First published: B. D. Knox, ‘The Aramaic Background of the Gospel’, The Reformed Theological Review 6, no. 2 (1947), 24–29.

The Aramaic language is a Semitic language akin to Hebrew and Arabic. It is ancient, going back to the time of the cuneiform script. Its native home is Mesopotamia but in the 6th century bc it became the lingua franca of the Middle East, the language of commerce and International Affairs. For example, in 2 Kings 18, the officials at Jerusalem asked Rabshakeh to speak to them in Aramaic, as they understood it, but he refused and spoke in Hebrew so that all the inhabitants of Jerusalem could hear his threats. After the invasion of Alexander the Great, Greek supplanted Aramaic in the Middle East as the language of commerce, but the native language still continued to be spoken by the local inhabitants. With the rise of the Christian church, the Aramaic language, in its eastern dialect of Syriac, burst forth into an extensive literature, which flourished till the eighth century but ceased suddenly with the Mohammedan conquests. During the exile, the Jews were forced to sojourn amongst an Aramaic speaking people, and it seems that they then abandoned Hebrew as their native tongue and adopted Aramaic. A hint of this is given in Nehemiah 8:8 where the scribes read in the Hebrew Bible and gave the sense so that the people understood the reading. Biblical Hebrew continued to be a literary language down to the First Century bc, and it was probably a spoken language amongt the learned rabbis at Jerusalem till our Lords’ time. The study of Aramaic is important as it is one of the languages of the Bible. The greater part of Daniel is composed in it, as well as some of the documents incorporated into Ezra. In addition, there is one verse in Jeremiah and half a verse in Genesis, together with words scattered here and there throughout the Old Testament. But the study of Aramaic becomes much more important when it is realised that it is the native language in which our Lord and his apostles spoke and taught.

That Aramaic was the normal language of our Lord’s discourses has been disputed, but it rests in the fact that Aramaic was the patois of Palestine in his day. The evidence for this is firstly in the Targums. These are Aramaic paraphrases of the O.T. for reading in the Synagogue. The rule was that when the Hebrew Bible was read, it should be followed verse and verse about, by an Aramaic translation, which points, of course, to the fact that the hearers didn’t understand the Hebrew. These stereotyped translations or Targums were first written down in the Second Century ad, but they were then regarded as very ancient so we can assume that the translation of the Hebrew into the Aramaic in the Synagogue service was an established custom in the time of our Lord. A second argument that Aramaic was the spoken language of Palestine rather than Hebrew in our Lord’s time is the form which Semitic words take place in our Greek text, e.g., Pharisees, Sabbath, Abba, Pascha. These are Aramaic in form rather than Hebrew. Then Josephus tells us that he wrote his Jewish War in Aramaic and then translated it into Greek. Aramaic was his native tongue. Eusebius, writing at the beginning of the fourth century, tells us distinctly that the apostles’ native language was Syrian, that is, Aramaic. We may assume then that our Lord and his apostles and the inhabitants of Palestine in his time spoke Aramaic. But they also understood Greek. An example of this is given in Acts when the populace of Jerusalem expect to hear St. Paul address them in Greek and are surprised when he speaks Aramaic, which St. Luke calls the Hebrew language in that passage. Hellenistic Greek was the language of international communication and we may assume that most of the inhabitants were bilingual. This is particularly true of Galilee. Jesus may even have been trilingual, speaking Hebrew in his disputations with the Rabbis at Jerusalem. We know from the New Testament that our Lord spoke to St. Paul in Aramaic (Acts 26:14), yet presumably he spoke to Pilate in Greek.

Jesus may even have been trilingual.

