Scripture in Aramaic
Aramaic insights into the New Testament
Some highlights from The Passion Translation (TPT)
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Aramaic, a Semitic language, was the common language of the Near East from the 6th century BC. It replaced Hebrew locally as the language of the Jews from 450BC when the Jews returned from exile in Babylon. Most of the Old Testament is in Hebrew, but some later passages are in Aramaic as in Daniel and Ezra. The Passion Translation often refers to Aramaic texts of the New Testament.
I began reading The Passion Translation (TPT) as an interesting paraphrase and then discovered it is indeed a careful dynamic translation with detailed notes citing the earliest available Aramaic and Hebrew versions as well as the Greek.
Photo: The oldest complete Bible, c350.
Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript of the Christian Bible written in the middle of the fourth century, contains the Old Testament translated into Greek and the earliest complete copy of the Christian New Testament. The hand-written text is in Greek.
Take Matthew, for example. TPT’s Introduction to Matthew’s Gospel says:
“There continues to be debate over the original language of Matthew’s account. In AD 170 Eusebius quoted Irenaeus as saying, “Matthew published his gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul in Rome were preaching and founding the church.”
Irenaeus, a disciple of the apostle John, wrote extensively about Scripture. He comments on how Matthew wrote especially for Jewish Christians and Jews. Matthew quotes 60 times from the Old Testament. He shows how Jesus, the Son of David (a Hebrew Messianic title), fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures.
It is widely known that Aramaic was the language that Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest Christians spoke. It was the dominant language in most settings Jesus taught, probably the first language of most Galileans outside urban areas and the common tongue of most Judeans. It was the lingua franca of the Middle East until around the third century. Recent biblical scholarship has begun tracing many of Jesus’ teachings back to an original Aramaic source. Some even argue the original Greek manuscripts were translations of even more original Aramaic sources. For instance, Jesus’ famous “Son of Man” reference doesn’t make sense in the Greek; it’s a downright Semitic, non-Hellenized, Aramaic figure of speech if there ever was one. And an ironic wordplay can be discerned in Matthew 23:24, where “gnat” (qamla) and “camel” (gamla) are in obvious parallelism, signifying an Aramaic layer beneath the Bible. (https://www.thepassiontranslation.com/faqs)
As I began reading through The Passion Translation (TPT), I found its footnotes very interesting. TPT constantly refers to the earliest known Hebrew and Aramaic texts as well as Greek manuscripts. So I started noting some of those intriguing references.
Parables and Allegories
Let’s begin with that reference to Matthew 23:24 – “What blind guides! Nitpickers! You will spoon out a gnat from your drink, yet at the same time you’ve gulped down a camel without realizing it!” (TPT) The note for that verse says that this is best seen as an Aramaic pun. It’s even more interesting that this accusation by Jesus is part of his indictment and denunciation of the religious scholars and leaders. That was part of his provocative teaching and parables leading to his arrest, trials, and execution.
Jesus often used parables, allegories, and even hyperbole. Take, for example, his confusing and apparently extreme statement in Matthew 19:24 about being rich, translated in TPT as “In fact, it’s easier to stuff a heavy rope through the eye of a needle than it is for the wealthy to enter into God’s kingdom realm.” The Note on that verse says, “As translated from the Aramaic. The Greek is ‘to stuff a camel through the eye of a needle.’ The Aramaic word for both ‘rope’ and ‘camel’ is the homonym gamla. This could be an instance of the Aramaic text being misread by the Greek translators as ‘camel’ instead of ‘rope.’ Regardless, this becomes a metaphor for something impossible.”
Then I had to look up ‘homonym’. It means each of two or more words having the same spelling or pronunciation but with different meanings. So the Aramaic gamla can be translated as gnat, rope, camel, or more! That’s just one example of the challenges facing Bible translators.
