Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Importance of Aramaic in New Testament Studies

We all know that the New Testament was not written in English, or even thought in English. The New Testament is a collection of 1st century writings centered on Jesus of Nazareth (or, in Aramaic: Yeshua d'Nasrath). Jesus and His disciples were Jews in Israel, primarily from the region of Galilee (Judas Iscariot most likely being the only disciple from Judah). The language of 1st century Israel was not even Greek or Hebrew, but Aramaic.

Studies in Hebrew and Greek abound, as the Old Testament (or Tanach) was written in Hebrew (with a little Aramaic) and the New Testament is generally presumed to have been written in Greek. However, Hebrew was not spoken among the common people, nor was Greek. Aramaic is the language in which Jesus likely taught and spoke daily. In order to fully understand the message of Jesus and the apostles, you must understand the Aramaic language. Sadly, Aramaic is almost ignored by scholars today, who instead focus upon the Greek New Testament writings.

Even the Greek New Testament is written in a very Semitic style, hinting at the idea that it was translated from a previous Aramaic source. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Tanach) has a very similar style to the Greek New Testament. If you compare the grammar of the Greek New Testament and the Aramaic Peshitta New Testament using an interlinear, you will find that there are a lot of similarities between the two. Many Semitic idioms are also used in the commonly used Greek New Testament (see for more information on this), hinting toward a Semitic source behind the Greek. Transliterated Aramaic words, like rabbi, Patskha, qorban, rakha, mammon ("my great one", "Passover", "offering", "spit", "wealth") are also found in our Greek New Testament.

At times, the idioms used in the New Testament are easy to misunderstand, or otherwise will leave you scratching your head. One example is the "evil eye" Jesus speaks of in Matthew 7:23 and 20:15. According to Dr. George Lamsa (translator of The Holy Bible From the Ancient Eastern Text) and David H. Stern (translator of The Complete Jewish Bible), this an idiom for greed. Usually in our Western mind, we would associate this with black magic or the occult, but when examining the context you can tell what Jesus is talking about. An "evil eye" in Aramaic is anak bisha.

"Do not place for yourself treasures on earth where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break in and steal. But place for yourself treasures in heave where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there is your heart also. The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye therefore is simple, also your whole body is light. But if your eye is evil your whole body will be dark. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great will be your darkness. No man is able to serve two lords. For either he will hate the one and will love the other, or he will honor the one and will treat the other with contempt. You are not able to serve God and mammon."- Matthew 6:19-24

A fact that isn't widely known is that until 14th century, the largest part of the church was composed of Aramaic speakers. While Paul was bringing the Gospel to the West, Peter was bringing it to the East. Even in Greece, there was an Aramaic-speaking diaspora of Jews and Arameans. If there were no Aramaic speakers in these churches, why would Paul use words and phrases like Maran atha (I Corinthians 16:22, which means "Our Lord, come"), satana ("the accuser" or "Satan"), or amen ("truly")? Greek speaking Jews are referred to as "Hellenists" in the New Testament writings, and were considered a different class of people (Acts 9:29). Notice how Paul always went to the synagogues first and if the Gospel was rejected, he would then go to the Gentiles (which not only included European Gentiles like Greeks and Romans, but also Semitic Gentiles like Assyrians and Arameans). Paul could clearly get by in Greek if he was debating with Hellenists, but he also the bilingual Luke who was a Syrian from Antioch, in which both Greek and Aramaic were widely spoken.

Peter, Jacob (or "James"), Jude, and John were all Israeli Jews from Galilee and spent their lives primarily preaching the Gospel to their Jewish brethren. Peter actually spent time in Babylon with John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark (I Peter 5:13). Babylon had the largest population of Jews outside of Israel, so it was a logical place for him to go. These men who ministered to Aramaic-speaking Jews in Asia and the Middle East are unlikely to have written to these people in Greek, but in their common Aramaic language.

Another advantage of studying the New Testament in Aramaic is to see many nuances that can only be seen in the Aramaic and are totally missed in the Greek. The Peshitta abounds in wordplay and poetry. Here is an example of wordplay in the Aramaic text from John 1:18 that is totally missed in the Greek:

Alaha la khaza nash memtun ikhidaya Alaha haw d'itaw b'uba d'Awuh haw eshtai.
"Man has not ever seen God. The only begotten God, that one who is in the bosom of his father, has declared him."

The Greek versions of this verse read:

Theon oudeis heoraken papote monogenes Theos ho on eis ton kolpon tou Patros ekeinos exegesato.

