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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

  • 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
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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).

  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 reports the speech in the language.

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Jerome claims that using the Aramaic in this particular instance was a literary device used by Mark:

A literal translation from one language into another obscures the sense; the exuberance of the growth lessens the yield. For while one’s diction is enslaved to cases and metaphors, it has to explain by tedious circumlocutions what a few words would otherwise have sufficed to make plain. I have tried to avoid this error in the translation which at your request I have made of the story of the blessed Antony [i.e. Anthony the Great, an Egyptian monk].

That secular and church writers should have adopted this line need not surprise us when we consider that the translators of the Septuagint, the evangelists, and the apostles, have done the same in dealing with the sacred writings. We read in Mark of the Lord saying Talitha cumi and it is immediately added “which is interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.” The evangelist may be charged with falsehood for having added the words “I say unto thee” for the Hebrew is only “Damsel arise.” To emphasize this and to give the impression of one calling and commanding he has added “I say unto thee.”

To Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating (written around 395 AD)

This does not seem an implausible explanation to me, as "Talitha kumi" seems more elegant than "to korasion soi lego egeirai". The same might be said for "Golgotha" (Greek "kranion topos").

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It is very likely that Peter would have told to many others over the years the stories that Mark eventually wrote down as the Gospel of Mark; the places where the original Aramaic words are used seem to be the dramatic short quotes that would have been etched into the memories of those around, including Peter, who probably would have always said it in those words (then translated them for his hearers, as Mark does too).

But the interesting (and slightly different) case is "Golgotha" example, where the question is not so much "why was the Aramaic word used?" (it is basically a place name), but "why mention what the name means?", to which the answer is the appropriateness/irony of the name with respect to what happened.

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  • Welcome to BHSE! Make sure you take our Tour (lower left). Thanks – John Martin Sep 8 '19 at 13:36
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The scriptures are Holy Spirit inspired. GOD in all his knowledge knew that there would be such deception and confusion in times to come about "tongues" and "interpretation of tongues" that he made sure examples were given to us by Jesus the Christ himself. Tongues are a known human language not some concoction of made up gibberish. Also notice the use of someone giving the interpretation/translation for the sake of the hearer. Once again in GODS' infinite wisdom he made sure examples have been given to us in the Gospels as to the correct usage of "Tongues and Interpretation of Tongues."

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  • Not sure how this applies to the original question about Greek verses Aramaic as the language spoken by Jesus – Ken Banks Mar 28 '18 at 15:11
  • What in the text suggests this (which seems to be an every day use of the language they were all speaking every day that just happens to be mentioned in the original instead of in translation as most of the Greek NT) is even related to the later (Pentecost) phenomenon of speaking in languages they didn't know/use every day. – Caleb Sep 8 '19 at 6:50

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