Dr. James McGrath wrote a new book. If you read his blog, you already knew that. I, on the other hand, was blessedly ignorant of that fact until Neil recently told me. And, like any curious person, I can’t help but rubberneck as I slowly drive past a traffic accident. In much the same way, although I knew it would be painful, I started reading What Jesus Learned from Women.
But now here’s an unexpected blast from the past: McGrath is convinced by Maurice Casey’s nonargument about the pronunciation of talitha koum (ταλιθα κούμ) in Mark 5:41, as proof of the historicity of Jesus in general and the raising of Jairus’s daughter in particular. I had no idea any serious person thought Casey was making a cogent historical argument. However, each day brings new surprises and wonders.
Our manuscripts differ in the spelling, and that difference is one of the reasons that some historians [sic] feel particularly confident about there being a historical core to this story. (McGrath 2021, p. 219)
By historians, McGrath actually means “theologians who know ancient languages and call themselves historians.” And among that group of self-confident theologians who know ancient languages, Casey was unmatched. I called Casey’s pronouncement a nonargument because it contains a single premise followed by a dogmatic conclusion. Here it is from Jesus of Nazareth:
The first two words, Talitha koum, are Aramaic for ‘little girl, get up’, so Mark has correctly translated them into Greek for his Greek-speaking audiences, adding the explicitative comment ‘I tell you’, as translators sometimes do. Moreover, I have followed the reading of the oldest and best manuscripts. The majority of manuscripts read the technically correct written feminine form koumi, but there is good reason to believe that the feminine ending ‘i’ was not pronounced. It follows that Talitha koum is exactly what Jesus said. (Casey 2011, p. 109, bold emphasis mine)
Surely Casey has missed a step or two. To start with, what is this “good reason” that convinced the dear doctor — and which seems to have captivated McGrath as well? Well, we do have a hint in the form of a footnote, in which Casey cites himself from an earlier article (in JSNT 25.1, 2002) in which he defended himself from an “attack” by Paul Owen and David Shepherd. (Recall that any questioning of Casey’s authority was always viewed as an attack.) These scholars had dared to question Casey’s “solution” to the Son-of-Man problem. Casey chastised them, Joseph Fitzmyer, and any other scholar who avoided using later inscriptions and manuscripts (i.e., well after the supposed time of Jesus) calling it “a quite catastrophic and unjustifiable loss.” Casey rarely did anything halfway.
Despite Casey’s remarkable certainty with respect to the historicity of Mark’s reanimation story, he did admit one could easily write fiction in Aramaic as well as any other language. For example, the Samaritan woman at the well must be an invention, because she referred to the Messias instead of the Taheb. He thus rejected the historical plausibility of John 4:10-14.
We must not imagine that the mere occurrence of one or two Aramaic words is sufficient evidence of historical authenticity. We must always look for the historical plausibility of the narratives in which Aramaic words are embedded. We shall see that this criterion is satisfied in Mark’s stories, and I argue that this is because our oldest Gospel is partly dependent on eyewitness accounts by Aramaic-speaking disciples. (Casey 2011, p. 109)
Casey himself acknowledged that even the canonical evangelists (viz. John) could dabble in fiction for theological purposes. Hence, we might presume he had an exceptionally good reason to think that a missing “i” at the end of a word proved his point. So, what is it?
As I said above, Casey gives some clues in a 2002 article.
There is however ample evidence that final vowels after the tone syllable, including this one, were quiescent in Syriac and in Christian Palestinian Aramaic, though they are written down in standard texts and textbooks.15 This is accordingly straightforward evidence that Jesus’ idiolect, and therefore surely his Galilean dialect, had this particular isogloss in common with these later dialects. (Casey 2002, p. 10)
Before we examine the contents of footnote 15, we should note the more measured tone he adopted here in contrast to his 2011 book on Jesus in which he presented the missing “i” in koumi as ironclad proof of eyewitness stenographers attesting to the historicity of Jesus. On the other hand, we should also note that (contra Casem) it could just as easily be evidence of the idiolect of the author (or authors) of Mark’s gospel or predilections of the scribes who copied it. Moreover, it would be a curious turn of events if Mark made all sorts of mistakes owing to linguistic “interference” (as Casey insisted repeatedly) but somehow managed to preserve the ipsissima verba of Jesus in this one extraordinary case.
In his footnote, Casey cites two sources for his assertion that Jesus’ Galilean Aramaic accent tended to drop final vowels. The first, Nöldeke’s Compendious Syriac Grammar, details the development and character of the Syriac language using written evidence from c. 200 CE onward. It’s freely available at archive.org. You can buy the second work (as I did) — Grammatik des christlich-palästinischen Aramäisch — from Google Books. What can we learn from these sources?
