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The Language of Yeshua and the New Testament - Part 1

Written by: Lancaster, Christopher    Posted on: 06/04/2005

Category: Theology


Welcome to Aramaic Thoughts! First and foremost, let me say that I am a simple person and I write for simple people in simple language. I am somewhat of an academic, with a pharmacy degree and aspirations of becoming a heart surgeon, but when it comes to scholarly Bible study I have no secular qualifications whatsoever. I must translate into “layman’s language” for my own understanding, and I then pass on the message to others in this same “layman’s language”.

For the first two weeks I want to introduce you to Aramaic, the language of the Messiah, the Peshitta and why Aramaic/Peshitta studies are relevant in Christianity. Then week by week we shall look at many exciting topics such as Bible codes, Aramaic-solved Bible contradictions, Peshitta-explained Greek variants, poetry, misunderstood idioms and more!

A. What is Aramaic?

Aramaic is an ancient Semitic language (very similar to Hebrew) that according to the Encyclopedia Britannica became the dominant language of the Middle East, around 500-600 years before the birth of the Messiah.

“Aramaic is thought to have first appeared among the Aramaeans about the late 11th century BC. By the 8th century BC it had become accepted by the Assyrians as a second language. The mass deportations of people by the Assyrians and the use of Aramaic as a lingua franca by Babylonian merchants served to spread the language, so that in the 7th and 6th centuries BC it gradually supplanted Akkadian as the lingua franca of the Middle East.” – Encyclopedia Britannica

“The Persians used the Aramaic language because this tongue was the language of the two Semitic empires, the empire of Assyria and the empire of Babylon. Aramaic was so firmly established as the lingua franca that no government could dispense with its use as a vehicle of expression in a far-flung empire, especially in the western provinces. Moreover, without schools and other modern facilities, Aramaic could not be replaced by the speech of conquering nations. Conquerors were not interested in imposing their languages and cultures on subjugated peoples. What they wanted was taxes, spoils, and other levies. The transition from Aramaic into Arabic, a sister tongue, took place after the conquest of the Near East by the Moslem armies in the 7th century, A.D. Never­theless, Aramaic lingered for many centuries and still is spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and northwestern Iran, as well as among the Christian Arab tribes in north­ern Arabia. Its alphabet was borrowed by the Hebrews, Arabs, Iranians, and Mongols.” – Dr. George Mamishisho Lamsa, Aramaic scholar

Aramaic even spread into such regions as Asia.

“As for the Aramaic alphabet, it achieved far wider conquests. In 1599 A.D., it was adopted for the conveyance of the Manchu language on the eve of the Manchu conquest of China. The higher religions sped it on its way by taking it into their service. In its 'Square Hebrew' variant it became the vehicle of the Jewish Scriptures and liturgy; in an Arabic adaptation it became the alphabet of Islam.” – Dr. Arnold Toynbee, Historian

Aramaic, being such a common language, used in many different countries, such as Assyria, Babylon and Israel, had many names. One name was given by the Greeks: Syriac.

“Greeks had called Aramaic by a word they coined, 'Syriac', and this artificial term was used in the West, but never in the East, where it has always been known by its own name, 'Lishana Aramaya' (the Aramaic language.)” – Paul Younan, Aramaic scholar

Aramaic, as we know from history and the Bible (parts of Ezra, Jeremiah and Daniel were written in Aramaic, albeit with the Hebrew script), became the dominant language even among the Israelis. Even to this day, now that the “Jews” reverted to Hebrew, the Aramaic presence is still strong in their traditions, such as the “Bar Mitzvah” – where the Aramaic “Bar”, meaning son, is used instead of the Hebrew “Ben”. Additionally, Aramaic is the primary language of the “Rabbinical Jewish” Mishnah and two Talmuds. The Aramaic language became a very important part of religion among the Judeans.

