Wednesday, April 12, 2017

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A Question for Good Friday: Did Jesus Speak Aramaic or Hebrew from the Cross?


As is generally well-known to the careful reader of the New Testament, Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross, recorded in both Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, reads slightly differently. The spelling of “my God” is “Eli” in Matthew (which represents Hebrew) and “Eloi” in Mark (which represents Aramaic). Both sayings are transliterated, which is to say, they are presented in our English versions following the phonetic articulation of the saying in the ancient languages, and indeed, what one sees in English follows the actual Greek text itself, where the saying, though it is not Greek, is transliterated into Greek letters phonetically but with these different spellings respectively. The question, then, is this: did Jesus speak these words in Hebrew (as in Matthew) or in Aramaic (as in Mark)?

It has usually been suggested that Mark is the more accurate, since he has several other sayings of Jesus in his gospel that are Aramaic transliterations into Greek letters (e.g., Mk. 5:41, 7:34). In fact, this feature of Mark’s Gospel becomes part of the case for asserting that Jesus was probably a native Aramaic speaker. The earliest tradition from Papias (early 2nd century) is that Mark’s gospel preserves the memories of Jesus from Simon Peter, and as such, is the one most likely to preserve Jesus’ verbatim words. We see this also in Jesus’ familial address to God as Abba (Mk. 14:36), where Jesus uses the Aramaic word for Father, a tradition that eventually carried over even into the early Greek-speaking congregations of St. Paul (cf. Ro. 8:15; Ga. 4:6). In any case, it is common for commentators to suggest that Mark preserves the actual words of Jesus in Aramaic, while Matthew provides the voice of Jesus, but has recast the words into Hebrew. Here, I’ll offer an alternative suggestion that goes against this scholarly flow.

While I have no doubt that Jesus spoke Aramaic, there are two points in this scene of the cross that make me think that perhaps on this occasion it is Mark who has recast Jesus’ saying into Aramaic and Matthew who records the actual words of Jesus in Hebrew. The first concerns the confusion on the part of the listeners that Jesus' words "my God" may have been the name Elijah. The Hebrew “Eli”, meaning “my God”, is virtually identical with the short form of the name Elijah, the one easily mistaken for the other. However, this is NOT the case between the Aramaic “Eloi”, where the long “o” sound in the possessive form is easily distinguished from the name Elijah. The second point concerns Jesus’ familiarity with the Hebrew text of Psalm 22:1, which is the ancient prayer from which his words were drawn. If Jesus were in the habit of "praying" phrases from the Psalms, which on this occasion is clear enough, it seems to me more likely that he would have done so from the Hebrew text of the Psalm rather than from an Aramaic translation or a Targum. While Targums were used in the synagogue service readings, they were not read in isolation. Rather, they were read alongside the Hebrew text, usually alternating sections at a time, first Hebrew, then Aramaic, for the benefit of those who might have had trouble understanding Hebrew. Hence, Jesus, who was a regular synagogue attender from his youth (Lk. 4:16), would certainly have been familiar with the Hebrew text of Psalm 22:1, even if he was a native speaker of Aramaic. In my opinion, it seems more likely that he would have used phrases in his prayers from the original Hebrew text rather than a translated one.

Why, then, would Mark have recast Jesus’ use of these Hebrew words into Aramaic? That is a question about which one can only speculate, but one possible answer is that inasmuch as Aramaic was perceived to be a mystical language, particularly by Greek-speakers, Mark may have opted for the drama of recasting Jesus’ prayer into a language with overtones of mystery. Alternatively, perhaps Mark may have changed the saying from Hebrew to Aramaic purely for stylistic purposes to match the other Aramaic sayings in his gospel. What seems abundantly clear, however, is that Jesus said these words in either Hebrew or Aramaic, but hardly in both. My suggestion is that he did so from the ancient Hebrew text of Psalm 22:1, using the actual Hebrew words of this ancient prayer of a man abandoned by God. And, of course, the more important theological point is that in doing so, he identified himself in his condescension with the lowest despair any human could ever experience—the sense that God had forsaken him.

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