Baker Academic

Monday, February 16, 2015

More examples of Aramaic sources?

In a previous post, I looked at the possibility of an Aramaic source behind Matt. 23. 26//Luke 11.41 and Luke 11.42//Matt. 23.23 by focusing on how Luke especially might have (deliberately?) read or redacted דכו (‘cleanse’, ‘purify’) as זכו (‘give alms’) and שבתא  (‘dill’) as שברא (‘rue’).

Discussing the possibility of Aramaic sources can be highly complex, particularly attempts at reconstruction of whole passages. In historical Jesus studies, the so-called criterion of Aramaic influence is regularly dismissed. This is both right and wrong. It is right in that none of the criteria take us back to the historical Jesus but thus wrong in the sense that it is not necessarily worse than the other criteria. But, like the other criteria, it might be possible to use Aramaic to get back to earlier tradition. Of course, even Aramaisms may not even do that—it is entirely possible, as critics rightly point out, that there could have been Aramaic influence on Greek traditions. But then the criteria should never have been used in a quasi-scientific sense anyway. So now, in addition to the examples of דכו/זכו and שבתא/שברא, I want to give another two examples where I think there is evidence of pre-gospel Aramaic sources before giving some suggestions about what else we might say about Aramaic and the Gospel tradition.

The first is from the Lord’s Prayer (if that’s the right title) and the (genuinely famous?) difference between Matt. 6.12//Luke 11.4:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt. 6.12)

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. (Luke 11.4)

In Aramaic ‘debt’ and ‘debtor’ (from חובא) is another way of talking about ‘sin’ and ‘sinner’. Chilton noted some time ago that such uses are common enough in the Isaiah Targum. Here debt/debtors can refer to people punished by the Messiah, people destroyed by God, wicked gentiles, enemies of Jerusalem, and so on. This is entirely consistent with all the conventional words for ‘sinner’ in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, all of which remained stable from the Hebrew Bible/OT through to rabbinic literature. The language of debts/debtor is also found throughout the Syriac Peshitta (same root) and used to translate all the standard uses of ‘sinner’ in the Hebrew Bible. Obviously, we have to be careful using translations as late as the Peshitta and the Isaiah Targum but lateness alone should not be used as a reason or excuse to discount this possibility underlying Matt. 6.13 and Luke 11.4. For a start, the Aramaic root is certainly known by the first century (e.g. 11Q10 21.5; 34.4). But also, related traditions using the language of debt are found in the Gospel tradition (in addition to Matt. 6.12//Luke 11.4, see Matt. 18.23-25; Luke 7.36-50; Luke 16.1-9).

Given the difference between Matt. 6.12//Luke 11.4, we might suggest the possibility of an Aramaic source. This time, however, Luke would not have gone for a significant change (as with ‘rue’ and ‘give alms’) but for a more straightforward understanding of ‘sins’ which would be less culturally specific than not including mention of ‘sins’ at all.

The second example is from Mark 2.27-28 and parallels:

Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the son of man is lord even of the Sabbath’ (Mark 2.23-28)

For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath’ (Matt. 12.8)

Then he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath’ (Luke 6.5)

This might be the best possibility of the generic use (with reference to the speaker/individual too) of the Aramaic idiom for ‘man’ (though the gendered term can be used more generally for ‘human’): (א)נש(א) בר. Throughout the Gospel tradition, the term seems to function as something like a title (as is almost inevitable if the term was translated from Aramaic to Greek with reference to Jesus). Aside from when there are obvious allusions to Daniel 7.13 (e.g. Mark 13.26; 14.62), it is not clear whether it is even possible to determine with any certainty that ‘son of man’ sayings necessarily reflect an earlier Aramaic idiom. In various cases they potentially could (e.g. Mark 2.10; Luke 9.58//Matt. 8.20), but in themselves they could equally have been a title which has come from Mark or whoever else wrote such passages in Greek. The son of man problem across the Gospel tradition is for another day but in the case of Mark 2.27-28 we do seem to have good evidence of an Aramaic source where it appears to function as a form of parallelism indicating its generic aspects (cf. Ps. 8.4). What’s more, the sentiment of justifying Sabbath practice in terms of being made for humanity was something known in, and associated with, Palestinian Judaism (e.g. Exod. 16.29; Jub. 2.17; Mek. Exod. 31.12-17; cf. b. Yoma 85b). But perhaps most significant is that both Matt. and Luke drop the generalising Mark 2.27 (‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath’) and clearly make sure that we are dealing with a title for Jesus alone: The Son of Man. The implication being, of course, that Mark has retained a more literal understanding of an Aramaic idiom.

