Slight of hand in the Aramaic English New Testament

AENTThe new “Aramaic English New Testament (AENT)” claims to have resolved a number of issues in our understanding of the biblical text by translating directly from an “original” Aramaic text. However, these claims are better categorized as slight of hand than they are new discoveries in biblical studies. In this article, I will investigate a number of the claims made and show why these are not nearly the earth shattering discoveries that the translators of this text have claimed.

Was the NT really written originally in Aramaic?

The authors of the AENT suggest that our Greek NT texts are a “re-translation” of original Aramaic texts, stating that “Most people are shocked to learn that the bible they grew up with was not translated directly from original Aramaic texts but rather from Greek versions that were re-translated into English.” However, there is very little evidence to support this conclusion. The oldest Aramaic text that we have in our possession comes from the late 4th century, but the earliest Greek text we have is dated to the mid 1st century i.e. within a decade of the time we believe it was original penned. While there is speculation that there may have been an Aramaic ‘Q’ text that was used as a source by the author of the NT, very few Syriac scholars believe that the text of the Peshitta that we have today represents that original ‘Q’ text. The majority of Syriac scholars believe that the Peshitta is an Aramaic translation of  Greek (or Latin) original texts. The suggestion that the Peshitta text represents an original text that was later translated into Greek is a very minority position that has no direct textual support.

Is “my God, my God, why have you spared me?” really a better translation?

The translators of the AENT suggest that Jesus didn’t really say “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” during his final moments on the cross as reported in the Gospels (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34). By reading the Aramaic, it is suggested that a new meaning is revealed. We will examine some of the problems with this claim. Let’s first begin by looking at a few of the texts involved.

AENT Mt. 27-46

 

1. It presupposes that the NT authors (Matthew and Mark) misunderstood Jesus words.

The proposed translation of the Aramaic is highly unlikely, and because the NT authors explained their own understanding of these Aramaic words spoken by Jesus, we must conclude that the NT authors themselves misunderstood Jesus’ words in order accept this proposition. Such a suggestion would would significantly damage a belief in the inspiration of the of the Scriptures.

2. It ignores the fact that שבק was the expected translation for עזב used in both the OT and NT.

Aramaic translations of the OT that pre-date the Gospel accounts use the very same words in translation as were quoted in the Gospel (See above). This was the expected Aramaic word choice to communicate the idea of being ‘forsaken’ which is clearly communicated in the Hebrew text of Ps. 22:1. There is very little reason to believe that the intended meaning of the Aramaic word used by Jesus on the cross would be different than the same word used in the text of Ps. 22:1 or from the meaning conveyed in the explanatory Greek text provided in the Gospel account.

3. It ignores the fact that the Greek word ἐγκατέλιπές used in the explanatory text, is the same word used in the translation of Ps. 22:1.

As with the Aramaic translation of Ps. 22:1, the Greek LXX translation of the OT (which also predates the NT) uses the same vocabulary as is used in the Gospel account. In both the Gospel account and in the LXX, it is clear that the meaning communicated in Greek was “to forsake.”

4. The suggested translation of the Aramaic is uncommon.

While the suggested translation of the Aramaic is not impossible, it is very unlikely. The common understanding of the Aramaic mirrors the understanding of the Hebrew and Greek words used in translation. The following is the definition provided in HALOT (Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament).

HALOT 11161

Is “rope” really a better translation than “camel” in Mt. 19:24?

The translators of the AENT suggest that the Greek text on which our English translations are based contains an error that is resolved by reading the text in it’s “original” Aramaic. Here again, the evidence presented for this interpretation is far more “smoke and mirrors” than substance. Before we examine the evidence, we should begin by looking at how the word גמלא is used in Aramaic translations of the Old and New Testament.

AENT Mt. 19-24

 1. The word is not used anywhere else in Scripture to mean “rope.”

Aside from the “disputed” texts, גמל/גמלא is not used in either the OT or NT with the meaning of “rope.” In the OT we see many usages that refer to “camels” i.e. Gen. 24:10, 22, 30, 32, 61, 63, 64, 31:17, 32:16, Lev. 11:4, Deut. 14:7, 1 Sam. 15:3, 30:17, 1 Chr. 5:21, 27:30, Neh. 7:68, Job 1:3, 17, 42:12, Isa. 21:7, Tob. 9:2, Jdt. 2:17, 1 Es. 5:42. In the NT, aside from these “disputed” text, even the AENT translates גמלא as camel (check Mk. 1:6, Matt. 3:4, 23:24 in the AENT). Note: while a simplification, the suffixed ‘א’ in Aramaic is roughly equivalent to a direct article.

2. Neither ancient Greek or Latin translations support the meaning of “rope.”

Both ancient Greek and Latin translations of this passage understand the word here to be indisputably “camel.” Neither the Latin ‘camelum’ nor the Greek ‘κάμηλον’ can be understood to mean ‘rope.’ There were many Aramaic speakers during the period when these Greek and Latin texts were being distributed that would have recognized a mistake if one had truly been made.

3. The meaning of ‘rope’ is not even given in Lexicon’s of ancient Hebrew / Aramaic.

The root גמל is common in Semitic languages, and as noted below, Hebrew, Aramaic (Syriac), and Arabic roots have the same meaning. The following is the entry for גמל provided in HALOT:

HALOT 1823

Conclusion

Like so many publications of the past that have claimed new, never before understood discoveries about the bible, the claims made by the translators of AENT do not represent new discoveries; the suggestions made by these translators have been made many times before, and have been rejected by the majority of scholars over and over again. Other translations made directly from the same Aramaic texts (like the Lewis Translation of the NT Peshitta  in 1896) read nearly identically to our English texts in both of the cases presented above. A quick check of other translations of these same Aramaic texts (yes they really do exist) will quickly confirm that reading from the Aramaic texts does not change our understanding of these texts in the ways suggested by translators of the AENT. The Aramaic interlinear is not provided for those who can read the text for themselves, for they would recognize the slight of hand being presented, but only to provide the illusion of credibility for the vast majority who are unable to read the Aramaic text.

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