Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is the Cross a "pagan" symbol?

Stephen Andrew Missick

“Every idle word you speak you will give an account thereof on the day of Judgment…” Matthew 12:36

Is the cross pagan? Is it a symbol of some other religion that was later adopted by Christians in a process of “paganizing” the church to make it more appealing to pagans?

If this is true we need to know exactly what religion venerated the cross and exactly what religious significance it had in this particular pagan religion. (People who claim that the cross is pagan cannot provide a clear answer to this question.)

We also need to deal with certain questions such as, “Was Jesus crucified on a cross or a pole?” The Jehovah’s Witnesses contend that Jesus was crucified on a pole with both hands over his head and one nail going though both hands-as one was laid on top of the other. There is no evidence at all that Jesus was crucified in this manner-in fact, we have ancient records and archeological evidence that the traditional depiction of the crucifixion is correct. While we should be wary of tradition, sometimes tradition does indeed preserve accurate information. For example, the Eastern Orthodox Christians differed on how Christ was crucified. In Roman Catholic tradition, one foot is placed over the other with one nail going through both feet. The Orthodox contended that there was a foot stand on the cross and a nail through each foot. Archeologists have found the remains of a victim of crucifixion from the time of Jesus. The man’s name was Johannan. The nail from the crucifixion and a bit of the cross was still affixed to his heel. So, it seems that the Eastern Orthodox were right about this matter.

Some people argue that Jesus was crucified on a pole because the Greek word for cross is “stauros” meaning a pole. Well, the cross is a pole! Jesus carried this cross-beam, a pole, to Golgotha, where it was attached to another pole. Historians believe that there were permanent poles erected at the place of crucifixion and that the condemned carried to cross beam, a pole, to the other pole, on which they were crucified. Just because the Greek word for cross means “pole” it doesn’t mean that the cross on which Jesus was crucified was lacking a crossbeam. Also, the shape of an object does not have to be embedded in a word. For example, we speak of “telephone poles” when in reality they are often ‘telephone crosses,’ but no one calls them this. Crosses ARE poles. When the Bible was translated into Latin the word “cross” was used to translate the Greek word “stauros” because this was what the word was understood to mean. The Latin Vulgate, and earlier Latin versions of the Bible as well, are accurate and the Vulgate belongs to the same textual family as the King James Version. Greek is said to be a very detailed and precise language. The thieves are described as being crucified “one on his right hand, and the other on his left.” They are at the right and left “hands” of Jesus not at his side because his arms are outstretched (Mark 15:27, Matthew 27:38, Luke 24:33).
The question comes down to-“What did the ancients understand the cross to look like?” The “Epistle of Barnabas” is an ancient Christian writing written between 70-132 AD. Barnabas describes Christ’s arms as being “outstretched.” He says,

He speaks to Moses, when war was being waged against Israel by foreigners, and in order that he might remind those being attacked that they had been handed over to death because of their sins, the Spirit says to the heart of Moses that he should make a symbol of the cross and of the one who was destined to suffer because, he is saying, unless they place their hope in him, war shall be waged against them forever. Therefore Moses piled one shield upon another in the midst of the battle, and standing high above them all he stretched out his hands, and so Israel was made victorious. But whenever he lowered them, the men began to be killed. Why so? So that they might learn that they cannot be saved unless they place their hope in him. And again in another prophet he says: “All day long I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient people who oppose my righteous way.” Again Moses makes a symbol of Jesus-showing that he must suffer, and that the very one whom they think they have destroyed shall give life…Barnabas 12:2-4. (Quoting Exodus 17:8-13 and Isaiah 65:20

So, here we have an early Christian writing during a period when apostles of the Messiah were writing, describing Christ’s arms as outstretched, not in an attempt to make Christianity more appealing to pagans-but to show that the mode of Jesus’ death fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. Early Christians writing in the apostolic era understood Christ’s arms to be outstretched upon the cross.

