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Thoughts on Aramaic Primacy
Was the New Testament first Written in Aramaic?

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

click here for the new perspective from Raphael Lataster.

Early in 2005, I did a critical study of the relationship of Aramaic translations of the New Testament to the Greek.  I was particularly intrigued by a claim that the New Testament (not just one or more of the Gospels) was originally written in Aramaic, NOT Greek.

This claim is referred to as the Aramaic Primacy Theory.  My focus on this topic was aroused when a friend, Jim DeArras of Richmond, Virginia (USA), referred me to an online book on this topic.  The author, Raphael Lataster (writing under a pseudonym), later contacted me by email on the question.

Lataster managed at that time a website which promoted the Aramaic Primacy theory.  In October 2010, Lataster informed me he had discarded literalist Chrisianity, after learning much more about religion and philosophy over the intervening years. & As time progressed he mvoed farther into an atheistic view, at lest in regard to treasditoinal Christian theism.  He has now updated his views in a new book, originally titled iGod in an early interim form.

The Aramaic Primacy site is remains as a resource on the perspectives of the theory for those interested in knowing about it.*

The book I originally read was a short version titled Aramaic Peshitta Primacy for Dummies, which is no longer available, and has been disowned by the author.*

This is an earlier short version of a longer book, Was the New Testament Really Written in Greek?  Thsi edition is currently unavailable.  The author informed me in August 2012 that the book is now being revised and updated by the author in line with his new perspective and insights.

Read iGod for the new perspective from Raphael Lataster.

Aramaic Bible Online
Lataster maintains his website, which provides information on the Aramaic Primacy theory and includes many resources on Old and New Testament backgrounds and translations.  On his site is a repost of Paul Younan's text of the Aramaic Peshitta Gospels and Acts with English interlinear.

Younan has this posted on his own site in Word format (need to download an Aramaic font set), as well as PDF.  This version has helpful articles, a lexicon and an Aramaic grammar.

Younan seems to advocate the official view of the Assyrian Church of the East, Aramaic Primacy, which claims the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic.  He includes the full statement of the church on his site:

The Peshitta is the official Bible of the Church of the East.  The name Peshitta in Aramaic means "Straight", in other words, the original and pure (the standard) New Testament.  The Peshitta is the only authentic and pure text which contains the books in the New Testament that were written in Aramaic, the Language of Mshikha (the Messiah) and His Disciples.

In reference to the originality of the Peshitta, the words of His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun, Catholicos Patriarch of the Church of the East, are summarized as follows:

"With reference to....the originality of the Peshitta text, as the Patriarch and Head of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East, we wish to state, that the Church of the East received the scriptures from the hands of the blessed Apostles themselves in the Aramaic original, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and that the Peshitta is the text of the Church of the East which has come down from the Biblical times without any change or revision."

The "Original Aramaic" New Testament
This church claims that the apostles originally wrote the whole New Testament in Aramaic.  This reflects a cultural mythos of ultimacy or primacy common among human cultures.

The view ultimizes their version of the Christian scriptures, which history can document in the Aramaic language only from the second to third century CE.  The Peshitta, the form used by the Assyrian Church and claimed to be the original text, is later.

Semitic Sisters
Younan also follows the Assyrian Church in claiming that Arabic and Hebrew are descended from Aramaic.  It is, however, well established and documented extensively in historical and comparative linguistics, that all three languages consist of dialect groups of the broader Semitic family.

Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew are three sister languages to Amharic, Tigre, Tigrinya, Gurage and other languages in the Ethiopic branch of Semitic.  Other sister languages contemporaneous with Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew from ancient times are now extinct.

Not Koine Greek?
One aspect of the Aramaic Primacy argument is to disparage koine Greek, claiming that it was not a real language of the quality sufficient to compose the New Testament.  I noted in a couple of items in the outline on the site that the author comments that the language of the Greek New Testament was not koine Greek.  This is partly true, according to various analyses of the texts.  Some of it is written in "koine Greek."  I have seen that some scholars consider parts of it, like Luke's Gospel, as classical in style.