Similarly, I also had to look up ‘hendiadys’ (one through two – a figure of speech used for emphasis) in TPT’s note on Matthew 3:11, Holy Spirit and fire – ‘This last clause is a hendiadys and could be translated “He will baptize you in the raging fire of the Holy Spirit.”‘
Likewise, the Hebrew Matthew clarifies some difficult passages like Matthew 11:12 – “The kingdom of heaven is entered into by force, and violent ones take hold of it” – translated in TPT as “the realm of heaven’s kingdom is bursting forth, and passionate people have taken hold of its power.” The note on that verse adds, “This is one of the most difficult passages in Matthew to translate from the Greek. When the Greek words are translated into Hebrew it becomes a clear reference to Mic. 2:12-13 and includes the ‘breaking forth (Hb. peretz).'” Micah 2:13 (NKJV) includes:
The one who breaks open will come up before them;
They will break out,
Pass through the gate,
And go out by it;
Their king will pass before them,
With the Lord at their head.
I found Matthew 13:3, 34-35 especially interesting in TPT, in that chapter of parables:
“He taught them many things by using stories, parables that would illustrate spiritual truths” (Mt 13:3) with the note: “The Aramaic and Greek use a word for ‘parable’ that means ‘a metaphor, allegory, simile, illustration, comparison, figure of speech, riddle, or enigmatic saying that is meant to stimulate intense thought.'”
“Whenever Jesus addressed the crowds, he always spoke in allegories. He never spoke without using parables. He did this in order to fulfill the prophecy:
I will speak to you in allegories.
I will reveal secrets that have been concealed
since before the foundation of the world.” (Mt 13:34-35)
That quote is from Psalm 78:2 – “A parable and a proverb are hidden in what I say – an intriguing riddle from the past.”
See also Proverbs 25:2 – “God conceals the revelation of his word in the hiding place of his glory.”
The note concerning ‘word’ in TPT adds: “the Hebrew is dabar, which is translated more than 800 times in the Old Testament as ‘word’. There is a beautiful poetry in the Hebrew text. The word for ‘hide’ is cahar and the word for ‘word’ is dabar. The Hebrew is actually ‘Kabod (glory) cathar (hidden) dabar (word).”
Arabs or ravens?
I remember being surprised to learn at college that the Hebrew for Arab and raven have the same consonants. Did Arabs or ravens feed Elijah (1 Kings 17:1-7)? After Elijah confronted King Ahab and Jezebel, God told him to hide by the Wadi Cherith east of the Jordan. There they brought him bread and meat, morning and evening, and he drank from the wadi till it dried up in the drought. Who fed him? It’s a miracle, either way!
Hermeneutics – interpretation and meaning – can be tricky! Most scholars go for ‘ravens’ here, but there may be wriggle room.
“A couple of commentaries mention that scholars dispute that Elijah was fed by ravens and instead think the word in 1 Kings 17:4-6 ought to be translated black arabs or perhaps “Orbites, i.e., inhabitants of Orbo.” …
“What is meant by ‘the ravens’ [‘orevim]? The problem is the consonantal text allows for the reading of ‘Arab’ instead of raven. …
“Rabbi Joseph Kara makes a novel suggestion in his commentary to 1 Kings 17:4, that these were people from the nearby town of Oreb (he understands that it is situated near the Jordan river, based on Judges 7:25, see additional commentaries there for their takes on the location of the ‘Rock of Oreb’). Therefore, there would be merit to such a translation being that the city of Oreb was geographically close.”
Some translations use the word ‘crows’. So possibilities may range among ravens, crows, Orbites, Orebites, or Arabs!
Jesus and Aramaic
Jesus spoke Aramaic, living among Aramaic-speaking people, and would also have known Egyptian from his youth in Egypt, and also Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire. The widely used common Koine Greek, different from classical Greek, became the language of early New Testament manuscripts.
Most New Testament translations derive from Greek manuscripts copied from earlier manuscripts. Notes in TPT often refer to Aramaic and Hebrew manuscripts, and I found those Notes fresh and often surprising.
