The western branches of Christianity believe the New Testament was written in Greek. This is a disputable point. This article explores the argument. It shows why Greek is a translation of Aramaic.
The World Trade Center
On September 11, 2001, a pair of airplanes flown by Saudi nations flew into the World Trade Center towers at the southern tip of Manhattan Island in New York City.
If this wasn't enough tragedy, the United States decided to go to war in response. Instead of invading Saudi Arabia, which would have been the natural choice, the American government decided to invade Iraq instead.
In that invasion, the Americans triggered a civil war between rival branches of Islam. The Shiites and Sunnis had been controlled by Saddam Hussein's secular government. Once Saddam was gone, these old rivals erupted in fighting.
Caught in the crossfire was a very small minority of Christians, indigenous to northern Iraq. Their name for themselves is the 'Church of the East.' In order to not get killed in the crossfire, they migrated to the USA. They brought with them a unique form of Christianity.
The distinctive feature of this branch of Christianity is that they hold the Syriac Peshitta as the inspired form of the New Testament. So they fundamentally dispute the western assumption of Greek as the language of inspiration for the New Testament.
Before tackling the thorny question, Are they right? In other words, was Aramaic the primary document for the New Testament? We need to review their view of history.
History Of The Church of The East.
Western awareness of the existence of the Church of the East is normally traced to around the year 1800 when western Christian missionaries reached what is now northern Iraq.
Instead of finding only Muslims in this area, those missionaries found a group of Christians. They also found 2 different copies of the New Testament, called the Peshitta and Peshitto. Note the last letter in these names.
The 2 documents covered the New Testament as known in the west, but with 5 books not in their canon.
The Peshitta and Peshitto only differed by about 50 characters, so these 2 documents were not fundamentally different.
Until about the year 1800 there were competing scribal communities each claiming they held the letter perfect inspired text of the New Testament. This is the same treatment and veneration of the NT that Jewish scribes had applied to the Hebrew OT texts.
There had been a split in the scribal community that had kept the text from the earliest times, forming the 2 different competing camps.
Though there was a translation into Aramaic from Greek about the 4th century, their own witness was that they were carrying texts that were much earlier, from the first century when the text was originally penned.
In the early 1800s war ravaged that area and the scribal communities were lost. By 1905 the British Bible Society published a reference copy of the Peshitta which is considered the standard Aramaic text from that group.
The church of the east was at some points of history very large and widespread. They were the first to bring Christianity to China, for example. The Chinese at times were Christian under this branch of Christianity, sending monks to Jerusalem and Rome.
The stories there are interesting in and of themselves. The Chinese monk that went to Rome was not received for about 1 year after his arrival in Rome in part because Chinese Christianity of the time was divergent enough from Roman Christianity that the Pope would not grant an audience.
Another Chinese monk ended up as the Bishop of Baghdad. Again, within the structure of the Church of the East and not under the authority of Rome, nor under the authority of the Orthodox branches of Christianity.
How Are We Tell?
So imagine you are faced with a Christian immigrant fleeing from the 2002 war in Iraq. He claims to be carrying the inspired New Testament.
How are you supposed to answer?
Most Protestant Christians take it on faith that the Greek New Testament is the inspired form of scripture. So they will typically just tell that immigrant that they are wrong.
This is not an evidence based position, but a position based on faith. This is how Protestants are taught to believe. But it is a weak form of faith.
There are, though, modern tools getting to the bottom of the problem. These tools work with any 2 documents where one is the original and the other is the translation. It is nearly always possible to tell which is the original and which is the translation.
The translation has tell-tail signs that mark it as the translation. It is simply a process of looking for the clues.
Mechanics Of Translations
Imagine listening to a speech by a foreign head of state. Say the leader of Germany. You are listening to that speech through a translator, since you do not know the German language.
Assume for the moment that the translator is operating in real time, and must translate from German to English while the speech is going on. The translator will need to keep up and speak at about the same speed as the original speaker.
Will that real time translation be very accurate?
It turns out the answer is no. A typical world leader went through a speech writing process. In that process precise words were chosen in order to mean precise things in the listening audience. Various keywords and details will be selected for the political purposes of the speech.
Translators will not know the intended nuances created in the speech writing process. They will need to fill in and make guesses as they are listening and translating in real time. That process of translation will leave tell-tail signs that the English you are hearing is a translation of the German original.
Examples of those signs include using a smaller palette of words in the translation than in the original. Technical terms tend to be reduced to less technical terms.
The alternative strategy, developed in the past few decades for translating European laws into all European languages, is much more difficult. The legal challenge of Europe is driven by the need for European law to mean the same thing in all European countries. No matter what language that country might use, the law needs to mean the same thing.
Those documents must either go through round trip translation, or in the case of law, they must be built at the same time as the original language document. Every technical term must be carefully translated. The normal signs that mark translations must not happen in these legal documents.
This is a very highly skilled task, and not something that can be done in real time.
So how did translations take place in ancient times?
They were always effectively real time translations. They always leave behind tell tail signs that mark the original and the translation.
So by careful study of the Greek texts of the NT against the Aramaic texts of the NT we can learn which is one is the translation of the other.
Work of Rev. Glenn Bauscher
Glenn Bauscher was a pastor, trained in the Greek New Testament. He was professionally fluent in New Testament Greek.
Bauscher became aware of the Aramaic New Testament from the witness of the refugees from the war in 2002 in Iraq. He was fascinated enough by their witness that he decided to learn Aramaic for himself, and see what he could learn.
By 2011 Bauscher published The Aramaic–English Interlinear New Testament. It is a 345 page work, published on 8.5"x11" paper. As I write this, it is available as an E-Book on lulu.com for free.
