Aramaic New Testament

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The Aramaic New Testament exists in two forms, the classical Aramaic, or Syriac, New Testament, part of the Peshitta Bible.[] and the "Assyrian Modern" New Testament and Psalms published by the Bible Society in Lebanon (1997) and newly translated from Greek. The official Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorian Church) does not recognise the new "Assyrian Modern" edition, and traditionally considers the New Testament of the Peshitta to be the original New Testament, and Aramaic to be its original language. This view was popularised in the West by the Nestorian Assyrian scholar George Lamsa, but is not supported by the majority of scholars, either of the Peshitta or the Greek New Testament.

The traditional New Testament of the Peshitta has 22 books, lacking 2 John, 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation. The text of Gospels also lacks the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) and Luke 22:17-18.[] These missing books were supplemented by the Syriacist John Gwyn in 1893 and 1897 from alternative manuscripts, and included them in the United Bible Societies edition of 1905. The 1997 modern Aramaic New Testament has all 27 books.

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Aramaic original New Testament hypothesis

The hypothesis of an Aramaic original for the New Testament holds that the original text of the New Testament was not written in Greek, as held by the majority of scholars, but in the Aramaic language, which was the primary language of Jesus and his Twelve Apostles.

The position of the Assyrian Church of the East, per Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII in 1957, is that the Syriac Peshitta (which is written in a cursive form of Aramaic), used in that church, is the original of the New Testament. Variants of this view are held by some individuals who may argue for a lost Aramaic text preceding the Peshitta as the basis for the New Testament.

This view is to be distinguished from higher criticism and text-critical transmission theories such as the Hebrew Gospel hypothesis of Lessing and others. The Hebrew Gospel or Proto-Gospel hypothesis includes either Aramaic or Hebrew urtexts for Matthew and possibly Mark.

Nestorian Church beliefs concerning the Peshitta

This is a traditional belief held in the Nestorian Church that the Peshitta text, which most scholars consider a translation from Greek, is in fact the original source of the Greek:

"With reference to... the originality of the Peshitta text, as the Patriarch and Head of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East, we wish to state, that the Church of the East received the scriptures from the hands of the blessed Apostles themselves in the Aramaic original, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and that the Peshitta is the text of the Church of the East which has come down from the Biblical times without any change or revision." Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, by Grace, Catholicos Patriarch of the East. April 5, 1957

The most noteworthy advocate of this view in the west was George Lamsa (1976) of the Aramaic Bible Center. However this view is rejected by the majority of scholars:

"The only complete English translation of the Peshitta is by G. Lamsa. This is unfortunately not always very accurate, and his claims that the Peshitta Gospels represent the Aramaic original underlying the Greek Gospels are entirely without foundation; such views, which are not infrequently found in more popular literature, are rejected by all serious scholars.[]

The current Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV (1976–present), has not publicly pronounced that the Peshitta is the original New Testament.

Other "Peshitta original" advocates

A tiny minority of scholars are backers of the “Peshitta original” theory today, including website owners Andrew Gabriel Roth (compiler of the "AENT") and the Nestorian Paul Younan, among others.[]

"Aramaic primacy"

Some advocates of the "Peshitta original" view, or the view that the Christian New Testament and/or its sources were originally written in the Aramaic language, also use the term "Aramaic primacy" though this is not used in academic sources, and appears to be a recent neologism.

The words do earlier appear together in print in the sentence "according Aramaic primacy among the languages," in Lee I. Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in antiquity: conflict or confluence 1998[] but only as a general expression used to note the primacy of Aramaic over other languages in specific context, and also describing "Aramaic's predominance"[] over Hebrew and Greek in Second Temple Jerusalem. Levine could equally have written "according primacy to Aramaic."

This article titled "Aramaic primacy" appeared on Wikipedia in August 2004,[] with the first line "Aramaic Primacists believe that the Christian New Testament was originally written in Aramaic, not Greek as generally claimed by Churches of the West". The term then appeared in print in 2008.