If our Lord’s native tongue was Aramaic it is obvious that a knowledge of this language will be of help in understanding his discourses as we have them in the Greek Gospels. But here we meet with a difficulty. No literature has survived written in Palestinian Aramaic of the First Century. We have to build up our knowledge of the language from kindred documents, such as the Aramaic portion of Daniel and Ezra, the Eliphantine papyri, discovered in 1908 in an island in the Nile near Assouan. These papyri are letters written from a Jewish colony in Upper Egypt in Fifth Century bc. They are written throughout in an Aramaic dialect akin to Biblical Aramaic. Several centuries elapse before the date of the next documents that we have. These are the Palestinian ׳argums of Onkelos on the Pentateuch and Jonathan on the prophets. These were written in 2nd Century ad, but they preserve a more ancient translation. Then there are the Palestinian Syrian Lectionary of the 6th Century ad, and certain books of the Syrian O.T. which are thought to preserve an ancient translation. Finally there are newly discovered Targum of 8th Century and the Aramaic stories embedded in the New Hebrew of the Mishnah. Thus it will be seen that the knowledge of the dialect our Lord spoke is fragmentary. Important new discoveries may yet be forthcoming, while there are fields of scholarship, e.g., Samaritan, Aramaic, while still await the tedious labours of the linguist. Nevertheless the broad outline of the language is well known and it is on the basis of this that scholars have attacked the New Testament problem.

The method Aramaic scholars have universally adopted is, to examine the language of the Greek gospels in order to detect reflection of the underlying Aramaic. Itis not difficult to notice semitisms in the Gospels, and the redundant participle, ‘Answering, said.’ This semitism is to be expected from men such as the New Testament writers who were s theped in the language of the Old Testament. Hebrew and Aramaic are kindred languages, and we have to be careful in distinguishing Hebraisms from Aramaisms. A pure Hebraism is, for example, Luke’s frequent use of the phrase “It came to pass that.” This corresponds to the Hebrew “Wayhi” so frequently used in narrative. There is no corresponding idiom in Aramaic. On the other hand Aramaic has some grammatical features which are peculiar to it. A notice of some of the more important differences from Hebrew may be of interest. Aramaic has no definite article, nor has it the Wau consecutive construction; asyndeton (the beginning of a sentence without a connecting particle) is highly characteristic of the language; the Hebrew construct case is replaced very largely by the relative clause introduced by d’; it has no preposition to mark the accusative case; nor does it use the infinite to emphasise the verb.

When we examine the Greek Gospels to detect Aramaisms a notable feature is that manuscripts differ in the number of Aramaisms reflected in their texts. For example, Westcott andHort’s neutral text, represented by the Sinai Codex and the Vatican Codex have considerably less Aramaisms than the Western text, that is Codex Bezae and its allies. This has a very interesting bearing on textual criticism. Recent researches point to the fact that the Western text is a great deal older and morewidely spread than Westcott andHort allowed. If it is now proved that it contains more Aramaisms than the neutral text it must be regarded as a more primitive text. When it is remembered that the Revised Version is based almost exclusively on the neutral text and that Codex Bezae differs considerably, it will be seen that this feature, revealed by the study of the Aramaic may be considerable influence on future revision of the English Bible.

Of the Gospels themselves, the sayings of Jesus contain more Aramaisms than the narratives; e.g., the beginning of a sentence without a connecting particle is contrary to the spirit of the Greek language. But it is highly characteristic of Aramaic. It is very frequent in the sayings of Jesus, in the synoptics and especially in John.

Alliteration, assonance and paronomasia are prominent in Semitic poetry, and frequent in the Old Testament. A well-known example is Isaiah 5: 7. An example in the gospels is Luke 14:5: “Which of you have a son or an ox fallen into a pit…” The unusual coupling of a son with an ox is explained by the Aramaic punning poetry that underlies the passage. Son, “b’ra” ; ox, “b‘ira” ; pit, “bira.” When we translate the Greek of the sayings of Jesus back into single Palestinian Aramaic, in numerous cases they reveal similar word-play. So that Matthew Black concludes that “Jesus did not commit anything to writing, but by his use of poetic form and language he ensured that his sayings would not be forgotten. The impression that they make in Aramaic is of carefully premeditated and studied deliverances.”

