I recently read a story regarding a debate between Pope Francis and Benjamin Netanyahu regarding what language Jesus spoke. By all accounts it was a friendly, playful debate in which Netanyahu said (of Jerusalem) “Jesus was here…He spoke Hebrew.” The Pope was quick to correct him, saying, “Aramaic. He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.”
This brings up an important issue: that of language in relation to religion, and in particular, religious texts. I had been wanting to write a series of posts on the Beatitudes from the Gospel according to Matthew for some time, and, as the “great religious debate” prompted me to think about the issue of language, decided finally to proceed.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (qtd. in Douglas-Klotz 2). The Bible is the most translated book in the world. While the New Testament was written in Greek, I read it in English. As with an text, issues with translation are manifold. But what happens when a text, supposedly quoting an individual, is written in a language other than that which the individual spoke?
As much as the Pope and Netanyahu’s disagreement regarded Hebrew and Aramaic, the two languages embody a Middle-Eastern worldview. Such is not the case, however, with the Greek. Greek language embodies a Greek worldview, which is far removed from a Middle Eastern worldview. As much as the authors of the Gospels desired to represent Jesus’s sayings as best they could, there is inevitably something missing in translation.
This is not to say, of course, that the Gospel accounts of which Jesus said should be discounted. If you are reading this post and have read the Bible to any degree, I’d place a good wager on that Bible you read was written in English. Thus issues of translation will effect one’s reading, interpretation, and, perhaps, one’s application of Jesus’s first teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. As such, I endeavor in this and future posts in this series to explore the Beatitudes in some depth by a) looking closely at the Greek and b) examine the Beatitudes in light of the Aramaic.
While future posts will be dedicated to the Beatitudes themselves, here I would like just like to establish some context of the Beatitudes, which. as we read in the Gospel according to Matthew, are the first words we read in the famed Sermon on the Mount. After returning to the Galilee from the desert, Matthew tells us Jesus “began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'” (Matthew 4: 17). He then gathered his disciples and ministered to a multitude, healing on the way. But we read nothing of what he taught other than this gospel–gospel meaning “good news” of the kingdom’s coming. And so Matthew tells us “great crowds…followed him” (4: 25) and when Jesus “saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him” and Jesus began to teach (Matthew 6: 1).
He taught them first the Beatitudes, but I am getting ahead of myself. There is much to discuss here, for the context of this, the Sermon on the Mount, are essential for understanding the import of Jesus’s teachings.
First, who was he talking to? Ordinary Jews. Jews living under Roman rule. What does this mean? Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program at University of Texas Austin says this:
For the ordinary people of the Jewish homeland, Rome was a kind of dominant political factor. Although they might not have seen Romans on a day-to-day basis, theimposition of Roman power was certainly there. In the case of the client kingdom, Judea, Herod’s rule and Herod’s forces would have been the political entity. But everyone knew that Rome was the power behind the throne. Everyone knew that Rome was the source of both the wealth and also the source of some of the problems that occurred in the Jewish state. So the political reality of the day was of a dominant power overseeing the life on a day-to-day basis.
The Romans could be brutal, and many Jews suffered under Roman rule. To add “insult to injury” many of these Jews listening to Jesus were likely to be, like Jesus himself, a Galilean. By and large, Galilean Jews were looked down upon by other Jews. They were seen as back-water, maybe what in America are called “white-trash.” And like people from New York or Boston, who have identifiable accents, so too did Jews from the Galilee speak with an identifiable accent, meaning you would know a Galilean just by talking to one and if you were from outside the Galilee, you already had a negative conception.
Look down upon, under Roman rule, many of these Galilean Jews listening to Jesus would have likely been down trodden. Moreover, Matthew gives describes whom might have been in the crowds: the identity-less “they” brought “to him all who were sick…and racked with pain…possessed, lunatics, and paralytics” (4: 24). Down trodden to say the least. Men and women with little if no hope at all. The disenfranchised, the dispossessed. Those struggling to make it just one more day.
