Comments: opinion

There's something wrong with Steve Caruso's position, so let's see if I can get at it in a way which makes sense. First of all I would disagree that the Greek NT is 'a translation'. NT authors from Paul onwards all wrote in Greek and none of them (so far as we can know that) actually 'knew' Jesus or had been present when he spoke. NT writers are all to one degree or another 'artists'. The Gospel writers, for example, presumably set down Jesus' stories and teachings as he 'might have, would have, should have, could have, probably/possibly' said them, in .......Aramaic? possibly, likely etc etc. There were no recording devices and Aramaic probably wasn't a written language anyway. Dialects rarely are. So a contemporary scholar wants to translate late 1st century CE written Greek into something he thinks might be the dialect Jesus spoke to recover Jesus' 'own' words, written (in the case of the Gospel writers) some 40 or more years after Jesus' death? Sounds like madness to me.

Posted by Sara MacVane at Saturday, 15 March 2014 at 12:00pm GMT

"It is almost extinct" is clearly wrong of Galilean Aramaic: it is extinct. Steve Caruso, who knows better, does not say "almost extinct" in his piece. What he does speak about are its fragmentary remains, which require some detective work to piece together.

Posted by Gareth Hughes at Saturday, 15 March 2014 at 1:34pm GMT

There may be excellent reasons for studying the Aramaic language - the fact that's it's just inherently interesting being one of them, the fact that much extra-canonical and Talmudic literature is written in Aramaic being another. But the idea that Christians should learn to read and speak Aramaic so we can back to the "real" words of Christ, as though there's an historic core somewhere beneath the Greek veneer of the Gospels that just needs to be excavated - is bizarre and untenable.

Not only is it implausible that the Greek of the New Testament can be reliably 'translated back' into Aramaic by modern scholars, there isn't even an Aramaic core there to translate in the first place! The New Testament as we have it is in Greek. To try to look for an earlier 'authentic' Aramaic layer below or beyond the text is to go looking for something that just isn't there. It makes the epistemological error of treating the text like a window into the past that we can look through to see real people and real acts rather than treating the text as a literary composition in its own right. No matter how convincingly the portrait is painted, you can't reach through the canvas to touch the face behind it. One of the reasons Christians may want to learn Aramaic is to learn the language that Jesus spoke; that is certainly a laudable ambition, and perhaps an effective spiritual discipline. But the words of Jesus as we have them are not - with a handful of precious exceptions - in Aramaic. The only historical Jesus we have is the Jesus of the Gospels, and he speaks to us in Greek.

But then Christianity, like Second Temple Judaism and unlike Rabbinic Judaism and Islam, has never been especially worried about the question of what language God addresses us in, because Christians believe that the Spirit speaks to through the Church in every language. That, I take it, is the message of the Pentecost narrative. Christians may profess an academic interest in the Jesus of history and a pious wish to imitate Jesus in all things - even his language - but more are likely to be interested in the Spirit of Christ that speaks to us now.

Posted by rjb at Saturday, 15 March 2014 at 2:06pm GMT

'The only historical Jesus we have is the Jesus of the Gospels, and he speaks to us in Greek.'

So you have no 'historical Jesus' at all, in fact.

Why are christians so negative about the expressions of commitment and devotion to truth(s) of others ?

The admission that none of the NT writers ever met Jesus is pretty damning.

To my heart and mind, Jesus' mother-tongue must be of great importance to anyone at all interested in his life and message. Why do churches so often oppose this ?