These are, then, two more of the better possibilities of Aramaic sources underlying the Gospel tradition. I have noted that this remains limited in its use for historical Jesus studies, at least in the sense that it does not necessarily take us back to the words of Jesus. It is also of limited use for the Synoptic Problem. If there were lots of examples like Matt. 23. 26//Luke 11.41, Luke 11.42//Matt. 23.23 and Matt. 6.12//Luke 11.4 then we might be able to make a case for Q (an Aramaic Q or q’s at that). But I’m not sure that there are enough examples of such parallels in Matt. and Luke to do so (at least not to my knowledge) and so these one word or phrase examples alone only point to isolated cases which is not, statistically speaking, enough. Such examples might mean a qualification of a model of Luke using Matt., or vice versa, in the limited sense that there might also have been Aramaic sources alongside Mark and Luke or Matthew. One interesting possibility is that such Aramaic sources might, in whatever form, account for Papias’ confusion that canonical Matthew was originally written in the Hebrew (i.e. Aramaic) language (as I tentatively argued with Mike Kok at SBL in 2013)

Using such examples are limited. But pointing to the potential of earlier Palestinian tradition and accounting for some problems in the Synoptic tradition is something, is it not?


  1. Yes. But many cultures, not just Arab or Aramaic noted the importance of men and fiscal obligations

  2. In HEbrew the word for sacrifice relates to the word for tax.

  3. Those Jewish texts which you cite (Exod. 16.29; Jub. 2.17; Mek. Exod. 31.12-17) defend the observance of Sabbath on the basis that it was given for the benefit of humankind, don't they? How then would such pro-observance texts serve to explain that David (like Jesus) ate bread of the Presence which ouk exestiv phagein ei me tous hiereis (which "it is not legal to eat, except for the priests": Mark 2:26)? Jesus explicitly says this action of David is against the law - not that it is allowable under some halakic interpretation of law. It's just plain old law-breaking for Jesus. Whereas Exod. 16.29; Jub. 2.17; Mek. Exod. 31.12-17 defend the legal requirement for Sabbath-observance on the basis of it being a gift to humans, Mark 2:27 seeks to justify an action which, while beneficial to David and his companions, is explicitly labeled in the immediately preceding verse as breaking the law. So the alleged parallels don't really fit, do they?

    Furthermore, there is another problem with interpreting Jesus as introducing a generic "son of man" sense in 2.27-28. If Jesus really is comparing himself to David, who he explicitly says broke the law for the benefit of himself and his companions, then 2:27 doesn't serve Jesus' case if its Vorlage included a generic "son of man" reference. That defence only comes in 2:28, in respect of himself. It goes quite outside the Jewish comparanda to state that humankind benefits from breaking the law, by breaking the Sabbath. But David still seems to be exempt from the law, as sovereign authority. So Mark 2:27 does not suffice to justify the actions of Jesus and disciples, if we accept that Jesus acknowledged the action went outside (his halakic interpretation of) the law.

    This is why, for Mark, Jesus needed to add 2:28, to state that he, as Son of Man, had sovereign authority over the Sabbath. If the saying in 2:27 had included the term "bar enosh" in its Vorlage, it would never have been used by Mark, who needed to distinguish Jesus' authority in terms equal or exceeding David's own authority. So 2:27 is a general saying, applicable to Jesus and his disciples. But what makes the argument for law-breaking decisive is 2:28, which has Jesus assert authority over Sabbath law. As for Derrida, for Mark's Jesus, true sovereignty is the power to break laws.