It is not clear what Younan accomplishes by stating that the language of the Greek New Testament is not koine Greek.  It is what it is, the wide range of individual and literary styles common in that period.  We take it as it is, and whatever you call it, it is what it is.

There is a broad range of Greek forms in the New Testament documents.  It helps to keep in mind that the "New Testament" was not written as a book.  Several separate writings were circulated, and only gradually were collected together and bound as a unit.**

General Term
Actually "koine" is a general Greek term for popular or public language.  It is not a separate "language" except as we look back and make distinctions for technical purposes.  The term koine applies to the general form of language used in the Roman Empire.  This is the term generally used for the collection of styles used in the New Testament.

This is what is meant when it is said that the New Testament was written in "koine" Greek.  The term koine is a convenient term by which to distinguish between the classical Greek literature and the literature of the 1st century BCE to the third century CE.

And just to be clear, it is a naοve concept of language that claims any particular language is not "sufficient quality" to write whatever speakers of that language want to write.  If they can think it, they can write it in their language.  It is likely they would write in their native tongue, especially when writing to others who spoke the same language as a native tongue, as Paul in his letters to the Asian churches.

One stream of the argument is that the variations from what would be expected in "koine" Greek are due to poor translations from the Aramaic original.  Scholars have long known and worked on the details of "Hebraisms" or "Aramaisms" in the New Testament documents.  These are generally accounted for by the fact that most of the writers were Aramaic speakers.

In multi-lingual settings, you find borrowings from one language to another in structure and word-concept expression.  Some are due to combining of expressions, some to interference of one language in another's structural forms.  What we know of the vibrant multi-lingual language and social situation in the Roman Empire would easily account for the variations.  Rather than being unexpected, in fact, the Aramaisms are to be anticipated.

If Jesus was teaching in Aramaic, this fact in itself is enough to account for the Aramaic forms in the oral transmission and later recording in Greek.  Even if they wrote it down for the first time in Greek, they would be translating or paraphrasing it from the oral Aramaic that they or other followers of Jesus had maintained in memory, as is the custom and skill among oral peoples, even among the Greeks and Romans of the era.

From a bilingual populace like that in first-century Galilee, we would expect such borrowing of forms in the common interchanges among the people.  This is a common feature of languages all over the world.  Dr J A Emerton, in his article on Aramaic in the Oxford Companion to the Bible, supports my understanding of this multi-lingual character of the society in Galilee.  He reports that even in the second century CE, we find three languages used in written documents of Jewish indepenedence movements:

"Some letters and other documents from the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 132-35 CE are written in Aramaic, some in Hebrew, and some in Greek" [J A Emerton, "Aramaic," Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), p 45].

The Aramaic of the period borrowed heavily from Greek, which had been the language of administration and business since 330 BCE!  The influence of Greek in the region had only increased in the Roman period.

The very concept of a "koine" is that it is dynamic, varied, different from any formalized standard language, different from writer to writer.  It is the spoken language, not the literate language.  Thus the Aramaic language forms are not unusual, and certainly can be accounted for generally without recourse to the strained idea that it was written first in Aramaic.

The koine is the oral language written down.  Certain documents that became part of the New Testament are in fact more literary in style and format.

Greek Language Continuum
There is, of course, just a continuum of various speech forms that are documented in various written documents, including business items, public graffiti, receipts, etc.  The term koine is a general one also applying in general to the Greek of the Roman Empire in the early Christian era.

Koine was pretty well established as a range of dialects, varying somewhat region to region, as "Standard English" does today worldwide.  It would depend on the nationality and education of the individual what form of Greek they would use.  Just as in modern English, written forms of koine Greek varied from the colloquial and popular to the formal and classical.

Most of the New Testament was written by people of nationalities other than Greek, some of whom might have had Greek as a native language.  It was likely the native language of Saul/Paul, whose hometown was Tarshish (Tarsus), in what is now Anatolia, Turkey.  He might have also spoken Aramaic.  He studied under the Rabbi Gamaliel, so we assume he would also have been able to read Hebrew.

See my comments later in this paper on the textual "evidences" in the Greek text that Aramaic advocates claim "prove" that the New Testament documents are based on an original Aramaic.  See also my related articles referenced at the end of this article. (Maybe one day I will be able to formulate all my margin annotations on the book which respond to the specific "examples" showing Aramaic origins, which I could account for from normal, common linguistic and cultural factors.)

