“What Do I Still Lack?” A Quick Thought on the Criterion of Semitic Language Phenomena

The latest Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus is devoted to a distinct question. As noted by the editor of the volume: “This issue is devoted to examining a highly significant but often ignored issue in historical-Jesus studies: the question of how evangelical Christian scholars can contribute productively to a historical quest for Jesus that seems to presuppose tenets at variance with the convictions of their faith (e.g., that the historical reliability of what is reported in biblical writings must be determined through careful analysis rather than affirmed by an appeal to the authoritative status of these writings as divinely-inspired scripture)” [As noted in my previous blog].

Reading Amy Jill Levine’s wonderful response to Darrell Bock, Craig Keener, and Robert Webb caused me to reflect on some of the criteria that are utilized to determine which Jesus traditions are historical or authentic (however, that is defined). In particular, I was drawn to Stanley Porter’s The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical Jesus Research: Previous Discussions and New Proposals (New York: T&T Clark International, 2000). Porter spends some time in chapter two discussing a criterion, viz., the criterion of Semitic Language Phenomena (pp. 89-99), that has met with significant criticism and has been largely discounted by scholars like J.P. Meier (A Marginal Jew, vols. 1-4), though the more recent works of M. Casey (Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel [SNTS 102; Edinburgh: CUP, 2000]; An Aramaic Approach to Q [SNTS; Edinburgh: CUP, 2002]) indicate a persistent interest in the Semitic origins of the gospels. Without retracing the long established tradition of Aramaic scholarship into the gospels from G. Dalman to M. Black to Fitzmyer to M. Casey, it is safe to say that Aramaic is generally accepted as the original language of the gospels, that the authentic words of Jesus can be retroverted into Aramaic, and/or the Semitic interference witnessed in the Greek of the Gospels is always Aramaic. This is accepted to the same degree that Mark (with or without Q) is thought to be the first gospel upon which the others were somehow dependent.

So, in the words of the Rich Man, “What do I still lack?” If we have come this far in historical Jesus research then what more do we need? Well for one, it would be encouraging if our research into the linguistic milieu of Jesus actually matched the linguistic evidence of Second Temple Eretz Israel, especially with regard to those documents which date closely to Jesus’ time period. What is clear is that first century Judaea was at least trilingual, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew—perhaps Latin (Fitzmyer). Yet, Greek and Aramaic have received the lion’s share of attention by modern scholars, though it appears that the Jewish people in the first century CE gave it to Hebrew. Of the nearly 1000 documents discovered in the caves of Qumran, the overwhelming majority were written in Hebrew—especially those documents that have been deemed to be (e.g., 1QS, the Hodayot) primary documents of the Qumran Community. Even documents thought to reflect the larger ideological landscape of Second Temple Judaism (e.g., 4Q521) were composed in Hebrew. To this we might add the Hebrew originals of Greek Apocryphal texts that were thought by scholars (pre-47) to have significant Semitic interference (e.g. Ben Sira, Tobit). This is not to discount some of the Aramaic originals that were discovered (e.g., 1Enoch [M. Black]), as well as some of the Aramaic midrashic-like works (e.g., Genesis Apocryphon), but just to point out that Hebrew is significantly more attested as a contemporary language in Eretz Israel than Aramaic or Greek—though both of the latter were an integral part of the this world. Thus, we might need to begin entertaining the concept spoken of by Flusser (The Sage from Galilee…) and others, that behind our Gospels lies the influence of Hebrew—a language of which rumors about its death in antiquity have been largely exaggerated! 🙂

If this significant shift is undertaken, then the proposed criticism of Meier, as noted by Porter, “the criterion…does nothing more than place the tradition in Palestine and possibly in the Aramaic-speaking church, but it cannot be any more specific than this,” does not apply since spoken Hebrew would be largely limited to Jewish communities (since early Christian communities shift over to Aramaic) in Judaea up until the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE), and in the Galilee for a bit longer. Furthermore, the changes in literary Hebrew’s terminological usage and grammar between the Bible, the post-biblical period, and the Mishnah help us to locate a closer proposal for an authentic linguistic setting, perhaps even an authentic saying (with other criteria of course). Secondly, Hebrew keeps us from the added confusion of choosing Jesus’ lingua franca between post-biblical Aramaic and the Targumim, which are likely not in use in the land until the 2nd century CE (Z. Safrai [Emmanuel 24/25, Flusser Festschrift, 1990], and D. Machiela [JSSR vol. 2, forthcoming]). Thus, Hebrew not only sheds closer light on determining authentic parameters of research but also addresses matters of Jesus’s exegesis [see my forthcoming article with R.S. Notley, “THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES IN THE THIRD GOSPEL”] and also speaks to the primary language of Jesus’ teaching (e.g., OTHER EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICTall of the parables that appear outside of the New Testament always appear in Hebrew even when surrounded by Aramaic commentary, as Shmuel Safrai has noted. Thus when you teach a parable, you teach it in Hebrew. What then are the are the implications for understanding Jesus’ parables?)

In any event, this is not an attempt to critically analyze this deficiency but to simply point to a needed redirection of course, or an element that should be added into the discussion.


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