An important archeological discovery concerning the mode of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the graffiti from the early Christian period found in Palatine Hill in Rome. It has written “Alexamenos worships his god.” Alexamenos, the early Christian being mocked, is depicted standing in front of the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus is depicted with an ass’s head. This graffiti has been dated to the second century (100s). (It may be earlier- it was found in a place that has been dated to the time of Nero who ruled 54-68 AD.) Jesus has his arms outstretched on the cross. This must be because this was the way most crucifixions were carried out and how even pagans understood Christ to have been crucified. The cross is mocked. This inscription shows that the cross had no religious significance at that time. It not a symbol of the sacred to the Romans-but an emblem of shame and contempt. Anti-Semitic Greeks and Romans believed that the Jews had an idol of a golden ass’s head in the Holy of Holies in the Temple that they worshiped and that every Jewish synagogue had an ass’s head in the vestibule. Part of the reason Jesus is depicted with a donkey’s head is to identify him and mock him as a Jew. In the ruins of Pompey and Herculaneum there is what may be a cross inscribed on the wall at the “Casa del Bicentenario” at Herculaneum. The volcano that buried Pompey and Herculaneum occurred around 70 AD. Ancient graffiti showing a crucified man-being crucified in the same manner as traditional depictions of Christ’s crucifixion has been found at a wall at Pozzuoli at Naples in Italy.
When we study the cross we need serious historical and archeological investigations and not unsubstantiated rumors. Two excellent books have been written on the subject: The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry by Dr. Frederick T. Zugabe and Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Cross by Martin Hengel. Hengel mentions the ancient writer Lucian and says, “According to Lucian, the letter T was given its “evil significance”, “shaped in the form of a tau which tyrants “hang men on”…”I think we can only punish Tau by making a T of him.” So the ancients described the cross as being T shaped. Hengel described the sociological significance of crucifixion. The cross was an unspeakable, obscene, and “utterly vile.” The cross was seen as such a horrible thing that crucifixion was not usually discussed in polite society. A gospel of the cross was, in their view “folly and scandal.” Paul speaks of the “offense of the cross” in Galatians 5:11. And now we have uneducated people claiming that the church used the cross to appeal to pagans-when in reality they found it repugnant! (It should be remembered that the Romans did not invent crucifixion that adopted it from other eastern cultures.)
There have been different arguments made against the cross. One person I encountered said that the cross is like an electric chair or a car totaled in an accident and thus it is repulsive and we shouldn’t want to look at it. In fact, it was insinuated that doing so was disrespectful to God. (This individual took offense at the cross when he noticed a cross that was not prominently displayed in a church.) The group this person was with also believes that we should still be sacrificing animals and that in the Millennium sin-offerings will be re-instituted-which must mean that the blood of the Messiah has not covered for all sins for all time. The Bible is very clear that animal sacrifices are over with the atonement of Jesus. In the Millennium Isaiah says, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:9).
It is also argued that the cross hurts Jewish people’s feelings. Well, it is meant to! Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them that we called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God, and the wisdom of God, because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). These people are trying to remove the offense of the cross. Lets not offend the Jews by the cross, they say, let us remove it out of deference for their feelings. You are going to remove something God has established and in doing so-you make yourself a rebel against Almighty God. The crucifixion, according to Paul, is the “wisdom of God.” When you remove the cross-you presume you are wiser than God. What about the Moslems? They are offended at the cross the same way the Jews are. Are we going to remove the cross for them? When we remove the Atonement what kind of Gospel are we left with? During Gulf War 1, Chaplains were pressured to remove their crosses off of their uniforms to keep from offending Moslems. And now certain “Messianics” want us to remove the cross to keep from offending Jews. These two incidents are basically identical. Christians are being pressured to deny Christ, both of these incidents represent a denial of Jesus Christ. But “The Cross hurts Jewish (and Moslem) peoples feelings.” It is our obligation to remain faithful to the Scriptures-and not to change our beliefs in order to satisfy unbelievers. If the Jews interpret the cross in a negative way that is because they are in error. Some say that Christians have behaved in an un-Christ like manner. However, we should be wary of taking a jaundiced view of Christian history. Historical revisionists are engaging in anti-Christian polemics by re-writing history. Yes, atrocities have been committed but there has also been great kindness and tolerance shown to the Jews and positive cultural exchanges between the Christian and Jewish communities throughout history. The problem isn’t with the cross. The Jews are attaching the wrong meaning to the cross and in doing so, they are in error as the New Testament clearly states in 1 Corinthians 1 that the cross is the stumbling block and rock of offense that God has established-those who oppose it will be ground to powder (Psalm 118:22, See also Matthew 21:42-44. 1 Peter 2:7-8.)
But the cross is a “pagan” symbol, they say-without proof! Some of the evidence they provide is that the cross is used to ward off vampires! Well, this shows how weak their argument is when they have to use mythological creatures to prove their point. Vampires are fictional. Vampires as we know them now, were invented by Abraham Stoker in a novel written in the 1800s. Vampires are demonic. The concept was that the cross represented to holiness and power of Jesus and as they are demonic it reminds them of their defeat by Christ. Well, it shows that the cross is used as a lucky charm, they say. So what? During Viet Nam some soldiers would carry a small Bible in their pocket thinking it would protect them. Is a Bible bad because it has been misused in this manner? Jews also have made idols out of mezuzahs and Torah Scrolls. The idea behind a Mezuzah is to have a Bible verse written on the door post of your house. Later Jewish people developed a superstition of touching the Mezuzah for a blessing or for good luck. In many synagogues Jews dance before and run circles around a Torah Scroll as if it was an idol. They kiss it, bow down before it and worship it. So, now we have people telling us to reject the cross because in extreme cases certain ignorant people have developed superstitions. I am not going to deny the cross of Christ because in some rare and extreme cases a very tiny and insignificant group of people may be superstitious. We need serious evidence that New Testament Christianity is “pagan” and not absurd non-sense.
A professor once said, “Words have contexts-not meanings.” This is also true about symbols. For example, in our culture the swastika is a symbol of Anti-Semitism. However, Buddhists resent this because the swastika is also an ancient symbol of Buddhism. Archeologists have discovered that the Temple of the Lord build by King Herod was decorated with swastikas! At the time it was just a geometrical pattern and it didn’t have the meaning attached to it that it now carries. As Christians, the meaning that we assign to be cross is derived from the New Testament. Speaking of the centrality of the cross, Paul wrote, “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Some people have found rare pictures of Assyrians and Babylonians wearing jewelry that looks like crosses. These “crosses” (plus signs really) are not shaped like the cross that Jesus was crucified on. They are just designs without religious significance. They did not symbolize that God became incarnate to die to redeem mankind. In Egypt there is the “ankh.” It is not a true cross either-it has a loop on the top. It is the Egyptian word for “life” while the cross is a symbol of death. Another device is the “Hammer of Thor.” The Hammer of Thor is not a cross-it’s a hammer. An “ankh” is not a cross either. These symbols are not true crosses and do not symbolize what the cross symbolizes in the New Testament.