“Even to the West of the Euphrates river, in the Holy Land, the main vernacular was Aramaic. The weekly synagogue lections, called sidra or parashah, with the haphtarah, were accompanied by an oral Aramaic translation, according to fixed traditions. A number of Targumim in Aramaic were thus eventually committed to writing, some of which are of unofficial character, and of considerable antiquity. The Gemara of the Jerusalem Talmud was written in Aramaic, and received its definitive form in the 5th century. The Babylonian Talmud with its commentaries on only 36 of the Mishnah's 63 tractates, is four times as long as the Jerusalem Talmud. These Gemaroth with much other material were gathered together toward the end of the 5th century, and are in Aramaic. Since 1947, approximately 500 documents were discovered in eleven caves of Wadi Qumran near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. In addition to the scrolls and fragments in Hebrew, there are portions and fragments of scrolls in Aramaic. Hebrew and Aramaic, which are sister languages, have always remained the most distinctive features marking Jewish and Eastern Christian religious and cultural life, even to our present time.” – Paul Younan

Even in the time of Jesus, it is undisputed that Aramaic was a widely-used language. In fact, we know from the Bible, that Jesus and the Apostles spoke Aramaic, as did the earliest Christians (made up of Judeans and other Semitic peoples such as Syrians and Chaldeans). Even the sign on Jesus’ cross was written in Aramaic (the dialect of the “Hebrews”), as well as Greek and Latin.

Modern scholarship contends that while both Aramaic and Greek were common in Israel, in the time of Jesus, Greek was the main language, or “lingua franca”. Problems arise for this theory, when we see what famous Judean historian Josephus has to say on the matter, in 42 AD (note that Josephus wrote in Aramaic!):

“I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and understand the elements of the Greek language; although I have so accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness. For our nation does not encourage those that learn the language of many nations. On this account, as there have been many who have done their endeavors, with great patience, to obtain this Greek learning, there have yet hardly been two or three that have succeeded herein, who were immediately rewarded for their pains.” – Antiquities XX, 11:2.

Is it not ironic that the same Greek scholars, who graciously accept Josephus’ teachings as supportive of the Bible, also reject his teaching that Greek was not as widespread as many today think? For according to Josephus, the Judeans discouraged the learning of Greek, sticking instead to Aramaic! Aramaic scholar Dr. George Lamsa even goes so far as to say that it was a saying among the Judeans, that learning Greek was akin to eating the flesh of swine (which makes sense of the Judean mourning over the creation of the Septuagint).

The Church of the East, the main Christian Church in the Eastern world (just as the Roman Catholic Church was the main Christian Church in the Western world), spread Christianity throughout the Middle East and Asia, and utilized the Aramaic New Testament Bible, the Peshitta.

“… Church of the East was making giant strides. The Ashurai people who carried the torch of the Church had embarked on a great missionary effort. They spread Christianity to India and the far reaches of China. There are historical monuments in China still today that attest to the missionary zeal of this Church. Yet all the achievements of the Church of the East are being still denied by the Western Churches to this day.

As the Ashurai nation had no country since the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, they were the perfect candidates for the evangelization of the East. Their last king, Agbar, was healed of leprosy by two of the disciples of Jesus. The Ashurai nation became Christian in the 1Century, followed by Armenians and Chaldeans. By the 12th Century, they were the greatest Church in Christendom.

The Church of the East was under constant persecution for centuries, but this was a blessing in disguise as they didn't have the time or the motive to change the Scriptures. They continued to copy the original Ancient Aramaic Scriptures from the Apostolic Age verbatim without even updating the language.” – Victor Alexander, Aramaic scholar

B. What is the Peshitta?

The New Testament is believed to have been written in Greek… in the West. In the East, it is a common belief that the New Testament was written in the Eastern language of Aramaic. Which stance is correct? As we search for the answer to this question, let us keep in mind that Christianity is an EASTERN religion, and that many religious peoples in the East were very serious about not adding or deleting to God’s Word, unlike the “cut and paste” Westerners.

“When these texts were copied by expert scribes, they were carefully examined for accuracy before they were dedicated and permitted to be read in churches. Even one missing letter would render the text void. Easterners still adhere to God's com­mandment not to add to or omit a word from the Scriptures. The Holy Scripture condemns any addition or subtraction or modification of the Word of God.

