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Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: January 24, 2016

A day late, here is this (past) week’s Readers Mailbag.   I will be dealing with two questions this time, one on why Mark includes Aramaic words in his accounts of Jesus’ sayings and the other on where someone might find English versions of the surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.  If you too have a question, simply ask it here as a comment, or send me an email, and I will add it to the list!



Why is Mark sometimes quoting Jesus in Aramaic? I know, that Jesus cry on cross is possibly reference to the psalms, but why is Mark spicing his gospel with Aramaic much more than other gospel authors? Is it sign of a oral/written source used by Mark?


Ah, good question.   It’s true that Mark on occasion does record some of the words of Jesus in Aramaic.   For example, in chapter 5 Jesus is told that a young girl (daughter of Jairus) has died; he goes to her in her room, and taking her by the hand and says “Talitha cumi” (5:41); the author then tells us that this means “Little girl, arise.”  She rises from the dead.  But why does Mark quote the line in Aramaic? (Here’s an interesting tidbit that you probably have never heard.  In the book of Acts, the apostle Peter is told that a woman named Tabitha [note how close it is to Talitha] has died and is asked to come and do something about it.  He goes to her in her room, prays over her, and says “Tabitha arise” [Acts 9:40].  She rises from the dead.   Did the “Talitha arise” of the story in Mark 5 become garbled in…

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Did Jesus Urge People to Repent?
Jesus and the Son of Man



  1. Avatar
    Judith  January 24, 2016

    Completely off topic but having never pre-ordered a book, it was a surprise this morning to discover Jesus before the Gospels is discounted if pre-ordered! And it’s so reasonable ($18.77 plus postage). Thanks, Dr. Erhman.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  January 24, 2016

    “First, in both cases Matthew and Luke each change the line, getting rid of the Aramaic (they both simply drop the Aramaic from the first story; Luke doesn’t include the words at the crucifixion, and Matthew changes them to Hebrew).”

    Dr. Ehrman, when I look at the Greek it doesn’t look quite so simple. It appears that Matthew simply alters the Aramaic “Eloi” to the Hebrew “Eli” and that’s about it. Matthew keeps the Aramaic Sabachtani instead of using the proper Hebrew ‘Azavthani. In fact, the most significant difference (to my eyes at least) is that where Mark uses an epsilon at the start of Eloi, Matthew uses an eta at the start of Eli, which suggests strongly to me that each redacter is pulling from a different Greek translation of the original semitic version, neither of which is the Septuagint version, which translates the original Hebrew differently from both Mark and Matthew. That is to say, the Aramaic and Aramaic/Hebrew lines from Mark and Matthew, respectively, differ from the original Hebrew of Psalm 22. The Greek translations of the LXX, Mark and Matthew of Psalm 22 differ as well. Moreover, the Greek transliterations of the Aramaic/Hebrew between Mark and Matthew also differs (eloi vs eli, epsilon vs eta). Everything differs! Clearly the redacters are pulling from an original in Aramaic/Hebrew and then translating/transliterating as he pleases from that original, irrespective of the LXX or the Hebrew. That is to say there was probably an original document in the semitic (Aramaic/Hebrew) with Jesus’ purported words from Psalm 22, which had at different times or places been translated/transliterated into different Greek versions–one eventually used by “Mark”, the other by “Matthew”.

    Now, I have my own hypothesis as to how or why this may be the case. I conjecture that the very first written document was a list of sayings of Jesus in mixed Aramaic and Hebrew, not unlike, say, how the Gospels of Thomas and Phillip or the hypothetical Q source are just a list of sayings. The disciples might have created this document in order to stay on message, so to speak–that is, to make sure that when they go out into the world, they’re properly preserving and transmitting Jesus’ words. To the disciples the most important thing was what Jesus said (apart from Jesus’ biography, which only became important later). Now, at some point, the apostles may have found it necessary to translate the Hebrew parts into Aramaic, for those who may not have been as comfortable in Hebrew, but they kept the Hebrew lines and merely added the Aramaic translation as a gloss. That’s why there are so many redundant doublets, especially in Mark, because the translator of Mark’s sayings was translating both the original Hebrew saying and the corresponding Aramaic translation of the Hebrew. And that, furthermore, is why Mark and Matthew have both the Aramaic/Hebrew cry of dereliction and the Greek translation (Mark 15:34; Matt. 27:46). Each redactor is translating the actual bilingual line from the original. The Matthew translater probably knew enough Hebrew keep Eli but not enough to keep ‘Azavthani. That’s why one version has Eloi, while the other has Eli.