But isn’t the cross the symbol of Tammuz? NO! The Bible says, “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.” (Revelation 22:18). People have added an unscriptural and totally untrue story of Nimrod and Semiramis and have given it Scriptural authority. This story of Nimrod is given unquestioned authority as if it is the very word of God and it is used to interpret not just the Bible but the whole of history of mankind. The story of Nimrod and Semiramis is not in the Bible and you are not obligated to believe in it-because it isn’t true. Jesus said, “By the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word may be established.” (Matthew 18:16 quoting Deuteronomy 17:6). The story of Nimrod and Semiramis first appears in the mid 1800s AD-there is no supporting witnesses-not in Josephus, not in the Apocrypha, not in the Talmud or any Jewish Legend or ancient writing and not in the Dead Sea Scrolls or the writings of the Church Fathers. There is no evidence from the archeological record either. There is no collaborating or supporting evidence to prove the story of Nimrod and Semiramis is true. Despite this many people have given the Nimrod-Semiramis-Tammuz story canonical status. This is adding to the Bible and is sinful and demonic.
In the mid-1800s, a man in England named Alexander Hislop invented the Nimrod-Semiramis-Tammuz story. Hislop’s ideas are found in a book he wrote entitled “The Two Babylons.” What he did was take the story of Osirus, the story of the Levites concubine in Judges 19, and the story of Semiramis and merged them and invented a new myth that had never been told before. It goes like this: After the flood Nimrod built the Tower of Babel and married his mother Semiramis. Because of his idolatry Shem, the son of Noah, killed Nimrod and dismembered him and scattered his body parts as a warning to other idolaters. Semiramis then gave birth to Nimrod’s child Tammuz, whom she claimed was Nimrod reincarnated and the incarnation of the Sun god. She then invented the doctrine of the Trinity, the Father, being Nimrod, the Son being Tammuz and herself as the equivalent of the Holy Spirit. According to Hislop all religions are a form of sun worship as established by Semiramis. Hislop’s main thesis is that Roman Catholics are not worshiping Christ but are in fact worshiping Tammuz-Nimrod and Semiramis. This is an unfair criticism of the Roman Catholic church.
This isn’t the place for extensive information about it but, “What do we know about Babylonian religion?” Now, due to archeological discoveries we know a lot more than Hislop did. Accurate information on the Babylonians and their religion is found in “The Babylonians” by H.W.F. Saggs. A lot of accurate information about the Babylonians is found in the Bible. Hislop’s theories have been scientifically disproved but his ideas are not biblical. No historian or archeologists takes Hislop or his ideas seriously at all. So, who was Tammuz? Tammuz was a fertility-vegetation god and a consort to the goddess Ishtar. Tammuz was not a sun god. Due to Hislop, many people assume that most ancient religions were centered around Sun worship. The Egyptians were primarily Sun worshipers, however, in most ancient religions including Babylonian religions, the Sun is not the most important god-while he is worshiped as a god. Contrary to Hislop’s thesis, ancient Babylonian religion was not centered around one religion. In reality, along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, various city states emerged. Each city state had their own gods and goddesses and their own religions. Over the centuries, various city-states would become more powerful and they would conquer their neighbors. When this happened they also conquered the god’s of the neighboring cities. So, this meant that various religions would merge. Instead of one religion-that of Tammuz evolving into different religions, what really happened is that different polytheistic religions were merging together. We haven’t found evidence that the ancient Babylonians worshipped the way Hislop claims they did. The Babylonian gods are Enlil “Lord-Wind” the Creator, Ani (or Anu), a “co-creator,” Enki, the God of Earth and Shamashi-the Sun God and the God of Justice. It should be noted that Shamashi was not the chief god. Different city-states had different listings of the chief gods. Other gods include Sin, the moon god, Ninurta, the storm god and Ereshkegal, the god of the dead. Goddesses include Inanna, Ishtar, Gula, Ninhurgad, Ershkigal and Tiamat. Other deities include Damuzi, who is Tammuz, and Murdock, who as the God of Babylonia, became the chief god by defeating all other gods.
The fact is that not all religions are based on Sun worship. There are some beliefs that do seem to be universal in primitive cultures. These are-what is called “animism” which means that the universe is filled with “spirits.” All objects and living things, such as trees, have spirits. The second very common feature is ancestor worship. In this belief, all of your ancestors spirits watch over you, for good or ill and you must appease them. Fertility was very important to the ancients and many religions centered around fertility gods-not sun worship. It is very obvious why-survival depended on fertile crops and upon having children. It is a type of survival mechanism. Hislop is wrong. Roman Catholicism is not Babylonian. However, Babylonian religion is alive and well. It is ironic that people who attack Christianity for being “Babylon Mystery Religion” are actually spreading the real Babylonian religion themselves. Babylonian religion has survived as Astrology. Michael Rood promotes Astrology with his astrologically based calendar. This obsession with Sun worship is odd because the Bible actually uses the Sun and Light as a metaphor for God and his Messiah. Jesus is called the Sun of Righteousness in Malachi 4:2, in Psalm 84:11 it states “Yahweh is a Sun and shield.” In John chapter one Jesus is described as light conquering darkness. The Sun as a metaphor for Jesus and God the Father is Biblical and not “pagan.” There is absolutely no evidence that the cross was a symbol of Sun worship. Repeating a lie over and over again doesn’t make it true no matter how earnestly and passionately you tell the lie.
So, the cross is supposedly pagan because it is the symbol of Tammuz. There is no evidence that the cross was a symbol of Tammuz. Well, some say, Tammuz starts with a “T.” That proves nothing. Besides that, Tammuz was actually called “Damuzi” so does this mean that the letter “D” is a pagan symbol too? And beside that, later some Greeks and Romans adopted the worship of Tammuz. They called him Adonis-actually Adonai, meaning the Lord. So, is the letter “A” pagan? Jewish people now call God “Adonai,” which was used for the god Tammuz. According to Hislop Tammuz was the principle Babylonian god. However, in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, King Gilgamesh, the hero of the story, mocks Damuzi. If Tammuz was the greatest god to the Babylonians why is he mocked in the most popular story in ancient Babylonia?
There is no evidence that Tammuz was the son of Nimrod. Jewish legends of Nimrod are about him having a magic garment than enabled him to hunt and have him in conflict with Abraham-not Shem.
So, who was this Semiramis woman? The story of Semiramis is found in the writings of Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who lived in the first century BC. He visited Egypt around 60 BC. According to Diodorus Siculus, Semiramis was a queen of Babylon who was married to a king named Ninus and she had a child named Ninyas. When Ninus was killed by an arrow, she posed as her son and ruled until her son was able to have her killed and claim the throne for himself. Archeologist believe that the person Diodorus Siculus is referring to was the Mesopotamian queen Sammu-Ramat, or Shammuramat, who ruled from 811-808 BC. Her husband’s name starts with an “N” like Nimrod-but both the name and the story is different from the way it is retold by Hislop. There are no Jewish legends, or ancient secular or religious accounts that connect Semiramis with Tammuz, Nimrod, or Shem until Hislop did this in the 1800s AD.
I believe that the “Two Babylons” has been a very harmful book, similar to the Communist Manifesto, Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and cultic literature such as the Book of Mormon. If the “Two Babylons” was true-how come such a major event involving Nimrod and Shem wasn’t recorded in the Bible. How come Josephus didn’t write anything about it? Why is there no evidence at all that proves it to be true? It is either true or it’s not. And if it isn’t true then it’s a lie! It is a deception. Is it God’s will for us to be spreading stories that are not true-or are questionable? Well, its plausible, some may say. If you are going to teach this is true and be authoritative about it-you need to prove it, because either it is true or its not. Does Jesus Christ want us to go forth speaking with authority the Word of God or to focus on possible but uncertain doctrines we don’t know if they are true or not but they seem plausible. The Two Babylons has been popularized by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cultic organizations and that says a lot about it. We are warned not to add nor subtract from the word of God. Whatever “The Two Babylons” is or isn’t-it is not the word of God! This book has been very hurtful and divisive to the church. People have gotten angry, full of hate and have left the faith over “The Two Babylons.” The Da Vinci Code to a very large degree was based on “The Two Babylons” and was part of the “research” Dan Brown based his book on to prove that both the New Testament and Judaism are both based on paganism. We should be careful about spreading Hislop’s ideas because in doing so we could be spreading false and destructive lies. And who is the “Father of Lies”? According to the Bible, Satan is (John 8:44). “The Two Babylons” has created a lot of confusion and the Bible also declares that God is not the author of confusion, Satan is (1 Corinthians 14:33).