Likewise advocates of the primacy of an Aramaic New Testament have coined a new meaning for the phrase "Greek primacy" (earliest confirmed reference 2007[]) to describe the consensus scholarly view that the New Testament was originally written in Greek. These terms are not used by text-critical scholarship, since in its view the evidence is overwhelming that the New Testament was written originally in Greek.[][]

Brief history

George Lamsa's translation of the Peshitta New Testament from Syriac into English brought the claims for primacy of the Aramaic New Testament to the West. However, his translation is poorly regarded by most scholars in the field.[] The Old Syriac Texts, the Sinai palimpsest and the Curetonian Gospels, have also influenced scholars concerning original Aramaic passages. Diatessaronic texts such as the Liege Dutch Harmony, the Pepysian Gospel Harmony, Codex Fuldensis, The Persian Harmony, The Arabic Diatessaron, and the Commentary on the Diatessaron by Ephrem the Syrian have provided recent insights into Aramaic origins. The Coptic Gospel of Thomas and the various versions of the medieval Hebrew Gospel of Matthew also have provided clues to Aramaic foundations in the New Testament especially the gospels. Many 19th Century scholars (H. Holtzmann, Wendt, Jülicher, Wernle, von Soden, Wellhausen, Harnack, B. Weiss, Nicolardot, W. Allen, Montefiore, Plummer, and Stanton)[] theorized that portions of the gospels, especially Matthew, were derived from an Aramaic source normally referred to as Q.

Methods of argument

On a basic level, those advocating the primacy of Aramaic New Testament focus on the high probability that the native language of Jesus, his Apostles, and most or all the authors of the New Testament was Aramaic, not Koine Greek; see also Aramaic of Jesus. They also note that the first Christian communities may have come into existence in mostly Aramaic-speaking areas now in modern Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, and that the first converts to Christianity were likely members of Aramaic-speaking Jewish synagogues, even when in Greek or Latin-speaking cities. Advocates of an Aramaic original also refer to the patristic writings (Papias, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, Jerome) that indicate Aramaic was the original written language of parts of the New Testament.[]

Aramaic phenomena

There are many phenomena that advocates of an Aramaic original for the New Testament consider to be evidence for their case. For example, some of them include:

Perceived logical improbabilities in Greek

One passage that it is argued contains a logical improbability in Greek is Matthew 4:8. There isn't a mountain high enough to view "all of the kingdoms of the earth" since the earth is round. The Hebrew word found in Ibn Shaprut's medieval translation of the Greek Gospel of Matthew in the appendix to The Touchstone (c.1380) uses "eretz"[] which can be translated as earth or land.[] By substituting the Hebrew word "eretz" into the passage makes it possible that "all the kingdoms of the land of Israel" were viewed from a high mountain such as Mount Tabor in Israel. However the same is true for Greek ge which can mean land or earth depending on context. Also since "all the kingdoms of the land of Israel" is seen as an unlikely meaning most commentators on Matthew have seen "all the kingdoms of the land of earth" as being either hyperbole or a vision.[]

Another proposed example concerns Matthew 24:51 and Luke 12:46. Agnes Smith Lewis (1910) noted that the verb used in all of the Syriac versions "palleg" has the primary meaning of "cut in pieces" and the secondary one of "appoint to some one his portion." The primary sense leads to the possible problem of how someone cut to pieces could then be assigned to something else. But, Smith argues, if we take the secondary meaning then we are may suggest that the Greek translator misunderstood a Syriac idiom by taking it too literally. The translation would be "and shall allot his portion and shall place him with the unfaithful" instead of the Greek "shall cut him in pieces and shall place him with the unfaithful."[] Hugh J. Schonfield (1927) notes that the Hebrew verb "bahkag" means literally to "break forth, cleave asunder" and concludes that the Greek translator has failed to grasp the sense in which the Hebrew word is here used.[] Again other commentators have seen "and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." as apocalyptic language.[]

Another proposed example involves the genealogy in Matthew. Schonfield (1927) argues that the text of Matthew indicates three genealogical groups of 14 each. However, the Greek texts of Matthew have two groups of 14 and a final group of 13. The Syriac Curetonian and Syriac Sinaitic add the following to Matthew 1:13, "Abiud begat Abiur, Abiur begat Eliakim. Dutillet's Hebrew version of Matthew adds Abihud begat Abner; Abner begat Eliakim.[] In both Syriac and Hebrew the spellings between Abiud and Abiur are so close that during translation into Greek the second name could have been dropped mistakenly. In any case, all Greek texts contain only 13 names while possibly indicating 14 should be in the final portion of the list. The two Syriac texts and one Hebrew text have 14 names and indicate 14 should be in the final portion of the list. Since the list is a Jewish Genealogy it is highly unlikely that a Jewish genealogical record would have been originally composed in Greek.

