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Language Studies

Aramaic Thoughts

 

Aramaic in Mark - Part 3

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Mark 7:31-37 gives the account of Jesus’ healing of a deaf man. This miracle is not recounted in Matthew and Luke, the other two of the synoptic gospels. The man is identified as one "who was deaf and had a speech impediment (literally, "thick-voiced")." This would seem to imply that the man was born deaf, though that is not explicitly stated. Jesus’ actions in healing the man are curious. First, he put his fingers into the man’s ears then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. Finally, looking up to heaven, he sighed and said, "Ephphatha," which the Greek text interprets as "Be opened" which is an accurate translation of the Aramaic word.

In a certain sense, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the Aramaic here. It is standard Aramaic vocabulary, in a standard form of the verb. As would be expected, the Syriac text of the gospel does not follow the Greek in providing a translation, because the meaning was clear to anyone who read Syriac. The curious thing is that Mark records the Aramaic word that Jesus used. Of course, Mark did this as well in chapter 5, as we have already seen (Matthew and Luke both record the event, but do not include the Aramaic. See Matthew 9:18-26 and Luke 8:40-56). But he did not do it in every case when Jesus spoke something to the one he healed. For example, in Mark 1:21-28 where Jesus rebukes the demon, only the Greek is given, though it is virtually certain that Jesus’ everyday language was Aramaic. The case is the same with the cleansing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45.

What, then, if anything, are we to make of this selective use by Mark of Aramaic statements by Jesus? We must first consider the particular occasions in which Mark records Jesus’ use of Aramaic. In two cases; 5:41; 7:34, Mark records Jesus’ words when used in the healing of particular persons. On another occasion, Mark 7:11, Mark records Jesus’ use of an Aramaic term that refers to a certain type of offering in his dispute with the Jews. The place of Jesus’ crucifixion is recorded by its Aramaic name in 15:22, which is also done in Matthew and John, but not in Luke. Mark records Jesus’ use of the Aramaic term "Abba" in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is not recorded in the other gospels. Finally, Mark records Jesus’ quotation, in Aramaic, of Psalm 22:1 in his cry from the cross (15:34). Matthew does this as well, but neither Luke nor John record it.

In a certain sense, Mark’s use of the Aramaic would be expected in all but two of the cases—the two healings. The fact that Mark does not use the Aramaic in other healing accounts indicates something distinctive about these two. That distinction is not difficult to determine. In both cases, Jesus separates the one to be healed (in the case of the girl in Mark 5, to be raised from the dead) from the crowd. These events are private, and Jesus speaks privately in the common language of those he addresses. Mark’s purpose in thus recording the very words of Jesus is to emphasize Jesus’ identification with, his oneness with, those to whom he ministered, a point that could perhaps have been made in no other way, or at least not as economically as Mark has done it.

Next week we will look at Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1 from the cross.


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Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, September 29th, 2020
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26
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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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