The Aramaic New Testament also has some unique ways of revealing the deity of Jesus. The word MarYa is a compound of the word Mar ("Lord") and Ya (or "Yah", short for "Yahweh" and seen in Psalms 68:4). MarYa is used of Jesus Christ in several places, like Acts 2:38 and Philippians 2:11. Another unique part of the Peshitta is it's use of the Aramaic phrase Ena 'na ("I am"), which, in the Peshitta Tanach is used 97% of the time by God Himself (this is the Aramaic equivalent of ehyeh asher ehyeh, or "I am that I am"). Paul Younan states, "In Semitic thought, the phrase ‘Ena-na’ (I am) conveys a thought of eternal existence reserved only for God." The seven "I am" statements in the Gospel of John (6:35, 8:12, 10:9, 10:11, 11:25-26, 14:6, 15:5) all use this particular phrase. Only one place in the entire Peshitta New Testament has ena 'na being used by a mere human being (John 9:9).

Instead of bringing the New Testament into our day and age, we should go back to the time of the New Testament when studying it. Only through the lenses of the Aramaic language can we ascertain the Biblical message in its entirety. Unfortunately, not all of us have the time or ability to learn Aramaic. Thankfully, we have many tools that can be used to study the Aramaic New Testament of the Peshitta. Various translations, interlinears, commentaries, and dictionaries have been published so that we can examine the New Testament in its original Semitic context. Here are some places where you can study the Peshitta and the Aramaic language: This is a website that has some articles on the Peshitta and it's relation to the Greek New Testament, as well as the Old Syriac versions. Four translations of the Peshitta are available also: John Wesley Etheridge, James Murdock, George Lamsa, and Paul Younan's Aramaic-English interlinear. This is a website where you can read Dr. George Lamsa's The Holy Bible From the Ancient Eastern Text, or as it's more commonly known "The Lamsa Bible". This is the only full translation of the Peshitta Bible. Dr. Lamsa was a native speaker of the Aramaic language and a member of the Assyrian Church of the East, which has preserved the Peshitta since ancient times. Dr. Lamsa wrote many commentaries and books that show the importance of understanding ancient Semitic culture. His translation is generally accurate, but sometimes has places where theological bias shows up, as well as places where the translation sticks with the Greek and King James Version more than the Eastern Peshitta text. This is Paul Younan's website, and is also has his Aramaic-English interlinear New Testament. Unfortunately, it is currently incomplete and goes only to Acts 16. The four Gospels in an accessible Aramaic-English interlinear format is in itself a monumental achievement. The forum on here is great, and you can learn a lot about the Peshitta's history, as well as that of the Aramaic language. Paul Younan is also a native Aramaic speaker and member of the Assyrian Church of the East. This is the website of native Aramaic speaker and Church of the East member Victor Alexander, who has translated the Peshitta New Testament, which is titled Aramaic Scripture. Also available are his translations of the Peshitta Tanach's versions of Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Jonah, Zechariah, Malachi, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, as well as Psalms 1 and 22. This website is an indispensable source for comparing translations (especially the KJV, Lamsa, Etheridge, and Murdock translations), the Greek, and other versions of the New Testament against the original Aramaic. You can also look at and compare several Aramaic manuscripts, including the famed Khabouris Codex. The various lexicons on here are extremely useful. This is the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, which is probably the best lexicon available for not only Syriac (the Aramaic dialect of the Peshitta), but also various other dialects (including Babylonian, Judean, Galilean, and Samaritan). You can study the Peshitta Bible, the Targums, and various other Aramaic texts on here. This is the website of Steve Caruso, who is an expert in Aramaic, especially Jesus's own Galilean dialect. Steve is working on translating all parts of the Gospels where someone speaks into the Aramaic dialect in which it would have been spoken and what he has so far is very interesting. You can also learn Galilean Aramaic here. I am going to start studying here very soon. Here you can learn Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, which is very similar to the Syriac dialect seen in the Peshitta. I've downloaded the PDF version of their course to my tablet.

These are, in my opinion, the best translations of the Peshitta:

A Literal Translation of the New Testament From the Peschito by John Wesley Etheridge.

The Syriac New Testament by James Murdock.

Aramaic English New Testament by Andrew Gabriel Roth

Aramaic Peshitta New Testament Translation and Aramaic Peshitta New Testament Vertical Interlinear (3 volumes) by Janet Magiera

Aramaic-English Interlinear New Testament (3 volumes) by The Way International.

The Original Aramaic New Testament in Plain English and The Aramaic-English Interlinear New Testament by Glenn David Bauscher.

Scriptural quotations taken from the Aramaic-English Interlinear New Testament by The Way International.

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