Well, Didn’t Constantine make the pagan cross the symbol of the church? At the battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine saw a vision telling him “In This Sign Conquer.” The sign was not a cross. It was the “Chi-Ro” symbol, which is the first two Greek letters of the Greek word “Christ.” Constantine is often accused of many things he didn’t do. He was not the first pope-in fact, he weakened the influence of the pope by moving the capital of Rome to Constantinople. How could he have been a pope when he wasn’t even baptized until he was upon his death bed? He did not select what books would be in the New Testament. He did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. (That was done later by emperor Theodosius late in the fourth century.) Constantine did however introduce the seven day week. It wasn’t used by the Romans except for those who used it for their horoscopes. Constantine also introduced a weekly Sabbath-on “the day of the sun.” The reason it was called the day of the Sun is because the seven day week was known from the horoscopes and to the naked eye of the ancient-there are seven bodies that move through the sky-the sun (Sunday), the Moon (Monday), Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. (In Spanish, these names of the days of the week are retained.) The other planets were not discovered until the invention of the telescope. Constantine did not start “Sunday worship.” By his time it was an established Christian tradition. Constantine was not a theologian. When Arius denied that Jesus was the eternal Son of God, Constantine did not make any theological pronouncements, he deferred to Church leaders, who in a counsel affirmed the teachings of the New Testament. The cross did not become a common Christian symbol until some time after Constantine abolished crucifixion. Constantine’s “Chi-Rho” emblem was used for a long time before and after he ruled. I do not see what the purpose is in spreading false information about Constantine. It was he who put an end to the centuries long persecution of Christianity and released an edict of toleration of Christians.
In chapter nine of Ezekiel God orders an angel to mark those who repented with a cross to mark those who would be spared God’s judgment. So, even in the Old Testament-the Cross is a symbol of God’s mercy. The fallacious argument that the cross is “pagan” is a statement that must be taken on blind faith. There is no evidence to support this and plenty of information to counteract this false thesis. Preachers and teachers are going to be held to a higher standard. The Bible speaks of this fact in James 3:1. We should be very careful about teaching things that are not true-and attacking Holy things that God Himself has established.
Certain people seem to have a sick obsession with “Paganism.” The problem with these people is that they are putting out inaccurate information about paganism. These individuals go around teaching people untruths-upset and harm people over fraudulent information. These teachers need to get an education. If they really knew anything about Babylonian Religion-they wouldn’t be talking about these cultic ideas about Nimrod. Are we obligated to believe or teach something that isn’t in the Bible and simply isn’t true? Those who do are false teachers and deceivers. Lets briefly examine “paganaphobia.” First, we need to realize that the pagans weren’t wrong about everything. The Egyptians and the Greeks believed that individuals possessed an immortal soul that would give an account for the life lived in this world and that soul would either enter into Heaven or be condemned into Hell. To properly understand the Bible we need to be aware of the “pagan” culture in which the stories of the Bible occurred. For instance, archeologists have discovered that the idea of “covenants” was a central concept in the world in which the Bible emerged. We cannot fully understand the concept of covenants without understanding what the ancient “pagans” believed about covenants. There are other things that the Jewish people shared with the pagans. The “Jewish” calendar is actually the same calendar the “pagans” used. This is so obvious when you see that a month in the Hebrew Calendar is named after Tammuz! This Calendar is used in the Bible and is still used by Jewish people today. The “Hebrew” alphabet is the same alphabet that was used by Israel’s “pagan” neighbors-in fact-it originated with the pagans. We have discovered that Israel’s pagan neighbors spoke Hebrew as well. The Moabite Stone, the Ugarit archives and Phoenician and Carthaginian relics show that “Hebrew” was the common language of that region. The Law Code of Hammurabi was written upon a stone tablet-the way Moses’ was later. God gave Moses the Commandments upon tablets of stone although that was an established pagan tradition. At Timna and Palmyra it has been found that pagans worshiped in Tabernacles. Pagan temples very similar to the Temple of Solomon have been excavated in Syria. Pagan temples have been discovered with a Holy Place, a “Holy of Holies” and two pillars at the entrance of the temple. The Temple and the Tabernacle were decorated with Palm Trees and Cherubim. We have a good idea of what these decorations looked like because we have excavated pagan relics bearing the same images and designs. The pagans sacrificed the same animals the Jewish people did in the same manner. Certain ancient Greeks believed that Jewish people were worshipers of the god Dionysus because the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated in a similar manner and at the same time as a feast of Dionysus. These same arguments that these teachers make saying that Christianity is pagan can also-and has been-used to argue that Judaism is also based on paganism!
Think about this, why is the shape of the cross so important to these people who hate the cross of Christ? Why should we be so occupied with such a petty issue? These people are so aggressive but they are also in serious error. Their purpose seems to sow discord between Christian brothers. Why do they try to paint our fellow believers as “the enemy”? Are they our enemies or are they our brothers in Christ?
Consider this, what if what these people are doing is casting untrue aspersions upon the Cross-God’s mode of Salvation? This would be Blasphemy. Who are these enemies of the Cross of Christ, those claiming to “Messianics” who have joined in league with the Moslems, Secularists and Atheists to attack the cross! Paul warns us of these people saying, “I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping that they are enemies of the cross of Christ; whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, who mind earthly things.” (Philippians 3:3). What about using some euphemism for the cross such as “torture stake” or “execution stake” or “tree” or “gibbet.” This is all about obscuring the Gospel and ultimately it is about removing the offense of the Cross. We need to clearly preach the Good News and stop attacking God’s method for redeeming mankind-the Cross of Jesus Christ. Our chief concern should be to comply with the commands of Jesus Christ. He ordered us-not to remove the Cross-but to pick it up. Jesus says, “He that taketh not up his cross, and followeth after me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:38). Jesus also said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up this cross and follow me.” (Matthew16:24). And now we have Messianic teachers telling us the opposite-that we need to take down and remove the cross-because they find it offensive!
The whole purpose of Jesus in coming to earth was to be crucified. Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man must be lifted up that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:14-16). So we see that Jesus was lifted up on the cross-not as a pagan symbol but in order to fulfill Old Testament types and symbols, to fulfill prophecy and to redeem mankind. In John 8:28 we are told that when Jesus is lived up “You will know that I am he.” In John 12:34, Jesus says, “If I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all peoples to myself.” This is what we are obligated to do-to lift up Christ. Are we lifting up Jesus and drawing all men to him or are we lifting up other things? Jesus embraced the shame of the cross, which is the Gospel. Many of these so-called “Messianics” are ashamed of the cross. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation unto everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, but also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16). Paul isn’t ashamed of the cross, he says, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me, and I unto the world.” (Galatians 6:14). Many of these enemies of the cross of Christ do not believe we are saved by the atonement but claim we are saved by having Jewish ancestry or being “Torah Observant.” Our primary mission is to lead people to the cross. If we are not doing this-then we are leading people into grave error.
Stephen A. Missick
PO Box 882 Shepherd TX 77371

