The presence of Aramaisms as a historical criterion
If you’ve been reading Vridar over the past few years, you’ll recall that we’ve tangled with the late Maurice Casey and his student, Stephanie Fisher, regarding the historicity of Jesus in general, and the Aramaic background of the New Testament in particular. In a nutshell, Casey (and others) believed that the language Jesus and his followers spoke — Aramaic — holds the key to understanding the gospel of Mark and the double-tradition material usually referred to as “Q.” Specifically, he argued that his “original” reconstructed Aramaic accounts provide a window into the authentic words and deeds of the historical Jesus.
“Why hast thou forsaken me?”
For a long time now I’ve been mulling over the counter-thesis that at least some of the Aramaic words extant in Mark’s gospel don’t go back to the historical Jesus, but rather indicate a patch that hides information the evangelist was trying to suppress. For example, Mark says that the Judean witnesses misheard the crucified Jesus’ cry of dereliction. They thought he was calling out for Elias (Elijah), but Mark explains that he was instead shouting:
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
Is that what the historical Jesus really said? It seems just as likely that Mark was trying to contradict a tradition that Jesus shouted for help from Elijah while on the cross. And that help never came.
Just as he explained how we “know” Jesus arose bodily from the dead by inventing Joseph of Arimathea and a (suspiciously convenient) nearby, unused rock-hewn tomb that was later found empty, Mark may have rationalized Jesus’ plaintive “Elias! Elias!” with a scriptural reference. He would thereby have deflected an embarrassing rumor with a quote from the Psalms that the reader could construe as a fulfilled prophecy.
Or take, for example, the idea that Jesus might have used magic words to effect his miraculous healings. Consider this verse from the prophet Micah:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2, ESV)
Suppose Mark knew of reports that suggested Jesus and his early followers used certain magical words or incantations during their healing rituals. The obscure alternate name for Bethlehem — Ephrathah — has a nice, mysterious ring to it, and it just happens to be mentioned in a prophecy of the future king. But now further imagine that Mark and his community would prefer to downplay this practice, offering in its place a convincing counter-explanation.
And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. (Mark 7:34, KJV)
So the magic word that refers to the prophetic origins (Ephrathah) of the messiah gets converted into a mundane command (Ephphatha) to open a deaf man’s ears. Changing the word to a simple, understandable imperative in Aramaic mitigates Mark’s problem.
I admit it’s just conjecture, but I would draw your attention to three corroborating bits of evidence. First, the healing begins with Jesus taking the man away privately, spitting and touching the man’s tongue, and sticking his fingers in the man’s ears. Second, Jesus groans loudly as he looks toward heaven. (The translation “he sighed” is insufficient.) Finally, Luke and Matthew copy most of Mark’s gospel, but omit this pericope. They no doubt found this story too strange to salvage; it sounds more like the work of a magician than of a messianic healer.
Most modern commentators note that “fact” that Jesus didn’t employ magic words. They insist, rather, that he simply spoke in his native tongue, and that while recounting the event, Mark, for some reason, decided to quote that one single word in Aramaic with an accompanying translation.
Recently, while reading The Word Leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays, I happened upon an essay (“Healing in the Wings of His Garment: The Synoptics and Malachi 4:2”) by Dale Allison that questions the time-honored translation of “talitha kum(i)” in Mark 5:41. The evangelist translates the Aramaic words for us:
Taking the child by the hand, He said to her, “Talitha kum!” (which translated means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). (NASB)
But what if the original saying referred not to a little girl, but to something else? I tracked down a more complete explanation of this idea in an odd little book called The Cure, by David Barsky. Rabbi Barsky, who writes that he “walked away from his business career to devote his life to serving Yeshua — the Jewish Messiah,” thinks Jesus was referring to his talit (or tallit), i.e. his prayer shawl.
The ruler of the synagogue had a sick daughter. Yeshua took her by the hand and said “Talita kumi” — some say this should be translated as damsel arise — but what it really says is arise to my Talit. Picture Yeshua lifting her up by one hand—and raising his Talit to heaven with the other. (p. 82)
At first this analysis seems far-fetched. Barsky tells us that “some say” it means “damsel arise,” but neglects to mention that the evangelist himself translated it that way. And so we’re apt to brush it aside, except for the fact that in the middle part of this Markan story-sandwich, the woman with the issue of blood reaches up to touch Jesus’ garment. Moreover, in Mark 6:56, we learn that people reached out to touch the “fringes” of Jesus’ clothes in order to be healed. Both the KJV and the NIV obscure the real meaning of the Greek with the words “border” and “edge,” respectively. The Greek word refers to ornate, conspicuously large tassels on the embroidered edge of a garment. When Matthew retells the story of the hemorrhaging woman he adds to Mark’s text:
. . . ἐλθοῦσα ἐν τῷ ὄχλῳ ὄπισθεν ἥψατο τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ.
. . . having come in the crowd behind, touched the garment of him.
. . . προσελθοῦσα ὄπισθεν ἥψατο τοῦ κρασπέδου τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ
. . . having come up behind, touched the fringe of the garment of him.
Matthew also writes in Matt. 23.5, when excoriating the scribes and pharisees:
“But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels [κράσπεδα (kraspeda)] of their garments.” (NASB)
A very Jewish Jesus
Phylacteries (tefillin) are leather boxes containing parchment scrolls with scripture written on them. The tassels, prescribed in the book of Numbers, are composed of blue and white thread, attached to the four corners of one’s garment. Notice that Jesus doesn’t condemn the wearing of phylacteries and tassels; that would be against the Torah. He only condemns the wearing of larger-than-average religious paraphernalia, all for show.