    Anyway, that’s my theory.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 24, 2016

    About the professor who delivered the punchlines in German…it seems to me that a person would only do that if the whole meaning of the anecdote depended on that wording. If it was a *pun*.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2016

      Yes, I agree, that’s *one* of the reasons. But another reason is that the words in German do not have precise equivalents in English and to get the full point, you need to hear them in the original.

      • Avatar
        Skolymos  January 26, 2016

        Dr. Ehrman,
        Could another reason be to give narration an aura of “authenticity” and thus making it even more “plausible” by inserting some aramaic/hebrew phrases in the original?

  4. Avatar
    rivercrowman  January 24, 2016

    Letter for Mailbag: The noted agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll, in his 1894 book “About The Holy Bible” declares “And we know that Ecclesiastes was written by an unbeliever.” Do you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2016

      I’m not sure I know even what he means? Unbeliever in *what*? (I would not talk about ancient Israelites in terms of believers and unbelievers; that is really importing a Protestant Christian sense of religiosity into their world)

  5. Avatar
    Jimmy  January 24, 2016

    Hi Bart, This question is somewhat related to this post. Of all of our English translation of the bible what ones do you think convey more closely the meaning of the Greek text? I read the NRSV,ESV and the NASB. I noticed that they differ in some passages. I cannot read Greek of Hebrew so I have to rely on English versions. My wife likes the king James version because it is more poetic but she does not believe it is the most accurate.. I myself want to know as accurately as possible the authors intent when writing the books in the bible.

  6. Avatar
    Omar6741  January 25, 2016

    Professor Ehrman,
    Could the reference to Bethlehem or Bethlehem-Ephrata in Micah 5:2 be seen as a reference to a clan rather than a place? Many translations seem to treat this as having to do with a clan, and not necessarily some obscure village. Consider the New International Version, for example:
    “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans[b] of Judah,
    out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
    whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”
    I ask because, if this interpretation of “Bethlehem” as referring to a *clan* is acceptable, then it becomes much harder to explain the fact that Matthew and Luke are so determined to ensure that Jesus is born in the *place* called “Bethlehem”. Couldn’t they have saved themselves the headache of inventing trips to Egypt and non-existent censuses held in ancestral towns? Why was it so important for them to have the Holy Family be in the “place” Bethlehem for Christmas?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2016

      I’ve never heard of a clan called Bethlehem before.

      • Rick
        Rick  January 25, 2016

        Was the Hebrew “beth” or “house” ever used to signify a family group – as in English we might say the House of Windsor?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 27, 2016

          I don’t know — but others on the blog probably do!

        • talmoore
          talmoore  January 27, 2016

          Yes, beth (house) can mean a family. Also, “sons” (b’nei in Hebrew–sometimes translated as “children”) can also mean a family, as in the Sons of David being the descendents of David. Also, the Hebrew word for tribe or clan, (shevet) can also mean an extended family. Funny enough, the actual Hebrew word for family, mishpachah, is rarely found in the Hebrew Bible. For example, the only use of mishpachah in the Pentateuch is once in Deuteronomy (one clue that it has a different author from the previous four books), while the word beth (house) to mean (extended) family occurs dozens of times throughout the first give books.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 25, 2016

