Why does the Gospel of Mark occasionally portray Jesus saying something in a language other than the Greek in which it is written? I suggest here that there may be a very good literary-theological explanation. While I disagree with Dr Maurice Casey’s explanation, I am indebted to his discussion for drawing the question to my attention.
The passages in the Gospel of Mark, understood by probably most scholars to be the earliest of the canonical gospels, are usually transliterated in the English Bibles along with the author’s translation:
And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. (Mark 5:41)
Then, looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” (Mark 7:34)
And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me . . . (Mark 14:36)
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
According to Dr Maurice Casey, author of Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel of Mark attributes the first and last of the above Aramaic sayings to Jesus because these were the literal words he historically used.
(The Wikipedia entry for Casey was created by someone using the name “Ari89”, whom I noticed up to earlier this year assumed an active task of editing Wikipedia articles dealing with Christ mythicism and some of its adherents in far from neutral manner: negative information allowed even if it violates Wikipedia policies, positive information routinely deleted.)
J. Quinton posted a most interesting observation explaining Mark’s attribution of Abba in Jesus’ prayer, linking it to the Barabbas scene, so I won’t repeat that here.
So I focus on the other phrases. Though two are commands in healing scenes and the other a cry of dereliction quoting a Psalm at death, I suspect the author was expecting his readers to draw links between them.
To begin, the trick of dropping strange words into a narrative was well known as far back as Aristotle (fourth century b.c.e) who explained its effect:
A diction that is made up of strange (or rare) terms is a jargon. A certain infusion, therefore, of these elements is necessary to style; for the strange (or rare) word, the metaphorical, the ornamental, and the other kinds above mentioned, will raise it above the commonplace and mean . . . (Poetics, XXII)
In the same passage Aristotle is also discussing the use of riddles and metaphors — something for which the author of the Gospel of Mark is well known. Some scholars think his entire gospel is written as a riddle or parable. Other literary qualities discussed by Aristotle similarly characterize Mark’s gospel. Joseph Wallack has listed many of these here.
Dr Maurice Casey acknowledges this literary reason for the inclusion of these Aramaic words:
It is much more likely that we have one of the many translators who leave occasional words in the original language for dramatic effect . . . . (p. 64 of Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel)
Where I question Casey here is his adding addition of a more complex hypothesis to the literary explanation. If the author was wanting to create a rhetorical impact, then it is simpler to assume that he created the Aramaic expressions for that purpose, than to construct the scenario that he was copying from another text that was written in Aramaic (the existence for which we have no evidence) and that “Mark” opted to leave some words untranslated for effect. Casey faults what he sees as convoluted explanations of others, but I think here his own explanation is unnecessarily complex and convoluted.
Mark usually quotes words of Jesus when he performs a miracle or exorcism, but only twice in Aramaic:
Jesus rebuked him, saying, Come out of him! (1:25)
[Jesus] said to him, I am willing; be cleansed (1:41)
I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go your way to your way to your house (2:11)
Then he arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” (4:39)
And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. (5:41)
Then, looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” (7:34)
[Jesus] rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to him, “You deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him, and enter him no more.” (9:25)
Then Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” (10:52)
In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one ever eat fruit from you ever again.” (11:14)
I have read some suggestions that the Aramaic words used in connection with healing miracles is designed to add the sound of something of a magical or exotic formula that conveys the sorcerer’s or shaman’s powers. This explanation still leaves us with the question of why only we find such words in connection with only these two miracles.
How plausible is it to suggest that the foreign (non-Greek) words are there also to place special emphasis on the central theme of the Gospel itself?
Do not the words draw a hearer’s attention to mystery of Death of Resurrection and the need for Spiritual Understanding?
The first time an Aramaic phrase is used, no doubt with the intention of prompting the hearer/reader with a special and memorable sound, it is to command a resurrection from the dead. The father of the girl being resurrected is named “Enlightened” or “Awakened” — the meaning of the name Jairus. This has an obvious link with the idea of being awakened out of sleep, and Jesus had made a fool of himself in the eyes of onlookers when he declared that the girl they all knew was dead was only sleeping.