The Synoptic testimony that Jesus had tassels on his garment has become the occasion, above all in modern times, to remark that he must have been “a pious Jew” [quoting Ulrich Luz]. He obediently displayed the tassels prescribed by Numbers 15:38-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12, so “in dress Jesus was not nonconformist.” [quoting Alexander Balmain Bruce] Perhaps this partly explains why some witnesses to the text of Luke 8:44 lack τοῦ κρασπέδου [tou kraspedou]: there were those who wished to avoid an unwanted inference about Jesus’ faithful Jewish observance. [Allison notes that according to Epiphanius, Marcion also removed the tassel reference from his gospel.] (Allison, p. 136)
Most Christians today would probably have a hard time picturing Jesus wearing tassels and scripture boxes like any other observant Jew. But the authors of the synoptic gospels evidently had no such qualms.
A minor agreement and some differences
Luke, by the way, also refers to the tassels on Jesus’ garment when telling the story of the woman with the hemorrhage problem. It’s one of those “minor agreements” Q scholars and Q skeptics talk about — a point at which Luke appears, however briefly, to be quoting Matthew verbatim. Assuming Markan priority, if Matthew copied Mark, but added or changed a bit here and there, then how do we explain Luke’s verbal agreement? Is it pure chance, or did the third evangelist actually know Matthew? I hope to return to this question in a later post.
Of particular interest is Matthew’s rewrite of the miracle’s sequence. In Mark, the healing force flows from Jesus to the woman like a static electric charge. The process does not require Jesus’ awareness; the power simply flows through him. But in Matthew, Jesus must train his attention upon her and intentionally heal her.
While Mark did not mention Jesus’ tassels in this story, he does talk about them at the end of chapter 6, wrapping up with:
And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe* of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. (Mark 6:56, ESV) *fringe = κρασπέδου (kraspedou) [Note once again that the NIV obscures this word by translating it as the “edge of his cloak.”]
A fulfillment of prophecy?
So why are the synoptic gospels relating this seemingly minor detail? Given the economy of words in all three gospels, especially in Matthew and Luke, and if we accept the idea that the later two evangelists tended to copy but shorten Mark’s pericopae, then we should rightly ask what purpose it served. We learn only the barest details concerning the people in these miracles. Matthew even omits the name of the little girl’s father, Jairus, from the story. Yet all three synoptics specifically mention tassels with respect to faith healings (Mark, albeit, in a later verse).
Allison suggests we may be dealing with a case of “exegetical amnesia”:
Too many of us today have a naïve faith that anything of real importance said once will be said again and so not forgotten. We presume that all the good interpretations and hypotheses have been passed down from book to book and from generation to generation and so on to us. But it is not so. (p. 133)
In this case, he’s talking about an interesting connection between Malachi 4:2 and the NT scripture about the “fringe” of Jesus’ clothing.
“But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. (NASB, emphasis mine)
(Yet again the NIV translators have taken it upon themselves to disregard the literal translation of “wings,” and replace it with “rays.”)
Allison describes a Greek text from around the fourth century CE, wrongly attributed to Epiphanius. We can see in this document that some Christians associated Malachi’s “sun of righteousness” with Jesus.
But there is almost certainly much more going on in Pseudo-Epiphanius. Matthew 9:20; 14:36; Mark 6:56; and Luke 8:44 recount that people touched precisely Jesus’ κράσπεδον [kraspedon]. As most exegetes now recognize, κράσπεδον [kraspedon] probably refers in these places precisely to one of the decorative fringes or tassels that, by edict of the Torah, Jews attached to the four corners of the rectangular outer cloaks they typically wore (Num. 15:37-41; Deut. 22:12). (p. 139, emphasis mine)
He then explains how the words in Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac became, apparently, interrelated and interchangeable. In fact, the Targum Onqelos even adopts the Greek word κράσπεδον [kraspedon], transliterated into Hebrew, for ציצת (tzitzit). And so the word for the extremity of a garment came to be associated with the edges of a bird’s wings.
Healing in his wings
With all of this in mind, we may return to the Testimony Book of Pseudo-Epiphanius. We are now in a position to understand why it connects Malachi’s prophecy about “wings” of “healing” with people touching Jesus’ tassels: those tassels were understood to be his “wings.” “The sun of righteousness” (= Jesus) literally had healing “in his wings,” that is, in his hanging fringes. (p. 140, emphasis mine)
We thus have a picture of Jesus with outstretched arms, tassels hanging from his cloak (perhaps his talit), healing the sick with the power emanating from them. Perhaps it’s a stretch to suppose that the author of Mark knew the tradition of Jesus’ talit and wished to deflect that tradition by inventing a plausible alternative. However, recall that Mark appears to have suppressed the reference to the fringe of Jesus’ garment in the complementary story.
So it’s possible Mark wished to place some distance between his Jesus and the traditional Jesus he inherited. His Jesus didn’t wail for Elijah. His messiah didn’t need magic words or special objects to heal people. If we’re correct, then we should view Mark’s gospel, with its “explanatory Aramaic” lightly sprinkled through the text, as a transition to Matthew and Luke. The later synoptic evangelists removed the Aramaic references, leaving only dim memories of a far more mystical Jewish Messiah.