrestled with and overcame death, and then is crucified again, all those things become a fable and a mockery. He then that baptizes a second time crucifies him again. . . .

<Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, eds. Hebrews. vol. 10 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. ICCS/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 87.>

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