Faithful Translation of Sacred Texts: The Gospels

Professor Andrew Wilson and Dr Tom Hickey


Professor Andrew Wilson writes
The issue that Prof. Tom Hickey raises about translations of Jesus' words from Aramaic runs squarely against the mainstream scholarly opinion in New Testament research. In their view, the Christianity of the Gospels was largely spread among Hellenistic Jews for whom Greek was
their first language. It is well-known that even in Jerusalem of the period a large percentage of the population preferred Greek, as indicated by the large number of Greek inscriptions on sarcophagi.
Outside of Judea, Greek ruled. The Gospel writers wrote in Greek.

There is evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic, but scholarly consensus says that the translation from Aramaic to Greek occured at the stage of oral tradition, prior to the writing of any of the Gospels, or even proto-gospels like Q.

Existing Aramaic retro-translations of the New Testament, for instance by Lamsa, are thus regarded as only of limited value.

Dr Tom Hickey replies
I fully agree with Prof. Wilson's points regarding the scholarship, which indicates that I need to clarify my point. I had written that Jesus' teaching was delivered in Aramaic in a Jewish context. Pauline
Christianity was Greek from the very beginning. Unless Paul was the author of this teaching, some trasposition took place from the Aramaic in the Jewish context of the Early Church headed by James "the Tzaddik," the brother of Jesus. The Jewish Jerusalem Community was large and influential for some time after the crucifixion of Jesus, and Acts reveals that the Jersualem community under the leadership of James was at odds with Paul. This has been well researched by Robert Eisenman in
James, the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls, NY: Viking, 1996. While some of  Eisenman's theses are admittedly controversial - although theyare most hotly contested my many with an axe to grind, the evidence he brings forward is copious and well documented, and its import esxtends far beyond Eisenman's theses. There seems to be no doubt that Jesus' teaching was the basis of a significant Palestinian, Jewish, Aramaic-speaking sect that was quite different from the subsequently Greek-speaking and Hellenized secondary followers who eventually gave rise to Gentile Christianity.

It seems incontrovertible that the written gospels were initially spread through the Hellenistic world in Greek, probably first perhaps among Hellenized Jews. There is some question as to whether Jesus spoke Greek himself, since Greek was in considerable use in Palestine at the time, and if his speaking to Pontius Pilate has any credibility to it, it certainly wan't in either Aramaic, which Pilate would not have understood, or in Latin which a Jew would not have used even if he understood it. There are no extant records of written Aramaic gospels at an early stage. Many scholars accept that there are a source tradition, called Q ("Quelle"), which may have been redacted, although no hard
evidence has yet been forthcoming. There is no evidence that the Aramaic Peshitta text of the gospels precedes the Greek, although the Assyrian Christian Aramaic speakers don't seem to cotton to the notion that their scriptures were translated back into Aramaic from Greek and that Jesus'
words they have are therefore a further step removed from the source.

The fact remains that Jesus and the Early Church was Jewish and almost certainly conducted their daily affairs in Aramaic and their religious activities as Jews in Hebrew as the sacred language. What we know today of Christianity is foundationally in terms of Hellenistic Greek in not only language and but also largely in context. At some point a "transposition" was effected to Greek from an originally Aramaic source, and whether it was oral or written is immaterial. Whether texts actually got translated or an oral Aramaic tradition was redacted in Greek does not affect the fact that the teaching of Jesus as it was given by him and preserved initially by the apostles and members of the Jerusalem community was Jewish, not Hellenistic, and originally Aramaic, not Greek. I don't know of anyone of repute who thinks that Jesus was a Hellenized Jew who proclaimed his prophetic message in Greek.

Most scholars now think that the oral tradition initiated by Jesus' close disciples and based on Jesus' contact was not redacted until after the martyrdom of James, the destruction of Jerusalem and the
disappearance of the Jerusalem community. Whatever the historical facts may be, which we may never know unless additional documents are discovered, Jesus' teaching was "transposed" from an initially oral teaching in a Semitic language eventually to an written Indo-European one,  if not literally "translated" from Aramaic writings in the interim. Since no source documents are known, the original version is no longer available for comparison.

Whatever the textual history, it would be interesting to envision what the consquences of this linguistic and contextual transposition might be and what relation this may have to Kabbalah. While Eisenman has made some interesting forays in this direction, this was not a principal concern for him in this work. What one might suspect is that the "transposition" from the Semitic language and Palestinian context to the Greek language and Hellenistic culture served to magnify the literal
meaning and to obscure the Kabbalistic "anagogical" content of the teaching, because in the transposition the literal meaning is retained whereas the Semitic roots, so important to Kabbalisitic "anagogical" exegesis and hermeutics, are lost. For instance, the Christian notion of "Holy Spirit," based on the Greek texts and interpreted though the concepts of Greek thought, has become quite different from the Semitic source with its Kabbalistic underpinings. As a result, especially in
Western Christianity in the estimation of many Eastern  Christians, the Holy Spirit has become a rather untidy philosophical concept, on the one hand, and on the other, an excuse for some rather bizarre forays into "charismatic" experience.

In contrast, Mystical Christianity and Kabbalah have profound things in common regarding experience of God's indwelling. Is this "accidentally" discovered later by the respective mystics of the traditions in their experience, or did Jesus' teaching itself encompass this correspondence.  If it did, and it would be surprising to me anyway if it did not, then this teaching would have been in Jewish mystical terminology as evidenced by the Semitic roots that have been lost. So I do think that there are some interesting questions yet to be asked about the linguistic transpositon of Jesus's teaching, and hopefully illumined by a better understanding of the Semitic background of that teaching.

Jesus' teaching was initially received in terms that lead to the development of a Jewish sect before it became "Christianity," and there is no good evidence that Jesus himself thought of founding another
religion separate from Judaism. In fact, there are indications he did not. Christianity as a new religion came to be a Greek-speaking and Hellenized version of what Jesus intially taught, and whatever that was, we may never know in a way that can be established on the basis of compelling evidence.

Professor Evgueny Torchinov comments
Regarding history of the early Christianity I am sure that the Romanized and Hellenistic members of the Christian communities outside Judea could only explain the message of the Gospels within the frames of their culture and its attitudes, values and patterns. This Hellinization of the teachings of Jesus inevitably lead Christianity to the transformation into a highly syncretic religion in which Biblical patterns were interpretated in the terms of the Hellinistic thought, Hellinistic beliefs and Hellinistic soteriological expectations.

I am sure as well that we can understand Jesus' message only in the context of his contemporary Judaic tradition the previously unknowned aspects of which were revealed to us mostly due to the discovery of the Qumran manuscripts. Here I would like to cite a passage from the work of one of the most serious contemporary researches into Qumran and Early Christian studies, Prof. James H. Charlesworth:

"What is paradigmatically important is this internationally acknowledged insight: The Dead Sea scrolls reveal ideas once considered unique to "Christianity" and this discovery proves that Early Christianity was for many years one of the groups (perhaps a sect) within Judaism."
The Dead Sea Scrolls: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Texts with English Translations. Vol. 1. Ed. by James H. Charlesworth with F.M. Cross, J.Milgrom, E. Qimron, L. H. Schiffman, L. T. Stuckenbruck, and R.E.Whitaker. J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tubingen--Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1994, p. XXIII.

posted on the Donmeh mail list
June 1999

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