The Teachings of Jesus

Jesus of Nazareth is easily the most influential man who has lived.  No matter how one regards him - a prophet, a divine being, an inspired human being - his teachings have influenced more events in our world than any other.  He revealed to us a kind, loving, all-inclusive spirit that he called "Abba" or, in the dialect of Galilee, "Beloved".

So many books have been written about Jesus, and his teachings, there is no way that this simple web site can be more than a commentary; but there are two areas which I would like to address.  

1.   The meaning of the Aramaic word Abba, used by Jesus when addressing or speaking about God, and

2.   Idioms-figures of speech-used in his language, which are present everywhere in the Bible.

To fully understand his teachings, we have to understand something of his language.  Galilean Aramaic, also known as Northern Aramaic, was the language of the common people of his time. 

Jesus was born and grew up in a region of Northern Israel known as Galilee. Most scholars believe that the historical Jesus spoke Aramaic, with Hebrew and possibly some marketplace Greek.  The towns of Nazareth and Capernaum, where Jesus lived, were primarily Aramaic-speaking communities.  Jesus was literate in Hebrew, and he may have known Koine Greek through commerce as a carpenter in nearby Sepphoris.  From the Gospel accounts of his interactions with the Pharisees, we can see that he had a formidable intellect, with outstanding verbal skills.

God as Abba:  In the four books of the New Testament, Jesus refers to God some 170 times.  The Aramaic word that he used was Abba.

Bible scholars have translated Abba in the formal sense as Father, but this does not account for the way that the common people used the term. In Northern Aramaic, Abba is a term of endearment, and is independent of gender.  It can mean Father, but the correct meaning depends on the context. A mother, may, for example, address a young girl as Abba; the meaning here is clearly not Father; she is using Abba as an affectionate term.  The closest equivalents we have today would be honey or sweetheart or darling.  A child may address his Father as Abba, here the meaning would be Daddy.

When speaking of God, however, the most appropriate rendering would be Beloved.  Thus, the first line in the Lord's Prayer should be translated as:

           

Our Beloved, who is everywhere.

 

The Language of Jesus

Origins of Northern Aramaic: In 722 BCE the Assyrians under Shalmaneser V and then Sargon II conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel, destroyed its capital Samaria, and sent the Israelites into exile and captivity in Khorason, now part of eastern Iran and western Afghanistan. The Ten Lost Tribes are those Israelites who were deported by the Assyrians.  Sargon claimed in Assyrian annals that he carried away 27,280 inhabitants.  This could not have been the entire population; many must have remained.

At any rate, the deported Israelis were replaced by a mixed population, moved from the regions around Babylon and Chaldea.  These people resettled Northern Israel, and their language, the Assyrian dialect of Northern Aramaic, became the language of Galilee.  (Incidentally, Hebrew is a branch of Aramaic, known as Western Aramaic.)

It was customary at the time that immigrants would worship the local god, because gods were supposed to be attached to places.  The new inhabitants brought their own idols, but when the sparsely populated areas experienced an outbreak of attacks by wild beasts, they appealed to the Assyrian king to send Israelite priests to instruct them on how to worship the "God of that country".  It was believed that Yahweh, the God of the deported people, was angry. Two priests were sent, and the people became devout Jews.

However, the native Jews always looked upon them as foreigners. Nothing could provoke the indignation of the Jews more than a Galilean (Jesus was a Galilean) aspiring to sit on the promised throne of David.

The AramaicLanguage 

By Western standards, Aramaic conversation is strange. Often a word is used which has many different meanings, whereas Greek, Latin, and English have many words to describe one thing. Moreover, there are idioms in Aramaic that can never be translated accurately into another language.

The speech is amplified as far as imagination can reach, in order to convey the thought; the object is magnified to many times its size in order to make persons see all its sides. In this way, the speech becomes persua­sive and the power that radiates from its force shatters the doubts in the minds of listeners. Objects change; values increase and decrease. In order to do this, facts become exaggerated: for example, Saul and David instead of killing a few hundred men, we say, they killed tens of thousands. A small army of fifty thousand is in­creased numerically, as the sands on the shores of the seas and the stars in the skies.

All languages have phrases, idioms, which do not carry the meaning of their literal words. An idiom, or idiomatic expression, is a phrase or term whose meaning cannot be guessed from a literal definition of the words. If you look up the individual words, the phrase will not make sense.

In the English language expression "to kick the bucket", for example, a listener knowing only the meaning of kick and bucket would be unable to deduce the expression's actual meaning, which is to die. Although it can refer literally to the act of striking a bucket with a foot, native speakers rarely use it that way. It cannot be directly translated to other languages - for example, the same expression in Polish is "to kick the calendar", with the calendar being as detached from its usual meaning as is the bucket in the English phrase. The same expression in Dutch is het loodje leggen "to lay the piece of lead", which is entirely different from the English expression, too. Other expressions include "break a leg", "crossing the Rubicon", and "fit as a fiddle". Scholars have estimated that William Shakespeare coined over 2,000 idioms still in use today.

Idioms hence tend to confuse those not already familiar with them; students of a new language must learn its idiomatic expressions the same way they learn its other vocabulary.

Aramaic, like English, has many idioms which are in general use, and misunderstanding of these idioms goes all the way back to the early Christian church. Greek and Roman converts spoke Greek and Latin.  They were not familiar with Aramaic, and they could hardly be expected to understand the meaning of Aramaic idioms.   

For example, we have from the gospel of Matthew:

"If your right eye offends you, pluck it out."  This means, if you have a habit of  envying, stop it.

"If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you". This means, if you have a habit of stealing, stop it.

Whosoever shall hit you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also." This means, don't start a quarrel or fight.  Be humble.

So, we have, in no particular order:

"Bury my father." This means, take care of my father until he dies.

"Son of man" Means a human being.

"Hell fire." Mental suffering, emotional torment.

"Kingdom of Heaven." A universal state, a reign of peace and harmony.

"Hell (Sheol)." A resting place for departed ones; the abode of the dead.

"Satan." To stay, to slide, to mislead, to slip, to miss the mark.

"Satan stands at his right hand."  He receives wrong counsel.

 "Heap coals of fire on his head."  Do good to someone who has harmed you so that you may cause him to regret the evil he has done to you.

And in a similar vein :

"We have eaten the flesh and drunk the blood of our fathers while building this house." This means we have worked very hard to build this house.

Idioms in English:  In case these seem extreme, consider the following examples in American English:

"She cooked up a storm". This means that she prepared a large meal.

"He walked on eggshells".  This means that he had to be careful what and how he spoke.

 "Clear as a bell".  This means that the explanation was clear and easy to understand.

"She went through the roof".  This means that she became very angry.

"He sweated blood".  This means that the task was very difficult.

"Blowing smoke" means to be boasting without being able to back it up.           

"Chew the fat" means to talk about unimportant things.

"He is living high on the hog" means that he is living extravagantly.

 "To let the cat out of the bag" means to share a secret that wasn't supposed to be  shared.

 "When pigs fly" means something that will never ever happen.

"Spitting image" means an exact likeness.

 

I have taken these examples from From Idioms in the bible Explained and A Key to the Original Gospels by George M. Lamsa 1985.  Dr. Lamsa's native language was Northern Aramaic.

Copyright 2009 The Kindness of God