And they would hear would no doubt startle them, maybe even provoke fear, for to 1st century Jews, the things Jesus would say might be interpreted as him taking liberties with Mosaic Law. Now any Jew would know that when the Law was not upheld, God might punish them. So many may have thought that what Jesus taught might invite divine retribution. On the other hand, Jesus no doubt inspired many in his audience, for his message is, in part, one of hope and love.
How might they have seen this unknown teacher, sitting there amongst them on a mountain near Capernaum? The clue is in the sitting. Matthew tells us “he sat down” (5:1). This is no minor detail. “Sitting down was the normal posture of a teacher in the classical world,” writes Jim Forest (16). In other words, Jesus positions himself as a formal teacher, one with authority. While my New American Bible Revised edition says Jesus then “began to teach them” in verse 2, the English Standard Version (ESV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the King James Bible reads “He opened his mouth and taught them” (5:2). This opening of the mouth, according to Forest, “renders a Semitic phrase that marks an authoritative proclamation” (16).
So how might they have seen him? Matthew 5: 1-2 might be a clue. Here was a man who positions himself as one who speaks with authority whose words will have much weight.
The first words that come out of his mouth are: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:7). While I will reserve a future post discuss such a statement, let it be sufficient to say now this would have been a radical statement. Based on who was present, many may have thought this man Jesus a little crazy for how could anyone in the crowd have the audacity to think they were blessed? So right off the bat, Jesus’s teachings are radical.
But perhaps the most radical thing about Jesus’s teaching was how he spoke about God.
To an ancient Jew, God–Yahweh, Elohim–was king, lord, creator and master of the universe who sent Moses 613 laws. Men and women were expected to be obedient to such laws. As such, one was expected to be obedient to God as one would expect of a king. God is the boss and you listen. This is an image of absolute authority, to which you give your obeisance as a servant (ideally).
But Jesus does not refer to God as Yahwey or Elohim or any of the other commonplace names for God.
No, Jesus calls God “Abba.”
Abba, the Aramaic name for father.
So Jesus is presenting a different image of God. Sure God as “Abba” still possesses the quality of authority, but he uses a familial, rather than political, metaphor. This is a radical statement, for in talking about God as father, Jesus’s portrait of God implies a loving and intimate relationship while maintaining the position of authority.
A brief examination of the word’s root is informative: derived from the Semitic root AB, which “can also mean parent, ancestor, or founder” (Douglas-Klotz 130), the root “points to all movements which seek to complete themselves or find an end. The root also refers to the desire to have, as well as to that which bears fruit” (130). The root forms the basis of many terms in the Peshitta, written in Aramaic, and used by many Eastern Christians. Many Aramaic-speaking Christians “claim it is the original form of Jesus’ words…they point to many idioms (like ‘poor in spirit’) that make perfect sense in Aramaic, but remain obscure in Greek” (5-6).
One of such words derived from the same root as Abba is “hab”, meaning love. Greek texts use agape when Jesus says “love your neighbor” and “love your enemy.” Agape embodies “a sense of love as unconditional goodwill” (147). In Aramaic texts of the same verses, the word used for love is “hab.” Derived from the abaha, hab can also mean “to kindle a fire from something easily set ablaze…hab as a type of love that moves from inside out…a relationship for kindling” (148).
Lingustically, hab and Abba are related and through the brief look at hab we gain some insight into the nature of God as Jesus presents. For Jesus God is “someone” with whom one creates, or “kindles” a relationship with, and this relationship is one, as the root AB suggests, that seeks completion; it is also a relationship, that if kindled, will bear fruit. (This notion will bear particular importance on my next post regarding the first Beatitude.)
So what is Jesus doing in calling God “Abba?” He is enjoining his audience to enter into a different kind of relationship with God–a relationship that is loving. As hab is the kind of love that moves outward, this love must come from within. As daunting as that might seem to Jesus’ audience, again, the notion of hab is that it can be easy to kindle that love and when one does, it will bear fruit.
Works Cited (non-Biblical)
Douglas-Klotz, Neil. The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of Aramaic Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1999.
Forest, Jim. The Ladder of the Beatitudes. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.