The arguments are not widely known so I am setting them out in a series of posts so we can at least begin to ask questions and think about them and have some idea of what questions to raise with specialist scholars. (All posts in this series are archived under the Carmingnac: Birth of the Synoptic Gospels tag.)
As pointed out recently, Jean Carmignac observes nine different types of Semitisms. That same post looked at many of the Semitisms in the #7 type that he believed to be significant for his hypothesis.
- Semitisms of Borrowing
- Semitisms of Imitation
- Semitisms of Thought
- Semitisms of Vocabulary
- Semitisms of Syntax
- Semitisms of Style
- Semitisms of Composition
- Semitisms of Transmission
- Semitisms of Translation
Here is what Carmignac says of the others (with my bolded highlighting):
1. Of Borrowing
e.g. In the Greek gospels we find words like amen, abba, alleluia, and words that transcribe Semitic expressions like messiah, sabbath, pasch, etc.
In themselves, these borrowed words prove nothing, since anyone can quote a few words from a foreign language . . . (p. 21)
2. Of Imitation
Specifically, thinking here of the authors of the gospels imitating the Greek Septuagint even where it translates obvious Semitic turns of phrase:
Each time that a turn of phrase in the New Testament reproduces a turn of phrase from the Septuagint, we will consider it as a possible imitation and, therefore, we will no longer attach any conclusive value to it. (p. 22)
3. Of Thought
Instead of a simple he came, he spoke, he saw, a Semitic phrase would appear as he got up and he came, he opened his mouth and he spoke, he raised his eyes and he saw.…
Quoting Joseph Viteau,
“One of the most characteristic marks of the language of the New Testament consists of a total inability to combine, synthesize, subordinate the various elements of thought, and, consequently, construct periodic sentences such as those which the literary language of classical authors presents. To this repugnance or to this inability corresponds a very noticeable tendency to dissociate the elements of thought in order to express them separately. . . . This characteristic of the Greek of the New Testament is to be found constantly in the general structure of the language. . . . Thus there has taken place what we refer to as the dissociation of the Greek language. For the Jew, it was an absence of association and of subordination, as in his own language. For the Greek it was a dissociation of his language as he wrote it himself.”
[T]his particular type of Semitism might be able to serve to determine the original milieu of an author, but it would not serve to determine the original language of a work. (p. 23)
4. Of Vocabulary
Instead of saying citizen of the kingdom, invited to the banquet, condemned to Hell, man of good will, slave of the world, servant of the good, candidate for the resurrection, agent of evil, opposed to the Faith, one will say son of the kingdom (Mt 8:12; 13:38); son of the banquet (Mt 9:15; Mk 2:19; Lk 5:34); son of Gehenna (Mt 23:15); son of peace (Lk 10:6); son of this world (Lk 16:8; 20, 34); son of light (Lk 16:8; Jn 12:36; 1 Thes 5:5); son of the resurrection (Lk 20:36); son of perdition (Jn 17:12; 2 Thes 2:3); son of disbelief (Eph 2:2; 5:6; Col 3:6) and the excessively bubbling zeal of James and of John earns for them the surname sons of thunder (Mk 3:17).
