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I am told that many scholars believe that the words of Jesus which we have presented to us in Greek were originally spoken in Aramaic. What confuses me then is why there are instances in the Greek where the author chose not to simply translate Aramaic into Greek.

For example, Mark preserves the Aramaic term 'Talitha kum' instead of just translating it:

Taking the child by the hand, He said to her, “Talitha kum!” (which translated means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). -Mark 5:41

Why didn't Mark just say:

"Taking the child by the hand, He said to her, 'Little girl, I say to you, get up!'"

If Jesus was speaking Aramaic all the while, why quote Jesus in Greek 99% of the time, but occasionally quote Him in Aramaic and translate it?


This example may also be relevant; Mark preserves the Aramaic name 'Golgotha' and also translates it into Greek:

Then they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. -Mark 15:22

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Good question. I have always taken the Aramaic to be evidence of Markan priority. But you're right. Why did he want us to hear the Aramaic? –  Matthew Miller May 29 '13 at 2:25
    
The question can be confusing. You write: "Why didn't Mark just say: "Taking the child by the hand..." But, that's English. In reality, a very precise question, is going to have the quoted text in whatever language you are referring to, whether Aramaic or Greek (or, at the least, a transliteration of it). I know that's probably too much ask, I suppose. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 May 29 '13 at 3:54
    
@H3br3wHamm3r81 I chose readability and comprehension by my general audience over technical accuracy... like the Gospel writers apparently did in quoting Jesus' Aramaic in Greek. :p –  Jas 3.1 May 29 '13 at 5:04
    
Who knows what the Gospel writers did? Where is the chain of evidence? Too many assumptions about what the Gospel authors wrote --- language-wise --- when we can't know for certain. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 May 29 '13 at 6:12
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2 Answers 2

The short answer: Most likely, Mark translated the Aramaic in 5:41, 15:22, and 7:34 for the benefit of his Roman readers, some or most of whom may not have read Aramaic. Many Roman citizens could speak Aramaic, particularly traders, shippers, bankers, vendors and the like, but not every Roman could speak it, let alone read and write it.

Another answer could be that Mark liked the sound of the command. Perhaps he himself had grown up hearing his mother's mellifluous voice saying the very same thing to his sister when it was time to get up for breakfast and get ready for school--bet sefer,בית ספר. In a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew she may have said:

"Talitha koum, Sara. Bet sefer!",

which being translated from Aramaic and Hebrew means, "Get up little girl. School!" Sara, by the way, attended Yeshivot Simeon ben Shetach, an extension school located in Mark's hometown of Cyrene in Pentapolis--modern day Libya.

As for Mark 7:34, where Jesus looked up to heaven, sighed deeply, and said to the mute man whom people brought to him for healing, "'Ephphatha! that is 'Be opened!'", again we can only speculate.

Was the word included for the benefit of Mark's Roman audience?

Did the word have special significance to John Mark for some reason about which we are unaware?

Did Mark's witnessing the event etch the word in his mind in such a way that it simply "slipped" out of his mouth unconsciously and onto the papyrus, since Aramaic was likely his first language?

Did Mark simply like the sound of the command in Aramaic for some unknown reason?

Each of the above questions, if answered, could provide us with an acceptable answer, at least in theory.

In conclusion, as Marianne Dorman observes: "The Marcan Gospel was written by someone who knew Greek but not very well as this Gospel is written in poor Greek, especially when compared to the Lucan. It would seem we have an author who thought in one language, probably Aramaic but had to write his thoughts in another in Greek as the community to which he is writing did not know Aramaic" (see http://mariannedorman.homestead.com/Gospels.html).

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I think there could be many hypothesis:

  1. Aramaic was also a language of divine worship and the bible, so using that language could evoke that connection in a way that use of Greek couldn't. Mark evidently wants to preserve this. We know that translating parts of the bible into Aramaic predated Christianity (Philip Alexander Aramaic Bible 17A Canticles: Volume 17A, ix).

  2. Aramaic probably wasn't the only language spoken by Jesus and maybe not the first in the episodes of the Bible. Pagans and Jewish doctors may not have spoken Aramaic but Koine Greek or Latin (for the first) and Hebrew (for the second). This might suggest that many times Jesus spoke others' languages that evangelists used to translate (e.g. Pilatus probably speaks only Latin, as Romans used to, but you find his speech [Mark 16:2-5] translated into Greek). Keep in mind that Jesus could speak all the languages thanks to the Holy Spirit!

  3. Political issue: maybe Aramaic was seen as a new identity language, the ancient languages for the new future. So when it was used it was kept in the original language to maintain that identity.

  4. Mark doesn't speak Aramaic but only Koine Greek as the people who practiced commercial activity, so he takes notes!

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