The Word. TPT translates Luke 1:2 (those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (AV)) as “his early disciples, who became loving servants of the Living Word.” The Note adds, “Translated literally from the Aramaic text. The Greek word is logos. Some have translated this rich term as ‘Word.’ It could also be translated ‘Message’ or ‘Blueprint.’ Jesus Christ is the eternal Word, the creative Word, and the Word made visible. He is the divine self-expression of all that God is, contains, and reveals in incarnated flesh. … God has perfectly expressed himself in Christ.” See also John 1:1-4.
The Manger. TPT Notes on Luke 2:7, 11-12 add interesting insights. “After wrapping the newborn baby in strips of cloth, they laid him in a feeding trough since there was no available space in any upper room in the village” (Luke 2:7). The Note adds, “This is the Greek word kataluma. This is not an ‘inn’ but simply the upstairs level of a home where guests would stay. .. It is likely that Joseph and Mary had to sleep downstairs in the main room of a relative’s house. The downstairs of a village home in that day was like an all-purpose room that served as a workshop during the day, and at night was used to shelter frail animals, while the rest of the flock was left outdoors. The kataluma was not a full-fledged barn or stable, but it did contain a drinking trough or manger cut in the bedrock. This was the likely place where the baby Jesus was placed after his birth.” The upper room, kataluma, is the word used for the room where Jesus ate his final Passover (Luke 22:12, 14).
“He is the Lord Yahweh, the Messiah. You will recognize him by this miracle sign: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough!” (Luke 2:11-12). The Note on verse 11 adds, “Translated literally from the Aramaic text. This is one of the most amazing statements found in the Gospels declaring the deity of Jesus Christ.” And the note on verse 12 adds, “The shepherds that night were possibly near Bethlehem at Migdal Eder, ‘the [watch] tower of the flock.’ This would fulfill both the prophecies of Mic. 5:2 and Mic. 4:8, which say ‘to you it [he] will come, your dominion [kingdom] from old will arrive.’ It was at the lower floor of the watchtower (Migdal Eder) that the birthing of the Passover lambs would take place. Selected ewes that were about to give birth would be brought there. After the birth of the lambs, the priestly shepherds would wrap the lambs in cloth and lay them in a manger lined with soft hay to prevent them from hurting themselves, for Passover lambs must be unblemished with no bruise or broken bone. The miracle sign for these priestly shepherds would be a baby boy lying where the Passover lamb should be – in a manger, wrapped in strips of cloth. It was at the cradle of Jesus Christ that the kingdom from ancient times arrived on earth.” Bethlehem, David’s town where he was a shepherd, is only 8 miles from Jerusalem, now like a southern suburb.
Beatitudes. Many of us are familiar with “Blessed are the …” at the beginning of the chapters called the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. A TPT Note adds, “The Aramaic word toowayhon means ‘enriched, happy, fortunate, delighted, blissful, content, blessed.’ Our English word blessed can indeed fit here, but toowayhon implies more – great happiness, prosperity, abundant goodness, and delight! The word also carries all of this meaning. Toowayhon means to have the capacity to enjoy union and communion with God. Because the meaning of the word goes beyond merely being ‘blessed,’ this translation uses different phrases for each of the Beatitudes.”
Prayer. The prayer Jesus taught, often called The Lord’s Prayer, has an enriched translation in TPT in Matthew 6:9-13:
Our Father, dwelling in the heavenly realms,
may the glory of your name
be the center on which our lives turn.*
Manifest your kingdom realm,
and cause your every purpose to be fulfilled on earth,
just as it is fulfilled in heaven.
We acknowledge you as our Provider
of all we need each day.
Forgive us the wrongs we have done as we ourselves
release forgiveness to those who have wronged us.
Rescue us every time we face tribulation
and set us free from evil.
For you are the King who rules
with power and glory forever.
* The Note on 6:9 adds: “An alternate reading of the Aramaic text. The Aramaic word for ‘name’ is shema (the Hebrew word shem), a word with multiple meanings. It can also be translated ‘light,’ ‘sound,’ or ‘atmosphere.’ … The Greek is ‘treated as holy.'”