[T]hese Semitisms ought not to be taken into account for they are vestiges of the language which is most familiar to the author not the proof that he actually used this language in the redaction of the work in question. (pp. 23f)
5. Of Syntax
Since syntax is the customary rule which governs the relationships of words among themselves, it supposes a deep knowledge of each language. The correct use of verbs, of prepositions, of conjunctions, of various complements (objects of verbs) is so complicated that it calls for and needs a very long period of practice in order to avoid committing a particular mistake, especially when the languages reflect psychologies as different as the Semitic psychology and the Greek psychology. An example which is quite simple: to say at the house of the king, the Hebrew (and in certain cases the Aramaic) suppresses the article before the first noun and always says at house of the king. A Semite who speaks Greek will therefore have the tendency to omit the article in this case and to preserve his familiar turn of phrase as we certainly meet many times in the New Testament. Another similar simple example: the verbs to say or to speak take the preposition which corresponds quite well to the Greek form, while in Hebrew (but not in Aramaic) they also take the preposition toward: and it is for that reason that we so often find in the Gospels, especially in Luke: to say toward someone or to speak toward someone. (p. 24)
In theory, they prove nothing about the original language since we can always suppose that the redactors of the Gospels underwent the influence of their mother tongue. However, when these mistakes in syntax go beyond that which is probable—even in the case of a writer who is not well acquainted with a language—we are led to suppose that they derive from a translator who was too slavish in his task, desiring to carbon copy, to the least detail . . . (p. 24)
6. Of Style
Semitic prose is much more akin to the oral style than Greek prose, which is much more elaborate. It does not seek to construct sentences but more often is content with laying out several clauses joined together by a simple and. Monotony is no deterrent, whereas in Greek there is a tendency to seek variety. Moreover, it does not avoid the repetition of several words of the same root since these redundancies facilitate memory and provide more emphasis for the reciters of these accounts: the sower went out to sow his seed and while he was sowing . . . (Lk 8:5); I have desired with desire (Lk 22:15); they feared with a great fear (Mk 4:41; Lk 2:9); they rejoiced with a great joy (Mt 3:10).
But once again, no valid argument can be derived from these customary habits of style for a Semite could preserve them, even when he was expressing himself in Greek. . . .
We enter different territory when it comes to poetry, however, and here Carmignac writes
If the poems of the Gospels had been composed in Greek, they would have had to depend upon the laws of Greek poetry; but this is clearly not the case. The Benedictus, the Magnificat, the Our Father, the Prologue of John, the Priestly Prayer of John 17 do not respect any of these laws of Greek poetry; rather they are constructed according to the rules of Hebrew poetry. (p. 25)
There is another point, however.
In Hebrew, there is great preference shown for beginning a work or introducing a new development by wayyeht (and it came about); then follows an indication of time, which is generally an infinitive introduced by the preposition in (= in the doing of it, that is to say, while he was doing)’, the sentence is then continued by another verb, usually preceded by and. This turn of phrase is found almost 300 times in the Old Testament. The Septuagint then translates literally kai egeneto en tô (= and it happened in the doing), then it usually expresses the indication of time by an infinitive followed by its subject and by its objects, then it continues the sentence by kai [and) followed by another verb in the indicative. The result is as bizarre in Greek as it is in English: and it happened in the doing of it (this or that) and (such a person) said. . . . This barbaric turn of phrase is never found in the works of the New Testament which have certainly been composed in Greek: the second part of Acts,18 the Epistles and even the Apocalypse, but it is found twice in Mark, six times in Matthew and thirty-two times in Luke.
However, since this turn of phrase exists in the Septuagint, let us agree not to insist upon it and concede that it could have been inspired by a desire to imitate the Septuagint. (p. 26)
7. Of Composition
8. Of Transmission
Mistakes are bound to happen when reading early Hebrew given that vowels are not represented in the text and several consonants are easily confused with one another.
Some indications of confusion concerning a Hebrew original:
In Mark 1:7 and Luke 3:16, John the Baptist says: I am not worthy to unfasten (lâshèlèt) the strap of his sandals, but according to Matthew 3:11 he says: I am not worthy to carry (lâs’ét) his sandals. . . .
Matthew 13:32 and Luke 13:19 say that the grain of mustard becomes a tree, which is a definite exaggeration, for this plant hardly exceeds a meter and a half or two meters. Mark 4:32, on the contrary, says that it has branches that are so great that birds nest there. All would be explained if Mark, who seems to be inspired by Ezekiel 17:23, had rendered ‘NP (pronounce ‘anâph) branch, as in Ezekiel, and if a copyist prior to Matthew and to Luke had read ‘S (pronounce ‘ès) tree, since in the style of calligraphy in Qumran, the letters N and P, if they come together and touch one another, resemble the letter Ṣ. (p. 31)
Does Jesus begin to teach or begin to show?
