Jesus and Aramaic in the Gospels
Wednesday July 7, 2010
by Mark D. Roberts
The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament Gospels - Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John - are written in Greek. Though a few scholars argue that
Matthew first appeared in Hebrew or Aramaic, most believe that the four
biblical Gospels were composed in Greek. Their writers might well have
known Aramaic and/or Hebrew, and they may well have drawn upon oral and
written sources in these Semitic languages, but when they put stylus to
papyrus, then wrote in common Greek.
Yet the New Testament Gospels do include non-Greek words in the text
(spelled with Greek letters). And some of these words are Aramaic.
Others are probably Aramaic, though they might be a variety of Hebrew.
The word Abba, for example, which means "father" or "papa" in
Aramaic, can also be found in certain later Hebrew dialects. So, while
Jesus' use of Abba probably reflects his Aramaic speech, we can't
be 100% sure of this.
In Mark 3, we find the story of Jesus' calling of the twelve disciples.
In the list of those whom he called, we find these names: "James son of
Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name
Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder)" (Mark 3:17). The word
boanerges is a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic phrase, though
the precise phrase is not altogether clear. Several Aramaic options are
possible. (Photo: A painting of the Crucifixion of Jesus, from a church
in Taormina, on the island of Sicily).
One of the most striking Aramaic sentences found on the lips of Jesus in
the Gospels is: eli eli lema sabachthani (Matthew 27:46; Mark
15:34 uses eloi instead of eli). The sentence is then
translated into Greek by Matthew and Mark, with the English meaning: "My
God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This, as it turns out, is a
quotation from Psalm 22:1, which reads in Hebrew: 'eli 'eli lama 'azavtani.
(Here you can see, by the way, an example of the similarity between
Aramaic and Hebrew.) The fact that Matthew and Mark have Jesus speaking
in Aramaic does suggest that this line was remembered by the early
Christian community in its original language, namely, Aramaic. But the
ancient manuscripts of the Gospels include a variety of options, so we
can't be completely positive of what Matthew and Mark wrote, or which
language Jesus spoke. He could have used Hebrew, which was translated
and passed down in Aramaic by the early church.
The clearest example of Aramaic on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels
occurs in Mark 5:41. Jesus entered the home of a synagogue leader whose
daughter had died. "Holding her hand, he said to her, 'Talitha koum,"
which means "Little girl, get up!" Both Matthew and Luke tell this same
story, but without the Aramaic sentence (Matt 9:24; Luke 8:54). Matthew
simply describes the healing while Luke includes only the Greek
translation. Mark, however, passes on what appears to be the actual
words of Jesus, word in Aramaic.
Mark 5:41 provides persuasive evidence for Jesus' use of Aramaic in this
particular instance. But the text does not tell us exactly what to make
of this usage. One could argue that Mark's account of the raising of the
girl shows that Jesus' use of Aramaic was unusual, and that's why it was
remembered. Or one could conclude that Jesus used Aramaic in this
situation, which was not, at any rate, a teaching time.
The existence of Aramaic words and phrases on the lips of Jesus,
combined with what we know about the probably use of Aramaic in Jesus'
homeland, convinces me beyond any doubt that Jesus spoke Aramaic and
used it in his ministry. I think it would be very difficult to argue
otherwise. However, the fact that Jesus used Aramaic at times does not
prove that he used only Aramaic. Living and ministering in a
multi-lingual environment, Jesus might have used other languages as
well, namely Hebrew and/or Greek. I'll consider these possibilities in
more depth below.