A cursory glance at the references in question could lead the naive reader to conclude that Casey was right. We do in fact learn from both sources that in Aramaic, non-tonic vowels, especially posttonic vowels, tended to disappear. And further, that orthographically these vowels could still appear on the written page although native speakers no longer pronounced them.
What Casey Omitted
However, a more careful examination of the evidence will reveal a list of relevant items Casey neglected to tell us. Let’s briefly consider each one.
Not Unique to Galilee
The phenomenon Casey described was not unique to the Aramaic dialect of Galilee. Nor was it confined to the northwestern region in general, and it is certainly not a distinctive marker of Jesus’ speech in particular.
Unbetonte Vokale im Wortauslaut sind, wie in allen jüngeren aramäischen Dialekten, längst geschwunden. Während aber die ältere Orthographie die betreffenden Vokal buchstaben noch zu setzen pflegt (z. T. unter syrischem Einfluß) , werden sie in jüngeren vielfach, wenn auch ganz regellos, weg gelassen. (Schulthess 1924, p. 16)
As in all more recent Aramaic dialects, unstressed vowels at the ends of words have long since disappeared. But while the older orthography still uses the appropriate vowel letters (partly under Syrian [i.e., Syriac] influence), they are often left out in the more recent [writings], though entirely at random. [My translation, bold emphasis added.]
Casey wanted to argue that the random appearance of koum and koumi in our extant manuscripts showed that people weren’t sure how to spell it, given the fact that the final “i” wasn’t pronounced. Further, he stressed the significance of the fact that the final vowel appeared in the majority of “our oldest and best manuscripts.”
A majority of manuscripts?
However, Casey neglected to explain that a roughly even number of uncials contain koum vs. koumi. That is to say, in our oldest manuscripts (ones written in all caps: uncials) the appearance is mostly random, but in later manuscripts (ones written in small letters: minuscules) koumi predominates.
The masculine form?
Casey failed to tell us that the masculine form of the imperative get up is koum. That is to say, קוּם (qûm) is the masculine form. Some Aramaic and/or Markan scholars have suggested that girls not having reached adulthood would often be addressed in this masculine form, implying a sort of neuter status as in the German “das Mädchen.” In this scenario, the two cases collapsed into one, and not merely because of the overall trend to drop posttonic vowels, but also for cultural-linguistic reasons.
Bruce Metzger simply said that “קוּם is masculine, sometimes used without reference to sex.” (Metzger 2007, p. 87) Gustaf Dalman, on the other hand, was certain the final yod dropped off because of the strong penultimate accent.
And finally, the French scholar, Marie-Joseph Lagrange offered a different conjecture, writing:
This is not, however, one of the cases where Aramaic iod [yodh] is not pronounced (against Knab. [apparently referring to Joseph Knabenbauer]). Dalman (Grammatik, 321, note) supposes that the iod [yodh] may have fallen after the penultimate accent. Perhaps also κουμ was taken without reference to sex, in the sense of “standing”. (Lagrange 1911, pp. 139-140)
I bring all of these citations up once again because Casey and his followers continue to make a mountain out of a missing molehill. From a linguistic perspective, we have far too little information to definitively say that all Galileans pronounced κουμι with a silent final vowel. But even if we did, it would require a huge leap from this historical-linguistic-literary argument to insist that Jesus “must have” existed and “must have” said these very words.
We can all agree on the following basic contingent propositions:
- If Casey was correct, then people in Galilee tended to drop the final vowel in feminine imperatives.
- If the majority of scholars are correct that Jesus existed, and he came from Galilee, then he probably spoke Aramaic with a Galileean accent.
- If Jesus said the words attributed to him in Mark 5:41 and the foregoing statements are true, then he probably dropped the final yodh when speaking.
We can suggest numerous viable hypotheses for the presence and absence of the final vowel in our manuscripts. Casey’s theory is one of several — it’s possible, but no more likely than any other. Moreover, because all of Casey’s propositions are contingent, we cannot say they represent the only or even the most likely conclusions.
Ultimately, Casey and McGrath are arguing in the opposite direction, that somehow a contingent, specific, historical fact can be proven by general linguistic theory and various random missing letters in manuscripts written centuries after the events. Competent historians should not make such mistakes.
- Casey, Maurice. 2002. “Aramaic Idiom and the Son of Man Problem: A Response to Owen and Shepherd” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25.1. p. 11
- Casey, Maurice. 2011. Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London: T & T Clark.
- Lagrange, Marie-Joseph. Evangile Selon Saint Marc. Paris: V. Lecoffre, 1911.
- McGrath, James F. 2021. What Jesus Learned from Women. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
- Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschsaft, 2007.
- Nöldeke, Theodor. 1904. Compendious Syriac Grammar (trans. J.A. Crichton; London: Williams & Norgate, 1904)
- Schulthess, Friedrich, and Enno Littmann. 1982. Grammatik des christlich-palästinischen Aramäisch. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag. [orig. 1924]
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!