Healing. Matthew 14:14 says, “So when Jesus landed he had a huge crowd waiting for him. Seeing so many people, his heart was deeply moved with compassion toward them, so he healed all the sick who were in the crowd.” A note in TPT adds, “The Aramaic is “he nurtured them in love and cured their frailties.”
Parables. Similarly, TPT Notes on parables are interesting and often surprising. “Whenever Jesus addressed the crowds, he always spoke in allegories. He never spoke without using parables” (Matthew 13:34 TPT). The Note on Mark 4:2, “He taught them many things by using parables to illustrate spiritual truths” (TPT) adds:
The Aramaic and Greek use a word for ‘parable’ that means “a metaphor,” “allegory,” ”simile,” ”illustration,” ”comparison,” “figure of speech,” “riddle.” “or enigmatic saying that is meant to stimulate intense thought.” Throughout Hebrew history, wise men, prophets, and teachers used parables and allegories as a preferred method of teaching spiritual truths. Poets would write their riddles and musicians would sing their proverbs with verbal imagery. Jesus always taught the people by using allegory and parables (Matt. 13:34; Mark 4:34).
I AM. This name for God is well known from Moses’ encounter with God. Jesus also used it for himself, after walking on the lake at night. He called out to his terrified disciples who thought they saw a ghost, “Don’t yield to fear. Have courage. It’s really me – I Am” (Mark 6:50). The TPT Note explains, “In both Greek and Aramaic, this reads ‘I Am’ (the living God), an obvious statement that Jesus is ‘the great I AM’ and there is nothing to be afraid of. This is the same statement God made to Moses in front of the burning bush. See also Matt. 14:27; John 8:58.”
Beloved. See Luke 3:22, “My Son, you are my beloved one. Through you I am fulfilled.” See Matt. 19:14, “I want little children to come to me, so never interfere with them when they want to come, for heaven’s kingdom realm is composed of beloved ones like these.” The note for Matt 19:14 adds, “As translated from the Aramaic, which uses the word ‘beloved’ found only twice in the New Testament. The Greek is ‘little children.'”
Highest honour. The Mark 10 passage about James (Jacob originally) and John wanting to sit beside Jesus in his kingdom includes verse 40: “it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (NRSV). The Aramaic elaborates as in TPT: “It is reserved for those whom grace has prepared them to have it.” The extensive note on this verse `describes how after each of the three times that Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection he had to rebuke his disciples: Mark 8:31 to Peter, and Mark 9:31 to the disciples arguing about being the greatest, and Mark 10:33 to James (Jacob) and John.
Hosanna. The Note for Mark 11:9 explains that Hosanna is an Aramaic word that means “O, save us now” or “bring the victory” adding “The crowds were recognizing Jesus as Yahweh’s Messiah. It is obvious that the people were expecting Jesus to immediately overthrow the Roman oppression and set the nation free.” That’s a key reason, along with him tossing traders out of the temple and his denouncing religious leaders, for the intense opposition from national leaders and his swift execution a few days later.
The End. Matt 24:13-14 TPT says about the coming trials, “But keep your hope to the end and you will experience life and deliverance.” The note on verse 13 adds, “As translated from the Aramaic. The Greek is ‘endure.'”
The Note on Mark 13:30 – “I assure you, this family will not pass away until all I have spoken comes to pass” adds, “As translated from the Aramaic, which employs a homonym that can be translated either ‘this generation will not pass away,’ or ‘this family will not pass away.’ The generation in which Jesus lived on earth had indeed passed away, but the Christian ‘family’ of believers remains and endures.” [homonym – each of two or more words having the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings and origins.]
Passover. The Aramaic for Mark 14:23 “Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them” gives more description: “Then taking the cup of wine and giving praises to the Father, he declared the new covenant with them” (TPT). They shared the Passover meal. “Then they sang a psalm and afterwards left for the Mount of Olives” (Mark 14:26 TPT). The Note adds, “The Aramaic is ‘They offered praise.’ It was the custom after celebrating the Passover seder to conclude with singing one of the Hallel psalms (Pss. 115-118).”
