Friday, July 30, 2010

Jesus' Mother Tongue

That Jesus' mother tongue was Aramaic, not Hebrew, is one of those "assured" results of modern scholarship that has filtered down into popular consciousness--assisted, no doubt, by the Aramaic script to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ as well as by modern English translations. BDAG, the standard Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, explains that although the noun ἑβραΐς (hebrais) means "the Hebrew language," it is used to "refer to the Aramaic spoken at that time in Palestine." The lexicon entry shows how firmly entrenched this view is in New Testament scholarship; it also contributes to its continued dominance. Among modern translations, the NIV, TNIV, NLT, NET, follow the lexicon's lead by translating ἑβραΐς by Aramaic instead of Hebrew when it appears in the New Testament (Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14; cf. the adjective, Ἑβραϊστί [hebraisti] in John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; 20:16; Rev 9:11; 16:16).

It may come as a surprise, then, to discover that scholars of post-exilic Hebrew and Aramaic agree that Hebrew continued as a spoken language until the 3rd century AD:
  • Moshe Bar-Asher*: "Research has further shown that Hebrew was spoken in Palestine until roughly 200 CE. The view is generally accepted that the Hebrew preserved in Tannaic literature reflects living speech current in various regions of Palestine" (568). "The theory was once proposed that MH had never been a living language, but an artificial creation, and that the Jews in the Tannaic period had spoken Aramaic exclusively. This view has now been universally abandoned" (586 n. 74). (See below for full bibliography.) 
  • Yohanan Breuer**: "Today . . .  everyone agree[s] that Hebrew speech survived in all walks of life at least until the end of the Tannaic period (beginning of the third century CE)" (598).
I suspect most pastors and more than a few scholars simply repeat what they learned when they were in school--namely, that the Jews of Jesus' day spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew and therefore that Jesus taught in Aramaic. This view rests on the outdated scholarship of past giants such as Gustaf Dalman, who wrote before the great manuscript discoveries of the 20th century (the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bar Kokhba letters).

The standard position among those who actually study the question has changed, however. As the quotations from Bar-Asher and Breuer show, scholars of the linguisitic setting of first century Palestine agree that both Hebrew and Aramaic were spoken languages. To be sure, there is debate about how common each language was. On one side, Joseph Fitzmyer*** concluded that Aramaic was the vernacular, and that even Greek was more common than Hebrew: "pockets of Palestinian Jews also used Hebrew, even though its use was not widespread" (46). As far as I can tell, most linguists of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic now give more prominence to Hebrew than Fitzmyer did in 1970, and the standard view is now that most Palestinian Jews in the first century--including Jesus--would have been bilingual in Aramaic and Hebrew, at least to some extent, and possibly trilingual in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek.

This, of course, does not prove anything about Jesus' mother tongue or his normal language of instruction. The majority of scholars still seem to conclude that, as a Galilaean, Jesus' mother tongue was Aramaic and that he most likely taught primarily in Aramaic. This is the conclusion of Mark D. Roberts in a fine recent blog series (scroll down and begin reading at the bottom; most of the series is also collected here) as well as Michael O. Wise****, who concludes wisely: "In view of all the unproven assumptions and complexities involved with the question of Semitic sources behind the Gospels, it is no exaggeration to say that even after 150 years of scholarly effort, research is still at a very early stage" (444).

For my part, I am impressed with how little evidence there is for Aramaic dominance in Galilee, and I am convinced by my friend Ken Penner's excellent paper  (online here) that both ἑβραΐς (hebrais) and Ἑβραϊστί (hebraisti) should be translated "Hebrew" when they appear in the New Testament. But more on this in part 2.



