The Tenth Epistle to John

On the webpage you sent to me, it states the following regarding Aramaic primacy: “Textual scholars have examined the Peshitta and found clear evidence of influence from later translations. The dialect used in the Peshitta is from a later time period than that of Jesus and His disciples.”  This is a fact, but it entirely ignores the fact that the earliest texts we have of the New Testament are dated precisely on the same methods they are using to criticize the Peshitta.  Both the conclusion that the earliest preserved fragments of the New Testament are dated to the 2nd-3rd Centuries and that the dialect of Aramaic used in the Peshitta does not match that spoken by Jesus and his followers is based entirely on the study of handwriting styles.

About the Koine Greek first.  It is not entirely clear that Koine Greek was a spoken language in the way we conceive languages in the present.  Modern Chinese is perhaps a good parallel in that when written the language is uniform, but spoken it can be entirely unintelligible between dialects, thus Mandarin, Xiang, and Hakka are each verbally distinct.  The same might have been true in the ancient Mediterranean with “Koine,” which itself represents an umbrella term for a dialect of Greek preserved entirely in written form and covering a period of nearly 2,000 years (conservatively 323 BCE – 1453 CE), during which time it evolved in usage and syntax.  The sophistication with which the author of Luke and Acts uses the language compared to Mark’s elementary understanding are further worth noting since whoever wrote down these gospels was not necessarily in contact with the other authors, nor were they all as fluent or educated in Greek as others; some were almost certainly working with it as a foreign language.  If Jesus spoke Aramaic within a population of overwhelming illiterate individuals who likewise spoke Aramaic, then it stands to reason that the first versions of his teachings would have been transmitted in the Aramaic.  I’m not sure why writing them down in Aramaic is such a stretch, though I will return again to the fact that Greek remained the predominant language of trade, commerce, and interstate relations within the eastern Mediterranean basin.  Aramaic was nevertheless the lingua franca of the Levant before the arrival of the Macedonians, and remained the predominant language of the people in the area, both written and spoken, outside of the Greek-speaking populations of the coast – in other words, not within the communities of Jerusalem or the Galilee.  With Aramaic being so widespread, I think it just as likely that hypothetical Aramaic texts might have been composed contemporaneously with the Koine Greek, particularly since many of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels seem, to some, to make more sense from the Aramaic as opposed to from the Greek, particularly in the case of Mark.  If Mark was indeed a follower of Peter – possibly even his son! (1 Peter 5:13) – then he was most likely first literate in Aramaic and only second in the Koine.

Returning to the differences in sophistication between Mark and Luke, this may in itself reflect a changing dynamic within the community of believers in the latter part of the 1st Century, namely a transition in focus from Jesus’ Jewish heritage and Jewish following to the Gentile population of the Roman Empire, to which Paul attributed his responsibilities.  Simply because of the overwhelming number of individuals literate (or at least conversant) in Greek spread from across the Mediterranean into Central Asia, the texts in Koine Greek would have been replicated more frequently than the more localized Aramaic.  This explains why we have so many manuscripts in Greek (and Coptic), but not Aramaic; tongue-for-tongue, Aramaic was incapable of competing with the Greek text tradition.  It should come as no surprise that when the majority of people speak a particular language, that language will become predominant in the reproduction of literary works – thus the Bible is predominantly printed in English today, so works of the New Testament – and shortly after, the Old Testament – would have been transmitted into the Greek.  This in no way precludes the Peshitta from being a preserved form of Aramaic Biblical texts whose roots can be found in the earliest community of followers in Judea and Galilee.  It is worth wondering how a fully preserved copy of a 2nd Century manuscript might read since no two copies of any preserved New Testament manuscript from any point in time match one another, which ironically reflects “clear evidence of influence from later translations,” a transgression which the webpage levies against the Peshitta.  Indeed, it would be interesting to examine a full 2nd Century text in the Greek with the Aramaic Peshitta alongside.  Of course, if we ever find anything that dates to before the late 2nd Century, it should probably be considered irrevocably authoritative.

