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Why does Christ or NT writers sometimes use Aramaic; Example Mark 5:41 Talitha Cumi

And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. [Mark 5:41 KJV]

[Mar 5:41 MGNT] (41) καὶ κρατήσας τῆς χειρὸς τοῦ παιδίου λέγει αὐτῇ ταλιθα κουμ ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον τὸ κοράσιον σοὶ λέγω ἔγειρε

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Aramaic was the common spoken toungue in Israel at the time of the NT. It's likely that most conversations among the apostles and with other Israelis were in Aramaic. Hebrew was largely ceremonial at that time.

One would think that Aramaic would be a likely language for the NT in general, but if you wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and scholar, Greek was the way to go. Latin was the official language of Rome, but Greek was common knowledge from the Hellenistic expansion, and Romans liked to write in Greek because it made them sound smarter (much the same way people today use Latin to give an educated, scholarly flavor). Writing in Greek addressed a larger audience as well.

However, in a couple of cases Mark thought it was important to preserve a quote in the original Aramaic, with translation into Greek for the larger audience.

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  • As well as a larger audience overall, Greek also specifically addressed Romans in the eastern part of the empire, closer to where (to over-generalise a bit) all the action was happening. So you've got your nearby Romans who habitually speak Greek (maybe Latin is their second language, maybe worse), and some distant Romans who habitually speak Latin (and arguably read Greek not just because it makes them sound smarter, but because reading Greek literature actually makes them genuinely smarter!) – Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 23:24
  • You have given no explanation for Mark actually recording the Aramaic words. Yes, we know about Aramaic being spoken but why quote the words at all ? – Nigel J Jul 2 at 5:35
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    @NigelJ That doesn't seem to be what the question is about. – Nacht Jul 2 at 6:00
  • @Nacht The question is : Why (Why ?) is Christ quoted in Aramaic ? Not, what dialect did Jesus speak. But why is he thus quoted ? – Nigel J Jul 2 at 6:09
  • Unless Mark chimes in himself, we can only speculate. All that's apparent is that he saw special significance in preserving those quotes precisely. – Cristobol Polychronopolis Jul 6 at 13:37
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The Hebrew dialect of Aramaic (as opposed to Babylonian/Imperial Aramaic, Edessan/Syrian Aramaic and other dialects) was the most common vernacular language of Judea, Samaria and Galilee in the Herodian period. Certain sayings and individual words are left untranslated in the Greek New Testament, or transliterated by sound:

  • Eloi Eloi lama shabachthani = My God, my God, for this you have forsaken me
  • Eloi Eloi lemana shabachthani [Khabouris Codex] = My God, my God, for this I was spared [George Lamsa] [spared in the sense of 'kept in reserve', consistent with declaring a Nazarite vow to be fulfilled]
  • Raca = onomatopoeia, the sound of spitting at someone in the market [George Lamsa]
  • Beelzebub = god of the flies (not a name)
  • Maran Atha = The Master has come
  • Marana Tha = Master, come (Greek is combined, "maranatha", and untranslated probably because the scribe could not decide between these)
  • Satana [Satan] = enemy (not a name)
  • Shimon Keefa [Peter] = Simon the Stone (an insult: dumb as a stone)
  • Gey Hinnom [Gehenna / 'hell'] = the valley to the south of Jerusalem, a high and steep descent
  • Bar Tulmay ['Bartholomew'] = son of Tulmay (ie 'Bartholomew' is not really a name but Nathaniel / Netanyahu is the son of Tulmay)
  • Golgotha = skull
  • Oshanna [Hosanna] = save us / help us
  • Paradise = a beautiful / tranquil garden (Persian loanword) [George Lamsa]

The consensus is pretty strong that Jesus / Yeshua and his disciples all spoke Aramaic. There is a minority scholarly opinion, but believed strongly by the modern remnants of Eastern Christianity, that Judean Aramaic was in fact the original written Renewed Covenant / New Testament tradition, the Greek being the result of very early translations. Western academia believes quite differently, that Greek was the original written New Testament and the Aramaic Peshitta was translated from Greek later.

While I think the Aramaic argument is pretty strong, I see that debate ultimately as a distraction. Regardless of whether written Aramaic or Greek came first, I believe it is correct to consider the Greek New Testament to be a translation of the original Aramaic dialogue and teachings of Jesus / Yeshua into Greek. Much can be gleaned from careful study of the Aramaic Peshitta and common idioms in that language that is more difficult to gather from the text in any other language. I have found it to be very enlightening. Just a few interesting examples:

  • Mark 10:25 "easier for a heavy rope to pass through the eye of a needle" - Aramaic GMLA can be gamala = heavy rope or gumala = camel
  • John 10:30 "I and my Father are one" - my Father and I agree [George Lamsa] (ie not claiming to be identical with God the Father)
  • Luke 22:20 "This is the Renewed Covenant in my blood" (ie not a "new" distinct covenant)
  • Matthew 1:16 "Joseph the guardian of Mary" - Aramaic "gowra" can mean either "husband" or "guardian" and is distinct from "baalah" which means only "husband" (A. G. Roth). So Mary was adopted by Joseph of the line of David, and was betrothed to a different man Joseph also descended from David (Judah). Mary's blood relatives are of Aaron (Levi).
  • When Zechariah speaks at the naming of his son Yochannan / John, in the Aramaic his words form a well structured and elegant poem with meter and alliteration; this is obscured in Greek, Latin, English, etc (Luke 1:67-80)
  • Matthew 16:25 "Get thee behind me enemy" (Simon Peter is not likened to 'the Devil')
  • Peshitta has the "long ending" of Mark and the angel at the pool, but not the Johannine Comma or the woman caught in adultery
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Mark twice quotes Aramaic speech, once as mentioned in the OP and the second time when he quotes the exact words spoken by Jesus during crucifixion :

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani [Mark 15:4, KJV]

Matthew quotes 'Eli Eli ...' the Hebrew of the actual scripture from Psalm 22 which Jesus, in his passion, is speaking. But Mark gives us the actual dialect in which Jesus uttered the words.

