2020-03-11

A Semitic Original for the Gospels of Mark and Matthew?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Jean Carmignac

I don’t know if the Gospel of Mark did begin its life as a Hebrew text but in the light of the previous post it is necessary to share some of the reasons a few scholars (or at least Jean Carmignac : see also Wayback Machine) have thought it did.

Chapter three of The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels sets out the history of research into semitisms in the gospels and discusses in some detail nine types of them.

  1. Semitisms of Borrowing
  2. Semitisms of Imitation
  3. Semitisms of Thought
  4. Semitisms of Vocabulary
  5. Semitisms of Syntax
  6. Semitisms of Style
  7. Semitisms of Composition
  8. Semitisms of Transmission
  9. Semitisms of Translation

I’ll post here a few of the parts in #7, Semitisms of Composition. Carmignac suggests that there are numerous turns of phrase in our Greek gospels that would not exist in our Greek texts unless they had been translated from a Semitic or Hebrew language original.

Crying in the wilderness

After its title: Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God, the Gospel of Mark begins in the following fashion:

As it is written in the Prophet Isaiah “Behold I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

20. The word “and” is not found in all the manuscripts, and one has good reason for thinking that it does not any longer figure in the primitive Greek text.

There was John baptizing in the desert (and)20 preaching (Mark 1:1-4).

How did this citation from Isaiah (which combines Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1 in a form other than is found in the Septuagint, and Isaiah 40:3) come about? (p. 27)

Carmignac finds a simple answer to his question. Isaiah 40:3 begins with “voice crying in the wilderness”:

קול qôl voice
קורא qôré’ crying
במדבר bemidbâr in the wilderness
22. The initial syllable we corresponds to the conjunction “and ” present in certain Greek manuscripts but not in all.
23. The pesher consists in describing a present situation in the terms of a passage from the Old Testament.

. . . . and if Mark 1:4, is retranslated into Hebrew, we obtain the following: wayyehî Yôhânân matbtîl bemidbâr (we) qôré.22

The words bemidbâr (in the wilderness) and qôré’ (crying or preaching) are taken from Isaiah and applied to John the Baptist according to the process which is known as pesher, such as it was practiced at the time at Qumran (and elsewhere).23

The pesher only works in Hebrew, not with the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah. In the Greek text of Mark 1:4 a different word is used for John’s crying or preaching (κηρύσσων / kérussôn) whereas the Greek text of Isaiah 40:3 used “bôontos“. 

In order that the pesher be noticed in English, it would be necessary to use the verb proclaim twice: from Isaiah, the voice proclaiming in the desert and from Mark, in the desert proclaiming a baptism of conversion.) Thus the citation from Isaiah only agrees with the account of Mark in Hebrew, but not in Greek in which its meaning disappears. (p. 27)

Forgive us our debts

29. This root nâshâh does not exist in Aramaic and therefore this triple play on words is not possible in this language.
30. This play on words has already been tracked down by Theodor Buchmann (= Bibliander) in 1548. See my book: Recherches sur le Notre Père (Letouzey, Paris, 1969), p. 223, and my article: “Hebrew Translations of the Lord’s Prayer: an Historical Survey,” in Biblical and Near Eastern Studies, Essays in Honor of W. S. LaSor, ed. G. Tuttle (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1978), pp. 32-33

As we will see in several examples, Hebrew has a great preference for plays on words and it takes great pleasure in making reference to similar sounds, which facilitate the task of memorization. Another typical case is hidden in the Our Father (Mt 6:12-13), in which the word forgive corresponds to the root nâsâ,’ debts and debtors to nâshâh,29 and temptation to nasah.30 Is this yet another case of mere chance? Isn’t it reasonable to think that these words have been chosen by design in order to produce a sort of internal rhyme? (p. 28)

Send with power to cast out

Another triple play on words exists in Mark 3:14-15: (Jesus) sends (the apostles) to preach and to have power to cast out devils: to send translates the verb shâlah, to have power the verb shâlat, and to cast out the verb shâlak. Is this once again a matter of chance? And these three verbs are even placed in alphabetical order (het, tet . . . kaf). (pp. 28f)

With the wild beasts

Why does Mark 1:13 which treats so curtly the temptation and the sojourn of Christ in the desert, specify that Jesus was with the wild beasts? Wouldn’t this be because of the excellent play on words wehâyâh im hahayyâh? (p. 29)

Turning stones into children of Abraham

And why do Matthew (3:9) and Luke (3:8), when they want to show the power of God, speak of changing stones into children of Abraham? Many commentators have already remarked, that if they choose this example it is because rocks are known as ‘abânîm, and children: bânîm. (p. 29)

Sitting and reflecting

In Mark 2:6 the scribes are sitting and reflecting: yôshebîm wehôshebîm. (p. 29)

The afflicted touch Jesus

In Mark 3:10 those who seek to touch (nâga’) Jesus are not the sick but those who had all types of afflictions (nèga’). (p. 29)

After the sun rose

In Mark 4:6 and Matthew 13:6, mention of the sun is not that important (actually Luke 8:6 suppresses it) but sun (shèmèsh) is phonetically linked to the word root (shôrèsh). (p. 29)

How much bread do you have?