For Jesus, death is a sleep from which we only need to be awakened.
Mark regularly has Jesus speaking in parables (“But without a parable spake he not unto them” – Mark 4:34) and “enlightenment” is a spiritual insight that is necessary to understand them. The disciples in Mark are regularly depicted as having “hardened hearts” and “failing to understand”.
And he said unto them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (4:13)
For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened. (6:52)
And Jesus being aware of it, said to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? . . . “How is it you do not understand?” (8:17-18, 21)
Even when Peter understands Jesus is the Christ, he still fails to understand what that means and Jesus still calls him Satan (Mark 8:33)! The demons, after all, can even recognize that Jesus is the Christ.
Mark also uses a miracle of healing of a blind as a symbol of the increasing enlightenment (or redoubled vain efforts to initiate enlightenment) among the disciples. So after Jesus performed twice a miracle of feeding of thousands in a wilderness (first of 5000 – ch.6, then of 4000 – ch.8) with the disciples as uncomprehending at the end as at the beginning, Mark has Jesus tellingly heal a blind man in two stages:
And when he had spat on his eyes and put his hands on him, he asked him if he saw anything. And he looked up and said, “I see men like trees walking.”
Then he put his ands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly. (Mark 8:23-25)
The symbolic intent of this two-stage miracle, coming after the two miracles of the loaves that leave the disciples as blind as ever, seems to me so obvious that I cannot help but wonder why some scholars insist on speaking of this healing miracle as somehow belonging to a primitive tradition that preserved a memory of Jesus using magico-medical hocus pocus of the day (spitting and touching), and acknowledging the human limitations of his powers! Oh dear! As if modern scholars can really think that a bit of spit and touch really can restore eyesight! As if modern scholars cannot bring themselves to read the Gospel first and foremost for what it most obviously is: a piece of literature. If it’s literature, then look for the usual literary tricks that have been with us since the days of Aristotle and even earlier! Even anthropologists know that metaphor and double-meanings are universally inherent across the human species.
But rather than read Mark as literature and interpret it first and foremost as literature, some scholars insist on declaring any “literary interpretation” belongs in the classes on poetry or such, while historians need not trouble them with the actual (literary) nature of the evidence and rush headlong in assuming that the narrative is drawing on traditions passed down from a real historical eyewitness of a genuine event. There is no evidence to justify the addition of such imaginary scenarios, but the imagination is necessary to fill in the gaps left by faith that the text is based on history. I prefer to apply Occam’s razor where I can, and it is surely simplest to see a literary pattern as a conscious artistic creation of an author.
Anyone still not convinced that the miracles of Jesus – and the miracle of healing/raising of Jairus’ daughter in particular – are literary creations, might like to read Michael Turton’s commentary. His discussion of the raising of Jairus’ daughter is here.
If Jairus, the father of the girl raised from the dead, means “Enlightened/Awakened”, and a central theme of that miracle was the blindness of all who knew the one raised (apart from Jesus and his three inner disciples), then are we being overly observant to wonder if the next foreign word that is used means “Be Opened”, or “See” — Ephphatha?
Is not “Mark” or the author of the Gospel drawing special attention to the need for readers to Understand, See, Be Enlightened, Awakened — the very message that Jesus was at pains to try to teach repeatedly to his disciples?
But coming to the final Aramaic passage, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, we are at the point of Jesus’ death. Not only his death, but face to face with the meaning of his death: a desertion by God himself as he is left “hanging on a tree” to “be made sin” for us all.
It may be an entirely subjective judgement to interpret the three “Aristotelian jargon” terms, the three jarring Aramaic phrases in a Greek text, as pointing directly to three key concepts that are the entire point, the central message, of the Gospel itself:
Resurrection from Death, and Seeing or Understanding the meaning and reality of this.
But maybe not.
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