      This line from Micah 5 is full of Hebrew colloquialisms, forcing translaters to speculate on the exact meaning. Three words in particular make it confusing to translate: אֶפְרָתָה – ephrathah, צָעִיר – tza’ir, בְּאַלְפֵי יְהוּדָה – b’alphei yehudah. Ephrathah is normally left untranslated, because it’s pretty much untranslatable. It could have something to do with the Hebrew word for ‘dust’ or ‘ash’, efer – אֵפֶר. Or, more likely, it could be an actual sister village to Bethlehem. The modern village of Ephratha in Israel is only 40 years old, based on the Biblical name. The word usually translated as “small”, tza’ir, literally means “young” in Hebrew. I’m assuming that translaters translate it as small because saying that Bethlehem is young seems to contradict the notion that David came from Bethlehem. However, seeing as how the rest of the verse ends with the Hebrew phrases “from its previous offshoots” and “ancient days”, the contrasting meaning of “young” in the first half of the verse was probably intentional. Lastly, the Hebrew phrase b’alphei yehudah literally means “in Judah’s thousands”. The meaning of this phrase is similar to how we might say “within Judah’s population” or “within Judah’s populace”. Using the word “clans” to translate “thousands” is probably an attempt to sound more biblical, but since Hebrew actually has a word for “clan”–shevet–it’s definitely not an accurate translation.

  7. Avatar
    bamurray  January 25, 2016

    Did Mark in fact accurately quote his Aramaic sources in his gospel, and are his renderings in Greek actually accurate translations of the Aramaic originals?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2016

      No, Mark was almost certainly writing in Greek. (Linguists are pretty confident about this.)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 25, 2016

      Funny enough, when Mark has Jesus say “talitha, qum” — little gazelle, get up — that’s actually grammatically incorrect Aramaic. In semitic languages the female imperative form ends with -i, so Jesus should have (would have?) said “talitha, qumi”. So someone messed up somewhere. Geza Vermas seemed to think that Galilean Aramaic was rather loose enough that Jesus himself could have made such a grammatical mistake. Who knows?

  8. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 25, 2016

    I assume psalm 22 was written in hebrew, and the septuagint had it in greek? So the reference to psalms has no bearing on it being in aramaic. Would mark and john just be trying to make their works sound more authoritive by having quotes in Jesus own language? It makes the author sound like they’re more knowledgable than the reader. Does it suggest mark used a written source that had the quotes in aramaic?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2016

      Yes, that’s the point. Jesus would have been speaking Aramaic. Mark himself probably inherited the story with the Aramaic words imbedded in a Greek text.

  9. Avatar
    Matt7  January 25, 2016

    I have heard that the word for ‘rope’ in Aramaic looks very similar to the word for ‘camel’. How likely is it that the statement about the difficulty of a rich man getting into heaven was originally written in Aramaic and made the comparison to a rope (instead of a camel) going through the eye of a needle?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2016

      Yes, people have argued that over the years. Mainly rich people, who don’t want to think their salvatoin is *really* impossible. (!) I suppose the main problem with the interpretation is that it takes something striking and graphic nad turns it into something a bit banal; Jesus’ parables *often*, though, are striking and graphic (think of the “log dangling out of his eye”, etc.)

  10. Avatar
    Jacobus  January 25, 2016

    Professor Ehrman, thank you for the comments about Jesus being quoted in Aramaic by Mark and John. Though it was not my question, may I ask a follow-up question… What is your opinion about scholars (I am thinking of the late Maurice Casey, Joachim Jeremias et cetera) whom translated/ constructed the Greek text of certain insidents back into Aramaic? I know someone like Casey made a whole science of it, using the Dea Sea Scrolls’ Aramaic vocabulary as point of reference and “uncovering” Aramaic “originals” from texts like Mark 2:23-28. I understand that Jeremias used the Peshitta as his point of reference. In short again, what is your opinion about this practice and how does it help us to understand Jesus in his historical setting? (I am recalling your discussion about the title son of man (“bar (e)nash(a)”) in “Did Jesus Exist?” where you also built your argument partly on the Aramaic meaning of the word.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2016

      I think it is very difficult to do these retroversions back into Aramaic convincingly for anything more than a few words or a sentence, given the complexities involved.

