Definitions

You cannot serve God and mammon

Aramaic of Jesus

Most scholars believe that historical Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic, with some Hebrew and Greek, although there is some debate in academia as to what degree. Generally, most scholars believe that the towns of Nazareth and Capernaum, where Jesus lived, were primarily Aramaic-speaking communities, that he was knowledgeable enough in Hebrew to discuss the Hebrew Bible, and that he may have known Koine Greek through commerce as a carpenter in nearby Sepphoris and because Greek was the common language of the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

This article explores Aramaic reconstructions of phrases in the New Testament as attributed to Jesus and New Testament figures.

Cultural and linguistic background

It is generally accepted that Jesus was born a Jew, and grew up in a Jewish family in Galilee. For over a half-millennium, one colloquial language for Jews was Judeo-Aramaic, stemming from the Babylonian captivity and invading Assyrian empire. Judeo-Aramaic was a version of standard Aramaic (which had originally been the language of Damascus) with a number of Hebrew words and some Hebrew-inspired grammar mixed in; the relation of Judeo-Aramaic to standard Aramaic is roughly comparable to the relation of Yiddish to German, although the difference between Judeo-Aramaic and standard Aramaic was less marked. For some Jews Hebrew remained a colloquial language, until the end of the 3rd century AD. Nearly all of the Jewish scriptures were written in Biblical Hebrew, making it possible that a Jew who knew the Jewish scriptures also knew at least some Hebrew (especially as Hebrew and Aramaic are fairly cognate). But there were also the Targums, Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible. These probably developed in Babylon but were not yet in circulation in Galilee or Judea in the days of Jesus. Qumran may only know of the Targum to Job, an especially problematic book of the Hebrew Bible where the Greek translation also used the Targum (LXX Job 42:17ff.) The use of Targums in the synagogue did not become customary until the 3rd century, after the use of spoken Hebrew declined in the aftermath of the catastrophic Bar Kochba Revolt.

From the 2nd century BC, Judea had been heavily influenced by the Hellenistic civilization, and Koine Greek rapidly became the international language of the eastern Mediterranean, and so became the language of travelling merchants. It is thus likely that Jesus knew at least market Greek. The New Testament itself, is written in Koine Greek, including many quotations from the Hebrew Bible.

When Jesus is described by the New Testament as quoting from the Hebrew Bible, the quotations that are given most closely correlate with the Septuagint. Most scholars suggest that the New Testament authors most likely used an edition of the Septuagint, rather than translate a Hebrew (or Aramaic) source. However, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, in addition to various Hebrew versions of the Bible that resemble the much later Masoretic text, there are also Hebrew versions that more closely resemble the Greek Septuagint version (in similar fashion to the Samaritan Pentateuch) and some maverick texts.

Because of the influence of Greek in the east of the Mediterranean, even the officials of the Roman Empire did not really use Latin in the region, and so only a few words of Latin would have been known to most Jews, mostly confined to various symbols of Roman rule (such as the 'denarius' coin).

Aramaic phrases in the Greek New Testament

The Greek New Testament transliterates a few words and phrases, some Hebrew, some Aramaic and some either. These are mainly words attributed to Jesus by Mark, and perhaps had a special significance because of this.

A very small minority believe that most or all of the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic. This position, called Aramaic primacy, has been rejected by most scholars. The consensus among scholarship is that the New Testament was composed in the Greek language. However, many consider it probable that there was a Hebrew and/or Aramaic layer beneath the Greek sources to the gospels and maybe parts of Acts.

Talitha qoum (Ταλιθα κουμ)

Mark 5:41
And taking the hand of the child, he said to her, "Talitha koum", which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, get up".

This verse gives an Aramaic phrase, attributed to Jesus in the resurrection of a girl, with a transliteration into Greek, as ταλιθα κουμ.

A few Greek manuscripts (Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus) of Mark's Gospel have this form of the text, but others (Codex Alexandrinus, the Majority Text and the Vulgate) write κουμι (koumi) instead. The latter became the Textus Receptus, and is the version that appears in the Authorised Version.