Polysemy

Some treat "split words" as a distinctive subsection of mistranslations. Sometimes it appears that a word in Aramaic with two (or more) distinct and different meanings appears to have been interpreted in the wrong sense, or even translated both ways in different documents. Perhaps the most well known example that advocates of an Aramaic urtext for the Gospels cite is the parable of the "camel (καμηλος) through the eye of a needle." (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24, Luke 18:25) In Aramaic, the word for "camel" (גמלא) is spelled identically to the word for "rope" (גמלא), suggesting that the correct phrase was "rope through the eye of a needle," making the hyperbole more symmetrical. The Aramaic word can also be translated as "beam", making a connection between this passage and the passage on removing a beam from your eye — Matthew 7:5; Luke 6:41-42.

Puns

Aramaic is one of the Semitic languages, a family where many words come from three-letter roots. As a result, speakers of the language employ puns that play on roots with similar sounding consonants, or with the same consonants re-arranged. In applying this principle, scholars have studied the dialogues of the New Testament and in some cases claim that how a choice of words that apparently seem completely unrelated or awkward in Greek may originate from an original Aramaic source that employed puns, or vice-versa.

For example, in the True Children of Abraham debate within the Gospel of John, some consider the conversation took place in Aramaic, note possible examples of punning between the words "father" (אבא, abba), "Abraham" (אברהם, abraham) and the verb "to do" (עבד, `abad):

John 8:39
They retorted and said to him:
"Our abba (father) is Abraham!"
Jesus says to them:
"If you are Abraham's children, `abad (do) as Abraham would `abad (do)!"[] An alternate possibility is that the above conversation was actually conducted in Aramaic, but translated into Greek by the gospel writer. Portions of the oral sayings in Matthew contain vocabulary that may indicate Hebrew or Aramaic linguistic techniques involving puns, alliterations, and word connections. Hebrew/Aramaic vocabulary choices possibly underlie the text in Matthew 1:21, 3:9, 4:12, 4:21-23, 5:9-10, 5:23, 5:47-48, 7:6, 8:28-31, 9:8, 10:35-39, 11:6, 11:8-10, 11:17, 11:29, 12:13-15, 12:39, 14:32, 14:35-36, 15:34-37, 16:18, 17:05, 18:9, 18:16, 18:23-35, 19:9-13, 19:24, 21:19, 21:37-46, 21:42, 23:25-29, 24:32, 26:28-36, 26:52.[][][]

Absence or presence of Aramaic quotations and translations

In the Greek New Testament, a number of verses include Aramaic phrases or words which are then translated into Greek. In the Peshitta, sometimes the word or phrase is quoted twice in Aramaic, indicating that the words needed to be translated from one Aramaic dialect to another.

For example, Matthew 27.46 reads:

Peshitta — And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said: "Ēl, Ēl, why have you forsaken me?"<ref>ܘܐܠܦܝ̈ ܬܫܥ ܫܥܝ̈ܢ: ܩܥܐ ܝܫܘܥ ܒܩܠܐ ܪܡܐ ܘܐܡܪ, ܐܝܠ ܐܝܠ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ</ref>
Greek — And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying: "Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"[]

However, the parallel verse in Mark 15:34 reads in both in the quotation/translation form it has in the Greek:

Peshitta — And in the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice and said: "Ēl, Ēl lmānā shvaqtāni" that is "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"<ref>ܘܒܬܫܥ ܫܥܝ̈ܢ: ܩܥܐ ܝܫܘܥ ܒܩܠܐ ܪܡܐ ܘܐܡܪ, ܐܝܠ ܐܝܠ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ ܕܐܝܬܝܗ ܐܠܗܝ ܐܠܗܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ</ref>
Greek — And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying: "Eloi, Eloi, lamma sabacthani?" Which is, being interpreted, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"[]

The evidence of these verses, some claim, tend to support the claims of St. Papias and Irenaeus that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic presumably for Aramaic speakers in Syria-Palestine, while the Gospel of Mark was written for the Greek speaking Christians of Rome, who would not have known Aramaic fluently; but, who might have become familiar with certain phrases from the preaching of the Apostles or the liturgy. This is in similar fashion to how the words "Alleluia", "Amen", "Abba", "Hosanna" and "Sabaoth" are still in common usage in the western liturgy.