The Hellenes
It is universally held (as far as I know) that Jews out in the Empire spoke Greek as a mother tongue, usually without Aramaic.  It appears some did also know Aramaic.  Alexandria had been the primary centre of Hellenistic Jews since the early days of the Macedonian Empire in Asia, Africa and Europe.  This is why the Jewish scriptures had been translated into Greek long before the time of Jesus.  It remained so long into the Christian era.

This coastal city was an important Jewish centre, even before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  After 70 CE Caesarea became the centre of Palestinian Judaism.  This finally developed into what became Rabbinical Judaism in the 300-600s CE.

Caesarea was one centre where a Talmud was developed, but this was finally superseded by the Babylonian Talmud.  Jewish studies had continued in Babylon, which became a Jewish centre, from the time of the Babylonian Exile, when most Jews remained in Babylon and other cities of the Persian Empire. After the Persian Empire was conquered by the Greeks (the Seleucid dynasty succeeding Alexander the Great).

Greek also became the common language of most eastern Jewish communities.  Aramaic continued as the mother tongue in the heart of Syria (including areas up into current Armenia) even while Greek continued as the primary language under the Greeks and later Romans in western Syria.

I discuss the eastern domains in Hebrew Usage in the First Century.

The Galileans would likely have spoken Aramaic as a mother tongue, but would virtually all have spoken Greek as a primary tongue (the language most used in general life).  Synagogues commonly used the Greek Septuagint translation of the Jewish scriptures. However, Aramaic versions were also used, probably as explanations and notations in the text margins.  

Many authorities discussing these questions are online and in print.  I link to many of them in my various articles and reading lists.

Jesus and the Greek Language
It is likely Jesus spoke Greek, as well as Aramaic.  Much study has been done in recent years on the language picture in Palestine 2000 years ago.  Over the past several years of intensive study of the culture and history, archaeology has discovered more details.  Not least of all, the Dead Sea Scrolls have added to the background picture.

Only since 2000, much has been discovered and published.  You can see some of these recent publications in my reading lists of the years since 2003.  Jesus was a Galilean and his core group were also natives of Galilee.  The area of Galilee and surrounding provinces were primarily Greek areas, and had been for about 300 years.

Jews as Newcomers
Native Judeans (Jews) in the Galilee area were relative newcomers, having moved north in settlement waves under the Maccabees during the time of Judean independence and reconsolidation of the region.  Further settlement from the south appears to have happened during the following Roman period, the previous few decades before Jesus' time.

The Maccabees (Hasmonean Dynasty) militarily reestablished Judean (Jewish) control over the northern areas (once part of the northern country of Israel) in the 2nd century BCE, as well as the southern area east of the Jordan, called Idumea by the Romans, Edom by the Judeans.  These areas were forcibly converted to standard Judaism, which had developed after the Babylonian exile.

The residents of Galilee in the first century were mixed, but predominantly Greek-speaking.  The majority were descendants of Arameans of the old Assyrian Empire and of various other peoples moved into the area by the Assyrians.  Greek settlers or business people had moved in after the area became part of the Macedonian Empire before 300 BCE.

It is important to note also that Jesus would have taught in Aramaic.  His teaching recorded among the people of the markets and countrysides of Galilee would have been mostly in Aramaic.

Jesus in the Greek Cities
Note on the other hand that his encounters in the Greek areas (like Decapolis, such as the town of Gadara) appear to be personal or small-group incidental encounters.  These would have most likely been handled in Greek. I mention some examples in another article.

Assuming at least basic historicity for the gospel accounts, we note that there are numerous instances of Jesus crossing the Jordan or Lake Galilee into the Gentile lands.  Luke is particularly keen to show that Jesus reached out to various ethnicities, as the saviour for all nations, not just the Jews.  Even Mark and Matthew record various instances of Jesus' interaction with Romans and Greeks, as well as the outcastes of Jewish society.

This territory was only incidentally Roman, and was a few miles from the Seleucid Greek Empire, the eastern neighbor of Rome, from whom Rome had taken a small section of land.

