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Aramaic Thoughts

Was the New Testament written originally in Aramiac?

There are some scholars who hold the view that all or at least a large part of the New Testament was written originally in Aramaic. In the next couple of weeks I will deal with these authors, briefly presenting their arguments and responding to them. For now, I want to say that I do not find their arguments compelling. However, these authors have some useful points to make and insights to offer.

Even though none of the New Testament books originated in Aramaic (with the possible exception of Matthew, which I have already discussed), the authors of the New Testament were for the most part men whose native language was Aramaic. They were also fluent in the koine (common) Greek of the first century, as both a spoken and a written language. It is often difficult for modern Americans to comprehend this dual fluency (usually referred to as bilingual) because it is foreign to our own experience. However, most modern Europeans would have no difficulty grasping the concept. A significant percentage of educated modern Europeans are bilingual, or even trilingual, knowing well two or three of the common European languages such as English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian.

However, even bilingual persons tend to think, and especially to write, in the patterns of their native, or first, language. That is why a German author, writing in English, will tend to "sound" different from an English author writing in English. It is because his writing habits, and his writing patterns, are imbued with the patterns of his native German. It is the reason that, for many readers, the English of Joseph Conrad sounds stilted. Conrad was Polish, and his writing in English reflects to an extent the fact that English was not his native language.

The significance of this for the New Testament is as follows: the Greek of the New Testament was written by men whose native language was Aramaic, a Semitic language. They wrote the New Testament material in Greek, an Indo-European language. There are significant structural differences between Semitic and Indo-European languages, specifically between Aramaic (and Hebrew) and Greek. One significant difference is that the usual word order in Aramaic sentences is verb-subject-object. In Greek, the word order is usually subject-verb-object, as it is in English. In addition, word order is more significant in Aramaic than it is in Greek. In Greek, nouns (and adjectives) have case endings: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. The nominative case is the "subject" case. The accusative is the "direct object" case. The dative is the "indirect object" case. The genitive is the "possessive" case. (For any grammarians among my readers, I apologize for the preceding gross over-simplification, but this is not a grammar column.) Thus in Greek the function of a word in a sentence is indicated by its case ending. As a result, word order is less significant than in Aramaic or English. For example, in Greek the sentence "the boy entered the building" could be stated by putting "the building" before "entered" and "the boy" after "entered." The case endings on "boy" and "building" would indicate which was the subject and which was the object. English is dependent on word order, as is Aramaic to a lesser extent.

These differences between Aramaic and Greek show up frequently in the New Testament. After spending a couple of weeks dealing with arguments in favor of an original Aramaic New Testament, we will move on to consider how these differences make for interesting reading in the New Testament.

   
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Meet the Author
Dr. Shaw was born and raised in New Mexico. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico in 1977, the M. Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1980, and the Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1981, with an emphasis in biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament and Targumic Aramaic, as well as Ugaritic).

He did two year of doctoral-level course work in Semitic languages (Akkadian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Middle Egyptian, and Syriac) at Duke University. He received the Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University in 2005.

Since 1991, he has taught Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a school which serves primarily the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he holds the rank of Associate Professor.

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