Aramaic as Language of Jesus by Dr. DeFrancisco

Which Language Did Jesus Speak – Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek?

by James J. DeFrancisco, Ph.D.

This article is in response to the article of a similar title, Which Language Did Jesus Speak – Aramaic or Hebrew? by Brian Knowles published by ACD. While we essentially agree with the thesis of Mr. Knowles in that Jesus spoke primarily a Semitic language we do not agree with the conclusion that it was Hebrew rather than Aramaic. In this article we will provide background information that leads us to our conclusion.

The claim in the second paragraph of Mr. Knowles article in which he states that recently an expanding circle of scholars has rejected the notion of Aramaic as being the dialect spoken by Jesus and the disciples is essentially true. However, this claim is also somewhat of an exaggeration in the context of his article. He evidently forms this position based primarily on the work of several scholars: M. H. Segal, Shmuel Safrai, David Biven, and Roy Blizzard. To support his thesis he utilizes the work of two other scholars (Flusser and Lindsey) but ignores the position and importance of the Aramaic language in their writings. In addition, by not looking closely at the work of Biven and Blizzard, he overlooks at least one major misunderstanding in their quotation of the renowned Aramaic scholar, Matthew Black. The fundamental error is to overlook the fact that all of these scholars did their work in comparison with the Greek New Testament. The importance of the Aramaic language is not given justice and Aramaic versions, i.e. Old Syriac and Peshitta are not even mentioned.

Although there may be an expanding circle of scholars who have or who are rejecting the notion of Aramaic as being not only the dialect spoken by Jesus and His disciples this group is still a small percentage of scholars. In fact, the majority of scholars accept the notion that the primary language of Jesus and His disciples was Aramaic. Biven and Blizzard, while presenting useful information in their book, perhaps stretch the facts a bit to de-emphasize Aramaic in their effort to focus on Hebrew. They also seem to misunderstand and perhaps quote Matthew Black out of context in their attempt to support their thesis.

Knowles, Biven, and Blizzard have somewhat misused the work of Flusser and Lindsey in their de-emphasis of Aramaic because neither Flusser nor Lindsey do this in their own writings. In fact, Flusser and Lindsey often speak of Hebrew and Aramaic interchangeably as they emphasize the Semitic languages over Greek. Also, the Jerusalem Perspective Online website (www.JerusalemPerspective.com) contains articles that emphasis the importance of Aramaic, e.g. “Matthew’s Aramaic Glue” by Randall Buth indicates that “a knowledge of the Gospels’ Semitic background can provide a deeper understanding of Jesus’ words and influence the translation process.” Buth then goes on to state that “Matthew shows a specifically Aramaic influence” and that Matthew’s gospel “uses an Aramaic conjunction as the glue to hold stories together.”

In The Jesus Sources (Hkesher, 1990), Lindsey states that “. . . Mark is a Gospel of equivalents. He had what you might call a ‘targumist’ mentality.” Targums were traditionally written in Aramaic. In A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, Lindsey uses “Hebrew or Aramaic” in several sentences that group these two languages together (perhaps interchangeably) since they are closely related cognate languages. Unfortunately, he may be mistaken in his interpretation of the Aramaic words, “My God, my God . . .” in Mark 15:34 as being a direct quotation of the targum of Psalm 22. Several Aramaic commentators have taken another position on these words of Jesus as early as the 9th century (Ishodad of Merv). Since these words were spoken in Aramaic, the evidence of Aramaic experts should be taken into consideration. Also, it is interesting that Jesus would use Aramaic just moments before his death if it was not his primary language. If He was reciting Holy Scripture, why didn’t he recite the Shema in Hebrew instead?

Regarding the expression, “son of man,” Lindsey is clear that “the original is Aramaic . . . and so far as we know Jesus and the people of his day knew the text only in Aramaic.” (The Jesus Sources, p. 72). The text being referred to here is Daniel 7:13 which is written in Aramaic – in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Other citations of Aramaic in The Jesus Sources include:

We have chosen to use Kepha, for it is perfectly clear that Jesus uses this
Aramaic form in naming Simon.” (p. 74)

Lindsey refers to “the Hebrew word ‘Amen’” (p. 74). This word is identical
in Aramaic. . . as are many other words.

In Jesus, Flusser uses Palestinian Hebrew and Aramaic interchangeably for the term “fox” (p. 52, n. 28). He uses Hebrew and Aramaic together in reference to the writings from the time of Jesus (p. 128). Although he doesn’t specifically mention it regarding his section on the “Chamber of Hewn Stone and Caiaphus,” he is actually demonstrating the use of an Aramaic word, “Caiaphus” is a Latinized form of “Kepha.” This obviously shows that the common names of people and places utilized Aramaic. This is demonstrated also with “Gabbatha” (p. 254) and “Golgotha” (p. 255) as well as “mamona” (Aramaic) in comparison with “mammon” (Hebrew) showing the close similarity of these two languages (p. 94, n. 5).

Bivin and Blizzard, unfortunately, make comparisons exclusively using Greek texts (Codex Sinaiticus, Bezae, and Alexandrinus) with a focus on Hebrew as more original than Greek. Aramaic is de-emphasized, omitted, and referred to with little understanding in their book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, which doesn’t totally live up to its name.

In Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, on pages 12-14, for example, in quoting Matthew Black they suggest that Black supports their position. The statement however is actually used by Black in an argument in which he opposes the Hebrew gospel position and it is further qualified by his beginning the sentence with the word “If . . .“ Black also qualifies it with a footnote in reference to page 16 of his book where he states, “Jesus must have conversed in the Galilean dialect of Aramaic, and His teaching was probably almost entirely in Aramaic.” He actually judges the emphasis of using Hebrew as a gospel language as an “extreme position” and goes on to explain that it “has found little if any support among competent authorities” and is “absurd.” To the contrary, Black in fact, states that “these Scriptures were provided with a targum for the benefit of the Aramaic speaking masses who could no longer understand Hebrew. The use of the term ‘Hebrew’ to refer to Aramaic is readily explicable, since it described the peculiar dialect of Aramaic which had grown up in Palestine since the days of Nehemiah and which was distinctively Jewish . . .” The reader is referred to page 48 of An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts by Black.

Professor Safrai has provided a detailed overview of languages used in Israel. Much valuable information is available on the www.JerusalemPerspective.com website. A major portion of one of his articles on this subject is presented at some length below:

“Prof. Safrai presents an overview of the three languages used in the land of Israel during the days of Jesus, and concludes that Hebrew was the primary language spoken by the Jewish residents at that time.
The land of Israel was under the influence of Greek culture from the time of its conquest by Alexander the Great at the end of the fourth century B.C.E. Although scholars have divergent views regarding the influence
of Hellenism on religious works, literature and everyday life in first-century Israel, it is generally accepted that the Greek language was used by many of the inhabitants.

“The Role of Aramaic
Aramaic was quite widespread in Jerusalem and in other parts of the land, as can be seen from the large number of Aramaic inscriptions which have been discovered dating from the Second Temple period. The
use of Aramaic is also evident from the literature created in that language. The Genesis Apocryphon, the Targum of Job and portions of several other Aramaic works were found in the ancient library of the Essenes
at Qumran, and Jewish sources of the period mention additional non-extant works.

