The Historical Jesus

My son, bk, just emailed me about a new Bart Ehrman book, Did Jesus Exist?. I insert the letter and will comment further below:

Bart Ehrman is used to being on the skeptical side of biblical and scriptural debates, but there are some skeptics who outflank him in terms of denial: they deny that there ever was an historical Jesus. They claim Jesus is a pure fiction layered over an older set of myths (as opposed to Ehrman’s belief that the biblical Jesus is a mythologizing of a historical man).

So I’m very much enjoying Ehrman’s latest: Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.

I thought you’d appreciate this sub point Ehrman makes about the historical evidence that Jesus’s sayings were originally conveyed orally and in Aramaic, not Greek:

The Aramaic Origins of (Some) Oral Traditions

Here is one piece of evidence. Even though the Gospels were written in Greek, as were their sources, some of the surviving traditions were originally spoken in Aramaic, the language of Palestine. These traditions date at least to the early years of the Christian movement, before it expanded into the Greek-speaking lands elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

The evidence, in part, is this. In several passages in the Gospels a key word or phrase has been left in the original Aramaic, and the author, writing in Greek, has had to translate it for his audience. This happens, for example, in the intriguing account of Mark 5, where Jesus raises a young girl from the dead. The story begins by describing how the girl’s father, Jairus, comes to Jesus and begs him to heal his very sick daughter. Jesus agrees to come, but he gets interrupted on the way. Before he can get to the girl, the household slaves appear and tell Jairus that it is too late, the girl has died. Jesus is not to be deterred, however. He goes to the house, comes into the girl’s room, takes her lifeless hand, and says to her, “Talitha cumi.” That is not a Greek phrase. It is Aramaic. And so Mark translates it for his readers: “It means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.'” She does so, to much rejoicing.

This is a story that was originally told in Aramaic, but when it was translated into Greek, the translator left the key line in the original language so that it required translation for those who were not bilingual. This might seem odd to readers, but it is not. It happens a lot in multilingual societies even today. In graduate school I had a professor who had spent a good deal of time in Germany and was fluent in the language. We too were supposed to know German in order to do our research. But most of us had learned only to read German, not speak it. My professor didn’t appreciate our shortcomings, however. He would often tell a joke (in English) about something that had happened to him in Germany, but when he got to the punch line, he would revert to German. It was much funnier in the original, and we were supposed to understand. We would laugh heartily on cue, having no idea what he had just said but not wanting him to know.

That sort of thing happens in the Gospels. The punch line is left in Aramaic. And so, for example, at the end of Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus is in his final moments on the cross, he cries out to God in Aramaic, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani” (Mark 15:34), and Mark then explains what it means in Greek: “which means, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'”

Mark is not the only Gospel where this occurs. The Gospel of John, independently of Mark or the others, includes a number of Aramaic words. In John 1:35–52 alone there are three instances. Two disciples have learned from John the Baptist that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” and they want to meet him for themselves. They approach him and say to him “Rabbi,” an Aramaic word that the author translates, “which means, ‘Teacher.'” When Andrew, one of the two, becomes convinced of who Jesus is, he runs off to his brother Simon and tells him, “We have found the messiah.” Messiah is the Aramaic word; John translates it: “which means Christ.” Jesus then speaks with Simon and tells him, “You will be called Cephas.” Once again, it is an Aramaic word, which John translates, “which means Peter.”

There is very little dispute that some of the Gospel stories originated in Aramaic and that therefore they go back to the earliest stages of the Christian movement in Palestine. This is clearly shown, as well, by a second kind of evidence. Some Gospel passages do not contain Aramaic words, but they make sense only when their Greek words and phrases are translated back into Aramaic. This means they originated as Aramaic traditions that only later came to be transmitted in Greek.

One of the clearest examples is in Mark 2:27–28, where Jesus delivers a withering two-liner to silence his critics. His disciples have been walking through the grain fields on the Sabbath, and since they were hungry they started eating some of the grain. The Pharisees see this (the Pharisees seem to be everywhere in Mark) and protest that the disciples are breaking the Sabbath. For Jesus, though, as Mark portrays him, human needs (in this case hunger) take priority over strict interpretations about the Sabbath. And so he informs his opponents, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

That last line doesn’t really make sense in the context, for two reasons. For one thing, even if Jesus, who is the Son of Man in Mark’s Gospel, is the Lord (master) of the Sabbath, what has that to do with his critics’ objection? They are objecting not to what he has done but to what his disciples have done. Even more, the last line doesn’t follow at all from the first line. I sometimes tell my students that when they see the word therefore in a passage, they should ask, what is the therefore there for? The therefore in this case doesn’t make sense. Just because Sabbath was made for humans and not the other way around, what does that have to do with Jesus being the Lord of the Sabbath?

Both problems are solved once you translate the passage back into Aramaic. As it turns out, Aramaic uses the same word for man and for son of man. It is the word barnash. And so the two-liner originally said, “Sabbath was made for barnash, not barnash for the Sabbath. Therefore barnash is lord of the Sabbath.” Now the therefore makes sense. The reason that humans (barnash) are the lords of the Sabbath is because of what he just said: Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around. Moreover, now the last line makes sense in the context of the story. The disciples (thebarnash) are masters of the Sabbath, which was created for their sake.