Gethsemane. The word Gethsemane is Aramaic for ‘oil press’. TPT translates Mark 14:32 as “Then Jesus led his disciples to an orchard called ‘The Oil Press.'” Located on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives, this olive grove offered shade in the day and Jesus often went there with his disciples.
Praying in agony, “Jesus called for an angel of glory to strengthen him, and the angel appeared. He prayed even more passionately, like one being sacrificed, until he was in such intense agony of spirit that his sweat became drops of blood, dripping onto the ground” (Luke 22:43-44 TPT). The Notes add, “22:43 Translated from the Aramaic text. 22:44 The Aramaic text is literally ‘He prayed sacrificially.'”
“He prayed, ‘Abba, my Father, all things are possible for you. Please – don’t allow me to drink this cup of suffering! Yet what I want is not important, for I only desire to fulfill your plan for me'” (Mark 14:36 TPT). The Note adds: “The cup becomes a metaphor of the great suffering that Jesus had to endure that night in the garden. However, Jesus was not asking the Father for a way around the cross. Rather, he was asking God to keep him alive through this night of suffering so that he could carry the cross and take away our sins. According to the prophecies of the Old Testament, Jesus was to be pierced on a cross. We learn from Heb. 5:7 that Jesus’ prayer was answered that night as the cup was indeed taken from him. An angel of God came to strengthen him and deliver him from premature death (Matt. 26:39).”
Hebrews 5:7 states: “During Christ’s days on earth he pleaded with God, praying with passion and with tearful agony that God would spare him from death. And because of his perfect devotion his prayer was answered and he was delivered” (TPT).
The Cross. I found TPT’s Note on Matthew 27:37 surprising. It’s about the sign on the cross written in Aramaic/Hebrew, Greek and Latin.
“The words were ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.’ The first letters of each of the four words written on the sign in Aramaic (Hebrew) were Y-H-W-H (Y’shua Hanozi Wumelech a Yehudim). To write these letters, YHWH (also known as the Tetragrammaton), was the Hebrew form of writing the sacred name ‘Yahweh.’ No wonder the chief priests were so offended by this sign and insisted that Pilate change it.”
Ancient inscription reputedly found in a Golgotha tomb by St Helena, 326AD,
25cm walnut wood sign (top), enhanced script (bottom).
In Aramaic, Greek and Latin, JESUS OF NAZARETH KING OF THE JEWS
Mark 15:34 in TPT reads: “About three o’clock, Jesus shouted with a mighty voice in Aramaic, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ – that is, ‘My God, My God, why have you turned your back on me?'” The Notes add: “See Pss. 22:1; 42:9. The Aramaic can be translated ‘For this purpose you have spared me.’ … Every Greek text gives a transliteration of the Aramaic words and then translates them back into Greek.”
Resurrection. The risen Messiah appeared many times to his astounded and often unbelieving followers. He rebuked them for their lack of faith when he appeared to them as they ate at a meal (Mark 15:14). The passage in Mark 16:9-20 is omitted from some early manuscripts but included in the Aramaic and many Greek translations. It includes difficult statements such as “They will be supernaturally protected from snakes and from drinking anything poisonous. And they will lay hands on the sick and heal them” (Mark 15:18, see eg. Acts 28:1-10). Notes in PTP add: “Some scholars believe that this sentence contains two Aramaic idioms. To pick up snakes could be a picture of overcoming one’s enemies (‘snakes’), and drinking poison may be speaking of dealing with attacks on one’s character (poisonous words). The image is from Ps. 91:13.” That Psalm is especially interesting for the devil quoted it to tempt Jesus (Matt 4:6), but the verse following that quote speaks of trampling snakes under foot. Psalm 91:9-13:
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. (NRSV)
Jesus commissioned his followers to go into all the world and preach the wonderful news of the gospel to everyone (Mark 15:15). They did. “And the apostles went out announcing the good news everywhere, as the Lord himself consistently worked with them, validating the message they preached with miracle-signs that accompanied them” (Mark 16:20 TPT).