"You shall not add to the commandment which I command you, neither shall you take from it, but you must keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you." Deuteronomy 4:2.

"Everything that I command you, that you must be careful to do; you shall not add nor take from it." Deuteronomy 12:32.

"Do not add to his words; lest he reprove you, and you be found a liar." Proverbs 30:6.

"And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his portion from the tree of life and from the holy city and from the things which are written in this book." Revelation 22:19.

It is also true of the Jews and Moslems that they would not dare to alter a word of the Torah or Koran. Easterners are afraid that they may incur the curse if they make a change in the Word of God.

Astonishingly enough, all the Peshitta texts in Aramaic agree. There is one thing of which the Eastern scribes can boast: they copied their holy books diligently, faithfully, and meticulously. Sir Frederick Kenyon, Curator of the British Museum, in his book Textual Criticism of the New Testament, speaks highly of the accuracy of copying and of the antiquity of Peshitta MSS.

The versions translated from Semitic languages into Greek and Latin were subject to constant revisions. Learned men who copied them introduced changes, trying to simplify obscurities and ambiguities which were due to the work of the first translators.” – Dr. George Mamishisho Lamsa

That the Peshitta mss (manuscripts) are almost exactly the same (besides minor spelling differences), is even acknowledged by the Greek primacists (those who believe that the Greek is the original). That the Peshitta mss agree so closely while the Greek mss have numerous variants (many of which can be shown to be caused by Aramaic roots, as earlier articles in this series have shown), speaks volumes.

There is also an Aramaic version of the Old Testament, known as the Peshitta OT, or Peshitta Tanakh, which is a ‘translation’ from the Hebrew OT (like the Septuagint, the Peshitta OT is believed to have been ‘translated’ from a Hebrew version older than the widely-accepted and recent, Massoretic text).

“The Septuagint is based on early Hebrew manuscripts and not on the later ones known as the Massoretic, which were made in the 6th to the 9th centuries. In other words, there are many similarities between the Septuagint and the Peshitta text but the former contains inevitable mistranslations which were due to difficulties in transmitting Hebrew or Aramaic thought and mannerisms of speech into a totally alien tongue like Greek. But as has been said, such was not the case between Biblical Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew which are of the same origin. Josephus used Aramaic and Hebrew words indiscriminately. Thus, the term "trans­lating" from Hebrew into Aramaic or vice versa is incorrect. It would be like one stating as having translated the United States Constitution from the Pennsylvania language into the English language or from lower German to higher German. Even before the first captivity, 721 B.C., Jewish kings, scribes, and learned men understood Aramaic. 2 Kings 18:26. The Israelites never wrote their sacred literature in any language but Aramaic and Hebrew, which are sister languages. The Septuagint was made in the 3century, B.C., for the Alexandrian Jews. This version was never officially read by the Jews in Palestine who spoke Aramaic and read Hebrew. Instead, the Jewish authorities condemned the work and declared a period of mourning because of the defects in the version. Evidently Jesus and his disciples used a text which came from an older Hebrew original. This is apparent because Jesus' quotations from the Old Testament agree with the Peshitta text but do not agree with the Greek text. For example, in John 12:40, the Peshitta Old Testament and New Testament agree.” – Dr. George Mamishisho Lamsa

That the OT was written in Hebrew is uncontested. After all, it was written by Hebrew-speakers, for Hebrew-speakers, and tells the stories of Hebrew-speakers. So why is Aramaic primacy of the NT (New Testament) contested? Does it not make sense that the NT, written by Aramaic-speakers, for Aramaic-speakers, telling the stories of Aramaic-speakers, be written in Aramaic? According to “scholarly consensus” (i.e. the shared beliefs of many scholars, lacking in any real evidence), it makes more sense that it was written in the non-Semitic language of Greek.

So is there any real use for this Aramaic Peshitta? We shall find out week by week, case by case!


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