*Moshe Bar-Asher, "Mishnaic Hebrew: An Introductory Survey," in The Literature of the Sages: Second Part: Midrash, and Targum; Liturgy, Poetry, Mysticism; Contracts, Inscriptions, Ancient Science and the Languages of Rabbinic Literature  (Fortress, 2007), 567-595.
**Yohanan Breuer, "The Aramaic of the Talmudic Period," in The Literature of the Sages: Second Part: Midrash, and Targum; Liturgy, Poetry, Mysticism; Contracts, Inscriptions, Ancient Science and the Languages of Rabbinic Literature  (Fortress, 2007),597-625.
***Joseph Fitzmyer, "The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32 (1970): 501-31, reprinted in A Wandering Aramaean (Scholars Press: 1979; Eerdmans: 1997), 29-56.
****Michael O. Wise, "Languages of Palestine." Pages 434-44 in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (IVP: 1992).

Other sources:

Rabin, Chaim. “Hebrew and Aramaic in the First Century.” Pages 1007-1039 in The Jewish People in the First Century: Section One: Historical Geography, Political History, Social, cultural and Religious Life and Institutions. Edited by Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976. 
I haven't yet read these two essays mentioned by Jeffrey Garcia: Shmuel Safrai, “Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus”; Hanan Eshel, “Use of the Hebrew Langauge in Economic Documents from the Judeaen Desert” in Jesus’ Last Week (eds. S. Notley, M. Turnage, and B. Becker; Leiden; Brill, 2006).

Friday, July 23, 2010

Wanted: A Kindle DX with tricks, for cheap

Every time I visit Amazon, I see an ad for the 6'' Kindle e-reader for only $189. I confess I want one.

Although I expect I would seldom buy new books, I really like the idea of downloading a library of public domain books or reading PDF journal articles and apparently blog feeds without being tied to my computer. I like the e-ink technology, free access to wikipedia, and email anywhere.

Here's the thing: (1) I have a hard time justifying the purchase of something I can't quite convince myself I need. (One of my friends from college days likes to remind me of the time he gave me a Toonie and forced me to spend it...on candy.) (2) I'd much rather have the larger 9.7'' screen Kindle DX edition, but I don't want to pay $279 for it. (3) I'd also like to have access to a searchable library of original language biblical texts, but the Kindle apparently doesn't work with Hebrew yet. (4) This report from a Reed College pilot project suggests that the Kindle isn't ideal for the sort of reading I need want it for. (5) This "poor man's Ipad" looks like it has what I want (reading capability on a big screen), and is closer to my ideal price range.

All this reminds me that about five years ago I wanted a Palm Tungsten E2 personal data assistant. Remember them? In addition to managing addresses and appointments, the Palm played music, displayed pictures and videos, and came equipped with a PDF viewer and software that could display and edit Microsoft Office documents. Best of all was Bible+, a free add-on for which you could download original language versions of the Bible (Greek and Hebrew), Josephus, Philo, and Homer in Greek and English, the Apostolic Fathers, and so on. All this for $199 (or free, in my case--a long story). On the down side, entering data with a stylus was slow, the 3'' screen was too small for comfortable reading, and with a laptop and a five minute commute to work I simply don't need a personal data assistant.

I still charge up my Palm and take it along to academic conferences because it is nice to have ready access to Greek, Hebrew and English Bibles. During slow moments at graduation ceremonies I pull it out of my gown and drill Hebrew vocab. But most of the time it sits in a drawer as a mute reminder that today's big item will be tomorrow's landfill.

Still, I wouldn't mind playing around with one of those Kindles...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bonhoeffer on Quality

"Quality is the bitterest enemy of conceit in all its forms. Socially it implies the cessation of all place-hunting, of the cult of the 'star'; an open eye both upwards and downwards, especially in the choice of one's more intimate friends, and pleasure in private life as well as courage to enter public life. Culturally it means a return from the newspaper and the radio to the book, from feverish activity to unhurried leisure, from dissipation to recollection, from sensationalism to reflection, from virtuosity to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation. Quantities are competitive, qualities complementary." 
 - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (London: SCM, 1953), 144.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Paul and the Marginal Imperial Cult

A few years ago I expressed my reservations about recent attempts by N.T. Wright and others to read Paul against a pervasive imperial cult. I began to think I was wrong, however, because everyone else seemed to be jumping on the imperial band-wagon (often citing Simon Price's book, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor, which I have not read).