One of the difficulties of the Greek New Testament is the very peculiar Greek it sometimes contains. In our English Bible this is obscured as the translators have been at pains to give a literary version. An instance is the Greek word “Pugme” in Mark 7:3, which literally means “with the fist,” but is translated in our English Bible by the word “diligently.” There are many other cases of difficult Greek. These are the happy hunting ground of the Aramaist. He explains it as mistranslation or misinterpretation of the original Aramaic document. Such mistakes would be simple as Aramaic, like Hebrew, did not indicate the vowels in the text. A well-known case of suggested wrong vocalisation is Luke 11:41 , “give for alms such things as are within and behold all things are clean unto you.” The same Aramaic consonants, being vocalised differently, give a meaning “make right what is within,” which restores the sense and completes the parallelism.

The inseperable [sic] particle d’ is frequent in Aramaic and used in numerous ways. Burney explains the frequent and peculiar use of Hina in the fourth gospel as a set translation of d’. Thus in John 16:2 which reads literally: “The hour cometh in order that whosoever killeth you shall think he doeth God service,” Westcott has to postulate a mystic final sense. Hina here means “when,” a sense unknown in Greek; but it can be explained as a mistranslation of d’, which means both “when” and “in order that.” Another example of this very simple error may be Mk. 7:47. To complete the parallelism and give the required sense, the verse should read “she whose many sins are forgiven, loveth much.” This represents exactly the same Aramaic as does the received text, “Her sins which are many, are forgiven, for she loveth much,” the relative being mistaken for “because.”

A knowledge of Aramaic helps us to understand the vocabulary of the Greek Gospels. Thus in John, Jesus says, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” Here Jesus refers to his crucifixion. This is clear when we think of the Aramaic. The word “lift up” and “crucify” is the same in Aramaic. In the Lord’s prayer in Matthew we pray, “Forgive us our debts,” but in Luke, “Forgive us our sins.” In Aramaic, “Chauka” means both “debt” and “sin.”

What are the conclusions that Aramaic scholars arrive at as the result of their researches? They differ. Burney, who occupied himself with the Fourth Gospel, regards it as beyond all doubt that the gospel is a product of Palestinian thought. He regards it as written in Syria, in Aramaic. Torrey contends for an Aramaic origin for all four Gospels, as well as part of Acts; and he has been recently extending his claims into the Old Testament itself. He points out that the Gospels abound in Aramaisms, yet the evangelists wrote correct Greek and show a wide Greek vocabulary. Plainly the authors of the Greek gospels were experts in the Greek language. If they “thought in Aramaic,” they would not have so extensive a Greek vocabulary. But in this question of gospel origins, we must bear in mind the distinction between a document being written in Aramaic and translated into Greek, or alternately being written in Greek by men who thought in Aramaic. Either theory would explain most of the phenomena. But there is a residuum of hypothetical mistranslation which would indicate a written Aramaic source. Because most of the evidence is found in our Lord’s speeches, Black, the most recent writer on the subject, is of the opinion that the four evangelists used written sources for the speeches but composed the rest of their gospel directly in Greek. This is of importance in the fourth Gospel. One of the reasons advanced for disparaging the fourth Gospel is that the speeches of our Lord are so different in character from those of the synoptics. Yet it is just the speeches of the fourth gospel that abound in Aramaisms.

The imposing edifice of New Testament scholarship, resting as it does on the priority of Mark, would totter and fall.

New Testament scholars generally are opposed to overmuch emphasis on Aramaic sources. This attitude is perhaps due to vested interests in scholarship. If Torrey’s intentions were substantiated, the imposing edifice of New Testament scholarship, resting as it does on the priority of Mark and the general late dating of the gospels, would totter and fall. The origin and relationship of the Gospels, with their similarities and provoking divergencies, is the most fascinatingof all literary problems. Were they copied from one another? Or are they based on a common exemplar? Was that document written in Greek or in Aramaic or was it not written at all, being the oral teaching of the apostles, stereotyped after the manner of the Rabbis? All these questions, sometimes regarded as closed, are still to be decided in the future. Perhaps they are insoluble, the evidence surviving being insufficient, yet the final answer one way orthe other cannot be given till New Testament scholars are as equipped in the knowledge of Aramaic as they are in Greek learning.