Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Language of Jesus

Note: by clicking on the title, the reader will find a link to a critical review of the work of George M. Lamsa.

To understand Jesus means to understand the language that he spoke. And to understand the language he spoke we need to be practictioners of his teachings in our own lives, for his words don't come to life - remain empty and meaningless - unless we accept a relationship with him in our own life and try to "follow him," in our own daily life. And like the apostles we will do so with a lot of falling down and getting back up, and learning that nevertheless the only thing we can ever count on in this life is Jesus' forgiveness.

For it is only by following his teaching in our own lives that we will come to gradually understand duality as metaphor, and we will come to appreciate that now as then Jesus teaches only in parables which do not ever reveal themselves to us except in our own personal relationship to our Internal Teacher, so that in looking with him we gradually start seeing content, not form, and finally we should have ears to hear and eyes to see.

The language of Jesus is the language of experience. Historically, Jesus the man spoke Aramaic. But the street language and commercial language of the time was Koinè, a street Greek, because the region was Hellenized. And it is very clear that the oldest and most reliable texts of the NT materials are in Greek and a few cases old Syriac. And the best, most scholarly editions of the NT are those of UBS or Nestlé-Aland (Württembergische Bibelanstalt), which are widely available, and are based on careful text-critical study of the 5000 known manuscripts of the NT materials.

Much has been made about Aramaicisms in the NT Greek. The best known work in that area was by Gustav Dalman in Germany ("Jesus-Jeshua," 1922, "Grammatik des Jüdisch-Palästinischen Aramäisch," 1905-1927, "Orte und Wege Jesu," 1924, "Die Worte Jesu," 1930) in the early 20th century, followed by Matthew Black's "An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts," of 1946. For those of us who are linguistically inclined it may or may not be worthwhile to study such materials. They address the realities of distortions in the Greek accounts resulting from the fact that the actors (Jesus, c.s.) spoke Aramaic. There may be an occasional gem to be found. I have personally studied much of this material in depth many years ago, since I learned both Greek and Hebrew in school and subsequently at least made an attempt to learn enough Aramaic to be able to follow the work of Dalman - relatively easy to do if one also has a strong command of classical Greek.
After a few years of this study I gave up in disgust, realizing that Jesus was not to be found in an archaeological dig under old rubble, but only in my own relationship with him in my life. My finding of A Course in Miracles later in life did more to progress any sense of a relationship with Jesus than any amount of study of Aramaicisms in NT Greek.

The George M. Lamsa material, most notably his translation of the Bible from the Peshitta, make an emotional appeal to the fact that Aramaic was the language of Jesus, and therefore they are presented as more accurate. However, the Peshitta was in fact a 4th century revision of earlier old Syriac manuscripts, so the route went from Greek to old Syriac to Aramaic, and then 1500 years later into English, courtesy of George Lamsa. Greek manuscripts reach back to as early as 100-150 AD. In short, the claims on which Lamsa's bases the authority of his work are emotional and not historically supportable. Now we may still be interested in his work, or the Peshitta materials in general, as much as in any variations of the text. And again, for those who are so inclined there may be a few gems to be found, but for most of it it appears to be a cumbersome detour, and hardly a shortcut.

If you want to go back to the original language as much as possible, there are lovely editions such as "The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament," 1960, Tyndale House Publishers, Chicago, and based on the now combined UBS/Nestlé-Aland Greek texts, with interlinear English, and the NRSV in the margins. In my personal work I tend to go back to the KJV because of its enormous influence in English (including notably in ACIM), or to other modern translations when the details matter, or even directly to the Greek, if I think it is worthwhile. I doubt that it would be worthwhile to learn Greek for that purpose however.

In terms of understanding Jesus, practicing the Course is more helpful than studying all of this material. However, if one wants to develop a good critical view, the recommendation would be a KJV for historical reasons, a NRSV or NIV for a modern text (with Apocrypha), and Marvin Meyer's Gospel of Thomas, as well as perhaps Hyam Maccoby's "The Mythmaker, Paul and the Invention of Christianity," and then the Course and Disappearance of the Universe to help put it all in perspective.

I believe that what we would end up with is a view in which we must realize that the true tradition of the heart more likely ran via Mary Magdalene than via all the noise makers who left extensive track records. Her quiet near-absence from the historical record speaks volumes. In terms of the extant texts, the sayings gospels and Thomas in particular may have a higher content of actual quotes from Jesus than any of the canonical materials. So there is distortion in terms of the books themselves for no author was perfect, and transcription errors were common, as well as in terms of which materials were chosen for the canonical NT, when it was formulated ca 400 AD under Athanasius (Yes, it was that late!!!). The main distortions in later translations as well as perhaps in some of the original texts, had more than likely to do with the slant in the belief systems of those who produced those texts, and in particular the emerging Pauline theology, which was to become Christianity "proper," but quite evidently had never been taught by Jesus.

Thus the most faithful rendering into English from the best Greek texts will still suffer from the theological slant of the translator, and again from a Course perspective we may end up with a very different word choice in translations than we would if we came from a Christian/Pauline point of view. Which only serves to reemphasize the point that it is our own experiences in attempting to follow Jesus in our lives, and to practice what he teaches, which are the most valuable guidance in translation and understanding. Without that, any of the extant linguistic research is still fairly useless, since it deals only with form, not content, and can be tainted, typically and particularly so if Pauline theology guides the ultimate construction and word choices.

I decided to write about this matter at some length in this place, because this question comes up frequently in various discussion groups, on-line and off-line. It may help some of us find our best avenue to the most reliable and comfortable renditions. For the rest I can only say that intuition should be the best guide, not external authority. And Lamsa's fraudulent emotional claim to legitimacy because Aramaic was the language of Jesus, while ignoring the historically dubious standing of the Peshitta from a text-critical point of view, is an obfuscation and misleading, however sincere his intentions might have been. The eager uptake of his material by successive generations of readers says more about the underlying suspicions of church authority in readers who are looking for a better source, than it says about the scholarly value of Lamsa's work.

In conclusion I might add that e.g. Henry J. van Dyke, in "The Fourth Wise Man," truly translated Jesus' message into modern-day language, and the story reflects an advanced inner understanding of who and what Jesus is. There are numerous Christ legends which similarly reflect a deep understanding of the message. There have always been people who similarly expressed Jesus' teachings in their lives. We translate Jesus whenever we give form to the thought system of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives and in our interactions with people, by expressing the abstract thought of Love in the specifics of our daily lives, and thus "demonstrating that he lives in us," THAT is truly translating the teachings of Jesus. Translating the NT must be done from that frame of reference, but the sad truth is that most often it has only been done from a perspective of book learning and theology (teachings about Jesus), and not from practicing the teachings of Jesus. External authority can only cloud the picture, be it the specious claims of righteousness of the apostolic succession on which the church builds an aura of authority, or the mythical authority of the Peshitta.

I write these lines in deep gratitude to the teachings of Jan Willem Kaiser, who powerfully stated these points in his translation and commentary to the Gospel according to Mark ("Beleving van het Evangelie,"1950).

Copyright, © 2005 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.
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