Re: Jesus Words: Aramaic or Greek?

From: Mark Goodacre (
Date: Fri Sep 04 1998 - 11:02:09 EDT

On 3 Sep 98 at 15:52, Jack Kilmon wrote:

> In many cases, the translational Greek imbedded in the largely
> compositional Greek of the Gospel is evident. One indicator
> is when an idiom in Aramaic does not have a Greek equivalent
> and the sense of the saying is lost. Let me give you an example:
> In Greek OFEILEMATA/OFEILETAIS is "debts/debtors."
> Is the Matthean Scribe telling us Jesus subscribes to getting us
> off the hook for our Master Card balance? (g)
> but in Aramaic:
> w$bwq ln xwbyn
> w'shevok lan hoyween
> )ykn) d)p xnn $bqn lxybyn
> aykeno dup heneen shevkon l'hoyween
> In Aramaic hoyween/l'hoyween can be translated to
> debts/debtors but xwbyn is an Aramaic idiom for "sin."
> In the Aramaic, therefore, it makes sense. There are many
> cases where enigmatic Greek sayings suddenly make sense
> in Aramaic. Additionally, the Aramaic often reveals word
> plays lost in the Greek.

I disagree that the sense is lost in Matthew and would argue that the use of
the OFEIL- words is comprehensible in Greek Matthew without necessary recourse
to Aramaic. In what follows I am partly revising an earlier post on this topic
to Crosstalk, but I will attempt not to stray from the question of the Greek

1. Matthew seems to like the "debt" metaphor. This can be seen very
clearly in 18.23-35, a fine example of a Matthean allegorical
parable which explicates this petition of the Lord's Prayer
("forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors") wonderfully. The
servant owes 10,000 talents (about 3,000 lifetimes of labourers'
wages on the assumption that a denarius was a fair / normal day's
wage) to his master (God) who then forgives him. Instead of showing
his gratitude by forgiving a comparatively paltry debt of his
fellow-servant (100 denarii), he demands that the debt is paid, and,
as a result, goes to hell.

2. That Matthew understands and exploits the debt-sin equation is
clear not only from the content 18.23-35 but also from the way it is
framed -- 18.21-22 features a question from Peter about the forgiving
a brother when he "sins against me" (hAMARTHSEI EIS EME). Likewise
the conclusion in 18.35 ("So will my heavenly father do to you if you
do not forgive your brother from the heart").

3. The Lord's Prayer in Matthew features an explanatory section in
6.14-15 -- here Matthew characteristically has Jesus re-inforcing the
ethic of reciprocity ("do unto others") and the word PARAPTWMATA
(trespasses / transgressions) is used as a synonym for TA OFEILHMATA
(debts). Once more, it is clear that Matthew not only understands
but also exploits the richness of the "debt" metaphor.

Looking at Aramaic possibly embedded behind the Greek text can indeed be
helpful, but one should perhaps begin by asking whether one can
make good sense of the Greek text at hand. This is an example of a term that
makes good sense in Greek, for which theories of underlying Aramaic are
interesting but unnecessary.

Dr Mark Goodacre
  Dept of Theology Tel: +44 (0)121 414 7512
  University of Birmingham Fax: +44 (0)121 414 6866
  Birmingham B15 2TT
  United Kingdom

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