One of my main concerns was that much of the archaeological evidence for the imperial cult post-dates Paul. In a recent article, Colin Miller reviews the archaeological evidence in detail and has the same concern:
"[M]y aim in this article is to explore which of the cities in which Paul worked, in Paul's time, had some relation to the imperial cult, and what that relation was. Is it true that the emperor cult permeated life and helped make up the very fabric of reality in Paul's world? Is it true that in the time of Paul's mission the emperor cult held the empire together? Is it, more basically, true that "[i]n any city that Paul visited, evidence of emperor worship appears repeatedly in present excavations?" [quoting Crossan and Reed] I argue that all our evidence points to a negative answer to these questions. The archaeological evidence reveals that, in the cities Paul visited, in Paul's time, the emperor cult was marginal. In more than half of Paul's missionary cities there is no evidence of the imperial cult at all. In the others, I will show, the emperor was only one cult alongside many others." (Colin Miller, "The Imperial Cult in the Pauline Cities of Asia Minor and Greece," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72.2 (April 2010): 314-332, here 316)
Looks like an important article!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jesus ben Ananias and his Catapult

Josephus tells the remarkable story of Jesus ben Ananias, a prophetic peasant who warned of Jerusalem's destruction during the 60's CE:
Four years before the war, when the city was enjoying profound peace and prosperity, there came to the feast at which it is the custom of all Jews to erect tabernacles to God, one Jesus, son of Ananias, a rude peasant, who, standing in the temple, suddenly began to cry out, "A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds; a voice against Jerusalem and the sanctuary, a voice against the bridegroom and the bride, a voice against all the people." . . . So for seven years and five months [i.e., between 62-69 CE] he continued his wail, his voice never flagging nor his strength exhausted, until in the siege, having seen his presage verified, he found his rest. For, while going his round and shouting in piercing tones from the wall, "Woe once more to the city and to the people and to the temple," as he added a last word, "and woe to me also," a stone hurled from the ballista struck and killed him on the spot." (Josephus, War 6.300-309 [LCL]).

While I was telling the story in Jewish Backgrounds last semester, I misspoke, and my resident artist captured the result on pen and ink. (Note the apocalyptic intertextuality between the two sketches!)

For the record, Jesus ben Ananias was hit by a Roman ballista, not the Roman catapult itself.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Transfiguration as Nerve Center

Three years ago this spring, as I anticipated a semester sabbatical to work on revising my Ph.D. dissertation for publication, I decided to begin with a little more digging around Luke's account of the transfiguration. The study was rich and exhilarating in all sorts of ways, and--as a bonus--it directly influenced my teaching in subsequent semesters. I came to see Luke 9:28-36 as a "nerve center" that draws together and helps make sense of stray pieces like Moses, the exodus, covenant, discipleship, forgiveness, eschatology, and the purpose of Jesus' death in Luke-Acts (a few more details here). But everything is connected, the passage is complex, and many have undertaken to write on it. Woe to that one who wishes to add to the pile of secondary literature!

By the end of the sabbatical I had an article, which I submitted to Catholic Biblical Quarterly in January of 2008. It was accepted for publication ten months later, and I am happy to report that it has now appeared in print. (A word of advice: If you want to get something published quickly, keep it short; CBQ also seems to have a long turn around time.) The publication information is as follows:
David M. Miller, "Seeing the Glory, Hearing the Son: The Function of the Wilderness Theophany Narratives in Luke 9:28-36," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72.3 (July 2010): 498-517. 
If you'd like a copy, let me know. They sent me more offprints than I know what to do with.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Scot McKnight on the Historians' Jesuses and the Church's Jesus