The Aramaic is ţlīthā qūm. The word ţlīthā is the feminine form of the word ţlē, meaning "young". Qūm is the Aramaic verb 'to rise, stand, get up'. In the feminine singular imperative, it was originally 'qūmī'. However, there is evidence that in speech the final -ī was dropped so that the imperative did not distinguish between masculine and feminine genders. The older manuscripts, therefore, used a Greek spelling that reflected pronunciation, whereas the addition of an 'ι' was perhaps due to a bookish copyist.

In Aramaic, it could be טליתא קומי or טלתא קומי.

Ephphatha (Εφφαθα)

Mark 7:34
And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha", which is 'be opened'.

Once again, the Aramaic word is given with an attempted transliteration, only this time the word to be transliterated is more complicated. In Greek, the Aramaic is written εφφαθα. This could be from the Aramaic 'ethpthaħ', the passive imperative of the verb 'pthaħ', 'to open', since the 'th' could assimilate in western Aramaic. The guttural 'ħ' was generally softened in Galilean Aramaic,. The form is closer to Hebrew nif`al הפתח, but because this is recorded by Mark and in another healing section it is possible that this was intended to be colloquial Aramaic and cited according to Mark's literary purposes.

In Aramaic, it could be אתפתח or אפתח.

Abba (Αββα)

Mark 14:36
Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.".

Abba, an Aramaic Hebrew word (written Αββα in Greek, and 'abbā in Aramaic), is immediately followed by the Greek equivalent (Πατηρ) with no explicit mention of it being a translation. The phrase Abba, Father is repeated in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6.

In Aramaic, it could be אבא.

Note, the name Barabbas is a Hellenization of the Aramaic Bar Abba (בר אבא), literally, "Son of the Father".

Raca (Ρακα)

Matthew 5:22
But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Raca, or Raka, in the Aramaic of the Talmud means empty one, fool, empty head.

In Aramaic, it could be ריקא or ריקה, which is also its form in Hebrew.

Mammon (Μαμωνας)

Gospel of Matthew 6:24
No one can serve two masters: for either they will hate the one, and love the other; or else they will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Luke 16:9-13

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

2 Clement 6

Now the Lord declares, "No servant can serve two masters." If we desire, then, to serve both God and mammon, it will be unprofitable for us. "For what will it profit if a man gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" This world and the next are two enemies. The one urges to adultery and corruption, avarice and deceit; the other bids farewell to these things. We cannot, therefore, be the friends of both; and it behoves us, by renouncing the one, to make sure of the other. Let us reckon that it is better to hate the things present, since they are trifling, and transient, and corruptible; and to love those [which are to come,] as being good and incorruptible. For if we do the will of Christ, we shall find rest; otherwise, nothing shall deliver us from eternal punishment, if we disobey His commandments. (Roberts-Donaldson)

In Aramaic and Hebrew, it could be ממון.

In the New Testament the word Μαμωνᾶς — Mamōnâs — is declined like a Greek word, whereas many of the other Aramaic words are treated as indeclinable foreign words.

Rabboni (Ραββουνει)

Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. (KJV)

Also in Mark 10:51. Hebrew form rabbi used as title of Jesus in Matthew 26:25,49; Mark 9:5, 11:21, 14:45; John 1:49, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, 11:8.

This word is correctly labeled as Hebrew in John 20:16. In Hebrew, it is רבוני.

Maranatha (μαρανα θα)

Didache 10 (Prayer after Communion)
.. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen. (Roberts-Donaldson)

1 Corinthians 16:22

If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.

In Aramaic (מרנא תא) it means Lord, come! or Our Lord, come!

Eli Eli lema sabachthani (Ηλει Ηλει λεμα σαβαχθανει)

Matthew 27:46
Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying "Eli Eli lema sabachthani?" which is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Mark 15:34
And at the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, "Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani?" which is translated, "My God, my God, for what have you forsaken me?"

