Jesus spoke Aramaic

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Jesus spoke Aramaic is a problem with various books of the New Testament pertaining to the supposed quotations of Jesus and his followers. Even if we assume the authors of the New Testament books are who they claim to be and that the text has been accurately preserved (neither case is very likely), a problem with language barriers still persists. A semi-formal description of the problem is:

Argument

  • P1: All of the books in the New Testament are written in Greek.
  • P2: Jesus and his followers most likely spoke Aramaic.
  • P3: The differences between Greek and Aramaic make translation problematic.
  • C1: Therefore, the quotations attributed to Jesus and his followers were likely translated from Aramaic to Greek.
  • C2: Therefore, the quotations of Jesus and his followers probably have many problems.

I explain each of the premises and conclusions in further detail below.

P1: All of the books in the New Testament are written in Greek.

All of the earliest scraps archeologists have found of every New Testament book is written in Koine Greek. Although there is a very small minority of historians who suggest that some of the books of the New Testament were originally written in Aramaic and translated to Greek, there is no physical evidence of such a document, and most skilled translators do not find evidence of such translations even though it should exist. There are only a handful of words in all of the combined manuscripts which appear to be translations from Aramaic to Greek, and these are from quotes from the Aramaic speakers, where we expect it.

P2: Jesus and his followers most likely spoke Aramaic.

Most historians agree that the Jews living in the region of Palestine during the turn of the era spoke Aramaic. For Jesus and his local followers, they probably spoke a Galilean dialect of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic. Also, a few of the quotes attributed to Jesus in the Gospels occasionally have words transliterated from Aramaic into Koine Greek.

P3: The differences between Greek and Aramaic make translation problematic.

Being in different language families, Koine Greek and Galilean Aramaic are very different languages. They feature different syntax, different alphabets, different sentence structure, and so forth. Because of this, they are especially difficult to translate between so translation problems often arise.

C1: Therefore, the quotations attributed to Jesus and his followers were likely translated from Aramaic to Greek.

If we assume that the New Testament quotations of Jesus and his followers are genuine, they would most likely have been translated into Koine Greek from their original spoken language of their Galilean dialect of Aramaic, which no longer exists.

C2: Therefore, the quotations of Jesus and his followers probably have many problems.

This follows from the facts. Even if we assume the quotations of Jesus and his followers are actually their own and have been preserved accurately over 2000 years, we still have to admit that it would be especially difficult to preserve the precise meaning and intent after translating from their Galilean dialect of Aramaic to Koine Greek.

Objections

Maybe Jesus and his followers spoke Koine Greek.

It's not ridiculous to presume that the Palestinian Jews had a rudimentary understanding of Koine Greek due to the previous Greek conquest of the area. However, as peasants (Jesus was a carpenter, Peter was a fisherman, etc.), it is unlikely they received any formal schooling in foreign languages, and, if they did know any Greek, would speak it quite poorly. However, the bulk of dialogue written in the books of the New Testament is written as though the speakers were fluent in Greek. So, they are unlikely to be a verbatim quote from a peasant who speaks Greek as a second language.

Also, when in conversation with acquaintances, people tend to use the language they're most comfortable with. If Jesus and his followers were all native Aramaic speakers, we should expect all of their internal dialogue to be in Aramaic. However, all of the quotations in the New Testament are in Greek, even when Jesus and his followers are speaking together, even when his followers are writing letters to one another. It would be very unusual for two native Aramaic speakers to use a second language neither is proficient in to speak to each other.

There is evidence of translation. In Jesus' dialogue, there are 12 words that are transliterated from Aramaic into Greek. If Jesus was a competent Greek speaker, it stands to reason that he would have translated these words as well. It's also important to note that these untranslated words only exist in the dialogue of Jesus, not in the narrative of the gospels, so the gospels themselves still appear to be originally written in Greek.

Translators could have ensured accuracy.

Under normal circumstances, bad translations can be avoided or corrected because, during a dialogue, the translator can request clarification from the speaker or the recipient. This would not be possible for any of Jesus' dialogue in the New Testament, because the books were not written until long after he and most of his followers were dead.

Translating between Greek and Aramaic isn't that difficult.

Languages evolve over time, and linguists chart their evolution on a tree showing their diverging ancestry over the years. Languages with a recent common ancestor like Spanish and Portuguese which diverged from a West Iberian form of Latin only a few centuries ago, are fairly easy to translate between. Languages with a very ancient common ancestor, or none at all, are much harder to translate between. Greek is part of the Indo-European family of languages, while Aramaic is part of the Afro-Asiatic family. These are especially different making it difficult to accurately convey the meaning of a statement from one language to the other. It's like translating between English and Japanese today. Of course it can be done, but there is always something lost in translation.

To make matters worse, there aren't any living native speakers of Koine Greek or Galilean Aramaic. This means that anyone who wants to read the New Testament must rely on another translation into their native language. So, what we're reading today is like having Saxon English translated into old Kyushu Japanese, and then translated into modern Swahili. The gist of the message can be preserved, but it's very unlikely that the nuance of the original would be preserved.

Who cares? We have the basic idea, that's what is important.

Unfortunately, a great deal of Christians believe that it is of the utmost importance that we have the precise meaning of the words of Jesus and his followers. Biblical fundamentalists argue endlessly over the intent behind the words in their bibles, but, hopefully, this argument explains why what their doing is folly.