Baker Academic

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Misreading or Redacting Aramaic Sources?

One of the longest standing cases for a possible underlying Aramaic source in the Gospel tradition is based on Matt. 23.26//Luke 11.41 and the saying concerning the purification of cups:

First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. (Matt. 23.26)

So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you’ (Luke 11.41)

The case, made ‘famous’ by Wellhausen and his inspired suggestion, typically claims that Luke appears to have misread the Aramaic דכו (‘cleanse’, ‘purify’) for זכו (‘give alms’) and Matthew is therefore more likely reflecting a pre-Gospel tradition (Black: ‘quite certainly to be found in the wrong understanding of Aramaic dakko’; Casey: ‘represents a misreading’, ‘misread for the original…’). An almost as ‘famous’ critique (not unreasonably) casts doubt on whether it would have been possible to confuse (whether graphically, orally, aurally…) ד with ז.

Still, the two words remain quite similar, do they not? And I wonder whether this is such a problematic issue if we stop thinking about whether Luke made a ‘mistake’ (an ‘honest mistake’?) or ‘misread’ and instead think in conventional redaction critical terms of a more deliberate change (which is only hinted at by Black, though notably in the context of whether ‘the two verbs were originally identical in orthography’). For a start, there is a case to be made for Luke—or Luke’s imagined audience—not understanding the laws surrounding the purification of cups and so a deliberate change could help solve that particular problem. However, when we look at the passage in its immediate literary context, the possibility of an underlying Aramaic source becomes more of a possibility. In Luke 11.42//Matt.23.23, there is again evidence that Luke ‘misunderstood’ (possibly deliberately and polemically) tithing laws in his claim that Pharisees tithe ‘rue’ and ‘all kinds of herbs’ which is precisely not the case according to the Mishnah (m. Shebiit 9.1, ‘Rue, goosefoot, wild coriander, water parsley, and eruca of the field are exempt from tithes…because produce of their type is not cultivated [i.e. grows wild]’). What’s more, we have another potential Aramaic ‘misreading’ here of שבתא  (‘dill’; Matt. 23.23) with שברא (‘rue’), a view made ‘famous’ by Nestle in an equally inspired suggestion from 1904. Whether or not Luke could have mistaken ת for ר is perhaps beside the point (Black: ‘misread [quoting Loew]…mistranslation’; Casey: ‘misread’) a redactor certainly could have deliberately changed an Aramaic source so.

And is it not striking that we have two close Aramaic equivalents behind the Lukan and Matthean passages and would this not at least suggest the possibility of an Aramaic source in this instance?


  1. Yes. Though curiously, the first transition also matched a very High spiritual Christology; the notion that we don't need to give physical things, but only spiritual things within us.

    So it's easy to see how there could have been a deliberate transition here, whether motivated linguistically or not. For me, that is the more interesting way that old writing, the physicality of the OT, was bent a bit, in the NT.

    The motivation is what interests me most.

    And by the way? That motivation would be enough to explain the change; even without any Aramaic origins at all. Many things from the OT are changed into solely spiritual metaphors, in the NT. Water into spiritual water, etc.

    1. The point Anthony raises below about almsgiving is probably the best explanation of motivation. It is easy to explain why Luke pushed it in that direction (and would be less easy to explain why Matt. removed it if it was in a source Matt. had). In both cases, however, Matt and Luke assume, I think, the validity of both tithing and immersion of cups (they both have polemics against what they portray as certain other ways of carrying out these laws).

  2. James, was it Black who suggested that Luke's "almsgiving" might reflect the evangelist's interest in fiscal ethics? I can't remember if this is Black or just what I was thinking as I read Black.

  3. Interesting! This made me wonder about transmission of oral traditions when two languages are involved. We start at the death of Jesus with an oral tradition that was (probably) predominantly or exclusively Aramaic, and we end with a written tradition that is almost entirely Greek. Did the translation take place in the process of committing the oral tradition to writing, or before that? I would presume, before that, at least in some part. Meaning, I suppose, that the "misunderstanding" you refer to (whether deliberate or not) could have taken place well before Luke (and Matthew) committed to put their respective traditions (both oral and written) into another writing.

    I think it's fun to consider that the "misunderstanding" found in Luke might not merely have been "intentional" on the part of the author/oral performer-composer, but might have been understood as intentional by the reader-audience. In my studies, I'm beginning to appreciate the occasional presence of puns in Jewish texts. Is it possible that some of Luke's audience "in the know" would recognize that Luke (or some predecessor) had twisted the original wording slightly to add a little drash to the p'shat? Meaning that for a time, BOTH meanings were present in Luke's "misunderstanding"?

  4. I don't know who first suggested that point but it seems to me the best explanation to me for the Lukan change. I've had a quick check through Black (Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts) and he doesn't say anything about fiscal ethics behind Luke's change. I may have missed something but this shouldn't be too surprising as Black typically did not give such explanations in the book (typically keeping the emphasis grammatical). But it may also be because the emphasis is more on 'misreading' and 'mistake' that reasons including more deliberate redactional/theological changes are not properly discussed.

  5. Very difficult to know when things were translated from Aramaic into Greek. I suppose theoretically it could have been a mix of oral (Aramaic) to writing (Aramaic and/or Greek) and Aramaic and Greek ideas first committed to writing. And other option no doubt.

    Interesting suggestion on puns and I think the audience/reader question is important and the suggestion you made must be an option of we envisage some readers/hearers with Aramaic knowledge. On the subject of puns underlying Matt. 23.23par. (tithe, transgress, do) has been suggested...

  6. While it's fairly hard to misread דכו for זכו, it's easy to mishear it. They are easier to confuse than "peacemakers" and "cheesemakers". So maybe the saying was recorded in two different ways during its oral transmission.

    Similarly, it is obvious why Luke might have preferred or heard שברא (‘rue’) for שבתא (‘dill’; Matt. 23.23). Rue was used as a border in Greek gardens. Given Luke's obvious petite bourgeois proclivities, it is natural that he would've heard שברא.

  7. Yes, the oral suggestions have to be a serious possibility for the reasons you give. However, I hope you are not tarring all those with horticultural interests with the same petite bourgeois brush