For an excellent, readable survey that makes sense of the Greek, Hasmonean and Roman periods in Palestine which contribute to this question, read this online Brief Historical Background To The New Testament.

Aramaic and Greek
Aramaic was still the common language of the whole region, as well as Greek.  Many people do not seem to realize that the presence of the Romans in Palestine would have increased the use and influence of Greek.  Greek was the language of administration of the Roman Empire, and thus also of business.  For instance, in Acts 22, when Paul is accused of starting a disturbance in Jerusalem, while he addresses the crowd of Jews in Aramaic, he addresses the captain of the Roman military guard in Greek.

Though Greek had become the more common language of administration, business and education after 300 BCE, Aramaic remained in common use and continued during the Hasmonean era, and continued on through the Roman era.

Hebrew had already passed away as a spoken language gradually after the Babylonian captivity.  (The date when some exiles returned to reestablish Jerusalem is commonly stated as 538 BCE.  The rebuilding of the wall of the city is put at around 450 BCE.)

Aramaic in old Judah
Recorded exchanges in the Old Testament books indicate Aramaic was already commonly used, at least by leaders, under the Assyrian Empire.

For example, 2 Chronicles 32 indicates that a decree from Sennecherib of Assyria is read to the people of Jerusalem over the walls from in front of the city.  This was apparently read in Aramaic, since it then says the king's officers speak in Hebrew extemporaneously to frighten and abuse them.

This seems to indicate the people knew Aramaic, but still spoke Hebrew in Jerusalem.  This was after the destruction of Israel, but before the Assyrians lost their kingdom to the Chaldeans from the south, who established a new "Babylonian" empire, from which we know Nebuchadnezzar and the exile of the Judean leadership.

By Jesus' time, Palestinian Jews of both domains, Judea and Galilee, would likely have spoken Aramaic as a mother tongue, since it was the common international tongue as far back as the 700s BCE, under Assyrian rule.

Judea, while more urban, would also have been more conservative than Galilee.  The Sadducees' influence was primarily in Jerusalem, and they were not a factor in Galilee, which was even administered as a separate country.  King Herod was the Roman administrator of Galilee and Perea (east of the Jordan), while Pilate was governor of Judea during the early 1st century CE.

Aramaic in Jesus' Time
Aramaic was spoken in much of that area in Jesus' time.  It had been the language since before the Babylonian captivity, as the administrative language under the dominion of Assyria.

Aram (the Damascus area of Syria) was the immediate northern neighbour of Israel (of Galilee in Jesus' time).  Aramaic was the native language of Aram.  When the Chaldeans (neo-Babylonians) took over the Assyrian Empire, they continued the policy of administration in the language of Aram.

When the Medo-Persians took over the neo-Babylonian Empire, they likewise retained Aramaic as the language of the empire.  Aramaic was the common language used by all those empires up till Alexander conquered the area in around 330 BCE, imposing Greek on the area.

In the 300s CE various Latin versions of the whole Bible came into circulation, and in 405 CE Jerome was commissioned to prepare a standard Latin translation.  His translation was called vulgatus, ("common" or "standard"), or in English Vulgate, since Jerome used the common spoken language of the era.

This Vulgatus filled a role for the west somewhat like koine Greek had previously in the Mediterranean and east.  Jerome's translation provided a standard Bible for Latin-speaking Christians.

Latin gradually became the more prominent language, as the Germanic invasions caused difficulties in travel and communication with the capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople in the eastern domains.

Even in the height of the Roman Empire, little Latin was spoken in the Mediterranean outside of the northern area of the Italic peninsula, except by Roman colonists.  Greek was the language of administration, education and art, even of the army in the Roman Empire.  There was no Latin Bible, Old or New Testament, for centuries.  They used Greek.

As late as CE 168, even an emperor philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, was writing his philoso-phical reflections in very "high" classical Greek.  Even more notable is that these were not written for publication.  These were his own private reflections.  They were published only after his death.