Posted by Revd Laurie Roberts at Saturday, 15 March 2014 at 5:19pm GMT

The article in Christianity Today (UK version - not same as US evangelical paper) started off on the right path by showcasing the influences of religious dissent in his family that shaped strong democratic socialism. However, the writer shifts gears at the end by attacking "secular humanism" as a threat to western civilization since he fears it will lead to persecution of christians and a parade of horribles - homosexuality, pornography, sex before marriage, etc. He takes one sentence out of context to "prove" Benn was somehow in agreement with this diagnosis, which is absurd to anyone familiar with Benn's actual politics. Benn was an amazing man and a unique politician in many ways. He was never a doctrinaire communist, marxist or sectarian leftist like many of the Old Left. He was a strong believer in a democratic international socialism and he was an earl and vocal advocate for womens rights, racial justice and gay rights at a time when old labor left was still very socially conservative. Benn was certainly not a New Atheist as he was still very fond of a certain strain of dissenting sects, which stressed a radical form of democracy traced back to the Levellers. However, he was clear about his non-belief and was a strong supporter of secularism. As a republican, he advocated for the abolition of the monarchy and the disestablishment of the Church of England. He was in no way sympathetic to the narrow minded evangelical puritanism that the writer of the Christianity Today article implied and he in no way believed that our rights and freedoms as human beings were dependent of the existence of the christian god.

Posted by etseq at Saturday, 15 March 2014 at 8:28pm GMT

"a pious wish to imitate Jesus in all things - even his language"

Or a literalist's excitement at speaking the words Jesus "actually said." As if they would have incantatory power....

Posted by Jeremy at Saturday, 15 March 2014 at 9:36pm GMT

IIRC, the earliest reactions to the (re-)discovery of the Syriac NT were to hail the rediscovery of Jesus' ipsissima verba, until it was pointed out that the peculiarities of the text revealed them to be largely representative of the Western Text tradition (Codex Bezæ and so on), ie a re-translation with one or two unnecessary phrases removed (eg the greek glosses on the remaining Aramaisms in the Gospel text). Seems peculiar to me that we're revisiting this sort of thing a century and more on - though I've always been intrigued by the keenness with which some Christians approach the original languages of the Bible, not out of a wish to understand the culture and thought-forms better but rather to feel closer to what God said.

Posted by david rowett at Saturday, 15 March 2014 at 9:49pm GMT

In his book "Bedtime Stories" ABC broadcaster Phillip Adams quotes Tony Benn: 'All political leaders, irrespective of party, political system, country or period in history come in one of three categories: straight men, fixers and maddies.' Benn held that consummate players could be found in each category, but that the maddies were, for good or ill, the ones that changed history.
Vale Tony Benn.

Posted by Pam at Saturday, 15 March 2014 at 10:26pm GMT

It's a bit bizarre to see Sara MacVane saying "Aramaic probably wasn't a written language" when parts of Daniel and Ezra are written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew.

It doesn't help me listen to anyone's opinion when they aren't even aware of basic facts.

Posted by Doug Chaplin at Saturday, 15 March 2014 at 11:18pm GMT

We don't really understand the messianic and supernatural thought forms of the New Testament, never mind Jesus - it needs a time-travelling social anthropologist to embed for years and then write a long essay to Westerners.

As for language, so what - and any chance he spoke the common Greek? Koine was a second language of Jews and others dispersed beyond localities, it was a means to conduct business over a wider area, Jesus as a builder might well have had to take instructions in Greek from Gentiles/ Romans. Did Jesus speak directly to the Roman centurian (unlikely to be historical), or indeed chatting with any of those about to do the deadly deeds. Greek would also give him access to ideas coming down the trade routes, e.g. the 500 years of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism adding a few original bits however parochial he may have been regarding his own ethnic group. It's possible, even if Paul is the more culturally developed of the two.

Posted by Pluralist at Sunday, 16 March 2014 at 1:22am GMT

Surprisingly, I met Mr. Benn when he gave a sermon at my church in Cincinnati. He said something along the lines that people didn't listen to God as they ought. On the tube to London's financial center, all the guys seemed to be on their phones, taking their orders from a Welshman named Dow Jones!

He was a great spirit and his politics resonated wonderfully with our liberal parish. I had no idea he was so important. In the US, no one that witty, smart, and left wing becomes important...

Posted by Cynthia at Sunday, 16 March 2014 at 2:42am GMT

Apologies then to Doug and all. I still think it odd to try to translate the Greek text of any of the books of the NT into some form of Aramaic in order to find the words Jesus 'really said'. Just my opinion of course. In my corrected version I still might wonder how close the language used in Daniel and Ezra is to the spoken language in Galilee of 1 cen CE and however we coud know that and even if we did what purpose it might serve. To each his/her own.