    No wonder Matthew and Luke dispensed with Mark 2:27. It doesn't do adequate work in Jesus' defence of his law-breaking. Only Mark's argument in 2:28 is persuasive. So Mark 2:27 was easily dispensed with, to get to the slam-dunk argument: Jesus can break the Sabbath law because he has a singular authority, similar to David and the Messiah, but greater still, an authority which is welcomed in the Presence of God (as were the archangels and Enoch), and one identified with the authoritative Son of Man. Mark 2:27-28 is the gateway, the introduction, to the explicitly Danielic/Enochic Son of Man sayings in the remainder of the Gospel.

    So in Mark 2:27-28, I think we have one of the clearest examples of the necessary singularity of "the Son of Man" - one with no genuine possibility of a generic son of man in any alleged Aramaic Vorlage. Matthew makes an apt exegetical addition when he announces, "I tell you that one greater..."

    Don't you find that much more persuasive than a Markan Jesus who offers up a few halakic tidbits?

  4. So we see many moving from secular terms to an idealized religious take on them

    The tax paid to a human Lord is now read as mental obedience to a cosmic ideal Lord

    But the great man returns as humanism and "Man"

  5. On David example... It is important to note that the disciples break no biblical commandment but would (like the men of Jericho) have been in conflict with Pharisaic understandings of what can be picked on the Sabbath. So, from one perspective, this was breaking the Law but from another, it wasn't. David is used as an example of a 'weightier' breaking of the law compared to the 'lighter' case of the disciples, i.e. the Pharisees should have no problem with Jesus' logic (according Jesus/Gospels, obviously). Put another way, if David et al did that, how can you condemn plucking grain! Thus the parallels are very apt.

    Mark 2.28 emphatically does *not* state humankind benefits from breaking the Law. The context is plucking grain and Mark has outlined this already and 'humankind' does not have to be referenced so literally (i.e. it can--and was--used to imply 'all Jews'). So the logic is that the Sabbath was made for human beings and thus human beings are lords of it (within reason, of course) and entitled to enjoy it by plucking grain

    So, there is no authority to break laws other than Pharisaic laws, as with the men from Jericho who picked fruit on the Sabbath. Similarly Matt and Luke do not present a law-breaking Jesus per se but they do make sure SofM is a title. by removing the obvious generic context.

    What's more, there is simply no Danielic or Enochic allusion in Mark 2.23-28 (unlike elsewhere). Given that sofm can be used generically and works perfectly well generically here, it is the only real explanation.

    So, no, not persuasive. Halakakic tidbits? Well, halakah was important enough for the Mishnah, DSS, PT, BT etc to devote masses of space to it. Mark is presumably presenting Jesus and *the* great interpreter.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Ps: it is worth stressing that Jesus doesn't even pluck grain and note that Matt and Luke add that the disciples eat it there and then, i.e. to make sure they are not presented as carrying a burden or doing something more obviously 'work' with it

    3. C'mon - you've got a perfectly good explanation why Mark uses the term Son of Man throughout his Gospel - i.e., that it is dependent on its use in Daniel 7 and the Similitudes. No need to fish for possible instances of a generic (or alternatively a circumlocutional) usage. Occam's Razor should be applied here. Given the evangelists' usual overinterpretation of phrases in Jewish scriptures when they think they refer to Jesus, and the overinterpretation of Dan 7's "one like a son of man" throughout the rest of Mark's own Gospel, this is a no-brainer. Sure, one can make a circumstantial case for one or two generic usages. But one should not. The economic answer is that Mark is always thinking of the Danielic sense, even here where there are few other indications of the context of Dan 7.

  6. Nah! the generic context in Mark and the changes made my Matt and Luke to remove the generic context means that the generic explanation is perfectly good. If we wanted to go the scriptural route then there are other uses of SofM (e.g. Ezek, PS, at a push Adam) so some indication of which one would be required, just as Mark does later one with Danielic connotations. If by Occam's Razor you mean unnecessarily multiplying explanations (or whatever the wording is), I don't think this explanation does that. If you mean the simplest solution, the generic is a simple solution: it's a common enough Aramaic idiom which Mark translates literally. And given that there's no obvious scriptural link made...