On the other hand, while Mark 3:17 ("Boanerges") and Mark 15:22 ("Golgatha") is repeated and also slightly changed in the double quotation in the Peshitta , the verses Mark 5:41 ("Talitha koumi"), Mark 7.34 ("Ephphatha") do not include any doubling.

Although the aforementioned is a discussion concerning the inclusion of quotation marks, it should be added that the Lamsa translated Peshitta for Matthew 27:46 reads: "And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said, Eli, Eli, lamana shabakthani! which means, My God, My God, for this I was spared (or this was my destiny)."

Internal disagreements

Advocates of an Aramaic original New Testament are divided into several distinct camps in terms of their methods of researching and reconstructing the Aramaic layer of the New Testament.

Advocates of the priority of the Peshitta

According to mainstream textual scholars, the Peshitta New Testament is translated from The Greek New Testament.[] However, some writers believe that the Aramaic Peshitta is the closest text to the original New Testament. Among those who side with this view were William Norton of North Devon (1880), the late Assyrian author George Lamsa, and the owners of several websites: Paul Younan (Peshitta.org), Andrew Gabriel Roth (Aramaic NT Truth), David Bauscher (aramaicnt.com) and Raphael Lataster (Aramaic Peshitta Bible Repository). In modern day, this movement is primarily based on the internet, although some historical advocates of the priority of the Peshitta include several Aramaic-speaking churches.

For example, Mar Eshai Shimun, Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East was quoted:

With reference to....the originality of the Peshitta text, as the Patriarch and Head of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East, we wish to state, that the Church of the East received the scriptures from the hands of the blessed Apostles themselves in the Aramaic original, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and that the Peshitta is the text of the Church of the East which has come down from the Biblical times without any change or revision.[]

Peshitta-critical approach

Peshitta-critical advocates of an alternative Aramaic original take both the Peshitta and the Syriac manuscripts and critically compare them, similar to how some scholars who hold the majority view that the language of the New Testament is Greek take a critical approach to determining which Greek text better represents the original. Notables who side with this view are James Trimm (S.A.N.J.), and Joe Viel. This movement is also primarily based on the internet.

Aramaic source criticism

Source-critical advocates of an Aramaic original research first-century Aramaic, culture, and psychology to reconstruct the New Testament sources in dialects contemporary to its authors. Prominent figures that side with this view are Matthew Black, Bruce Chilton, Maurice Casey, Geza Vermes, Frank Zimmermann, and Steven Caruso (AramaicNT.org).

Majority view

See Also language of the New Testament

Mainstream and modern scholars have generally had a strong agreement that the New Testament was written in Greek and that an Aramaic source text was used for portions of the New Testament, especially the gospels. They acknowledge that many individual sayings of Jesus as found in the Gospels are translations from an Aramaic source normally referred to as Q, but hold that the Gospels' text in its current form was composed in Greek, and so were the other New Testament writings. Scholars of all stripes have had to acknowledge the presence of scattered, Aramaic expressions, transliterated and then translated.

An example of how mainstream scholars have dealt with Aramaic influences within an overall view of the Gospels' original Greek-language development may be found in Martin Hengel's recent synthesis of studies of the linguistic situation in Palestine during the time of Jesus and the Gospels:

Since non-literary, simple Greek knowledge or competency in multiple languages was relatively widespread in Jewish Palestine including Galilee, and a Greek-speaking community had already developed in Jerusalem shortly after Easter, one can assume that this linguistic transformation [from "the Aramaic native language of Jesus" to "the Greek Gospels"] began very early. ... [M]issionaries, above all 'Hellenists' driven out of Jerusalem, soon preached their message in the Greek language. We find them in Damascus as early as AD 32 or 33. A certain percentage of Jesus' earliest followers were presumably bilingual and could therefore report, at least in simple Greek, what had been heard and seen. This probably applies to Cephas/Peter, Andrew, Philip or John. Mark, too, who was better educated in Jerusalem than the Galilean fishermen, belonged to this milieu. The great number of phonetically correct Aramaisms and his knowledge of the conditions in Jewish Palestine compel us to assume a Palestinian Jewish-Christian author. Also, the author's Aramaic native language is still discernible in the Marcan style.[]