“Aramaic also had a strong influence on Mishnaic Hebrew, and Aramaic words are found in the New Testament and in the writings of Josephus. Unlike in countries such as Egypt where Aramaic almost disappeared when the country came under the influence of Hellenism, Aramaic remained a vibrant language in the land of Israel and Syria even during the centuries of Græco-Roman rule until the Arab conquest at the beginning of the seventh century C.E.

“Aramaic was the language of communication between Jews and those non-Jews not connected with the government or living in Greek cities. An ordinary non-Jew mentioned in rabbinic literature is referred to
as an Aramean and generally has an Aramaic rather than a Greek name (Tosefta, Pesahim 1:27). It is possible that some Roman officials who served long periods of time in the land of Israel learned Aramaic, and Jews may have been able to converse with these officials in Aramaic.

“However, the role of Aramaic in everyday life should not be exaggerated. Many scholars who admit the widespread use of Hebrew in the last few generations of the Second Temple period claim that Temple
services were conducted in Aramaic. While there were a number of Aramaic words and phrases associated with the administration of the Temple and Temple area, the vast majority of references relating to Temple life reflect the use of Hebrew there. The Mishnah preserves many descriptions of various aspects of everyday life in the Temple, including statements of Temple officials which almost always are in Hebrew. Moreover, to date all of the inscriptions found in the Temple area are written in Hebrew, except for two Greek inscriptions, originally part of a balustrade surrounding the inner Temple, which warned Gentiles not to go beyond that point.

“Tannaic and amoraic sources state that it was customary in the synagogue to translate the readings from the Torah and the Prophets into Aramaic. Rendering the Scriptures into Aramaic offered an opportunity to introduce into the readings elements of the Oral Torah in popular form. This was done for the benefit of religiously uneducated people who may not have completely understood Biblical Hebrew. One rabbinic source explicitly states: "…and he translates [into Aramaic] so that the rest of the people, and the women and children, will understand it" (Tractate Soferim 18:4).However, the custom of translating the readings of the Torah and Prophets into Aramaic is not mentioned in any source before approximately 140 C.E. Sources from the second Temple period and the era immediately following the destruction of the Temple do not reflect this custom. The phenomenon of sages understanding Biblical Hebrew while the rest of the population required a translation is the reality of a later period and was not the situation during the first century C.E.

“Mishnaic Hebrew
Either Hebrew or Aramaic was used in the synagogue or at other communal gatherings, but there are a number of questions concerning the relationship of these two languages in the land of Israel. The Torah and Prophets were undoubtedly read in Hebrew, as were prayers, but what was the language of Torah instruction in the synagogue? In what language did people speak in the marketplace and within the family circle? In which tongue did the sages address their students? Was there a difference between Judea and Galilee?

“Most scholars since the beginning of the nineteenth century have concluded that Aramaic was the spoken language of the land of Israel during the Second Temple period. Even when scribes of that period or later attest that they wrote or transmitted traditions in Hebrew, scholars have persisted in claiming that this "Hebrew" was actually some type of Aramaic dialect then prevalent among the Jews of the land. It has even been claimed that the Hebrew in which the Mishnah was written was an artificial language of the bet midrash, house of study, which was a translation from Aramaic, or at the very least heavily influenced by Aramaic.

“However, some seventy years ago a number of Jewish scholars in Palestine (later the State of Israel) began to see that the Hebrew of the Mishnah had been a living and vibrant language, spoken in the house of study, synagogue, on the street and at home. Mishnaic Hebrew does not deal only with matters of religion, but mentions, for instance, the names of dozens of implements used at the time, and records thousands of events and sayings about mundane, secular aspects of life. . .
“The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the documents from the period of the Bar-Kochba revolt (132–135 C.E.) conclusively settled the question of whether Mishnaic Hebrew had been an artificial or a living language. Hymns, prayers and biblical works written in Hebrew were discovered, as well as documents composed in the Mishnaic Hebrew dialect. Among them were letters containing Hebrew slang and abbreviated Hebrew forms characteristic of everyday speech . . .
“Rabbinic Literature
When the Jewish writers of the Second Temple period referred to Hebrew, they meant Hebrew and not Aramaic. They did not confuse the two languages, but distinguished quite clearly between Hebrew and Aramaic, referring to the latter either as "Aramaic," "targum" or "Syriac" (sursit). The sages also clearly differentiated between the Hebrew and Aramaic sections of the Bible. . .

“One cannot fulfill the obligation of reading from the Torah scroll unless the text is written in square script in Hebrew and in a book [some manuscripts read "on parchment"] and in ink. (Tosefta, Megillah 2:6)
In other words, the Torah scroll must be written in square Hebrew script and not in the old archaic Hebrew script, nor in Aramaic. . . (NOTE: Aramaic also includes the usage of “Hebrew” square script which is
called in Hebrew, “Ktav Asshurim,” i.e “Assyrian Letters” –JJD)

“II Kings 18 tells of the Assyrian general Rabshakeh’s advance on Jerusalem and his attempt to persuade the
beleaguered inhabitants of the city to surrender. The leaders of Jerusalem requested that he speak Aramaic and "not the language of Judea" so that the rest of the city’s inhabitants would not understand (v. 26). Josephus
relates the story in the following manner:
“As Rabshakeh spoke these words in Hebrew, with which language he was familiar, Eliakim was afraid that the people might overhear them and be thrown into consternation, and he asked him to speak in suristi, [Syriac, i.e., Aramaic]. (Antiquities 10:8)

“Galilee and Judea
There is an oft-repeated claim in scholarly literature that a high percentage of the Galilean population was religiously uneducated, and that the people consequently knew and used less Hebrew. Literary sources, however, provide no indication that this claim is correct.

“There are a number of "anti-Galilee" statements in rabbinic literature, but one can find similar barbs directed against residents of other regions of the land. What the sources do indicate is that Galilee belonged
to the accepted cultural milieu of Judaism at that time, including the world of Torah study, and that culturally and spiritually Galilee may have been closer to Jerusalem than Judea.

“There is a statement in rabbinic literature that the Judeans retained the teachings of their Torah scholars because they were careful in the use of their language, while the Galileans, who were not so careful with
their speech, did not retain their learning (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 53a–b; Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4d, et al.). While this saying is sometimes considered to be evidence for the dominance of Aramaic over Hebrew
in the Galilee because some of the examples discussed are in Aramaic, it actually only refers to the Judeans’ feeling that Galileans mispronounced the guttural letters het and ‘ayin and dropped the weak letters ‘alef and hey. This in no way reflects on the cultural status of Galilee, nor does it show that the use of Hebrew was less common there than in Judea or Jerusalem.

“The New Testament
When Paul spoke to the Roman commander, he used Greek (Acts 21:37). When he addressed the people,
however, he spoke to them "in the Hebrew language" (Acts 21:40).

