Can we discern an Aramaic original behind the recorded-in-Greek teachings of Jesus in the Gospels?
Are New Testament scholars able to discern a probable Aramaic layer beneath the Gospel text, and in particular behind the sayings of Jesus? Can we detect what historians of the New Testament sometimes call “Aramaic interference” (e.g. through Semitisms)—indicating a substratum of material which was originally Aramaic in nature.
What historians are saying
- Barnabas Lindars: “Careful analysis of the sayings shows again and again that the hypothesis of an Aramaic original leads to the most convincing and illuminating results.” [“The Language in Which Jesus Taught,” Theology 86 (1983) 364.]
Gospel Jesus-sayings are puns (if put in Aramaic)
Some of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (written in Greek), turn out to be clver puns if translated into Aramaic.
There are 3 solid examples:
- Aramaic pun: “strain out gnat… swallow a camel” (Mt 23:24).1
- Aramaic pun: “wind… blows somewhere… same for Spirit” (Jn 3:8).2
- Aramaic pun: “..from stones God can raise up children to Abraham” (Mt 3:9).3
This is relevant because for a clever pun to only appear when translated into Aramaic is highly unlikely to be a coincidence; it's a key example of how a text cans super-retrovert when translated.
- In Aramaic, it reads:
• Mt 23:24 — “You blind guides, you strain out a GALMA but swallow a GAMLA.”
- In Aramaic it reads:
• Jn 3:8 — “The RUHA blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it….; so it is with everyone who is born of the RUHA.”
- In Aramaic, it reads
This is a classic double entendre.
• Mt 3:9 — “from these ABANIM God is able to raise up BANIM to Abraham.”
Gospel Jesus sayings are parallelisms
Throughout the Gospels, as scholars read the sayings of Jesus, they encounter clear examples of parallelism (of which there are a diversity of kinds).
For 5 kinds of examples...
- Antithetical parallelism appears ~138 times (in Jesus' Gospel teachings).
- Synonymous parallelism oft appears (in Jesus' Gospel teachings).
- Synthetic parallelism oft appears (in Jesus' Gospel teachings).
- Step/Climactic parallelism oft appears (in Jesus' Gospel teachings).
- Chiasmic parallelism oft appears (in Jesus' Gospel teachings).
This is relevant because this is a fairly characteristic style of those speaking Hebrew/Aramaic, rather than Greek, and often enough the rhythm and required beat-count only comes out in the Aramaic iteration.1
- • James Dunn: “[t]he important observations by Aramaic experts with regard to the character of the teaching tradition. All have noted that the tradition, even in its Greek state, bears several marks of oral transmission in Aramaic. Already in 1925 C. F. Burney had drawn attention to the various kinds of parallelism (synonymous, antithetic, synthetic) and rhythm (four-beat, three-beat, kina metre) characteristic of Hebrew poetry. And Matthew Black noted many examples of alliteration, assonance, and paronomasia. [Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003), 225.]