"Marcus went to join his legions on the Danube ... and consoled his somewhat melancholy life there by writing a series of reflections which he called simply To Himself.  These are now known as his Meditations, and they reveal a mind of great humanity and natural humility, formed in the Stoic tradition, which has long been admired in the Christian world."
The introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Meditations by the translator tells us this about the Greek of Marcus Aurelius:

"He wrote in Greek because in the second century AD Greek was still the language of philosophy, read, written, and spoken with facility by most educated Romans.  Marcus' Greek – lively, taut, spare, sometimes crabbed – is both a joy and a challenge to the translator."

East and West
Latin never became common in the eastern domains.  The Romans basically just took over the Greek Empires of Achaia and Macedonia, Egypt and other eastern domains, and extended into eastern Europe and Central Asia.  They contineud expanding eastward until they also conquered part of the Greek Seluecid Empire of Syria and Persia, which also invcluded parts of Central Asia.

The Romans maintained the Greek language and culture.  Greeks had had colonies in Italy and Iberia before the rise of the Etruscan Empire and the Roman which succeeded it.  (Incidentally, it was the Etruscans who really developed Rome as a city and centre of culture and art.)  Roman noble families had Greek tutors for their children.  Greek was spoken in their business and diplomacy with the other territories.

The western domains were directly ruled by Rome and colonies were established.  Thus Latin was established as the language of administration in the western domains.  The Celtic population of Gaul and Iberia took up Latin to some extent.  When the Franks moved west of the Rhein, they became allies of the Romans, assisting to subdue the Celts (Gauls).  They gradually settled down and gradually shifted to Latin instead of their native German speech.  Latin was established early as the language in Iberia, and continued throughout, being adopted by the later invading Visigoths.

Latin and the Germans
Europe from about the 400s CE was basically a Germanic domain.  Alaric, king of the Visigoths, sacked Rome in 410.  The Visigoths ruled Spain, the Franks north and east of them, giving their name to the territory formerly called Gaul.

Burgundians and Lombards settled in the Alps and northern Italy, the Vandals in North Africa, the Suebi in North Africa and Galicia (northern Spain).  Various Germanic tribes filled all the Rhein domains.  The southern and western Germanic tribes took up the Latin language of the domains they conquered.  From that time Latin became the common language of the west.

Greek — the Language of Rome
The Roman Empire continued, despite continuing depredations from North and East.   The Empire continued to be ruled from its capital of Constantinople, until finally destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  The western domains had fallen into social and cultural disrepair after the extensive Germanic invasions.

Greek was used in all the eastern domains, but Aramaic also continued in use in various forms in the eastern areas.  From the time of Alexander, however, Greek grew in prominence and dominance.  Greek would have been the language of administration, both in the Seleucid Empire and the Roman Empire.  Greek was for these reasons also the first language into which the Hebrew Scriptures and history were translated in a period of 250-150 years before the time of Christ, no known as the Septuagint (LXX).

Variety = Authenticity
Actually the variety of styles in the Greek New Testament is one of the strongest arguments for its being written in Greek originally.  The styles vary book to book.  Originally, of course, there was not a "New Testament."  There were various writings by various people meeting various needs, that gradually were collected and commonly used and circulated by the growing church in the Roman Empire.

There is not much reason culturally to think that Aramaic would be the written language first used to record and transmit the stories and teachings of Jesus, even less to think that Aramaic would have been used to communicate with the areas outside of Judea.

Perhaps Samaria would use Aramaic also.  Certainly all the discussions in the Jerusalem Church and local areas would have been in Aramaic.  But Aramaic documents of that era are few, uncommon.

The Peshitta
It appears from historical sources that Aramaic translations were in use in the 3rd or 4th century, apparently before there was a Latin translation.  The Peshitta translation itself has been reported as occurring in the 5th century (400s).

Some, however, believe it is from the 4th century.  One commentator says, "The Peshitta can absolutely be dated to the fourth century or earlier."  Dr J A Emerton tells us that "Syriac reached its present form ca 200CE" [J A Emerton, "Aramaic," Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), p 46].

The Roman Christians, as all others, used the Septuagint Greek Old Testament (from about 225-250 BCE) and the circulated writings of the missionary apostles and their associates.  It is unclear whether there was an Aramaic translation of the Old Testament before the time of Christ.