In Mark 6:38 Jesus says to them (lâhèm): how much bread (lèhèm) do you have (lâkèm)? Go . . . (lekou). (p. 29)

Foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth

In Mark 9:18 the possessed foams at the mouth (weyâraq) and grinds his teeth (wehâraq). (p. 29)

Mocked and spat upon

In Mark 10:34 Jesus predicts that he will be mocked (wesâhaqû bo) and will be spat upon (weyâreqû bo). (p. 29)

Tables of the money-changers

In Mark 11:15 and Matthew 21:12 the money changers tables are mentioned, because tables is signified by the word shûlehânôt and changers: shûlehânîm. (p. 29)

Earthquakes and famines

In Mark 13:8, Matthew 24:7 and Luke 21:11 Jesus predicts earthquakes (ra’âshim) and famines (ra’âbîm). (pp. 29f)

High priests listened and were delighted

In Mark 14:11, the high priests listened (wayyishme‘u) and were delighted (wayyismehû). (p. 30)

Disciples leave and find

In Mark 14:16, the two disciples leave (wayyese’û) . . . and find (wayyimse’û). (p. 30)

Sleep and take your rest

In Mark 14:41 and Matthew 26:45, sleep and take your rest, according to the Hebrew translation of the New Testament done by Delitzsch supposes nûmû wenûhû. (p. 30)

Blindfolded and hit him

In Mark 14:65 to blindfold (the face) and to hit correspond to the roots sâtar and sâṭar, and perhaps to the very same causative form. (p. 30)

They saw and feared

In Matthew 9:8 the words they saw (wayyir’û) and they feared (wayyîr’û) are closely associated; the same coincidence is to be found in Matthew 14:30 and 27:54 and Mark 5:15 and in John 6:19, but nowhere else in the New Testament, and therefore never in works certainly written in Greek; on the other hand, it is found sixteen times in the Old Testament. (p. 30)

How much left to chance?

Certainly, one or another of these translations back could be questioned and one or another of them could be said to be a result of chance. But, can all of them be absolutely taken exception to and all of them be said to be possible results of chance? If not, we should admit the conclusive value of such Semitisms of composition since the words have been chosen in Hebrew precisely in order to show forth their assonance, which disappears in Greek as in English. (p. 30)

Carmignac has a statement on the back cover of his book explaining its purpose:

Why did I write this book?

Actually the Dead Sea Scrolls inspired this book.

They accustomed me to the Hebrew in use at the time of Christ and, quite easily, I came to recognize in the Greek of the Gospel of St. Mark as though in transparency, this same Hebraic language, which was simply carbon copied in Greek. 

But this intuition could be false and misleading; it was therefore necessary to verify it scientifically. 

Technical investigations have resulted in some proofs which seem decisive and which have an equal bearing on the Gospel of Matthew and the documents used by St. Luke.

But then the consequences of these verifications go much further: The Gospels therefore have been redacted earlier than is customarily claimed. They are much closer to the events. They have a historical value of prime importance. They contain the witnesses of disciples who followed and listened to Jesus.

These scientific arguments should prove reassuring to Christians and attract the attention and interest of nonbelievers.

But they overturn theories presently in vogue and therefore they will be fiercely criticized.

In order to present only irrefutable proofs to the public at large, I have, over the last twenty years, been pursuing very minute and meticulous investigations, which will be set forth in a number of technical volumes.

Nevertheless, I was asked to keep in mind not only specialists but to introduce the present results of these twenty years of work to the public at large.

That is why I wrote this little book which is only a preliminary glance kept as simple as possible and devoid of complicated discussions.

It is merely the detailing of some key proofs and of their logical results. It in no way seeks to refute those who hold different theories.

It is up to the reader to compare the arguments and to judge which are the most scientific.

