3 February 2012

The language of Jesus

This post is a re-post from my Wordpress platform. You can read it in a slightly different format here.

Of late, I have been slowly working my way through Kenneth Bailey’s work ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ which I so far am enjoying almost as much as I find it challenging. I have a lot of respect for Bailey & his work, but something in the introduction has been nagging at me, as it seems to contradict another biblical scholar for whom I have a lot of respect: Tom Wright. The question concerns what language Jesus spoke and therefore what is the ‘original’ language of the gospels. Bailey summaries thus:

“We are obliged to consider four stages through which our canonical Gospels have passed. These are:

1.The life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth in Aramaic
2.The Aramaic eyewitness testimony to that life and teaching
3.The translation of that testimony into Greek
4.The selection, arrangement and editing of the Greek texts into the Gospels”

So here Bailey seems to be assuming that all of the content of the gospels we have are translations from the Aramaic.

Wright presents a subtly different picture in the preface to his New Testament For Everyone (NTFE) where he writes:

“Much of the time, Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, an updated dialect of Hebrew, but the gospels are written in Greek. Greek was everybody’s second language at the time, a bit like English in many parts of our world today.”

At a talk I was at when he expanded on this recently he gave an example of a young boy who approached him in the streets of Jerusalem to try to sell him something. The boy tried several languages before finding out that Wright was English.

Simply because most of us who have English as our first language don’t have a second language, it is presumptuous and condescending to assume that others are monolingual.

One place in the gospels this be highlighted (though I failed entirely to notice until it was pointed out to me) is when Jesus is conversation with Pontius Pilate. In what language was the conversation conducted? Aramaic, Greek or did they have a translator present?

Of course, one may reasonably ask who was the eyewitness present who preserved the conversation for later use by the gospel writers, but I’ll leave that for you to consider.

One potential problem this leaves for the modern day reader is what happens if you try to reconstruct the Aramaic from the Greek. I am informed, though I lack the expertise to check, that some words used in the Greek have no Aramaic equivalent, or that if there is an appropriate match, that it would be more likely that a different Greek word may be used. How much this changes the theology, I don’t know, but I think it’s an interesting point.

There is an intriguing hint of the possibility of the existence of a new lost Aramaic gospel. In Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History he quotes an earlier writer name Papias, whose works now are only known to survive in fragments, usually quoted by others. The following is taken from Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. In one passage, he makes this intriguing statement:

“Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement [sunetaxato] in the Hebrew language [hebraidi dialecto], but each person [heskastos] interpreted [hermeneusen] them as best he could.”

This is the translation used in Bauckham’s work. This raises the possibility that Matthew’s Greek gospel is a translation from an earlier version composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic. I ought to add that another view in this is that ‘hebraidi dialecto’ means ‘in a Hebrew style’ rather than strictly referring to the language of composition. I don’t know enough to be able to have a strong opinion on this, so I will let you consider which is more likely.

Aramaic was the language of the ‘common’ people that Jesus would have interacted with most days. Not only that, but in his use of parables he displays a very down-to-earth approach. His use of metaphor is always done in terms that would have been readily interpreted to the first century audience in that geographical area. This is something has a great eye for, having lived and worked in the Middle East for several decades.

At this juncture, I probably ought to point out that later in ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ Bailey does correct himself a little, though it is more of a sidenote to the effect that Jesus probably could speak Greek as well as Aramaic.

If we accept that Jesus primarily used Aramaic, rather than Greek or Hebrew, what then? Well, my word limit is up for this post, so I’ll carry this on later.

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