This phrase, shouted by Jesus from the cross, is given to us in these two versions. The Matthean version of the phrase is transliterated in Greek as ηλει ηλει λεμα σαβαχθανει. The Markan version is similar, but begins ελωι ελωι (elōi rather than ēlei). Matthew is citing a probably Hebrew version, Mark a probable Aramaic version.

The lines seems to be quoting the first line of Psalm 22. However, he is not quoting the canonical Hebrew version (êlî êlî lâmâ `azabtânî), but is using an Hebraic midrash (Matthew) or Aramaic translation of it (Mark).

In the following verse, in both accounts, some who hear Jesus' cry imagine that he is calling for help from Elijah (Eliyyâ). This is perhaps to underline the incomprehension of the bystanders about what is happening.

Almost all ancient Greek manuscripts show signs of trying to normalise this text. For instance, the peculiar Codex Bezae renders both versions with ηλι ηλι λαμα ζαφθανι (ēli ēli lama zaphthani). The Alexandrian, Western and Caesarean textual families all reflect harmonization of the texts between Matthew and Mark. Only the Byzantine textual tradition preserves a distinction.

The Aramaic/mishnaic Hebrew word švaqtanî is based on the verb švaq, 'to allow, to permit, to forgive, and to forsake', with the perfect tense ending -t (2nd person singular: 'you'), and the object suffix -anî (1st person singular: 'me').

This phrase is treated in more depth at Last sayings of Jesus.

In Aramaic, it could be אלהי אלהי למא שבקתני. In Hebrew אלי אלי למ שבקתני

Jot and tittle (ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία)

Matthew 5:18

For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law (that is, the Torah) till all is fulfilled.

The quotation uses them as an example of extremely minor details. In the Greek original translated as English jot and tittle is found iota and keraia. Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet (ι), but since only capitals were used at the time the Greek New Testament was written (Ι), it probably represents the Aramaic yodh (י) which is the smallest letter of the Aramaic alphabet. Keraia is a hook or serif, possibly accents in Greek but more likely hooks on Aramaic letters, (ב) versus (כ), or additional marks such as crowns (as Vulgate apex) found in Jewish Bibles. The standard reference for NT Greek is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Bauer, Gingrich, Danker, et al. (commonly known as the Bauer lexicon. Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon for keraia is here: See also the article on the antithesis of the Law.

Korbanas (κορβανας)

Matthew 27:6
But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.’

In Aramaic (קרבנא) it refers to the treasury in the Temple in Jerusalem, derived from the Hebrew Corban (קרבן), found in Mark 7:11 and the Septuagint (in Greek transliteration), meaning religious gift.

The Greek κορβανᾶς is declined as a Greek noun.

Sikera (σικερα)

Luke 1:15
for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

This word entered Jewish Greek from Hebrew שכר, and like many cases in the Greek translation of Hebrew Bible, it adopted a more Aramaic sounding form (שכרא). It means barley beer, from the Akkadian shikaru.

Hosanna (ὡσαννά)

Mark 11:9
Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

According to the Bauer lexicon, see references at end, this word is derived from Aramaic [sic](הושע נא) from Hebrew (הושיעה נא). But actually הושע is the correct form of the Hebrew imperative. הושיעה is a special long form that was sometimes quoted from the Hebrew Bible.

Aramaic personal names in the New Testament

Personal names in the New Testament come from a number of languages, Hebrew and Greek are most common. However, there are a good few Aramaic names as well. The most prominent feature in Aramaic names is 'bar' (Greek transliteration βαρ, Aramaic bar), meaning 'son of', a common patronym prefix. Its Hebrew equivalent, 'ben', is conspicuous by its absence. Some examples are:

  • Matthew 10:3 — Bartholomew (Βαρθολομαιος from bar-Tôlmay, perhaps 'son of furrows' or 'ploughman').
  • Matthew 16:17 — Simon bar-Jona (Σιμων Βαριωνας from Šim`ôn bar-Yônâ, 'Simon son of Jonah').
  • John 1:42 — Simon bar-Jochanan ('Simon son of John').
  • Matthew 27:16 — Barabbas (Βαραββας from bar-Abbâ, 'son of the father').
  • Mark 10:46 — Bartimaeus (Βαρτιμαιος from bar-Ţim'ay, perhaps 'son of defilement' or 'son of a whore').
  • Acts 1:23 — Barsabbas (Βαρσαββας from bar-Šabbâ, 'son of the Sabbath').
  • Acts 4:36 — Joseph who is called Barnabas (Βαρναβας from bar-Navâ meaning 'son of prophecy, the prophet', but given the Greek translation υιος παρακλησεως; usually translated as 'son of consolation/encouragement', the Greek could mean 'invocation' as well).
  • Acts 13:6 — Bar-Jesus (Βαριησους from bar-Yêšû`, 'son of Jesus/Joshua').

Boanerges (Βοανηργες)

Mark 3:17
And James, the son of Zebedee, and John, the brother of James, and he gave them the name Boanerges, which is Sons of Thunder.

Jesus surnames the brothers James and John to reflect their impetuosity. The Greek rendition of their name is Βοανηργες (Boanērges).

There has been much speculation about this name. Given the Greek translation that comes with it ('Sons of Thunder'), it seems that the first element of the name is 'bnê', 'sons of' (the plural of 'bar'), Aramaic (בני). This is represented by βοανη (boanê), giving two vowels in the first syllable where one would be sufficient. It could be inferred from this that the Greek transliteration may not be a good one. The second part of the name is often reckoned to be 'rğaš' ('tumult') Aramaic (רניש), or 'rğaz' ('anger') Aramaic (רנז). Maurice Casey, however, argues that it is a simple misreading of the word for thunder, 'r`am' (due to the similarity of s to the final m). This is supported by one Syriac translation of the name as 'bnay ra`mâ'. The Peshitta reads 'bnay rğešy' which would fit with a later composition for it, based on a Byzantine reading of the original Greek.

Cephas (Κηφας)

John 1:42
He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John, you shall be called Cephas", which is translated 'Peter'. (New International Version)
1 Corinthians 1:12
But I say that each of you says "I am of Paul", or "I am of Apollos", or "I am of Cephas", or "I am of Christ".
Galatians 1:18 NRSV
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days;

In these passages, 'Cephas' is given as the nickname of the apostle better known as Simon Peter. The Greek word is transliterated Κηφᾶς (Kēphâs).

The apostle's given name appears to be Simon, and he is given the Aramaic nickname, kêfâ, meaning 'rock'. The final sigma (s) is added in Greek to make the name masculine rather than feminine. That the meaning of the name was more important than the name itself is evidenced by the universal acceptance of the Greek translation, Πέτρος (Petros). It is not known why Paul uses the Aramaic name rather than the Greek name for Simon Peter when he writes to the churches in Galatia and Corinth. He may have been writing at a time before Cephas came to be popularly known as Peter. According to some Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, there were two people named Cephas: one was Apostle Simon Peter, and the other was one of Jesus' Seventy Apostles. Clement goes further to say it was Cephas of the Seventy who was condemned by Paul in Galatians 2 for not eating with the Gentiles.

In Aramaic, it could be כיפא.

Thomas (Θωμας)

John 11:16
Then Thomas, who was called Didymus, said to his co-disciples, "Now let us go that we might die with him!"

Thomas (Θωμᾶς) is listed among the disciples of Jesus in all four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. However, it is only in John's Gospel that more information is given. In three places (John 11:16, 20:24 and 21:2) he is given the name Didymus (Δίδυμος), the Greek word for a twin. In fact, "the Twin" is not just a surname, it is a translation of "Thomas". The Greek Θωμᾶς — Thōmâs — comes from the Aramaic tômâ, "twin". Therefore, rather than two personal names, Thomas Didymus, there is a single nickname, the Twin. Christian tradition gives him the personal name Judas, and he was perhaps named Thomas to distinguish him from others of the same name.