It is evident from their content that the four gospel accounts are four different aspects of Jesus Christ and his ministry upon earth.

Mark begins his account, in Mark 1:2, by quoting from Malachi (first) and then from Isaiah (second) regarding the prophecies of John the Baptist, 'Elias which was for to come', Matthew 11:14, KJV.

Referencing Malachi first, the lesser prophet and, historically, the second to prophesy draws particular attention to the prophecy in Malachi 3:1 - the prophecy of the coming of a messenger of preparation and, then , another messenger :

and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, [Malachi 3:2 KJV]

Thus Mark, in quoting the exact Aramaic speech of Jesus on these two occasions draws attention to the very speech of the Messenger of the Covenant.

It is his speech which will inaugurate the New Testament.

the words that I speak unto you - they are spirit and they are life [John 6:63 KJV]

The gospel, in its entirety, is the expression of the New Testament, the everlasting testament, which the Messenger of the Covenant, Christ, speaks.

Mark draws attention to, first, the way in which that Covenant is brought in when he draws attention to Jesus' words in crucifixion. He who said 'I and my Father are one', upon crucifixion, in his offering up, states 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me ?'.

Through suffering, through death, through bloodshed, is the New Testament inaugurated.

And its consequence can be seen in Mark's drawing attention to the exact words of Jesus in the OP's passage - 'talitha cumi' : I say unto thee 'arise'.

The consequence of Jesus' being forsaken of God in suffering and death is the arising from the dead of many.

Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his (the Son of man's) voice, [John 5:28, KJV]

Shall hear his voice : the voice of the Messenger of the Covenant, shall hear his exact speech.

Thus Mark, by highlighting Jesus precise words in Aramaic, draws attention to the way in which the New Testament is brought in and draws attention to the consequences of that New Testament and, also, draws attention to Who brings it in and to the word by which it will be brought in.

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    To clarify, are you saying Jesus' speech "Talitha cumi" is the inauguration of the new covenant? – Soldarnal Jul 1 at 20:00
  • @Soldarnal I have edited to highlight the significance of Mark's use of Aramaic in which attention is drawn to both the inauguration of the New Testament and also to the consequences of the New Testament. Thank you for the prompt, I had not made that clear. – Nigel J Jul 2 at 4:07
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Historically, it is most likely that Jesus neither spoke nor read nor wrote Greek. Likewise, as Cristobol Polychronopolis mentioned above, Hebrew was not common speech in 1st century Palestine. Hence, Jesus spoke Aramaic, and over the years between his death and the writing of the gospels, clearly some anecdotes and remembrances of Jesus included some of his words in his native language.

But the gospels were written by and for people who spoke Greek, not Aramaic. We know this because each time a saying of Jesus is reproduced in the gospels in Aramaic, it is translated for the book's Greek readers.

This is one of the several ways we know that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.

Neither the author of Matthew nor John claim to be eyewitnesses. Neither author even identifies himself. Neither author ever writes in the first person, never says "and then we ..."

The names "according to ..." were added to the books long after all the eyewitnesses were dead, and the men ascribing the purported authors to books weren't even living in Palestine.

John's author specifically states that he is not the source of the stories contained in John (John 21:24). Luke's author states that many other authors wrote down stories about Jesus, but that even those writings were based upon stories "handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses" (Luke 1:1).

Linguists of ancient Greek tell us there is much evidence that the language and style of the gospels is not Palestinian. The biblical authors get details of Palestine wrong. Among bible scholars there's a cottage industry in trying to determine the true geographic origin of the gospels.

So, how and why did the Aramaic sayings get preserved? I don’t claim to know, but I’ll hazard a guess. Why does the author J.K. Rowling write, “Petronus!” when she could have written “Harry cast a spell?” The answer is obvious. A bit of foreign language, especially an ancient language, adds interest and color to a story. So my guess is, the Greek-speaking authors of the gospels who didn’t live in Palestine and probably didn’t speak Aramaic retained those phrases that they admired in earlier sources, both oral and written, to spice up their stories.

By the way, since most of Jesus’s recorded words are (today) in Greek, we might instead ask about the quality of their oral transmission and translation.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27) – pity that one didn’t retain its Aramaic. It’s a pun.

Conversely, Jesus's saying in John 3:2, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again,” and the conversation that it encloses it, could NOT have been uttered in Aramaic: it's a pun only in Greek, making it unlikely to be an actual saying of Jesus.

Hence, in the academic world, the fact that a saying of Jesus remains in Aramaic or can be plausibly back-translated into Aramaic is considered good evidence that the saying really did originate with Jesus.

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    Matthew and John were both eyewitnesses to the years of Jesus' ministry. And you have not explained why the two instances of Aramaic were not simply expressed in Greek. Why include them at all ? Welcome to BH. Please see the Tour and help (both bottom left, below) regarding the purpose and functioning of the site. – Nigel J Jul 2 at 5:32
  • You've inspired me to expand my answer! – Greg Anderson Jul 3 at 17:18
  • @NigelJ btw, in your own answer above, do I understand you correctly that you are claiming Mark 1:1 quotes Malachi? If so, how so? – Greg Anderson Jul 3 at 18:08
  • Mark 1:2 Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee is similar wording to Malachi 3:1 Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me There is a slight difference in which Mark adds further revelation'thy' face and before 'thy' way : enlarging on before 'me'. I have edited as I said Mark 1:1, it is of course 1:2. – Nigel J Jul 3 at 19:06

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