Aramaic Primacy advocates claim they continue to use the same one that was already in use and was taken up by the early church, never using the Septuagint (LXX).  They agree with the larger pool of scholars I have read, that the LXX was translated in Alexandria for expatriate Jews.  This is the route by which the LXX became the Christian Old Testament.

Palestinian Jews continued to use the Hebrew texts, and discussed and taught them in Aramaic.  I have seen no reference to any evidence that an Aramaic translation was used by the Jews.  Aramaic notes used in the synagogues apparently became the basis for later Aramaic translations.  These are referred to as the Targums.  They originally were comments and explanations in Aramaic for the Hebrew text.  This seems to indicate that the general populace, at least in Galilee and northern territories, did not know Hebrew.

Many Aramaic Languages
By the time of what is known as Peshitta, Aramaic had broken up into various languages.  In the time of Christ, there were two major versions of the language, Eastern and Western, with their local varieties.  Dr Emerton comments on these different Aramaic languages:

"Texts of the following centuries show differences between western and eastern dialects of Aramaic.  The distinction appears, for example, in the Targums: the Jerusalem or Palestinian Targums (on the Pentateuch) are in western Aramaic, whereas the Targums of Onkelos (the Pentateuch) and Jonathan (the Former and Latter prophets) reached their final form in the east, though they were probably originally composed in Palestine.  Western dialects include Jewish Palestinian Aramaic and Samaritan and Christian Palestinian Aramaic, and eastern dialects include Babylonian Aramaic (e.g., the Babylonian Talmud), Syriac, and Mandaic, the language" of the texts of the gnostic Mandean sect)  [J A Emerton, "Aramaic," Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), p 46.]

Today there are 19 languages in the Aramaic family, as reported by the Ethnologue.  Two of these have large populations, and the others are small.

Comparative linguistics finds that no one speaks the form used in the Peshitta translation.  Thus it makes no sense to claim, as most of the Aramaic Primacy advocates do, that the Aramaic spoken today is the same language Jesus spoke.

From what I find in historical and linguistic sources, it appears that the Aramaic of the Peshitta was never the universal form of Aramaic.  The Peshitta translation was in the form of Aramaic spoken in the area of what is now Urfa, Turkey.

I have read considerably on factors that would affect this, and no one in broader scholarship suggests that Peshitta was other than a translation.

The only one I was familiar with until recent years who claimed the New Testament was written first in Aramaic was George Lamsa.  Lamsa has published a translation of the Aramaic Peshitta.  There are some Aramaic cultural groups that have some focus on Aramaic Primacy.

Oral Foundations
I was aware that there have been previous claims that the Gospel of Matthew was possibly originally in Aramaic.  Evidence I am familiar with indicates that oral foundations of the gospels were definitely in Aramaic, and possibly written notes also, maybe for the common sections in Matthew and Luke which appear no where else.  The wording on these is quite different in places, however, so this may have also been from the same oral source.

In general, we are dealing with oral cultures, in which writing was only a support for oral orientation.  In recent decades a whle academic discipline ahs developed around Orality, Investigating the oral character of the written history and documents form antiquity.  Much insight has been gained from the previous century of study of oral peoples, still vibrantly alive and creating oral "literature" even today in cultures all over the world.

Ancient Greek "literature" was a written expression of what we now recognzie as oral expression, prepared for dramatic reading, drama, and interactive presentation to a live audience.  The "histories" likewise are the capturing in writing of oral tradition, remembered communal experience and heritage, and the rich mythoglogical (symbolic) statements of historical experiences, as well as the presentation of some degree of owhat modern westerners think of as objctive fact.

The idea of "objective" or "factual" history is a very modern rationalist concept, and not commonly known to most peoples of the world.  It does seem true that the first-century Greek world was more literate and closer to what we today understand as a "literate" culture.  But the whole Mediterranean world was a collection of oral cultures, not literate in the sense we use the term today.

Many writers in recent years have expressed the clarified view of the first-century world of the whole Mediterranean area to conclude that these were oral cultures.  Modern discussions on how the biblical texts came into being were all top-heavy with assumptions from the recently-literate modern European culture.