  11. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  January 25, 2016

    how strange ! Aramaic sounds like Arabic

    Talitha = third (gender fem) for masc talith
    Cumi = stand up (gender fem) for masc cum
    Tabitha = steady, stable, firm (gender fem) for masc tabith

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 27, 2016

      Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic are all related languages — so-called semitic languages — not unlike how French, Spanish and Italian are all related, coming from Latin.

  12. Avatar
    Omar6741  January 25, 2016

    Professor Ehrman,
    What do you think are the most important unexamined assumptions among your fellow scholars that hold back or create problems in their quest for the historical Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 27, 2016

      I think the hardest thing is to avoid imposing modern-day western assumptions on the ancient Gospel materials

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  January 27, 2016

        What assumptions do you think people most tend to impose on the ancient materials? That Jesus was a feminist, or socialist?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 28, 2016

          Or that he shared our other values — e.g., about family, and democracy, and wealth, and community, and… most things!

  13. Avatar
    jhague  January 25, 2016

    Did the “Talitha arise” of the story in Mark 5 become garbled in oral transmission so that what Jesus did to Jairus’s daughter came to be associated with something that Peter did?

    With this same question, do you think that the story of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 is historical? Or is it a garbled presentation of James being stoned with the name and time being changed?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 27, 2016

      I suppose it could be — but we don’t have any early evidence for the James story, prior to the account of Stephen.

      • Avatar
        jhague  January 27, 2016

        Do you think that the stoning of Stephen story is historical?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 28, 2016

          No, I don’t.

          • Avatar
            jhague  January 28, 2016

            I don’t either. Do you have an opinion of why the author inserted this story? Was it to mask the stoning of James but the author still wanted to say something about it? Was a strange way to introduce Paul? Any thoughts?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 30, 2016

            No, I don’t think it was to hide over anything about James, who would have been executed at a much later date than Stephen allegedly was.

          • Avatar
            jhague  January 31, 2016

            Acts was written after James’ death so the author could make his death happen whenever he wanted to. After all, he wasn’t worrying about being historical.
            Why do you think the author included the story?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 4, 2016

            But why could it not be about Peter’s death? Or Paul’s death? Or Samuel’s death? Or Hezekiah’s death? Or anyone’s death? What about it makes you think James?

            Luke included it because it is perfect for many of his themes: his opposition to ongoing worship in the temple, the Jewish opposition to Christianity, and the reason for the spread of the religion outside of Jerusalem, not to mention the conversion of Saul.

          • Avatar
            jhague  February 4, 2016

            It’s not me thinking it was James. I never would have come up with that. I think it was Robert Eisenman that I was reading. It is sounding like this is not a theory that many scholars agree with. 🙂
            I think your explanation does make sense for the stoning of Stephen.
            Since this is not a historical story, then Saul/Paul was not there to give approval. I have read that some believe that the statements in Paul’s writings regarding him persecuting the church were added later. Their thoughts are that Paul never persecuted the church. Do you agree with this idea?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 5, 2016

            Ah, Robert Eisenman. Yes, that makes sense. He finds James in all sorts of places, including, most notoriously, as a key figure in the Dad Sea Scrolls! (Where he is not mentioned — nor are any of the followers of Jesus, or Jesus himself, not even remotely).

            No, I think Paul *definitely* persecuted the church. It is one of our firmest historical data about him.

          • Avatar
            jhague  February 5, 2016

            Thanks for staying with me on this one. 😉
            Speaking of James, since he was born in Nazareth and he was an uneducated peasant, how did he end up living in Jerusalem and a bishop/priest of the Jewish Temple? It seems that Peter the fisherman ended up living in Jerusalem as well. How did they make a living in Jerusalem? Was James paid from the Temple donations?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 7, 2016

            He was never a priest in the temple. Priests had to be from the line of Levi and Aaron. But he and Peter appear to have moved back to Jerusalem soon after they came to believe in the resurrection — in anticipation that Jesus was going to return there? They had no connection with the Temple, and we don’t know how they managed to support themselves.