In Mark 8:31 Jesus begins to teach (LHWRWT = lehôrôt) and in Matthew 16:21 he begins to show (LHR’WT = lehar’ôt). The two words are very easily confused with each other since, according to the style of calligraphy, in Qumran, the first could lose a W and the second its ’ so that each one would end up looking like LHRWT. (p. 31)
Did Jesus pass through the villages or the region of Caesarea Philippi?
Mark 8:27 says that Jesus passed through the villages of Caesarea Philippi and Matthew 16:13 the regions of Caesarea Philippi. The general meaning is the same, but the passage from one word to the other could have been brought about by the resemblance between QRYWT = qiryôt: villages and QSWWT = qesawwôt: regions, since Y and W are written almost in the same way. (p. 32)
Go to hell or be thrown into hell?
Mark 9:43 and Matthew 18:8 conclude a similar recommendation, one with the verb to go and the other with the verb to be thrown, that is to say by WHLKTH OR WHSLKTH, with only one letter difference.
Let no-one ever eat the fruit of the cursed fig tree or let the fig-tree never produce fruit:
Mark 11:14 speaks of eating of the fruit = YWKL (according to the spelling of Qumran) and Matthew 21:19 to produce fruit YWBL: as the letters B and K resemble each other so greatly, the possibility for confusion is very likely.
When evening came Jesus went out of the city, or when he left them he went out of the city?
Mark 11:19 when it was the evening and Matthew 21:17 leaving them seem not to have any connection but WY’RWB and WY’ZWB are only distinguished by a little mark forming the top of resh (= R).
Bring me a denarius or show me a coin?
In Mark 12:15 Jesus says: bring me a denarius and in Matthew 22:19: show me a coin, but one corresponds to HBY’W (which can also be written without Y) for HB’W and the other HR’W; but B and R are only distinguished themselves by a little mark, which forms the base of B.
Fright and bewilderment or fright and joy?
In Mark 16:8 the holy women experience fright and bewilderment and in Matthew 28:8 fright and joy, as bewilderment corresponds to SMH and joy to SMHH, and the two letters H and H closely resemble each other, so one is correct in supposing that a copyist had read the same letter twice, or he only read one in place of two.
Answered and said, or filled with joy and said?
Matthew 11:25 and Luke 10:21 begin an astonishingly similar sentence — one by at that time Jesus answered and said — and the other by at that hour (Jesus) filled with joy by the Holy Spirit said. Matthew certainly corresponds to WY’N, answered, and Luke very probably to WYRN filled with joy; and therefore the variant would have come from a confusion between the letters ‘al’n and resh, following which Luke would have added by the Holy Spirit, in order to explain this unexpected joy. (pp. 32f)
Prophets and the just? Or, prophets and kings?
Matthew 13:17 and Luke 10:24 agree on a text which is hardly identical, except for one word. Matthew: Amen, I say to you that many of the prophets and of the just have desired to see what you see and have not seen and to hear what you hear and have not heard. Luke: I tell you that many prophets and kings have wished to see what you see and have not seen and to hear what you hear and have not heard it. The only different word is in Matthew: just, and in Luke, kings. Why such a reworking, which has no literary basis and scarcely any theological basis? If it is translated back into Hebrew, we perceive that Matthew corresponds to WYSRYM and Luke to WSRYM; since the letters waw and yod are written in almost the same fashion, the eye of a copyist could easily become confused and read W in place of WY. . . . (p. 33)
In Luke 9:40 the father of a possessed person said to Jesus: I have asked your disciples, and in Matthew 17:16: I have brought him to your disciples which supposes in Luke W’QR’ and in Matthew W’QRH, but the latter would also be able to be written WQ’ R’ and the resemblance would be total.
Again, to cry out or to bring?
The same confusion between the words QR’ (to cry out, to proclaim, to preach, to call, to invite, to demand) and QRH or QR’ (to come, to bring, to happen) occurs again between Mark 10:49 and Luke 18:40, between Mark 15:16 and Matthew 27:27, between Mark 15:39 and Matthew 27:54 or Luke 23:47. Is this always by chance?