Originally, then, this story circulated in Aramaic. When it came to be translated into Greek, the translator decided to make it not just about the disciples but also about Jesus. And so he translatedbarnash in two different ways, twice to refer to “humans” in general (“man”) and once to refer to Jesus in particular (“the Son of Man),” creating a problem in the Greek that was not there in the Aramaic. The story stems from an Aramaic-speaking community of Christians located in Palestine during the early years of the Jesus movement.

I might add that this business of translating the Greek of the Gospels back into Aramaic has other significant payoffs for those interested in knowing what Jesus really said and did, a matter I will address later in the book once I’ve established more fully that Jesus almost certainly existed. As it turns out, some sayings of Jesus cannot be translated into Aramaic. Jesus could not have said these things since he spoke Aramaic. Let me give one rather famous example.

In John 3 comes the well-known story of Jesus’s conversation with the rabbi Nicodemus. Jesus is in Jerusalem, and Nicodemus comes up to him and tells him that he knows he is a teacher from God. Jesus tells him: “Unless you are born anothen you will not be able to enter into the kingdom of God.” I have left the key word here in Greek. Anothen has two meanings. It can mean “a second time,” and it can mean “from above.” And so this is the passage in which Jesus instructs his follower that he has to be “born again.” At least that’s how Nicodemus understands the word because he is shocked and asks how he can possibly crawl back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time. But in fact Jesus does not mean “a second time”; he means “from above.” This is what the wordanothen means in the other instances it is used in John’s Gospel, and it is what Jesus means by it here, as he then corrects Nicodemus and launches into a lengthy explanation that a person needs to be born from the Spirit who comes from above (the upper realm) if he wants to enter into the kingdom of God.

This is a conversation, in other words, that is rooted in the double meaning of the key word anothen, which Nicodemus understands in one way but Jesus means in another. Without that double entendre, the conversation does not flow and does not quite make sense. But here’s the key point. Even though the Greek word anothen has this double meaning, the double meaning cannot be replicated in Aramaic. The Aramaic word for “from above” does not mean “a second time,” and the word for “a second time” does not mean “from above.” In other words, this conversation could not have been carried out in Aramaic. But Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke—and the language he certainly would have been speaking in Jerusalem with a leading Jewish rabbi (even if he were able to speak another language, which is doubtful). In other words, the conversation could not have happened as it is reported.

But other traditions in the Gospels certainly do go back to Aramaic originals. This is highly significant. Aramaic Jews in Jesus’s native land were telling stories about him well before Paul wrote his letters in the 50s of the Common Era, arguably from within a few years of the traditional date of his death. One reason this matters is that most mythicists want to argue that the since the epistles of the New Testament were written earlier than the Gospels, and since the epistles, especially those of Paul, say little or nothing (it is argued) about the historical Jesus but instead speak only of the mythical Christ who like the pagan gods (again, it is argued) died and rose from the dead, then the earliest records of Christianity do not support the idea that Jesus actually lived; he was only a mythical concept. I will argue that this perspective is wrong on all counts. One major question, as we will see, is whether there was a common mythology of dying and rising gods. Moreover, it stretches credulity to think that such a mythology, if it existed, played any role in the world of Jesus’s earliest Jewish followers in Palestine. In addition, there is good reason for thinking that Paul knew full well that there was a historical Jesus, whom he spoke of and actually quoted. Paul did think that this historical person was exalted to the level of divinity, but to Paul he was not a dying-rising god like those discussed among the pagans, if in fact there was such a pagan view at all.

Whew! I’m dizzy from days of work resurrecting K.’s section on Mel Gibson’s Passion movie: a huge complex of scholarly scribble and rant.
Now I’m contemplating resurrecting the rest of K.’s religion / Christianity sections: I’m already half done, this is a new module in the old series.
For the moment I just comment further: I don’t have much trust in humans’ ability to separate history from myth. But, I have to admit, some scholars have done more, and done it better, than I would have believed likely.
But notice: not believing something doesn’t slow my work down: I write, and write more, even without faith that it does any good. (I think my efforts make a difference in another universe, not connected to this one, not connected by anything we can know or reason about.)

My Biblical Errors
2012 05 12 I got the Ehrman book on the Kindle and am reading Chapter One. Very good, I love it. Ehrman has helped me notice two errors I’ve made more than once. The first, that Pilat was under Caesar Augustus when he judged Jesus, I’ve already corrected in all the places I’ve found my error repeated: the Caesar of the time was Tiberius. Please pardon me: I’m not the only one passing errors though.
The second I’ll correct where I find the instances, I’m sure there are more than one. Constantine apparently did not make Christianity compulsory: that happened at the end of the Fourth Century, under Theodosius. Ehrman’s the biblical scholar, I’m just a lifelong amateur. I mean to weed falsehoods where I can, not spread them.

Cosmology Etc.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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