The voice that first introduced me to the Aramaic language is a man named Neil Douglas-Klotz. I heard him interviewed a couple years ago by Tami Simon of Sounds True, and they discussed some things in that 57 minute conversation that would serve to completely change my relationship with the Judeo-Christian sacred texts, and ultimately send me on a deeply rewarding journey of re-discovering the teachings of Jesus.
Douglas-Klotz gave me a lens through which to begin to understand that the English language version of the Bible did not have to be the end of the conversation I could have with these ancient texts. Nor did I need to stop with the Greek language from which Western biblical scholars have chosen to translate our current English texts.
Apparently, the main conflict about translation is connected to which written text is the oldest – Greek, or Aramaic – even though it’s agreed upon that Jesus spoke Aramaic. The problem, somewhat unfortunately, is that there isn’t a Galilean (the geographic area in which Jesus lived and taught) Aramaic version of the gospels out there in “circulation”. There is a Syrian one, but this was written down at nearly the same time as the Greek translation, and thus the ambiguity.
Truthfully, however, nothing about this language conflict bothers me that much. In fact, I find it relieving in many ways. Without an indisputable original word-for-word account of Jesus’ teachings, you can make a strong case for suggesting that we remain open to the possibility that none of us can claim to know what he said or did ABSOLUTELY. And well… this just seems like a much more humble vantage point from which to approach something so mysterious.
Anyway, this distinction between Greek and Aramaic is what I want to talk about right now. This is so compelling to me because there is such a marvelous difference in the translations between one language and the other.
For example, Douglas-Klotz explains…
…the meaning of the word “good” in Aramaic really means “ripe.” That is, r-i-p-e, meaning “at the right time, at the right place.” It’s essentially a planting image and one that is drawn from nature.
Alternatively, the word for “evil” or sometimes “bad” that we see in the Greek-to-English version of Gospels, in Aramaic means “unripe”.
Of course, as Douglas-Klotz goes onto explain, this can make a huge amount of difference in how we understand certain phrases Jesus is accredited with saying, such as “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17-18). If what he really said was “every ripe tree bears ripe fruit, but an unripe tree bears unripe fruit”. The spiritual implication in that statement is something a bit more abstract. It’s more like a zen koan; you walk away having the sense that what has been said is powerful, but still scratching your head about exactly how to live in accordance with this wisdom.
**More about Jesus and his multitude of zen koans to come soon…