In Aramaic, it could be תאומא.

Tabitha (Ταβειθα)

Acts 9:36
In Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas.

The disciple's name is given both in Aramaic (Ταβειθα) and Greek (Δορκας). The Aramaic name is a transliteration of Ţvîthâ the female form of טביא (Ţavyâ). Both names mean 'gazelle'.

It may be just coincidence that Peter's words to her in verse 40, "Tabitha, get up!" (Ταβειθα ἀνάστηθι), are similar to the "talitha qoum" phrase used by Jesus.

In Aramaic, it could be טביתא.

Aramaic place names in the New Testament

Gethsemane (Γεθσημανει)

Matthew 26:36
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane.
Mark 14:32
And they went to a place that has the name Gethsemane.

The place where Jesus takes his disciples to pray before his arrest is given the Greek transliteration Γεθσημανει (Gethsēmani). It represents the Aramaic 'Gath-Šmânê', meaning 'the oil press' or 'oil vat' (referring to olive oil).

In Aramaic, it could be גת שמני or גיא ש.

Golgotha (Γολγοθα)

Mark 15:22
And they took him up to the place Golgotha, which is translated Place of the Skull.
John 19:17
And carrying his cross by himself, he went out to the so-called Place of the Skull, which is called in 'Hebrew' Golgotha.

This is clearly Aramaic rather than Hebrew. 'Gûlgaltâ' is the Aramaic for 'skull'. The name appears in all of the gospels except Luke, which calls the place simply Kranion 'the Skull', with no Aramaic. The name 'Calvary' is taken from the Latin Vulgate translation, Calvaria.

In Aramaic, it could be גלגלתא.

Gabbatha (Γαββαθα)

John 19:13
When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge's bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew, Gabbatha.

The place name appears to be Aramaic. According to Josephus, War, V.ii.1, #51, the word Gabath means high place, or elevated place, so perhaps a raised flat area near the temple. The final "א" could then represent the emphatic state of the noun.

In Aramaic, it could be גבהתא.

Akeldama (Ακελδαμαχ)

Acts 1:19
And this became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that field was called, in their own dialect, Akeldama, that is Field of Blood.

The place of Judas Iscariot's death is clearly named Field of Blood in Greek. However, the manuscript tradition gives a number of different spellings of the Aramaic. The Majority Text reads Ακελδαμα ([H]akeldama); other manuscript versions give Αχελδαμα ([H]acheldama), Ακελδαιμα ([H]akeldaima), Ακελδαμακ ([H]akeldamak) and Ακελδαμαχ ([H]akeldamach). Despite these variant spellings the Aramaic is most probably 'ħqêl dmâ', 'field of blood'. While the seemingly gratuitous Greek sound of "kh" [χ] at the end of the word is difficult to explain, the Septuagint similarly adds this sound to the end of the Semitic name Ben Sira to form the Greek name for the Book of "Sirakh" (Latin: Sirach). The sound may be a dialectic feature of either the Greek speakers or the original Semitic language speakers.

In Aramaic, it could be חקל דמא.

Pool of Bethesda

Bethesda was originally the name of a pool in Jerusalem, on the path of the Beth Zeta Valley, and is also known as the Sheep Pool. It is associated with healing. In John 5, Jesus was reported healing a man at the pool.

According to Syriac-English Dictionary by Louis Costaz and A Compendious Syriac Dictionary by J. Payne Smith, the word hesdo in Syriac (or hesda in older Aramaic) has two opposite meanings: 'grace' and 'disgrace'. Hence, Bethesda was both a house of disgrace, as many invalids gathered there, and a house of grace, as they were granted healing.

References

All Aramaic words are from A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Bauer-Arndt-Gingrinch-Danker (ISBN 978-0226039336). Though primarily a Koine Greek Lexicon (it is the standard reference for NT Greek), it includes Aramaic words in the Aramaic "square-script" alphabet.

Notes

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