We read in Mark 10:17-18

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

Greek source:

καὶ ἐκπορευομένου αὐτοῦ εἰς ὁδὸν προσδραμὼν εἷς καὶ γονυπετήσας αὐτὸν ἐπηρώτα αὐτόν, διδάσκαλε ἀγαθέ, τί ποιήσω ἵνα ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω; ὁ δὲ ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῶ, τί με λέγεις ἀγαθόν; οὐδεὶς ἀγαθὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός.

Syriac back-translation: ܘܟܕ ܪܕܐ ܒܐܘܪܚܐ ܪܗܛ ܚܕ ܢܦܠ ܥܠ ܒܘܪܟܘܗܝ ܘܡܫܐܠ ܗܘܐ ܠܗ ܘܐܡܪ ܡܠܦܢܐ ܛܒܐ ܡܢܐ ܐܥܒܕ ܕܐܬܪ ܚܝܐ ܕܠܥܠܡ ܐܡܪ ܠܗ ܝܫܘܥ ܡܢܐ ܩܪܐ ܐܢܬ ܠܝ ܛܒܐ ܠܝܬ ܛܒܐ ܐܠܐ ܐܢ ܚܕ ܐܠܗܐ

The original Aramaic/Hebrew word translated into Greek ἀγαθὸς must have been stronger. Yet the Greek translation would have been acceptable to a human; the English word «good» may even be attributed to things. ܛܳܒܳܐ does not seem to be particular word, either. What could have been the original word? «ܪܰܚܡܳܢܳܐ = רַחוּם = رحيم» would be considered a title of God (in particular in Islam but also used as an attribute for God only in the OT) or ܚܰܢ = חַנּ֣וּן . However, εύσπλαχνος, ἐλεήμος or οἰκτίρμος are the usual greek translations. What attribute has the man given to Jesus?

  • 1
    This is something I started looking at before your question, but haven't gone into in dept. It is true that the Peshitta and Hebrew translations, just like English, don't seem to quite fit what Jesus said. Which raises the question, "What did the rich young man say?"
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 13:39
  • The word ἀγαθὸς does seem to reflect what Jesus said, e.g. for food pure versus tastes good. Thus, for a teacher correct versus popular. Thus, in a sense, only God is always right. But, what was the Hebrew/Aramaic word is a good question.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 13:50
  • ט֣וֹב, Aramaic the same, spelling טַב, is actually what I found in the modern Hebrew translation. However, it is also the common Hebrew word for good. Would it be inappropriate to say ט֣וֹב to a rabbi in Aramaic?
    – Jeschu
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 15:30
  • I'm wondering about צַדִיק
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 16:15
  • Another possibility is חָכָם֙
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 17:14

3 Answers 3


I would speculate that this might have been "רבי הקדוש" (my holy teacher) that was back translated through the Greek to ܡܠܦܢܐ ܛܒܐ.

  1. It is a way that commoners, today as then, speak reverently of the teachers whom they fervently follow. That is, a reference to a charismatic figure rather than a learned scholar.
  2. But it is a shocking way to address a teacher to his face (to refer to him as "holy")
  3. It fits the reply and makes the reply into a quote from the OT

The form ܡܠܦܢܐ is not used in Jewish Aramaic to refer to a teacher or rabbi although the root yalaf is used frequently in Jewish Aramaic in verb form, e.g. "yalif", "yalfinan", to indicate a deduction or line of reasoning taught by someone. So it appears that ܡܠܦܢܐ, a staid term indicating a doctor [of the Law], is a translation out of the original Jewish cultural context of a charismatic teacher, that is used to indicate the teacher. If this is the case, translation out of cultural context, then in the target context "tava" is a more reasonable and restrained adjective to apply to "m'lafanaa" than "kudsa" or similar, which would be dissonant or maybe even crude. We don't talk much about "holy professors". Again, this is speculation, as I speak only Hebrew and Aramaic and do not know the Greek text.

  • Thank you. As you say הקדוש is really a way that commoners, today as then, speak reverently of the teachers whom they fervently follow, the passage really makes sense. The Greek translation would be άγιος (agios) which sounds a bit similar to ἀγαθὸς (agathos). I dare not say but it might be possible that Mark (whose native name was Jochanan and who was most probably a native Aramaic speaker) mixed up these words.I do not speak Aramaic and just looked up the Peshitta text I got, without success.
    – Jeschu
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 21:28

I don't speak or read a word of Hebrew or Aramaic, so this answer is just based on computer research plus some knowledge of Greek (although mostly not koine). I think there are really two good possibilities.