Entrenched popular literate assumptions still obscure the actual character of the biblical texts, because we try to make them read like modern literature.  Even the written works were written for oral production, in public groups, dramatic sessions, what we might call today "dramatic readings."

Oral Writings
Paul, for instance, refers to having his letters read to the churches.  John Kloppenborg Verbin comments on this in his considerations of sources for the Synoptic Gospels:

"Apart from personal letters, contracts, receipts, and the like, ancient documents were seldom composed merely for private use.  They were intended for performance before various publics, whose likely reactions had to be anticipated in the very act of composition.  ... Composition was thus a social act....  In spite of the increase of writing from the time of Plato, Mediterranean culture was still fundamentally oral. [Excavating Q (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2000, p 166]"

Both the Greek writers and Aramaic speakers had access to the Aramaic oral traditions.  Most people were illiterate, oral in orientation and preference.  The original pattern of learning and transmitting any teaching was by memory and oral recitation.

When the Aramaic Christians got ready to put the growing collection of writings into their own language, they had the advantage of the oral traditions, by which they could determine the likely original words in the teachings of Jesus, as relayed to us by Paul or the Gospel writers.  They and their church members likely had the various oral teaching sets already memorized.

The "Original (Oral) Aramaic"
It would not have made sense to retranslate these back from Greek.  They would just use the wording of the (oral) Aramaic versions they already knew.  It was in their mother tongue.  That was the language in which they had (orally) learned it and repeated it in their worship services.

Thus they would not be as concerned what Greek word had been used by which writer when he wrote the Greek version for a Greek audience.  This accounts for much of the difference that might have occurred in the Greek versions and the later Aramaic versions.

Lataster, Lamsa and company have it right in that regard — the Aramaic version was primary.  But not because the Gospel — and definitely not because the whole New Testament collection — was written originally in Aramaic.  But rather, because the base of the teachings of Jesus was Aramaic, and these teachings circulated freely and copiously, initially orally, in the years and decades following his life on earth.

Communication with the Audience
The original written documents would have been naturally written in the language of the audiences to whom they were originally written.  Thus Greek appears to be the logical medium for writing to Greco-Roman gatherings, which included Jews whose mother tongue was also Greek.  Why would Paul have used Aramaic when he could could write them in their native tongue or the common language between different language groups?  Why would he write in Aramaic to a multi-racial and multi-lingual congregation in a Greek town in a language of another Province in a language they did not understand?

Even the Jews in that area were Greek-speaking, though it is likely some could speak Aramaic, if they had maintained contacts with Jerusalem.  Paul is a Pharisee and studied in Jerusalem, so I would expect he knows both languages as native languages or primary tongue.  Perhaps he is one of those individuals we would call a native bilingual.

(Even Roman historian and writers of that era were writing in Greek instead of Latin.  Latin was developed as a medium in the later decades.  Check specialists for more details.)  These are just some of the problems I see facing the concept of Aramaic Primacy.  I have not seen such factors commented on by Aramaic Primacy advocates.
*Personal communication from Raphael Lataster, email 11 August 2012.

**It was centuries before the western church came to think of the plural Greek word biblia ("books") as a singular name.  This came about from the use in Latin of the Greek word, instead of translating the Greek biblia into a Latin equivalent plural.  Since the Greek neuter plural biblia ends in an a, like one class of feminine nouns in both Greek and Latin, the western speakers of Latin gradually took the word to be singular (and feminine) in meaning.

This misunderstanding is more understandable in light of the fact that only in the early Christian era, the codex, leaves sewn together on one edge, like the books we know, had come into being.  Thus "The Writings," bound together under a foreign name, biblia (the scrolls), could be seen as one unit, "The Writing".

Still when someone makes the common declaration "The Bible says...," it is a valid question to request clarification, "Which Writing of the Bible?"  Or likewise, "Which author of the Bible?"  More specifically, to be honest, we would actually need to ask "Which book of the Bible?"  Or more specifically, "Which passage of the book?"

Nothing makes sense without the context.  We dishonour the ancient holy texts when we try to submit them to our rationalist analytical preferences – eastern or western.

Read "Pantheism Unites" for the new perspective from Raphael Lataster.