But even if the Peshitta (dated to the 9th Century) preserves some of the Aramaic nuances of the local oral tradition, it nevertheless reflects a form of Christianity that did not necessarily reflect the way in which Jesus’ ministry was interpreted by members of the church in Jerusalem, the literal direct descendants of His ministry.  This indicates that the Peshitta must be contemporaneous with or younger than the Greek Koine, since this was the form of Christianity as Paul understood it and the evangelization of which he spearheaded.  This Christianity really took off following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 and the annihilation of any hopes for a renewed King/Kingdom of Israel.  Local Aramaic-speaking believers would have been at a loss of what to do in those early days, and so it stands to reason that the message of renewed hope in the form of the resurrected Jesus took hold in Judea/Galilee not from the ministry of Jesus directly, but from outside, beyond Palestine – that is to say, from the Gentiles.  The Christianity of Paul, as your colleague articulated to me during my visit, was at odds with the Christianity of James the brother of Jesus and the church in Jerusalem, which would have remained not merely localized in belief, but localized in language and thus in influence.  James’ death and the subsequent destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 sealed the fate of that particular community of believers, most of whom are expected to have perished in the war with Rome.  Those who escaped would not only have found themselves without leadership, they would almost certainly have been without texts to reference, and so those communities eventually found their way to the coasts or to Egypt, where Koine Greek was in use, thus adopting not just those texts, but their contents.

As I mentioned, I believe the fact that more Greek has survived is a reflection of the language’s predominance and not necessarily its originality relating to the New Testament.  Written documents are notoriously difficult to preserve, and what few texts we do have are an insignificant fraction of the billions upon billions of physical texts – scrolls, codices, drafts, personal documents, records – which would have been composed and in circulation at any given moment in time.  Greek predominates among translations of the New Testament because of its interstate use, but not because the New Testament was not transmitted into various other languages at the same time as the Koine, to include Aramaic/Syriac and Demotic/Coptic, but most likely also Hebrew, Punic, Galatian, Cappadocian, and Latin.  That the Dead Sea Scrolls – arguably the earliest extant Christian documents – are written in Hebrew, Aramaic (in two different dialects, no less!), and Koine Greek should say a lot about the state of scripture in the years immediately following the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  There is then a gap of a century before the earliest extant fragments of the New Testament appear in the historical record, and that again dated on the assessment of handwriting styles and not necessarily geographical, doctrinal, archaeological, or chronological considerations.  The fact that the Koine Greek used in the earliest New Testament manuscripts (dated to the late 2nd Century) is virtually identical to that of 4th Century Koine Greek should likewise be troubling, since those earliest fragments are quite literally pieces of words or stray columns of text, hardly providing the best sample of the majority of the manuscript in question.

The first multi-page manuscript we have dates to the mid-3rd Century (again, on handwriting studies), and even then its particular style of binding (as a codex – or a book) makes even that dating troubling since codices were not popularized until much later.  This may mean that the individual pages are not themselves from the same provenance, and thus may as easily be a later assemblage using older texts as it may be a newer creation.  The dry conditions particular to the lower Levant and Egypt are ideally suited to the preservation of these documents, but this can also create a form of data bias in which what is preserved through sheer attrition is given primacy, a process which becomes vexed over the course of a century, to say nothing of two millennia.  This means that when the webpage contends that “[t]he dialect used in the Peshitta is from a later time period than that of Jesus and His disciples,” it entirely ignores the fact that Jesus and His followers were likewise in no way literate in any of the panoply of Greek dialects present in the ancient eastern Mediterranean, and that the form of Koine Greek present in all preserved manuscripts dating to before the reign of Constantine is the same dialect used across the first 500 years of Christianity, and it is therefore just as likely to be “from a later time period than that of Jesus and His disciples,” including Paul.

Lastly, the webpage contends that the issue regarding the Peshitta is isolated to or rooted in the work of George Lamsa (the so-called “Lamsa Bible”).  This is simply untrue.  Although Lamsa did indeed provide a widely popular Aramaic-to-English translation of the Bible which was widely praised by members of the evangelical community such as the Rev. Billy Graham and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, it is not the first nor is it the most authoritative translation into English from the Aramaic.  No critical scholar would use the Lamsa Bible for study since Lamsa himself seems to have manipulated the text and his selection of manuscripts in the process of transmission, and so more accurate translations have since been produced.  It is still worth noting that these translations come from the same content as we find in the Koine Greek texts and therefore do not necessarily reflect a doctrinal change since they are doctrinally identical: both preserve the Christianity of the Gentiles.

An earliest version of this post erroneously stated that the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 73, when in fact the Temple was destroyed three years prior in 70 CE.

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