(1) From what I understand of αγαθός, it has a primary meaning, when applied to a human, of something more like "highborn" or "brave." The plain old word for good, like a good cup of coffee or a well-behaved child, would I think be καλος (but I could be wrong because my knowledge isn't mainly of koine). The connotation of αγαθός has to do with greatness (which is the meaning of the speculative Indo-European root). Since the whole dialog starts with ἀγαθέ διδάσκαλε, used as a form of address to Jesus, a reasonable translation, using only the Greek, might be "great teacher" rather than "good teacher." Most likely if you see this form of address in the NT the person is actually addressing Jesus as Rabboni. Mark uses ραββουνι in 10:51. This answer by Susan says:

The frequent title διδάσκαλος (didaskalos) (often vocative: didaskalē) also probably translates rabbi. (See, in addition to John's translation above, e.g. Mt 17:4, where didaskale is used for Mark 9:5's rabbi.)

Note that the meanings of "adonai" and "rabbi" are actually very similar. Adonai means "my lord," while "rabbi" means "my master." That is, a student would address their teacher as "master." So under this hypothesis, the man addresses Jesus obsequiously as Rabboni, my great master, and Jesus, showing his characteristic humility, demurs that he is not a great master, only God is a great master.

Now, when Mark writes it up in Greek, he uses the customary Greek translation for the form of address, because if he used ραββουνι, his Greek-speaking audience won't be able to understand a discussion involving rabbinical word-play about this unfamiliar term. So in order to make this intelligible to Greek speakers, he morphs the words a little bit. The basic point still comes across in the translation, as well as Jesus's humility. The Greek words can be heard as "Why do you call me great? No one is great but God alone." It can also be heard like a Socratic dialog on "what is the good," which could be a familiar literary and philosophical idea to any educated and Hellenized members of Mark's audience.

(2) Looking for similar usages of "good" in the tanakh, I come across examples like (WEB):

Jeremiah 18:10 -- if they do that which is evil in my sight, that they not obey my voice, then I will repent of the good with which I said I would benefit them.

Nahum 1:7 -- Yahweh is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and he knows those who take refuge in him.

Micah 6:8 -- He has shown you, O man, what is good.

These seem similar to me in that some of them discuss good in an abstract, generalized sense, and some talk about God as being good. Micah 6:8, in particular, sounds like the same Socratic style of "what is the good?" that Mark has here.

Looking at an interlinear tanakh, all three of these are translations of forms of the Hebrew root twb.

Looking at an Aramaic concordance of the NT, and searching on the English word "good," I get a whole bunch of forms of twb (teth waw beth), including for Mark 10:17-18.

So as a second possibility, this could just be the standard Aramaic word for "good," some form of twb, and the context is what makes it more abstract and special as a divine property of God. This has the advantage of making it possible for the original Aramaic dialog to have been about an abstract "good," as presented in Mark, but the disadvantage that it isn't consistent with the more general likely fact that the Aramaic for this phrase is probably Rabboni.

  • Jesus accepted ῥαββουνί in Mark 10:51. Rabbouni was already more than rabbi, adequate for a Member of Sanhedrin. Maybe, feeling that this man would not be a good scolar, he reacted differently. The word «great» is a good hint. I will look them up.
    – Jeschu
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 17:26
  • @Jeschu: Good point, although I doubt that Jesus would have always called out anyone who referred to him as "good" in any context. I think the point here is that you don't call someone "teacher" or "master" unless that person has actually accepted you as their pupil. Maybe, feeling that this man would not be a good scolar, he reacted differently. I agree, it seems like Jesus is giving the man an entrance exam, and the man fails.
    – user39728
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 17:32
  • Change "adonai" (pl of greatness, applied only to God) to "adoni" ("m'lord" or "sir") and change ".Rabboni" to "Rabi" (the "b" is accented or doubled, but use a single "b" to distinguish it from the modern word "rabbi". The title "adoni" is and was not used in Hebrew or Jewish Aramaic to address a religious teacher, only "mori" or "rabi". "Adoni" is a secular term used by a woman WRT her husband (e.g Sarah WRT Abraham, "and my master is old" )or by a servant WRT his/her master.
    – user17080
    Commented Feb 22, 2021 at 12:58

We may not be able to tell the exact words that that the rich young man and Jesus said. It may well have be טוֹב, which is basically the same in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac. It encompasses the meanings of both ἀγαθὸς and καλός. The context fits ethically good, which ἀγαθὸς better fits over καλός; thus Mark's choice of words.

  1. good (ethical), right: מה טוב || what Yahweh requires Mi 6:8, -- Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 374). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Other, possibilities:

  1. צַדִיק (righteous) -- Micah 6:8 has טוֹב, but what stands out when comparing it to God's characteristics in Jeremiah 9:24 is צַדִיק isn't a human requirement, but attributed to God in Micah 6:5. For precedent see https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2833935/jewish/Shimon-Hatzadik-Simeon-the-Just.htm

  2. חָכָם֙ (wise) -- is the human word in Jeremiah 9:23 parallel to צַדִיק.

We could come up with other words, but it is difficult to expect ἀγαθὸς to translate them. The Septuagint (LXX) used ἀγαθὸς to translate טוֹב.

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Chart generated with Logos Bible Software showing occurrences of Hebrew words the LXX translates with ἀγαθὸς.

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The Septuagint (LXX) used multiple words to translate טוֹב,showing a more general meaning.



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