The Early Church
Acts 2 tells the story of the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus’ followers. TPT translates verse 1 as “On the day Pentecost was being fulfilled” and Notes: “Or ‘came to be fuilfilled.’ The Greek means ‘to fill completely (to be fulfilled).’
Then in verse 2, “Suddenly they heard the sound of a violent blast of wind rushing into the house from out of the heavenly realm.” TPT Notes add, “The Aramaic can be translated ‘like the roar of a groaning spirit.’ This mighty wind is for power; the breath of Jesus breathed into his disciples in John 20:22 was for life. … Although most believe this was in an upper room, it is possible to conclude from the Aramaic that it was the House of the Lord (the temple), where they all gathered to celebrate Pentecost. See also Luke 24:53.” That last verse of Luke’s Gospel says that following Jesus’ ascension, “Every day they went to the temple, praising and worshipping God” (TPT).
Certainly, Peter would have preached there to the huge crowds at the Pentecost festival. “When the people of the city heard the roaring sound, crowds came running to where it was coming from, stunned over what was happening because each one could hear the disciples speaking in his or her own language” (Acts 2:6 TPT).
The astonished crowds at the Passover festival were confused. “Bewildered, they said to one another, ‘Aren’t these all Galileans?'” (Acts 2:7 TPT) The Note adds, “It is likely they knew they were Galileans by their Aramaic dialect common in Galilee.”
“Peter stood up with the eleven apostles and shouted to the crowd” (Acts 2:14 TPT). The Note adds, “Peter was speaking under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The tongues being spoken, along with the sound of the wind, drew the crowd. Peter would have spoken to them in the common language of Aramaic. Even with Galilean and Judean dialects, nearly all of the Jewish people present would understand his words.”
Peter declared that they had witnessed how God resurrected Jesus, and poured out his Spirit. “Now everyone in Israel can know for certain that Jesus, whom you crucified, is the one God has made both Lord and the Messiah” (Acts 2:36 TPT). The Note adds, “The Aramaic is ‘Lord Yahweh made him [from birth] to be both Elohim and Messiah.’ The Greek verb used for ‘made’ can also mean ‘brought forth.’ This is a clear statement of both Jesus’ humanity (God brought him forth by human birth) and his deity.”
Peter’s anointed preaching convicted thousands. He said, “Repent and return to God, and each one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus, the Anointed One, to have your sins removed. Then you may take hold of the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 23:38 TPT). The Note explains, “Peter was likely saying these words from the steps of the temple. Below him were dozens of mikveh (immersion pools used for the ceremonial cleanings of Jewish worshippers). Peter was pointing them to the cleansing that comes through the name and authority of Jesus Christ. The Aramaic is startling: ‘Be immersed in the name of Lord Yahweh Y’shua.’ Peter is clearly saying that Lord Yahweh and Jesus are one and the same.” 3,000 among the huge festival crowds believed Peter that day, repented, and were baptized.
Acts 2:42 tells how the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, mutual fellowship, sharing communion and prayer. The Note adds, “Or ‘breaking of bread.’ this was more than sharing meals, but participating together in observing the Lord’s Table. The Aramaic, which can be translated ‘the Eucharist’ or ‘holy communion,’ makes it even more explicit.
Acts 2:42-47 tells how the early church lived in awe of God and in mutual fellowship, sharing together, meeting needs, and meeting together daily to worship in the temple courts and in their homes. “And the Lord kept adding to their number daily those who were coming to life” (Acts 2:47 TPT). The Note explains, “As translated from the Aramaic. The Aramaic word for ‘church’ is the joining of ‘meet’ and ‘come.’ This word is an invitation to enter into fellowship with Christ and his people. The Greek word for ‘church’ is ekklesia, which means ‘called-out ones.‘”
The book of Acts tells the story of the supernatural and miraculous ways in which the Lord worked among them, adding to their number daily.
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