Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous
ATJ 19 (1987) p. 100
David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Jr. Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus Austin: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984 172 pages
What Language Did Jesus Speak?
This little book turns out to be an enigma and a “diamond in the rough” at the same time. It is an enigma because it delivers something different than one might expect from reading the title. It is a “diamond in the rough” because it is a brief but good introduction to certain resurrected — better, resuscitated — theses that many had thought (wished?) were laid to rest. A student handed me this book in a survey course in which one of my objectives was to heighten the student’s awareness of certain difficulties in the sayings of Jesus by requiring one of the “difficult” or “hard” sayings of Jesus books on the market (e.g., Stein, Neil, Bruce). So then, I was curious as to how I had missed this one that I assumed attempted to do the same thing. Upon reading it, I discovered why. It does not attempt to do the same thing, but something entirely different and that is why its title is so misleading.
It seems to me that the real point of departure for this book is the longstanding debate over what Jesus’ primary tongue was — Hebrew or Aramaic? Better yet, what was the dominant lingua franca during Jesus’ time in Palestine? This nexus can be observed in the opening chapter of the book when the authors say: “Why are the words of Jesus that we find in the Synoptic Gospels so difficult to understand? The answer is that the original gospel that formed the basis for the Synoptic Gospels was first communicated, not in Greek but in the Hebrew language… The more Hebraic the saying or teaching of Jesus, the more difficult it is for us to understand.” They conclude that the Bible as originally composed is 90% Hebrew when one makes adjustments for the O.T. quotations and Semitism in the N.T.
The authors lay much blame at the door of liberal scholarship for the assumption of either a Greek or Aramaic origin for the Synoptics. They lament the fact that evangelicals have followed liberals down the primrose path of Marcan priority and Aramaic as Jesus’ spoken language, while placing greater weight on the importance of the Papias tradition. They take up again the well-rehearsed debate over the appropriate translation of Hebrais and Hebraisti — i.e. “Hebrew” or “Aramaic” as well as the oft debated words in the Gospels that are either Aramaic (e.g., Talitha cumi, Ephphata, Rabboni, Abba, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabakthani) or Hebrew (e.g., levonah, mammon, Wai, Rabbi, Beelzebub, corban, raca, Boanerges, Amen). Not only do the authors reject as Aramaic certain words, but they argue that even the presence of unq...
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