Jean Carmignac

One can discount the conclusion that a Hebrew origin brings us closer to Jesus but it does make a difference to assigning date ranges to the appearances and developments of the gospels. What were those “memoirs of the apostles” we find mentioned in Justin’s writings of the mid-second century? Does this hypothesis give support to the Tubingen school who pushed our canonical forms of the synoptic gospels into the latter half of the second century?

Some other sites addressing Carmignac’s ideas:


Carmignac, Jean. 1987. Birth of the Synoptic Gospels. Translated by Michael J. Wrenn. Chicago, Ill: Franciscan Pr.


 

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

11 Comments

  • Peter Grullemans
    2020-03-11 02:11:03 GMT+0000 - 02:11 | Permalink

    One of the best works I’ve read on the Hebrew origins of the gospels was John Spong’s “Liberating the Gospels”. However I think that the evidence of such origins must be examined with the skeptical view that a high concentration of Hebrew flavour may have been injected into them by those who concocted them, to appeal to and convince Jewish readers of their truth.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2020-03-11 03:01:20 GMT+0000 - 03:01 | Permalink

      On the other hand, one may posit that the fact that the Jewish touches (liturgical calendar per Spong/Goulder and semiticisms per Carmignac) have been lost from general view as early as the second-century commentators suggests that they were original and hidden to reach a less Jewish audience.

  • 2020-03-11 04:11:01 GMT+0000 - 04:11 | Permalink

    This is a very interesting post. I think that some of these examples are by an editor of GMark (see below the double line). But some are not obviously by an editor and therefore are probably by Mark.

    How do I explain the “probably by Mark” examples? My inductive reconstruction of Mark’s life-situation placed him in a congregation in Rome that was proudly Judean-identified. As a rich and prominent congregation, it would have attracted the most capable Judeans in Rome who did not want to submit to Pharisaic rules, and who were not temperamentally gnostics. The Roman congregation’s solid orthodoxy through the second century could only come from this identification. In a nutshell, 1 Clement is a representative text of the congregation; the Gospel of Mark is not.

    We can assume that some of the congregation menbers, including Mark and his editor(s), were bilingual in Greek and Aramaic (and/or Hebrew).

    Was Mark thinking in Aramaic, then translating into Greek? One possibility is that he first wrote the entire Gospel text in Aramaic, then translated it into Greek. That seems strange, but that’s what Josephus did for The Jewish War. Perhaps Mark originally wrote two texts, one in Aramaic or Hebrew, the other in Greek. Another possibility is that when Mark was writing the play, in some situations common Aramaic expressions or word pairs came first to his mind, and he translated these familiar phrases into Greek.

    Both these possibilities seem far-fetched, but if Mark’s editor and Matthew (“Our Father (Mt 6:12-13), in which the word forgive corresponds to the root nâsâ,’ debts and debtors to nâshâh and temptation to nasah”) also translated Aramaic word pairs while writing in Greek, we’re not just talking about Mark. I think we have to ask what bilingual people do with common phrases and expressions from their first language when they don’t know a good equivalent in their second language.I think that that is how we should investigate the original “Semitisms” in Mark’s Greek text.

    Here are my opinions on the examples from GMark cited in this Vridar post:

    Send with power to cast out (Mark 3:14-15): line is by an editor

    With the wild beasts (Mark 1:13) line is by an editor

    Sitting and reflecting (scribes) (Mark 2:6): the scribes are sitting and reflecting: yôshebîm wehôshebîm. (p. 29). Probably by Mark

    The afflicted touch Jesus (Mark 3:10): those who seek to touch (nâga’) Jesus are not the sick but those who had all types of afflictions (nèga’). Probably by Mark

    How much bread do you have? (Mark 6:38): entire scene is by an editor

    Foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth (Mark 9:18) the possessed foams at the mouth (weyâraq) and grinds his teeth (wehâraq). Probably by Mark

    Mocked and spat upon (Mark 10:34) Jesus predicts that he will be mocked (wesâhaqû bo) and will be spat upon (weyâreqû bo). Probably by Mark

    Tables of the money-changers: In Mark 11:15 and Matthew 21:12 the money changers tables are mentioned, because tables is signified by the word shûlehânôt and changers: shûlehânîm. In my opinion, a coincidence.

    Earthquakes and famines: In Mark 13:8, Matthew 24:7 and Luke 21:11 Jesus predicts earthquakes (ra’âshim) and famines (ra’âbîm). In my opinion, only “earthquakes” is original.

    High priests listened and were delighted (Mark 14:11). The high priests listened (wayyishme‘u) and were delighted (wayyismehû). Probably by Mark

    Disciples leave and find (Mark 14:16). the two disciples leave (wayyese’û) . . . and find (wayyimse’û). Probably by Mark.