In that work Bauscher combs through every single verse in the Aramaic NT Text. He gives an English translation. So far so good.
What Bauscher adds are explanatory notes when the Aramaic and Greek texts of the NT disagree with each other.
Bauscher then attempts to ascertain which translation direction would produce the disputed meaning. Across hundreds of examples, he always comes to the same conclusion. The original text was Aramaic. The translation was Greek.
Bauscher nails it. Greek is a translation.
This is so important to understand, I want share 2 examples that show up everywhere in discussions about why Aramaic is the likely NT source document. These are not just from Bauscher's work.
Example 1: Camel Through Eye A Needle
The following verse is a quote from the NIV. Itself a careful translation from Greek.
24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24 NIV)
Note how the NIV, reflecting the Greek, is discussing how a camel cannot easily go through the eye of a needle. This is of course a little strange, but no more strange than other things in the NT.
Here is the same quote from the BRB. The BRB reflects the underlying Aramaic.
Again, I say to you, it is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of god.(Matthew 19:24 BRB)
Note how the BRB is discussing how a rope cannot easily go through the eye of a needle. It is not using the term camel.
Using context, we choose between these 2 terms. Needles are normally used for sewing. Thread is the normal thing that goes through needles. Needles are made with different sized holes in order to match the thread. Very fine thread is used in very fine cloth. Thick thread in thick cloth, like burlap or sack cloth.
Rope, though similar to thread, is so large it is not used with needles. So the term rope has an affordance to thread and thus to the story in this passage.
Camels have no such affordance, they are a difference category of thing than threads and needles.
So as English readers which can deduce that the Aramaic is likely the original, and not the Greek.
We can turn to native Aramaic speakers who may be able to explain to us why there is a difference at this point. It comes from a specific nuance for the Aramaic term for 'camel.'
The Aramaic term for 'camel' can either mean the camel animal, or it can mean rope made from camel's hair. Heavy rope, the biggest of rope, is made from camel's hair, and so is called 'camel' in Aramaic. Sailors know this rope as 'dock rope.'
The passage is built on the obvious and well known idea that dock rope does not go through the needles used in sewing. Heavy rope is not threaded at all.
I shared this example once with a friend who had served in the US Navy. He exclaimed upon seeing this example that the big woven rope pads that are used to buffer naval ships from docks are called 'camels' even now.
Note how it is possible to reason about the differences between Greek and Aramaic without needing to know neither Greek nor Aramaic. We can do this when we have English translations that are faithful to translate what was written in the text from which the translation comes.
This technique, of relying on an accurate translation to study differences in ancient texts is a power one. We will use it to advantage in many other studies.
Example 2: Leper's House
Another commonly used example of the difference between Greek and Aramaic involves the house of Simon the Leper. It is at this house where a jar of perfume is poured out. Here is the story in the NIV, itself a careful modern translation from Greek.
6While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, 7a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. (Matthew 26:6-7 NIV)
Here it is again from the BRB, which is audited against the Aramaic.
When Joshua was at Beth Any in the house of Simeon the potter 7a woman came up to him with an alabaster vessel of precious perfume and she poured it on the head of Joshua while he was reclining.(Matthew 26:6-7 BRB)
Notice the Aramaic is using a word that means potter, not leper.
So which text, Greek or Hebrew, is likely to be the original?
We don't answer this question through our own ability to read either of these texts. We answer the question based on the context. The narrative that surrounds the disputed word will teach us which word is likely the original, and which is likely a poor translation.
The Greek context poses a bunch of questions that the Aramaic does not.
Why was the leper not healed?
Why would anyone dare visit a leper's house?
These questions exist only in the Greek side of this story.
On the Aramaic side the potter's house is a place where you might find a pot, or jar. So the pouring out of expensive perfume from a jar might reasonably take place there without the need for further explanation.
Note in both of these examples, the nearby narrative is used to select which version is likely the original and which is likely inspired. We do not need to know very much about the Greek and Aramaic language systems.
We don't particularly care why the 2 language systems are different. We can defer to experts in those languages in order to understand what mistake was made when the translation was made. This is what Bauscher does in great detail for the many examples spread across the NT text.
Many of the examples dealt with in Bauscher's work are explained by scribal errors introduced when reading the original Aramaic. This is where Bauscher shines.
Seeing Aramaic as original helps explain another aspect of western Christianity. There never was a scribal community built upon the Greek texts of the Bible.
This is unlike Aramaic and Hebrew.
The lack of such a community is another witness to this problem. When the Greek translations where being made, they knew Greek was not original, so those ancient translators did not care about being letter-perfect accurate across centuries.
Nobody created scribal communities to carry the Greek text because that was already being done in Aramaic. They had no reason to venerate the process of keeping accurate Greek copies across time.
This is why the western world only has a massive pile of Greek fragments from history. It does not a community giving their testimony across almost 2000 years.
Important to note, and a point we will return to later, Aramaic as a language precedes Hebrew in history and it is Semitic in structure. It shares many of the same vocabulary words as Hebrew.
So to skip over Greek back to Aramaic we are picking up texts that are around 2000 years old, but we are picking up a language that goes farther back that the Hebrew editing phase 2500 years ago.
So the language gap between the testaments, embodied in the difference between Hebrew and Greek is starting to go away.
We will eventually totally close that gap.
Looking Farther Back
So the process of switching from Greek to Aramaic as the base text of the New Testament is like looking back farther in time.
When we use Aramaic we are skipping over an imprecise Aramaic to Greek translation step. This achieves a similar effect as ignoring vowel points in Hebrew.
So for both the OT and NT we can now see farther back across time. We are now seeing closer to the inspired form. But there is more.
There is another step back that we can at least consider, and that is another step back, to what is known in religious circles as Paleo Hebrew. That is the step we turn to next.