In a recent follow-up to his Christianity Today article announcing the end of an era of historical Jesus scholarship, Scot McKnight clarifies his point:
So one more time: I am calling into question the theological value of the historical Jesus enterprise. I am not calling into question the value of historical work. . . . But the historical Jesus enterprise is a different kettle of fish, and it is all I was saying: the historical Jesus enterprise has one major goal: to separate the real Jesus from the Church's beliefs about Jesus and to reconstruct what the real Jesus was really like, in spite of what the Church has always believed. To do this, it pronounces on what is historical or authentic and it then dismisses that which is determined inauthentic and then, with the evidence that survives the scrutiny, reconstructs what Jesus was really like. . . . My article was an attempt to argue against the historical Jesus enterprise, not an argument against doing history or the value of history when it comes to our knowledge about Jesus. The Church has a Jesus; it is found in the apostolic witness to Jesus in the Four Gospels. That is the Jesus upon whom we need to focus. The Jesus(es) of the historical Jesus enterprise are here today and gone tomorrow, and the next generation will find another Jesus and so on and on forever and ever. I've got shelves and shelves of such books ... and most people don't know the names nor care about the ideas of those scholarly proposals of what Jesus was really like (for them, in their time). The question is this: Which Jesus will we choose? The Church's Jesus or the historian's Jesus?

I'm on board with McKnight's main concern (clarified still further in comment 20). He is right to criticize the anti-church bias of the historical Jesus enterprise. I fully agree that the Gospels have theological priority over any historical reconstruction that accepts part of the Jesus tradition and rejects others. But the way McKnight concluded his post made me wonder about the opposition he draws between the constructions of historians and the singular Church's Jesus, so I asked (comment 16):
. . . Can't part of your argument against historical Jesus study be applied to any text that requires interpretation? Let's take the book of James, for example. Scholars argue that the text does not mean what it seems, the next generation advances new and quite different interpretations, commentaries replace commentaries, and the laity throw up their hands in despair: If even the experts disagree, how can we hope to interpret it for ourselves? I think this plurality is an unfortunate, but necessary implication of serious study (and it doesn't necessarily lead to despair). Every interpretation of the book of James is a construction; any attempt to say what James really meant will presumably find itself up against established tradition. As a good Protestant, I'm not offended when a convincing interpretation of the book of James overturns what the church has always believed about James. Just as the inevitable plurality of interpretations of James don't mean that we should call a halt to scholarly study of James, the inevitable plurality of interpretations of Jesus doesn't count against the Quest.

As a good Protestant, I'm not about to let a reconstruction of the historical Jesus replace the authority of the four canonical Gospels, but I think the incarnation requires historical study of Jesus, and that means facing the uncomfortable possibility that the results of one's historical investigation may not coincide with the Evangelists' portraits. Since it is required by the incarnation, historical study of Jesus is a priori theologically significant, but that doesn't make it a safe enterprise. To be sure, the canonical Gospels (the "church's Jesus") have theological priority, but I guess I'm not sure we are permitted to choose either the church's Jesus or the historians' reconstructions; each requires and is informed by the other.

Scot replied: "intense historical work on James that doesn't aim to find the "real" James behind the current letter is not analogous." (comment 18)

I think I agree, but my point--or, at least, the point that in retrospect I want to emphasize--is a little bit different. So let me try again: Interpretations of texts are as much constructions as are interpretations of historical figures. Without construction, there is no such thing as the Church's Jesus, there is only the individual portraits of the four Evangelists which must themselves be interpreted. This is because--although I agree with Richard Burridge that the Gospels present for us one recognizable Jesus--they don't all agree in all respects. Two examples:
  • According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus cleanses the Temple at the end of his ministry; in John the Temple cleansing occurs at the beginning.
  • According to Mark 11:7 Jesus sat on a colt; according to Matthew 21:7 Jesus apparently sat on both a donkey and its colt. (The TNIV and NASB conclude that the pronoun 'them' refers back to the garments, but the repetition of the pronoun and the connection with Zech 9:9 suggests that the animals are in view.)

There are ways to reconcile the differences, but any reconciliation is, by necessity, as much a construction as the approach that says one is authentic and one is not. McKnight's "Church's Jesus" is not, as he claims, the Jesus of the New Testament, but a Jesus that is constructed by harmonizing the four portraits of the four Evangelists. It is self-consciousness of reconstruction that points toward and partly legitimizes a form of the historical Jesus enterprise.