    Sleep and take your rest (Mark 14:41 and Matthew 26:45), sleep and take your rest, according to the Hebrew translation of the New Testament done by Delitzsch supposes nûmû wenûhû. Probably by Mark

    Blindfolded and hit him (Mark 14:65) to blindfold (the face) and to hit correspond to the roots sâtar and sâṭar, and perhaps to the very same causative form. Probably by Mark

    They saw and feared. In Matthew 9:8 the words they saw (wayyir’û) and they feared (wayyîr’û) are closely associated; the same coincidence is to be found in Matthew 14:30 and 27:54 and Mark 5:15 and in John 6:19, but nowhere else in the New Testament, and therefore never in works certainly written in Greek; on the other hand, it is found sixteen times in the Old Testament. Probably by Mark.

  • 2020-03-11 11:04:38 GMT+0000 - 11:04 | Permalink

    Something like this is impossible to assess without assess the counterpoints. How many similar types of word plays exist only in Greek? How many things are explaining with Greek references. For example, this one stuck out to me, “changing stones into children of Abraham”.

    This seems to me to relate to the Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the parents of Hellen, who after the flood, repopulated the earth by casting stones over their shoulders that turned into people. Hellen is equated to Abraham, and Deucalion was equated to Noah. In the Greek story Deucalion is told of the flood and told to build a boat to survive the flood. Deucalion gives birth to Hellen who become the father of the Greek people. In the Jewish story Noah is told of the flood and told to build a boat to survive it and Abraham is a descendant of Noah who is the father of the Jewish people.

    So anyway, this business of changing stones into children of Abraham seems to me to relate to these myths. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. The point is, you can’t only look at interpretations through one lens.

    And also what is the case against the author of Mark having been fluent in Hebrew, but himself have written in Greek? It seems highly likely that the author would have himself known both languages, and would have known the scriptures in Hebrew. But once we see that the Gospel of Mark surely contains references to both the Jewish scriptures and to the letters of Paul it is apparent that the author had to have known Greek in order to have works with the Pauline letters. So certainly many of these word plays can come from the authors own knowledge of Hebrew, which he himself is translating into Greek.

    But there are also other instances in the Gospel of Mark where the word choices seem to have been influences by the Septuagint as well, those also have to be accounted for.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2020-03-11 11:47:57 GMT+0000 - 11:47 | Permalink

      Reasonable questions but keep in mind I will be posting further on Carmignac’s views which will address some of the points raised.

  • Peter Grullemans
    2020-03-11 13:21:03 GMT+0000 - 13:21 | Permalink

    Who actually is this Mark ? It’s just a name, ascribed to a particular gospel. Who knows whether it was written by a person or if a committee compiled and published it. Could it not have evolved through various redactions that were lost or destroyed even before it was canonised ? The “according to” in the titles of the gospels may simply have been styled to impress the target readers. Given that it is full of magic and absurdities I don’t take all the detailed analysis of who may have written and edited which parts so seriously; rather I am interested in the big picture of why it was written.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2020-03-11 23:05:48 GMT+0000 - 23:05 | Permalink

      The name of the individual, Mark, is just a convenient shorthand for “author” and/or “redactor” — we don’t know the identities of these persons or whether they were part of a “committee” or “school”. The questions being explored are attempts to discover the answers to the big question on your mind — why was it written: and that involves trying to discern who it was written for, and when, …. and evidence that the original form of the gospel was in Hebrew does have a significant impact on that question, as does the amount of change the gospel went through before it was canonized. These are details, but they help us focus towards the big questions you are asking.

  • john dauria
    2020-03-13 12:48:10 GMT+0000 - 12:48 | Permalink

    I think the picture is of the financier, not the cleric….

    • Neil Godfrey
      2020-03-13 22:36:44 GMT+0000 - 22:36 | Permalink

      Thank you. Fixed now. (I was stupid enough to post it when overly tired and careless.)

  • Pingback: Hebrew Hypothesis for Synoptic Gospels Continued |

  • Steven C Watson
    2020-03-23 01:01:19 GMT+0000 - 01:01 | Permalink

    IF G.Mk is the exoteric myth, or if it is the theogeny, of a mystery cult, you would expect obfuscation and mystification. The author(s) and/or editor(s)/redactor(s) would want to distract outsiders. Only another stage magician can see through the stage magician’s distractions to explain the trick. It is still working. While we sqabble about language games, the corpse gets stolen again. 🙂

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.