Sunday, May 31, 2009

Reconstructing Words of Jesus in Aramaic?

Not how I learned it!
(Image from Wikipedia)

I take part not only in discussions on the Milton List but also on the Synoptic List, a listserve that focuses upon the literary connections among the gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Lately, scholars on that list have been discussing whether Aramaic sayings of Jesus can be reconstructed from the Greek. Mr. Jack Kilmon thinks so, and he has some plausible arguments based on possible mistranslations from Aramaic into Greek that result in some of the "hard sayings of Jesus." For instance, Mr. Kilmon suggests that we look at Luke 14:26:

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (RSV)

εἴ τις ἔρχεται πρός με καὶ οὐ μισεῖ τὸν πατέρα ἑαυτοῦ καὶ τὴν μητέρα καὶ τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ τέκνα καὶ τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς καὶ τὰς ἀδελφάς ἔτι τε καὶ τὴν ψυχὴν ἑαυτοῦ οὐ δύναται εἶναί μου μαθητής (mGNT)
As Mr. Kilmon points out, the Greek word for "hate" is "misei" (μισεῖ), but he suggests that the Aramaic work was "sana," and that Jesus was using an idiom: "This is a mistranslated idiom where the Aramaic word for 'hate' (sana) means to 'set aside'." Professor Mark Matson of Milligan College liked Mr. Kilmon's suggestions on recovering the Aramaic words of Jesus:

Here I can only join with an Amen. I think the gospels were clearly written in Greek. But the traces of Aramaic material do show in a number of places. Whether these are "sources" as we might imagine (e.g., written), or very strongly remembered oral remembrance I am not sure. It would be interesting to explore that.
Mr. Kilmon replied by means of analogy:

Mnemonic devices such as alliteration, paronomasia, assonance, rhyme and meter appear in back translations of "Jesus stuff" to his native Aramaic. These devices are very effective for accurate transmission. If I were to say:

"Roses are red, violets are blue;
You better be good or the devil will get you"
. . . you would remember it and pass it on fairly pristine. At some point, my profound saying would be written down but it would still preserve the syntax of orality.
Mr. Kilmon's suggestion on the Aramaic term "sana" has a certain plausibility and may very well be correct, but I wonder if the power of mnemonic devices ensure accurate transmission and if we can be certain of recovering the actual Aramaic. On the Synoptic List, I mostly just lurk and listen in on these learned discussions, but this time, I stood up on my hind legs and expressed my doubts publicly:

Jack Kilmon wrote:

"Roses are red, violets are blue;
You better be good or the devil will get you."
This is, of course, not only poetic but also wise . . . yet I think that an oral culture would very quickly 'improve' on it:

"Roses are red, violets are blue;
Better be good or the devil with you!"
The original would be forgotten, and any attempt to get back to the actual words of the historical Kilmon would be frustrated . . . though nobody would realize this.
Professor Bruce Brooks, of the University of Massachusetts, chimed in with a powerful amen:

I think Jeffery's point is very well taken. Rhyme may be a mnemonic aid, though whole traditions including the Homeric seem to have gotten along nicely without it, but when present, it does not protect the maxim in question from literary abrasion and change. The most famous poem of the Chinese poet Li Bwo, a little thing of four short lines, can be shown by early copies to have been worn down and trivialized from what is more likely to have been its original form to the form in which millions can recite it at the present moment. In much the way that Jeffery's improvisation suggests. Quotations, rhymed as well as unrhymed, from the early Chinese classics in the later Chinese classics, are sometimes inexact, not to mention quotations in less exalted contexts. Mediterranean examples might be multiplied as well.

For one reason and another, some types of material may survive repetition and transmission better than others, but there can be no guarantee, whether by genre or by form, of invariance under repetition and transmission. Life is simple, but not *that* simple.
And so it stands . . . next to me, still on my hind legs. I'd better get back down (such a stance being unseemly because seamy), but while I'm standing here, I'll offer a bit of mnemonic advice: remember to spell "mnemonic" with its silent "m" by recalling that "m" comes directly before "n" in the alphabet.

Oh, by the bye, William Wallace Denslow's illustrated version above of that rosy Mother Goose rhyme is obviously not the illustrious original because mnemonics favor the one that I grew up with: "Roses are red, / Violets are blue, / Sugar is sweet, / And so are you." Though there's something to be said for an anonymous competitor:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue;
Wish I were dead,
For you're not true.
I've even heard of a version having the "I" replaced by "you" . . . but such violence is foreign to true-blue, red-blooded, rosy-hued Mother Goose lyrics (as we all know from infancy).

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2 Comments:

At 10:09 PM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...

It's evolution, Man!

 
At 10:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe so, Daddio, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

By the way, tomorrow's post will be on the Ozarks, some hellbending stuff up your line of interest.

Jeffery Hodges

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