Tag Archives: Aramaic

“Arise to my talit” — Rethinking Aramaisms in Mark

Jewish man, wearing a prayer shawl (talit), wrapping his arm in phylactery.

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.

“Be opened!”

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:

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Casey’s Hammer: How Monomania Distorts Scholarship (Part 2)

A screen shot from the introduction to Zero Wi...

A screen shot from the introduction to Zero Wing on the Mega Drive featuring the infamous phrase, “All your base are belong to us” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All your Aramaic are belong to us

In an earlier post, we introduced the subject of Maurice Casey’s Aramaic monomania. His affliction led him not only to claim that he has revealed the original language behind significant parts of the New Testament but to insist that he has discovered the actual words of Jesus.

Casey directs our attention to particular sections of Mark’s gospel and the Matthean-Lukan double tradition (Q) as alleged examples of “interference” at work.

Some features of Mark’s Greek are characteristic of the work of bilinguals. For example, at Mark 9.43, 45, 47 we read καλόν [kalon] where a monoglot Greek-speaker would use a comparative. Aramaic has no comparative, so the use of καλόν [kalon] is due to interference in someone who was used to saying טב [tav]. (Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel, p. 85., emphasis mine)

Other signs of interference include the use of certain words. For example, in the Lord’s prayer we are to ask God to forgive τὰ ὀφειλήματα [ta opheilēmata] (Matt. 6.12), literally our ‘debts’, but a metaphor for our ‘sins’, so a literal translation of the Aramaic חובינא [kobena]. (An Aramaic Approach to Q, p. 55, emphasis mine)

Accordingly, Mark did not mean that Jesus was angry. He was suffering from interference, the influence of one of his languages on another. All bilinguals suffer from interference, especially when they are translating, because the word which causes the interference is in the text which they are translating. (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 63, emphasis mine, incoherence Casey’s)

A correct understanding of interference is essential if we are to understand our Gospel translators, and consequently essential if we are to have any confidence in our Aramaic reconstructions. (An Aramaic Approach to Qp. 55, emphasis mine)

What does Casey mean by “interference”?

Since Casey’s argument depends heavily on the concept of interference, you might think he would have defined the term for his readers. You would probably also expect that if he believes bilinguals have more interference when translating than when composing, he would back that idea up with research.

But as usual, Casey disappoints. He gives examples of interference, but he fails to define the term. That’s a shame, since the literature surrounding this idea is vast and fascinating, with no shortage of scholarly contention. So before we go any further we need to rectify this situation.

The term interference is now somewhat out of favor. In the literature we see several alternatives, including:

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Casey’s Hammer: How Monomania Distorts Scholarship (Part 1)

What’s in a name?

And because of my father, between the ages 7 through 15, I thought my name was “Jesus Christ.” He’d say, “JESUS CHRIST!” And my brother, Russell, thought his name was “Dammit.” “‘Dammit, will you stop all that noise?! And Jesus Christ, SIT DOWN!” So one day I’m out playing in the rain. My father said “Dammit, will you get in here?!” I said, “Dad, I’m Jesus Christ!” 

–Bill Cosby

In his new book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? (which Jim West with no trace of irony calls “excellent”), Maurice Casey makes it abundantly clear that Neil and I should get off his lawn. We should also slow down and, for heaven’s sake, turn out the lights when leaving a room.

Maurice Casey: Old Yeller

Since my chief purpose here is not to make fun of such a charming and erudite scholar as Dr. Casey, I’ll say just one thing about the shameful way a famous scholar lashes out at amateurs on the web. Lest any reader out there get the wrong idea, my first name is not Blogger. Same for Neil.

Old Man Yells at Cloud

Old Man Yells at Cloud

I will instead, at least for now, ignore the embarrassing, yelling-at-cloud parts of this dismal little book and focus on Mo’s evidence for the historical Jesus.

If I had a hammer

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

–Abraham Maslow

Casey, you will recall, has written several books on biblical studies. He’s justly recognized as an expert in the Aramaic language. In fact, he is probably the foremost living expert on Aramaic, especially with respect to its historical roots, its evolution, its variants, and its use in first-century Palestine. I own most of his books on the subject, and although I disagree with many of his dogmatic conclusions, his basic research is thorough and generally reliable.

The problem I have with Casey is that his prodigious knowledge of Aramaic causes him to see everything in the New Testament from that perspective. He frequently reminds me of Catherwood in the Firesign Theatre’s “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” who, upon returning from the past in his time machine, shouts:

I’m back! It’s a success! I have proof I’ve been to ancient Greece! Look at this grape!

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