In the examples proposed here, the variants concern two (or three) Synoptic texts and cannot be explained by either a literary motive (to obtain a better expression of thought) or a theological motive ( to express a different thought with the possible exception of Matthew 28:8). In all the cases cited, the variants refer to details of little importance which a copyist would have no reason to change if he were guided solely by the internal logic of the texts. (p. 34)
9. Of Translation
Sometimes a translator comes to a word that can be translated to express different meanings.
Mark 5:29 speaks of “the source (pege) of her blood” while Luke 8:44 of “the flow (rusis) of her blood“. The same Hebrew word, mâqôr, in fact does express both meanings.
In Mark 9 we read a difficult passage that both Matthew and Luke chose to ignore:
. . . into hell, where the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.
Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
In Mark 9:49 we read with astonishment: For all will be salted by fire. But the documents of Qumran have made it possible to prove that in Hebrew there exist two roots for mâlah, in which one signifies to salt; and the other, which exists also in the Old Testament but which was not recognized, signifies to vaporize. The meaning is therefore: all will be vaporized by fire. The mistake of the translator is explained much more than the context indicates; to salt is a good thing. Instead of seeing that the author was playing upon both roots, the translator believed that it was a matter in both instances of the same root. (p. 34)
Man, or Someone?
In Hebrew the word tsh (man) readily has the indefinite meaning of someone. In the same context, Mark 9:17 has someone; while Luke 9:38 and Matthew 17:14 employ man (but with two different Greek words: anêr and anthrôpos).
Three Greek interpretations of a common Semitic term:
Let us compare the following three passages (rendered very literally into English): Mark 9:42: “It is good for him so much more if a millstone is placed around his neck and he is thrown into the sea”; Matthew 18:6: “It is suitable for him that a millstone be hung around his neck and that he be plunged into the depths of the sea’’; Luke 17:2: “It is advantageous for him if a millstone is placed around his neck and he is jettisoned into the sea.’’ Isn’t it clear that three times in a row the same Semitic term has been rendered by different Greek equivalents? (a) Mark “it is good for him so much more’’: Matthew “it is suitable,’’ Luke “it is advantageous’’; (b) Mark and Luke “is placed around,’’ Matthew “be hung around’’; (c) Mark “he is thrown,’’ Matthew “he be plunged,” Luke “He is jettisoned.” (p. 35)
More variants that assume neither a literary reworking nor a theologial correction but that are “simply the result of different vocalization”:
- According to Mark 4:30 Jesus says: To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God? and according to Luke 13:18: To what is the Kingdom of God comparable?: The manuscript contains NDMH, the translator of Mark has vocalized nedammèh and that of Luke nidmâh.
Send them to shop or have them disperse?
- According to Mark 6:36 and Matthew 14:15, Jesus is asked to send away the crowds so that they may buy (food), and according to Luke 9:12 so that they may disperse (and find food)·, the manuscript contains therefore WSBRW, which Mark and Matthew have vocalized weshâberû and Luke weshubberû, for Hebrew possesses two verbs shâbar, one which signifies to buy and the other to disperse.
Go? As he told you?
- According to Matthew 28:6 the angel addresses the holy women in this fashion: as he (Jesus) said: “Go” . . . , and according to Luke 24:6: As he told you. The variant is insignificant but it happens that in the feminine go corresponds to lekendh and to you corresponds (according to the spelling of Qumran) to Idkenndh.
Among the thousands or the princes of Judah?
- Another unquestionable instance of a mistake in vocalization can be found in Matthew 2:6, citing Micah 5:1. The Masoretic text contains be alpé: ‘ among the thousands of people, the groups,” in agreement with en chiliasin of the Septuagint; but the Greek translator of Matthew, instead of referring to the Septuagint, has made a personal translation and he has vocalized be’allupê “among the princes.”
Desires about the rest? What does that mean?
- According to Mark 4:19, the thorns which choke the good seed represent the cares of this world, the seduction of riches and the desires about the rest, the third term of this enumeration is so bizarre that Matthew 13:22 has suppressed it and Luke 8:14 has replaced it by the pleasures of life; but in Hebrew the word she’âr = the rest has the same consonants as she ér = flesh, it would have then been sufficient to vocalize in another fashion in order to obtain the desires of the flesh which would correspond with the interpretation of Luke and above all with the three concupiscences of 1 John 2:16.