Response to Papias

Papias provides a very early source for the idea that the canonical Gospels were either based on some non-Greek written sources, or (in the case of Matthew) possibly "composed" in a non-Greek language. The relevant fragments of Papias' lost work An Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord (Logiōn kuriakōn exēgēsis, c. 110-140) are preserved in quotations by Eusebius. In one fragment, Papias cites an older source who says, "When Mark was the interpreter [hermēneutēs, possibly "translator"] of Peter, he wrote down accurately everything that he recalled of the Lord's words and deeds." Papias' surviving comment about Matthew is more tantalizing, but equally cryptic: "And so Matthew composed [or collected] the sayings [or record] in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted [hērmēneusen, possibly "translated"] them to the best of his ability."[] A similar claim comes out more clearly in a text by Irenaeus, but this testimony is later than (and probably based on) Papias.

Even if they do imply non-Greek originals, these accounts have been doubted, in part with an argument that the literary quality of the Greek of these books indicates that the Greek would be the original. This argument extends to the other books where the Church Fathers accepted Greek as the original without debate. The Greek New Testament's general agreement with the Septuagint is also counted as evidence by majority view scholars. Aramaic primacists point to quotations from the Hebrew (Masoretic) Old Testament in the Alexandrian text type that indicate at one point a non-Greek speaking audience was addressed (See Matthew 2:15, 2:18, 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27; John 19:37; Acts 13:18; Romans 9:33, 11:35; 1 Corinthians 3:19; 1Peter 2:8).[] Aramaic primacists question why the New Testament would quote from the Hebrew Old Testament and not from the Septuagint if it was written in Greek originally. Quotes from the Hebrew Old Testament are present in Alexandrian texts that are thought to predate Jerome's use of the Hebrew Old Testament for the Vulgate. On the other hand, there are alternative explanations for the use of the Hebrew Old Testament. The authors, or dictators, would have likely had large portions of the Hebrew scriptures memorized and might have translated them instead of consulting a Greek reference. Or in the case of the passage in the gospel of John, the passage quoted does not include the relevant prophecy in some manuscripts of the Septuagint. The author may therefore have been forced to translate from the Hebrew himself.

Response to specific verses

There are also alternative explanations for the cases where Aramaic Primacists claim that the Aramaic seems to read better. One example (as stated above) is in the case of the "camel through the eye of a needle." In Jewish and Christian literature we see the following:

"...who can make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle."
- Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezi'a, 38b
"They do not show a man a palm tree of gold, nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle."
- Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth, 55b
"13 There was a rich man named Onesiphorus who said: If I believe, shall I be able to do wonders? Andrew said: Yes, if you forsake your wife and all your possessions. He was angry and put his garment about Andrew's neck and began to beat him, saying: You are a wizard, why should I do so? 14 Peter saw it and told him to leave off. He said: I see you are wiser than he. What do you say? Peter said: I tell you this: it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
- Apocryphal Acts of Peter and Andrew.

Aramaic Primacists generally respond that these sources are late compared to the account in Q, as the Mishnah, the base document of the Babylonian Talmud was compiled in 200, where the Acts of Peter and Andrew is a 3rd century work and therefore the original mistranslation of גמלא (gamlâ) predates and is potentially the source of these subsequent paraphrases. The Aramaic word for camel can also mean "beam" thus implying that the saying "it easier for a beam to go through an "eye'" is referencing Matthew 7:5; Luke 6:41-42 concerning taking the log (beam) out of your eye.

Multiple versions

Josephus' The Jewish War was originally written in Aramaic and later translated into Greek. Furthermore, the possibility that the Jewish community was more polyglot is often overlooked by both Aramaic-supporting and Koine-supporting scholars. It is possible that Aramaic and Koine (and even Latin) versions of the books and oral teachings of the New Testament were circulating contemporaneously, similar to the situation in present day Orthodox Jewish communities, where popular, newly written, religious works in Rabbinical Hebrew are promptly translated into English and Yiddish.

Footnotes

Bibliography

External links

  • AramaicNT.org — collection of articles on Aramaic source criticism
  • Dukhrana.com — site contains the transcription of the Khaboris Codex
  • AramaicNT.com - research articles and twelve published books on the Peshitta Bible, including N.T. interlinear translation and plain English N.T. translation plus Peshitta interlinear Psalms, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes.

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