There are two interesting questions in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag: one about Jesus’ teaching in Aramaic and the other about which books did not make it into the New Testament. If you have a question yourself, ask it as a comment and I will add it to the burgeoning list!
Even though Christ taught in Aramaic, was there absolutely nothing written down in Aramaic? Is there much of a language translation problem going from Aramaic to Greek? (Again, it’s mind boggling to consider how many opportunities for error to creep in by accident or design)
Yes, I’m afraid that’s right: we don’t have any writings from any early Christians in the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic. That makes things rather complicated when it comes to deciding what Jesus really said – that is, if we want to have an idea of his exact words. Let me make two points about that.
First, there are some passages in the Gospels where the author will preserve an Aramaic word or phrase on Jesus’ lips and then translates it back into Greek for his Greek-reading audience. This happens, for example, in Mark 5:41, when Jesus is raising a young girl from the dead and he says to her “Talitha cumi.” Mark then tells us that this means “Little girl, arise.”
Some interpreters have thought that the Aramaic was preserved because it makes the scene sound more mysterious and even magical. Others have thought that Mark is preserving the punch line in the original because it packs more of punch and seems, then, more authentic. Others have other ideas. One leading question is whether Mark himself has produced the Greek translation – in which case he would know (some) Aramaic – or if this is the story as he heard it from an earlier story-teller. I don’t think there’s any way to know for sure, though Mark seems unaware of important features of Palestinian Judaism, so maybe he simply inherited the story in this way. (For a second such occurrence in Mark, see 15:34 “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?)
Second, those who are linguists among us can translate the Greek sayings of Jesus back into Aramaic, and sometimes – this is very much worth noting – they actually make better sense in Aramaic than they do in Greek. This does not necessarily show that such sayings were actually said by Jesus, but it does show that the sayings originally circulated in Aramaic-speaking Palestine, that is, that they are very ancient sayings that may well go back to Jesus himself. My favorite illustration again comes from Mark, where Jesus justifies his disciples’ actions when they violate Jewish traditions about (not) working (for food) on the Sabbath. Jesus informs his Jewish opponents, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” When you look at that saying closely and try to figure it out, in fact it doesn’t actually make sense. What is the “Therefore” there for? Why does the fact that Sabbath was created for the benefit of humans, not humans for the benefit of the Sabbath make the Son of man (Jesus) the Lord of the Sabbath?
The saying does make sense when put back into Aramaic, however. That’s because “man” and “son of man” are the same term in Aramaic; bar enash. And so what Jesus said was “Sabbath was made for bar enash, not bar enash for the Sabbath. Therefore bar enash is lord even of the Sabbath.” Now the saying makes perfect sense. Humans are lords of the Sabbath, not the other way around. Human need takes priority over the commandment not to work on the Sabbath.
You mentioned quite a few times – both in your books as well as here on the blog – that there were certain writings that were once considered scripture by some orthodox church fathers, but didn’t make it into the NT. And on the other hand there are some writings in the NT that were disliked by certain church fathers. Could you name some examples for either case (if possible with the name of the scholar who approved/disapproved of the text)?
I probably should devoted a series of posts to questions of the canon. But for now, I can give a couple of quick answers.
First, yes there were sustained debates among proto-orthodox church fathers (those who embraced the views that eventually came to be dominant among Christian leaders and their churches) about some of the books that were considered by one Christian group or another to be Scripture. (And of course “heretical” Christians – those who embraced other views – often had completely different sets of authoritative books they read and revered.) The twenty-seven books that we now consider the New Testament did not all get included by almost everyone until about the early fifth century. (This is another problem for anyone who thinks that Christianity is “belief in the Bible.” What we think of as the Bible was not formed as a group of books for centuries!)
Some books stood on the margins, accepted by some proto-orthodox Christian groups and leaders but not others, but eventually did not come to be accorded canonical status. These include a few books that are now found among the collection called “The Apostolic Fathers”: 1 Clement (a letter written by the church of Rome to help correct problems in the church of Corinth); the letter of Barnabas (an anti-Jewish tractate allegedly, but not really, written by Paul’s companion), and the Shepherd of Hermas (a very long apocalypse). Each of these is actually included among the books of the New Testament in a surviving Greek manuscript.
Moreover, some of the books of the New Testament were debated: should they belong or not? Among these were 2 Peter (church fathers disagreed over whether it was actually written by Peter or was forged; they ultimately decided on the former but they got that one wrong); Hebrews (was it written by Paul even though it didn’t claim to be? And is it too focused on issues of Judaism?); and Revelation (who wrote it? Was he an apostle? And isn’t its predictions of what will happen in the end simply too bizarre?)
There never was an early church council that ultimately decided these issues (they were not discussed at the Council of Nicea, for example, even though a lot of people say it was). There was instead simply a kind of consensus that emerged. The issue is never widely or seriously discussed among church leaders today, and in my opinion never will be. The twenty-seven books we now have will be the twenty-seven books we will always have, till kingdom come.
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