Related Articles:
Christians Started with a Greek Old Testament
[TXT] Different Literacy – Different World
     (Are Older Bible Manuscripts More Reliable?)
[TXT] Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews
[TXT] Hebrew Usage in the First Century
[TXT] Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
[TXT] Jesus and the Hebrew Language
[TXT] Josephus and Aramaic Primacy:  The Language and Literacy Culture of First Century AD
[TXT] Koine Greek as a Mother Tongue
[TXT] The Language Jesus Used
[Review] New Testament Window into First Century Jewish Literature
[review] The Oral Greek Character of Paul's Writings
[TXT] Oral-Relational Dynamics in Biblical Interpretation
[TXT] Primacy and Possibility:  Problems Facing Aramaic Primacy Claims
          (Cultural Settings for Greek and Aramaic as Literary Languages in the First Century)
[TXT] Textual Themes and Language Variations in the late Prophets
[TXT] That Abominable Greek?
[TXT] What Was Koine Greek?

Further Resources
The Greek History of the Middle East from 330 BCE.  Brief Historical Background To The New Testament
Dates of Early Versions (Translations) of the New Testament in various languages
Exile — Jewish Virtual Library
Exploring Aramaic Primacy
Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews
The Greek History of the Middle East from 330 BCE.  Brief Historical Background To The New Testament
Hellenistic Influences on the Hasmoneans (Macabees)
The new publication presenting the perspective from Raphael Lataster
The Old Syriac Translation
Peshitta Syriac Translation information
The Peshitta (Peshitto) translation in the 5th century
Peshitta Translation Online — Paul David Younan
Raphael Lataster Official Website
Syriac Diatessaron Background
Syriac Diatessaron; English translation and resource links
Syriac (Pre-Peshitta) translation
Was the New Testament Really Written in Greek?

Free HTML Bibles and other materials in Many Languages
Look about half way down on that last one for many languages.  Includes Swahili.  Downloadable zip sets with various sections in HTML working off a main HTML menu.  Simple and clever.  Don't know yet how actually useful but seems worth a try.  I guess you have to use the search function of the browser on each separate section.  Limited.

These texts address aspects of culture, language, orality, literature and translation affecting the biblical texts, and providing insights on cultual backgrounds and communication in the multi-cultual setting.

Aune, David E.  The New Testament in Its Literary Environment.  (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1986)
Aurelius, Marcus, trans Martin Hammond.  Meditations.  (London:  Penguin, 2006)
Brueggemann, Walter.  Texts Under Negotiation:  The Bible and Postmodern Imagination.  (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1993)
Burge, Gary M.  The Bible and the Land.  (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2009)
Burge, Gary M.  Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller.  (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2009)
Cohen, Shaye J D. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah  (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1987)
Duvall, Scott J and J Daniel Hays.  Journey Into God's Word:  Your Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible.  (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2007)
Harvey, John D. Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul's Letters.  (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books and London:  Apollos, 1998)
Kelber, Werner H.  The Oral Gospel and the Written Gospel.  (Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana University Press, 1997)
      "The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul and Q."  The writer analyzes the gospels and looks at early gospel forms in the teachings of Jesus and Paul, finding the forms we find in oral societies today.  He explains primary and secondary orality.  These are factors that affect literacy, composition and translation.
Malina, Bruce J.  The New Testament World:  Insights from Cultural Anthropology.  (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox, 2001)
Marrow, Stanley B. The Words of Jesus in our Gospels:  A Catholic Response to Fundamentalism.  (NY:  Paulist Press, 1979)
Milavec, Aaron.  The Didache:  Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary.  (Collegeville, Minnesota:  Liturgical Press, 2003)
Muller, Roland.  The Messenger, The Message, the Community:  Three Critical Issues for the Cross-Cultural Church Planter.  (No city, Canada:  CanBooks, 2010)
Nickelsburg, George W E.  Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins:  Diversity, Continuity and Transformation.  Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003


This paper arose out of an extensive study in January 2005
Article finalized and posted 5 January 2006
Rewritten 23 September 2007 and Updated 27 December 2007
Last edited 16 April 2014

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2006, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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