“Hebrew-speakers commonly referred to Jews as yisrael, Israel, in contrast to Ioudaioi, Jews used by Greek speakers and yehuda’in, Jews used by Aramaic-speakers. In literary works written in Hebrew, Jews refer to themselves as yisrael, Israel or bene yisrael, sons of Israel, while non-Jews refer to Jews using the Aramaicized
yehuda’in, Jews.

“When the author of the Book of Acts refers to Jews he normally uses the term Ioudaioi, Jews. However, when he relates the words of Jesus or of Peter and his companions, he has them refer to Jews as yisrael, Israel
(Acts 1:6; 2:22; 2:36; 3:12; 4:10; 9:15). The author of the Book of Acts also relates that Rabban Gamaliel addressed the Sanhedrin as "Men of Israel" (5:35).

“Jesus probably spoke Hebrew within the circle of his disciples, and since the thousands of parables which have survived in rabbinic literature are all in Hebrew, no doubt he likewise told his parables in Hebrew.
The view that Aramaic was the language of conversation in first-century Israel seems to be supported by the Aramaic words found in the New Testament. Many scholars have seen Jesus’ words to Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter, "Talitha kumi" (Mk. 5:41), as proof that he spoke Aramaic. Yet, even if Jesus spoke to her in Hebrew, he could have said "Talitha kumi." One must not forget that many Aramaic words in various forms found their way into Hebrew in the Second Temple period. The command to "get up" kumi is the same word in Hebrew and Aramaic. . .

Hebrew was certainly the language of instruction in schools, as well as the language of prayer and Torah reading. The language of instruction in the house of study also most certainly was Hebrew, and this was likely the case regarding instruction in the synagogue. It would seem that Hebrew was spoken in the marketplaces of Jerusalem (Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 37d), but there is not enough information to determine whether this also was the case in other cities. It is not impossible that there were religiously uneducated people who did not understand Hebrew and were conversant only in Aramaic. There is some evidence for this linguistic phenomenon beginning in the second century C.E., but it is unlikely that such was the case in the first century. Although the Jewish inhabitants of the land of Israel in the time of Jesus knew Aramaic and used it in their contacts with the ordinary, non-Jewish residents, Hebrew was their first or native language. It is especially clear that in enlightened circles such as those of Jesus and his disciples, Hebrew was the dominant spoken language.

-“Spoken Languages in the Time of Jesus,” Safrai, Shmuel

However, many (most) scholars understand Aramaic to be the common spoken language of the people in Galilee during the time of Jesus and his disciples. This dialect of Aramaic used in Galilee is similar to the dialect used in the Peshitta New Testament. The Peshitta has remained intact for the past 1600-1800 years. Thus, Aramaic should not be discounted, let alone eliminated, as the true common language of Jesus and the Apostles and, possibly, the original language of the New Testament. At the very least, it is the language of those Christians (Mishakyae) in the Holy Land and the Near East who preserved Christianity in its purest Semitic form since the ancient times.

Fitzmyer, an expert in NT Aramaic, indicates that “From at least the eighth century B.C. Aramaic had become a lingua franca in the ancient Near East; and contrary to the impression that one gets from the ordinary Hebrew Bible, in which (according to Kittel’s edition) the Aramaic protion occupy a maximum of 22 pages and a few stray verses in Genesis (31:47) and Jeremiah (10:11) out of a total of 1434 pages, Aramaic was not the less important of the two languages. As for the use of Aramaic in Palestine, it is now attested from the middle of the ninth century B.C. onward.” A Wandering Aramean – Joseph A. Fitzmyer, p. 6). Fitzmyer states that “Hebrew . . . was apparently the more indigenous of the two in Palestine” but clarifies his statement with the qualification that it a form called “Postbiblical Hebrew” and that although evidence of such Hebrew is found in Qumram texts, “it is not abundant and comes from restricted areas.”

Fitzmyer concludes that “the most commonly used language of Palestine in the first century A.D. was Aramaic, but that many Palestinian Jews, not only those in Hellenistic towns, but farmers and craftsmen of less obviously Hellenistic areas used Greek, at least as a second language,” and that “pockets of Palestinian Jews also used Hebrew, even though its use was not widespread.” (p. 7). Fitzmyer criticizes Birkeland’s thesis that Hebrew was the language of the common people and sustains a solid position with the consensus of scholars supporting the position of “Aramaic as the language most commonly used by Jesus and his immediate disciples in Palestine.” (pp.7-8)

Fitzmyer admits that Papias’ statement regarding the Gospel of Matthew being written in the “Hebrew” dialect most likely means “in the Aramaic language” but that this is highly debatable. (p.11). Regarding the Syriac, Fitzmyer’s position is that although “Syriac tradition is obviously secondary and derivative from the Greek. . . that, in the choice of Syriac forms of names, especially geographical names, that tradition may be closer to some of the native Palestinian names that have become Grecized in the NT text tradition.” (p. 12)

Fitzmyer explains that “Though the two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, had co-existed for several centuries in the Near East before this, Aramaic became the more important of the two, serving as the lingua franca during the latter part of the Neo-Assyrian empire and during the Persian period. Hebrew is usually regarded today as the more important of the two languages, because it is the tongue of the bulk of the OT. And yet, historically it was restricted to a small area on the south-eastern coast of the Mediterranean, whereas Official or Imperial Aramaic was used across a major portion of the Near Eastern world, from Egypt to Asia Minor to Pakistan. Indeed, it gradualy supplanted Hebrew in most of Palestine itself as the common tongue.” (p. 29) “His footnote in reference to this statement indicates that Neh. 8:8 may be hinting at this situation.” (p. 47) . . . “If asked what was the language commonly spoken in Palestine in the time of Jesus of Nazareth, most people with some acquaintance of that era and area would almost spontaneously answer Aramaic. To my way of thinking, this is still the correct answer for the most commonly used language, but the defense of this thesis must reckon with the growing mass of evidence that both Greek and Hebrew were used as well.” (p.38)

Other scholars debate whether Aramaic or Greek were used in the original NT writings but most agree that it was Greek. David Biven agrees as well:

“From time to time, one hears reports of the discovery of a portion of the New Testament written in Hebrew or Aramaic. To date, such reports have proven false. Readers of JERUSALEM PERSPECTIVE should realize that there is not a single extant Hebrew-language manuscript from the early Christian era of any of the New Testament books.

1. All of the canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—were written in Greek.
2. As the author of the gospel of Luke states in his prologue, many written accounts of Jesus’
life already were in circulation.
3. The early church fathers testify that Matthew wrote “the words of Jesus” in “Hebrew.”
4. There are many Semitisms in the gospels.
Those are the bare facts of the matter. Any further statement regarding the original language
of the life story of Jesus is conjectural. A conjecture may enhance understanding, and it may
even be correct. But until it is proven, it cannot be treated as fact.

