Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What Language Did Jesus Speak?

I am less than familiar with the (mostly recent, I believe) debates over which language Jesus spoke: Hebrew or Aramaic. But the debate came to mind, still, when I was at a Bible study this morning. Let me begin by briefly discussing some background info that will lead to my ultimate purpose in writing up this blog post. I spent all last year studying Hebrew and I recently began to study Aramaic. It should come as no surprise that Aramaic is not all that different from Hebrew, considering there is debate about which language Jesus spoke and since we have a few quotes in the NT of Jesus speaking in the original language (that's Aramaic/Hebrew, not Greek). I recognized sometime in the midst of Hebrew class that Jesus' cry of dereliction ("eli eli lema sebachthani") was Hebrew(ish)– at least the eli eli lema part was Hebrew (אלי אלי למה); the main difference is the verb, which was closer to 'azavethani than sabachthani. Now, the b in Hebrew (ב, Bet) is kind of fluid, and when it appears without a Daghesh Lene it makes the "V" sound. We know there is no "V" sound in Greek, so naturally it would appear in the Greek text as a hard "B". However, it seems strange that it would be transliterated as it was. I know that Greek transliterating was a little bit less exact than contemporary transliteration– though, even that is not overly precise. I couldn't find the corresponding Aramaic word in my lexicon, but that is likely because it was not used in the Aramaic of the Old Testament or because I am incompetent and have only just begun studying Aramaic. Another notable difference is the vowel pointing. I won't belabor the point (no pun intended), but the vowels (and some consonants) in the verb (and the interrogative lema, which was lama in the Hebrew text) are different than it is spelled in the Psalms text (22:2). This could be due to poor transliteration on the part of the writer of the Gospel of Matthew or any number of other things– I haven't read any of the relevant literature. Nevertheless, it is very possible that this is either Aramaic or Hebrew, despite the differences from what we would expect in the Hebrew.

Today, however, as I was reading Acts 1 with a Bible study group, I noticed that Acts records the field in which Judas' bowels exploded (sort of) as Hakeldama or "the Field of Blood." I immediately noticed the difference between what would have been a Hebrew word and this clearly Aramaic word. I was unable to find "Hakel" in any of its variable transliterations back into the Aramaic script in my small Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon, but it was still clearly Aramaic. Had it not been for the "A" at the end (-ach [-αχ] in Greek), it would not have set off the bell in my head. One major difference between Hebrew and Aramaic is the affixation of the definite article. In Hebrew it is prefixed to the word. Therefore we have, as an example, haeretz (הארץ) translated as "the world/land/earth." The base form of this word is 'eretz. In Aramaic, however, we have the definite article suffixed to the word. So we have, as an example, maleka' (מלכא) translated as "the king." The base form of this word is melek. Even a layperson may see the a-sound (ha- in hebrew and -a in Aramaic) common to each example. This is when I realized that Hakeldama was probably something like הכל–דמא or hakel-dama'. I knew the word for blood in Hebrew (and, apparently, Aramaic), דם (dam). And I know how the construct chain works in both Hebrew and Aramaic. Just realizing that the a-sound was at the end made me realize, "Wait that's Aramaic, not Hebrew; therefore there are clearly some discernible differences in the NT text among the transliterated Aramaic... So why is there a debate?"

I've been thinking about it all day and haven't come to a conclusion about why there is debate at all. I guess I'll actually have to do some work and read a book or some articles. In any case, I hope reading this was interesting.

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