          • Avatar
            jhague  February 8, 2016

            So James, Peter, John, their families and whoever else moved to Jerusalem to be there when Jesus returned soon. Did James, Peter and John set up a house church and headup their Jesus movement from there? Did they likely not have much interaction with the other Jewish sect leaders?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 8, 2016

            We don’t know if their families moved with them. They did set up a house church of some kind. We don’t know how much they interacted with the other Jews in the city.

  14. Avatar
    ComputersHateAndrewLivingston  January 25, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, why does the walking on water story in Mark 6 read like an allegory for the Resurrection? The disciples are without their teacher, their situation is tumultuous, and at dawn they see him miraculously show up. They think at first that he’s a ghost. Why the resemblance between the two stories?

  15. Avatar
    SecularRon  February 5, 2016

    Dr. Erhman,
    What credence do you give Rodney Stark’s thesis that on the twofold advancement of Christianity: 1) that around the Mediterranean it was advanced via personal contact and conversely 2) it was advanced in Northern Europe from the top down, i.e. the rulers converted and forced it on their subjects?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2016

      I think the first three centuries conversions were based on personal contact; starting with Constantine there was political force used.

  16. Avatar
    Dan Webster  March 31, 2016

    What is the probability that the Gospels were compiled/edited by multiple scribes? The oral traditions probably varied, over time, in detail; perhaps by “church” or sect. One or more people authored the “Q” document as a source and it also may have evolved. It would seem equally reasonable that a collaborative effort produced the Gospels under the pen of a single scribe. Then there is the potential of multiple editions.

    It also seems somewhat odd to me that that none of the Apostolic Fathers found preservation of any of the church documents important. These documents contained the words of Jesus supposedly recorded or transmitted orally by the disciples. Someone saved the letter to Corinth from Clement, however, nothing from Paul. Yet Hebrews, Muslims and later religions retained written dogma.

    Lastly, could the Gospel of John have been the attempt to reconcile Paul’s christology with the Synoptic Gospels? A religion that had moved beyond Jerusalem; churches with derivative beliefs that needed to be disconnected from Paul and reconnected with Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2016

      It’s usually thought that even if there were multiple versions and editions, what we have now in each case came to us not via committee but from one editor/author.

      • Avatar
        Dan Webster  April 1, 2016

        Did the estimated date of the Gospels reflect a tension between Gentile and Jewish followers. It would seem that Paul’s outreach to pagans/Gentiles would be limited to what he knew of Jesus which is post- Resurrection. He would have heard the oral stories but was not a witness. Was it important to the establishment of these churches, primarily in Asia Minor, that he “know” the story of Jesus? If so, then was Mark the response to the questions that many believers and would-be believers would pose to Paul about Jesus? Mark seems to make Jesus more Greek than Jewish. Conversely, Matthew seems an attempt to reclaim Jesus and his Jewish roots. Then Luke and John reaffirming a less Jewish Jesus. The Ebionites were some of the first to be declared heretics as it seemed important to minimize the Rabbi Jesus.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2016

          My sense is that the stories in Mark and the other Gospels are not responses to a lack in Paul’s preaching, but are simply the result of many years of story telling by Christianis who were trying to convert others to the faith and to educate those who were converted.

  17. Avatar
    wrightwrjr  August 31, 2016

    This may not be the appropriate section for this question, but I could not find a good place to ask it. I have your book “A Brief Introduction to The New Testament 4th Edition”, but I know you also have a book titled,
    “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings 6th Edition” which is quite a bit larger (608 pages).
    Now my question, is the 6th edition is the latest one or is there a later version?
    By the way, I am thoroughly enjoying the introduction.


    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2016

      Yes, the 6th edition just came out. It is the fuller version of the Brief book (or rather, the Brief book is an edited-down version of the fuller!)

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