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Aramaic Thoughts

Idioms in the Bible - Part 6

Multi-Part Article

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Matthew 5:22 says, "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the counsel; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire." There are two items in this verse that Lamsa identifies as idioms. The first has been rendered in the ESV as "insults." Literally, it says, "whoever says to his brother ‘Raka’ will be liable to the Sanhedrin." The Greek word raka is a loan-word from Aramaic/Syriac. As Lamsa points out, the word in Syriac literally means "spittle." Thus the idea is that of indicating contempt for someone by spitting on them.

The second item here that Lamsa identifies as an idiom is "the hell of fire." Literally, the phrase is "Gehenna of fire." The name Gehenna is borrowed from Hebrew/Aramaic. It is the name of a valley outside of Jerusalem where apparently sacrifices to Molech took place in the Old Testament period (see 2Chron 28:3; 33:6). It is used almost exclusively in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to refer to "the place of final punishment for the enemies of God." It appears to have been used in the New Testament era as a place for burning trash; hence fires burned constantly and there always a pall of smoke about the place. It thus became an ideal picture for hell, which Jesus identifies in the terms of a fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (see Matt 13:42, for example). Lamsa identifies Gehenna as an idiom for mental suffering or torment. Unfortunately that does not fit with the gospels’ regular use of Gehenna to refer to a place and not a mental state.

An idiom that appears in Matt 8:21 occurs when a disciple says to Jesus, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." Jesus then clearly rejects the request by saying, "leave the dead to bury their own dead." This is perhaps puzzling to many readers, who think, "he is asking only for a couple of days during which to make funeral arrangements." However, as Lamsa rightly points out the man is not requesting a couple of days to take care of his father’s funeral. Instead, he is asking to be allowed to put off any commitment to following Jesus until after his father has died, for however long that might be. Jesus’ point is that the claims of the gospel supersede demands of family or social obligations. This is a point that Jesus also makes elsewhere when he says, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt 10:37). This emphasizes the urgency of the gospel demands upon those who would be disciples. Jesus makes the same point in a more positive way in response to Peter, when he says, "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life" (Matt 19:28).

   
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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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