Posted by Sara MacVane at Sunday, 16 March 2014 at 4:27am GMT

Many scholars think Jesus spoke some Greek. There are some interesting arguments, including complicated bilingual puns. And Andrew and Philip are of course Greek names.

Many, perhaps most, scholars think the Gospel according to John derives pretty directly from a disciple of Jesus (hence the anxiety over his death at the end of the Gospel).

Posted by John at Sunday, 16 March 2014 at 8:21am GMT

I interviewed Tony Benn three times for BBC radio and his mother, Margaret, twice.
One of the interviews followed the death of his mother in the 90's and ran over our allotted time by 30 minutes- he was in Westminster and I was in Cardiff. The resulting programme was about how his mother's faith impacted on him and how much of what he believed came from her deep theological understanding and reflection.
Viscountess Stansgate was the first woman to head a religious denomination in the UK (he was very proud to say that) and she too thought her son's thinking had all to do with the teaching of Jesus and little to do with Marx.
At the beginning of the second interview, again conducted "down the line" the familiar voice rang out from London:
"Hello, Martin, how are you, it's been a good while since we spoke, the last time you were telling me about ....." and then gave some details of our last encounter.
At the end of the interview I came out of the studio amazed at my lasting impact on such a great man; the very seasoned producer looked up at me and pricked my bubble, "he does that a lot." He smiled at my crestfallen expression, apparently he recorded every interview and kept a brief log of who and what .........

Posted by Martin Reynolds at Sunday, 16 March 2014 at 8:48am GMT

Re the original language of the Bible - 'If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus, it' good enough for me'.

Posted by Richard Ashby at Sunday, 16 March 2014 at 8:57am GMT

I'm for a Greek-speaking (bilingual) Jesus. There's plenty of warrant for the idea, particularly among the people engaged in commerce and trades, in a part of the country where contact with large Gentile populations were common, including the Roman occupation. The few Aramaic words do seem to have an incantatory quality as part of miraculous action: Ephphatha and Talitha cumi, for instance.
But the lingua franca for much else...

Posted by Tobias Haller at Sunday, 16 March 2014 at 8:36pm GMT

Interesting thought, Tobias, and I'd agree that the Aramaisms are included in part because of their incantatory quality. But there are odd Aramaisms here and there, 'Marana tha' (?an early credal statement?), for example, and the repeated references to 'Cephas' which suggest a Church in which Aramaic plays a role, and the 'eli, eli' cry on the cross wouldn't quite fit the 'word of power' pattern. All good fun....

Posted by david rowett at Sunday, 16 March 2014 at 11:25pm GMT

Aramaic can be of great use when studying the gospels -- Maurice Casey used it to search for Aramaic roots to Greek phrases, which may point to teaching authentic to the historical Jesus. So long as its limits are recognized, it's a valuable tool.

This points to the split between modernists, who seek the reality behind the text, however imperfect the reconstruction, and post-modernists, who often view the text as a free-floating artifact. Bizarrely, by casting the text free of its historical moorings, the po-mo approach has landed up helping conservatives who use the Bible as an authoritarian weapon, be they evangelicals, or "Radical Orthodox" who want to turn the clock back to a medieval fantasy world.

I come down on the modernist side of this. Texts are signifiers of reality, and we should attempt to find what they point to, as best we can.

Posted by James Byron at Monday, 17 March 2014 at 12:55am GMT

Indeed so, David R. Living in the Bronx, in a multicultural parish, I'm exposed to what is sometimes called "Spanglish" -- which is Spanish spoken with many English words inserted (a bit like New York Yiddish, which is quite different to the Yiddish of the shtetl.) There is also the opposite, English filled with Hispanicisms. My point is that the Gospel text we have is indicative of this sort of multicultural world.

The other issue has to do with the influence of the LXX and the Targumim -- both seem to play a part in the "conversation."

I also wonder whether the persistence of a few Aramaic words, phrases, and syntax may not reflect, in addition to the incantational quality (reflected in the Hebrew based "abracadabra" and Latin "hocus pocus"?) a kind of linguistic nostalgia for a fading mother tongue, or even resort to a "flavor" of language that provides, dare I say, le mot juste?

Posted by Tobias Haller at Monday, 17 March 2014 at 2:24pm GMT
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