- In Mark 5:13 the herd of pigs is estimated to number about two thousand. This is absolutely improbable, given the less than sociable nature of pigs and the scant vegetation of this area in Transjordan (today’s Golan Heights). Moreover, Matthew 8:32 and Luke 8:33 had great concern to suppress this detail. But, in Hebrew K’LPYM, which signifies about 2,000 if it is vocalized kealpayim, can also be vocalized ka’alapim and can mean by herds: the pigs went over the cliff by herds into the lake, but their number is no longer specified.
When literal translations garble the meaning:
- In the Magnificat (Lk 1:51), what could the Greek reader understand, given the phrase epoiesen kratos en brachioni autou (he has made power in his arm)? Actually the Hebrew poem cites the formula which is frequent in the Bible and at Qumran ‘âsâh hayl (he has performed feats of valor) and this would have required the translation: his arm has performed feats of valor or power.
We read in Luke 9:51, As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. Perhaps, but consider:
- In Luke 9:51, the sentence begins by a typically Hebraic turn of phrase: and it happened in the being fulfilled of the days of his return; then it continues by another still more astonishing carbon copy or trace: and he hardened his face to set out toward Jerusalem. Let us not insist upon the formula which is incomprehensible in Greek—to harden his face—which means in Hebrew to courageously decide, for we can be accused of “Septuagintism” since it figures twice in Jeremiah and eleven times in Ezekiel. But in the middle of this phrase, which is evidently Hebraic, Luke employs a term which is so ambiguous that we still do not know what it means: analêmpsis. This word, which never figures in the Old Testament, nor elsewhere in the New, derives from analambanô (welcome, remove, to take up again). Is this to be understood: as these were being fulfilled (= accomplished) the days of his Ascension, that is to say as the time was approaching in which he must be taken up again and removed to heaven? This is possible. But it can also be assumed that it is a question here of the going up to Jerusalem, for the verb to go up by itself designates the going up par excellence, the going up to Jerusalem, even without mention being made of the name of the city (as in the case of Luke 2:42; John 12:20; Acts 18:22; and John 7:8, 10, in which one goes up to the feast4′). Then Luke would have given a totally different meaning in a text which meant in reality: and it happened when the time for going up (to Jerusalem) was accomplished, that Jesus had the courage to set out toward Jerusalem. The Hebrew scribe thought that the presence of Jerusalem at the end of the sentence was sufficient to express his thought, but the Greek translator remained perplexed on the meaning of this going up and he chose the vague term analempsis, leaving to the reader the challenge to interpret it as he could.
In Luke 19:33 we read of plural owners of the colt challenging Jesus’ disciples:
- Delitzsch points out another error in translation: in Luke 19:33 the ass’s colt is supposed to have several owners: oi kurioi autou, but in Hebrew the word ba‘al (owner) is irregular before a suffix, so that the singular and the plural can both be written B’LWY (his owner or his owners). The translator did not think of this coincidence and he interprets as a plural what was in reality a singular: its owner, for this ass’s colt undoubtedly had only one owner and not several.
A Greek writer, even if influenced as can be supposed by a Semitic mother tongue or by admiration for the Septuagint, would never have employed formulas as incomprehensible as some of the ones which have just been examined. Only a translator—hell bent on literalism—was likely to chance such carbon copies. But these unacceptable formulas are found precisely in Luke, in an author who is concerned with style, as in his Prologue, his correct use of the optative, his more varied vocabulary prove. Therefore we must conclude that he did not compose these bits and pieces himself but that he simply inserted them into his Gospel, without sufficiently reworking them and without always detecting the mistakes of the translator. (p. 38)
There are even more complex semitisms discussed by Carmignac. I may post a little on these later.
Carmignac, Jean. 1987. Birth of the Synoptic Gospels. Translated by Michael J. Wrenn. Chicago, Ill: Franciscan Pr.
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