Was the New Testament originally written in Aramaic?
60 Questions Christians Ask About Jewish Beliefs and Practices, #41
Michael L Brown
Copyright © 2011 by Michael L Brown (Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures)
This question is closely related to the preceding question, but with one very important difference. While there are no ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the New Testament, there are, in fact, ancient manuscripts of an Aramaic New Testament. But virtually all biblical scholars recognize that this Aramaic New Testament, called the Peshitta, is a translation from the Greek New Testament text rather than a copy of an alleged original Aramaic New Testament. Specifically, the Peshitta is written in Syriac, a major branch of Aramaic, and it covers the entire Bible, the Tanakh as well as the New Testament. It is generally dated between the second and fifth centuries A.D., and it is recognized as an important ancient version, like the Septuagint (translating the Tanakh into Greek) or the Vulgate (translating the entire Bible into Latin).
The name Peshitta is Syriac for "simple, plain," just as Vulgate means "common." (Similar to this is the name given to the Greek used by the New Testament writers: It was koine Greek, or common Greek, the language used by the majority of the society.)38 Some scholars believe that the Peshitta version of the Old Testament was composed by Jews while the New Testament portion was composed by Christians, but others argue that the whole translation was composed by Christians. In either case, virtually all scholars accept that the Peshitta of the New Testament is a translation of those books rather than the original text of the New Testament books.
As a translation, however, the Peshitta is still very important for several reasons: (1) It is an ancient translation of the New Testament, predating some of the Greek manuscripts we have, and it provides a witness to the original wording of the New Testament. (2) Because it is written in Syriac, a major branch of Aramaic, a sister language to Hebrew39 and because Jesus spoke Aramaic (and, probably, Hebrew), it has a unique closeness to the Lord's original words, despite being a translation from the Greek. (In other words, Jesus spoke in Aramaic but the gospels translated His words into Greek. The Peshitta, then, would have translated these Greek words into Syriac, which, as a branch of Aramaic, would not have been radically different from the dialect of Aramaic Jesus would have spoken.) (3) Similarly, it has the potential of uncovering Semitic nuances in the Greek text. (As pointed out in #40, the Greek New Testament is filled with "Semitisms," meaning Hebraic and Aramaic ways of thinking expressed in Greek.)
There are a few scholars, however, who believe that the Peshitta is not a translation of the Greek New Testament but rather reflects the original text of the New Testament—in other words, the New Testament (at least part of it) was written in Aramaic. In keeping with this, they also believe that the Greek New Testament (at least part of it) is not the original text but rather a translation of the original Aramaic text. They have, therefore, turned things completely around, arguing that the translation (Aramaic) is the original and the original (Greek) is the translation.
The Peshitta.org website makes these claims regarding the history of the Peshitta:
The Peshitta is the official Bible of the Church of the East. The name Peshitta in Aramaic means "Straight," in other words, the original and pure New Testament. [As noted previously, most scholars understand the name Peshitta to mean "simple" rather than "straight."] The Peshitta is the only authentic and pure text which contains the books in the New Testament that were written in Aramaic, the Language of Mshikha (the Messiah) and His Disciples.
In reference to the originality of the Peshitta, the words of His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun, Catholicos Patriarch of the Church of the East, are summarized as follows:
"With reference to ... the originality of the Peshitta text, as the Patriarch and Head of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East, we wish to state, that the Church of the East received the scriptures from the hands of the blessed Apostles themselves in the Aramaic original, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and that the Peshitta is the text of the Church of the East which has come down from the Biblical times without any change or revision.”
Mar Eshai Shimun
by Grace, Catholicos Patriarch of the East
April 5, 19574°
This view was popularized by the late George Lamsa, a native speaker of modern Aramaic, which is a distant dialect to the first-century Aramaic Yeshua spoke, or even the later Syriac dialect used by the Peshitta translators.41 Nonetheless, from Lamsa's perspective, the Syriac of the Peshitta was very close to his native tongue, and he produced a translation of the Peshitta into English (both Old and New Testaments), along with other books explaining what he believed were Aramaic idioms in the Peshitta that were misunderstood by the translators of the Greek New Testament.42 (To repeat: The idea that the Greek New Testament was a translation from the Aramaic was Lamsa's view, not the view of almost all biblical scholars.) In recent years, Lamsa's views have gained a more popular following, with a number of books and websites devoted to further authenticating his claims. As explained on the AramaicNT.org site, "Was the New Testament originally written in Greek? The texts themselves seem to exhibit phenomena that point towards an Aramaic original, including mistranslations, polysemy, poetry, wordplay, and puns.”43
So then, just as proponents of the "original Hebrew New Testament" theory argue that the New Testament Greek texts often make sense only when translated back into the (alleged) original Hebrew, so also proponents of the "original Aramaic New Testament" theory argue that the New Testament Greek texts often make sense only when translated back into the (alleged) original Aramaic! This alone should raise concerns about the accuracy of these claims (which, in fact, cancel each other out), instead reminding us that: (1) trying to translate any text back into another is tricky business (as pointed out in #40); and (2) New Testament Greek is often very Semitic (again, as pointed out in #40), and therefore different Semitic scholars speculate as to what Hebrew or Aramaic concepts may be represented in these Semitic expressions.
It is therefore not surprising that a number of scholars in past generations and even today have argued that the gospels were originally composed in Aramaic—after all, that would have been the native tongue of Yeshua and the apostles (see #39)—even though these scholars have understood that the Peshitta was a translation rather than an original text. That means that they worked with the Greek texts and tried to recover what the "original" Aramaic text was. Notable among these scholars were Charles Cutler Torrey (1922) and Frank Zimmerman (1979); similar efforts have been made by Gustaf Dalman (1929-30), Matthew Black (1967) and Gunter Schwartz (1989), among others, although not all of them have claimed that the gospels themselves were written in Aramaic.44 All of them, however were seeking to recover the original words of Jesus, which they believed were Aramaic rather than Hebrew. Backers of the "Peshitta original" theory today are Andrew Gabriel Roth and Paul Younan, among others.45
These views, however, represent a tiny minority of scholars, since the Peshitta is almost universally recognized as a translation rather than an original text, and the scholars who have attempted to reconstruct an alleged Aramaic original are simply involved in educated guesswork, at best, with little agreement between them.46 Moreover, when these scholars come up with what they feel is a new understanding of the Greek—that is to say, the Greek allegedly misunderstood the Aramaic original—the new, proposed Aramaic text does not agree with the Peshitta. So once again, we have nothing but speculation, and once again, we go back to the fact that the only original manuscripts we have today are in Greek rather than Aramaic.
As for the work of Aramaic teachers like Lamsa who are fluent in modern Aramaic, it is possible that they will spot idioms and insights that other readers will miss, but it is important to remember that Aramaic has changed dramatically over the last two thousand years, and that idioms and customs have changed as well, despite the continuity of customs and traditions in the Middle East over the centuries. So, there may be some insights that can be gleaned from Lamsa's work and the work of others following in his footsteps, but all extravagant claims of a corrupt Greek text and an original Aramaic text are to be rejected.