Jerusalem School Perspective
The Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research has arrived at two conclusions that serve as working hypotheses for their research:
• An account of Jesus’ life was written in Hebrew, probably by one of Jesus’ original disciples.
• One or more of the sources used by the writers of the synoptic gospels is derived from a Greek translation of that Hebrew account.

The scholars of the Jerusalem School do not claim that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were originally written in Hebrew. They contend only that the authors of the synoptic gospels used sources that were derived from an earlier Hebrew gospel. In fact, not every part of the synoptic gospels shows Semitic influence. Many parts, such as the prologue to Luke’s gospel, show little or no Semitic influence.

Semitic Influence
On the other hand, there are non-gospel portions of the New Testament that show Semitic influence. For example, the first half of the book of Acts, up to 15:35, is noticeably more Semitic than the second half (cf. Max Wilcox, The Semitisms of Acts).

… While there are various degrees and types of Semitic influence throughout the New Testament, the members of the Jerusalem School recognize that all the books of the canonical New Testament, including the synoptic gospels, were written in Greek. However, study has consistently shown the importance of recognizing the profoundly Jewish background of the gospels. Jerusalem School members firmly believe that a Hebraic perspective is the key to a better understanding of the Greek Testament. We invite you to join us in studying the gospels more closely, and examining the evidence we have found to support our hypotheses”.

-“A Gospel In Hebrew?,” Bivin, David

The position that I have taken is as follows: The gospel message was originally given orally. This oral tradition has both Aramaic (the primary transmission of the original message since Aramaic was the lingua franca of the time) and Hebrew (the more formal language used in religious services and study of the Torah) dimensions. Greek was then used in the primary translations of these two Semitic languages for use by the Gentiles. The oldest manuscripts of the complete New Testament were preserved in Aramaic (Syriac) going back to the 4th century (as possibly as early as the 2nd century) C.E. This text is known as the Peshitta and is still in use today by Near Eastern churches. I have a copy of it in its ancient form. It is also important to understand that both Aramaic and Hebrew are cognate languages. Many words are identical. The Hebrew language actually uses Aramaic lettering known as Ktav Assurim (Assyrian letters). Papias and others that referred to early Christian writings, e.g. Matthew’s Gospel, as being written in Hebrew were referring to the letters more than the language since it would have been difficult – if not impossible – for them to distinguish between Hebrew and Aramaic. My position is well documented by factual and historical evidence. It can be substantiated by universities, synagogues, and the Assyrian Church of the East. So, while I can agree with the emphasis of Knowles, Biven, and Blizzard of Semitic languages over the Greek language relative to New Testament studies, I cannot agree with their conclusion that the language of the day was primarily Hebrew. The majority of reputable scholars would not agree with their position either.

Actually, according to the Aramaic Scriptures Research Society in Israel, the two international languages used in spreading the gospel were Greek (in the Mediterranean regions of the Roman Empire) and Aramaic in the Holy Land and the East: “In the Holy Land, Syria, Mesopotamia, and other countries of the Parthian Empire, these writings were circulated in Aramaic, lingua franca of the East. . . The main vernacular in the Holy Land, however, was Aramaic. The weekly synagogue lections of the Holy Scriptures, called sidra or parashah, with the hapthtarah, were accompanied with an oral Aramaic translation, according to fairly fixed traditions.” This quote is from The Bible Society – Jerusalem – which published THE NEW COVENANT – Commonly Called The New Testament – Peshitta Aramaic Text With a Hebrew Translation in 1986. The Editor’s Note states that, “In the Greek text of the New Testament one finds Aramaic locutions in disguise, in addition to several words and phrases in Greek transcription, such as ‘talitha qumi’, ‘lema shevatani’, ‘mamona’ and others, indicating that Yeshua spoke in Aramaic, and no doubt used Hebrew in conversations with scribes and other religious leaders, in addition to the synagogue use of Hebrew.” (p. ii). They proceed to explain that, “Rabbinical literature in Aramaic is printed in the Hebrew alphabet. Christian manuscripts in Eastern Aramaic are written in the ancient script called estrangela (round, thick-set).” (p. iii)

Hebrew and Aramaic are very closely related. Many words are identical in spelling. “Aramaic is about as close to Hebrew as Spanish is to Italian.” (p.1096) Raymond E. Brown, D. W. Johnson, Kevin G. O’Connell, “Texts and Versions” Sect. 101 “Aramaic and Syriac Versions;” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary “Translation of the Scriptures into Syriac had its roots in the developing pre-Christian Aram targums of OT books brought by 1st/2d-cent. AD Jewish and christian preachers from Palestine into the district of Adiabene (surrounding Irbil in modern Iraq) and to the neighborhood of Edessa (Urfa in modern Turkey).” However, this source also maintains that the language of the Syriac Bible is somewhat distinct “from the Western Aramaic of Palestine that was used by Christ and the apostles. The Syr Bible . . . NT is wholly a transl. from the Greek. Claims that the Syr Gospels are the form in which Jesus spoke his teaching – claims often made by people who have every reason to know better – are without foundation.” (Sect. 116; p. 1098) The Peshitta “was established firmly enough in the early 5th cent. To remain the Bible of all Syr-language Christians despite the Nestorian and Monophysite movements and the disruption of unity that accompanied them.” (Sect. 125, p. 1099) “For the NT in particular, textual transmission of the Peshitta has been remarkably faithful and precise, and good early mss. exist for both Testaments…” (Sect. 127, p. 1099)

Thackson explains that “Syriac is the Aramaic dialect of Edessa, now Urfa in Eastern Turkey, an important center of early Christianity in Mesopotamia. Edessene Syriac was rapidly accepted as the literary language of all non-Greek eastern Christianity and was the primary vehicle for the Christianization of large parts of central and south-central Asia. . . Today it is the classical tongue of the Nestorians and Chaldeans of Iran and Iraq and the liturgical language of the Jacobites of Eastern Anatolia and the Maronites of Greater Syria.” Introduction to Syriac – W. M. Thackson (p. vii)

Aramaic must not be neglected in New Testament studies for at least three reasons:

1. Because Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Near East during the time of Jesus and His disciples.
2. Because it is the language of the Peshitta – an ancient and very “faithful and precise” version of the New Testament texts.
3. Because this language has been preserved and is still used today by
Christians in and from the Near East.

For these reasons the Aramaic language provides valuable insight into interpretations and nuances in New Testament studies which can be validated by contemporary scholars who have had this language passed down virtually intact for generations over at least the past 1600 years.

I do not want to de-emphasize the importance of the Hebrew language. It is a beautiful and powerful language that is unique in several respects. Some knowledge of Hebrew is vital to understanding the Holy Scripture. However, let us also maintain the importance of the Aramaic language and its importance in New Testament studies in particular. It provides insights on early Christianity and it clears up many difficult to understand passages because of the nuances that are evident only from an understanding of Aramaic – the lingua franca of the times and places of early Christianity.