Last modified on November 29, 2019, at 16:20

Aramaic Judaism, Jewish Aramaic Christianity, and John 1:1

Targum ("translation") Onkelos, the most important of the Jewish Aramaic language translation/ paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible, often printed nowadays alongside the Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses, along with the Mishna, was composed in Palestine, and bears the peculiarities of Palestinian Aramaic (Nöldeke, "Mandäische Grammatik," p. xxvii.). But making its way to the greater Jewish community of Babylon, it found its next to last, but most important redaction, there, and it became the Babylonian Targum (Targum Bavli). It is thought that it received the name Targum Onkelos, either from a convert (Ger Tsedek) named Onkelos who translated the Five Books into Aramaic, or by linguistic corruption of the name Aquilas, the Greek convert to Judaism who translated the Hebrew Bible into a literalized Greek to take the place of the Septuagint which was being used by Christians to prove the faith. (Targum Onkelos, making its way back into Palestine would get its final redaction under the name Pseudo-Jonatan Targum)

Targum Onkelos has been noted for its anti-anthropomorphism. That is, where the Hebrew text is very clear in visualizing the God of Israel in physical terms, even if meant to be understood metaphorically, Onkelos will not allow it to be so presented but will speak around it (paraphrase) or use an intermediary word between the physical description and God. This hesitancy to make explicit the attributes of God thought as physical remains today, but added to the hesitancy is resistance to or disavowal of the notion that God actually became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. But this latter reason, was not the reason for the anti-anthropomorphism of the Targum.

Examples of anti-anthropomorphism can be found in the following - In Genesis 32, Jacob is wrestling with "a man" but after the struggle, Jacob says, in the original Hebrew text,"I have seen God face to face and my life has been saved". In Targum Onkelos, however, Jacob is made to say, " I have seen the angel of God face to face and my life has been saved". At times the intermediary word is the word "Word" - in Aramaic, Memra (the root is Aleph, Mem, Resh as in the Hebrew word 'Omer). Whereas the Hebrew text (Gen. 3:8) has it, "They (Adam and Eve) heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden", Targum Onkelos has it, "they heard the sound of the Memra of the LORD God walking about in the garden" Apparently, walking about in the garden conjured up too much of rustling of leaves and bushes to take figuratively, and so it was the Memra that was heard and not the LORD God. This is the pattern in other places in Genesis.

It is customary among scholarship to see John 1:1 in the light of the Greek language usages. This is natural since the Gospel of John as we now have it and as it was originally, was written in Greek. But there are indications in the Gospel that behind the Greek there is a good bit of Jewish knowledge and expression, and this has fed into the Gospel. This has made many, along with the links to the language and concepts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to see the Gospel of John as a product of the first century, and not the second. The question remains, does the fact that the Gospel of John was written in Greek decide the matter in favor of the Greek/Hellenistic backing to John, and in particular the terminology of Philo as explanatory, in particular, to the word "logos" in John 1:1? John 1:1 says "In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" The Greek influence would understand that the "Word" (logos) was there to indicate that the One we know from the rest of the New Testament, that is the Son of God, was alongside God, alongside the Father, and receiving from Him knowledge and illumination, and the knowledge and illumination then was communicated to men on earth, men being enlightened by the Word made Flesh. This is a fair rendering of the Greek position and there is much truth in it. But there is another side to the story, an important one.

Prof. David Flusser of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem notes that it is to the Targumic and Jewish Aramaic mindset that we owe the true understanding of John 1:1 and not to Philo and the Alexandrian "logos" philosophy. He sees in the Aramaic anti-anthropomorphic determination an opening for the author of the Gospel of John to boldly assert with a revolutionary audacity, a message within the Jewish milieu, using the terminology of Jewish reticence itself. He will use the linguistic protection that has been set up to press his point as to the true identity of Jesus Christ. This polemic thrust is in accord with much of the rest of the Gospel of John, For instance, Jesus converses with Nicodemus, alone and at night. He speaks to him man to man, when suddenly, so evident in the original Greek and in the King James English, but obscured in the modern English translations, Jesus is no longer speaking to Nicodemus, but speaking through Nicodemus (the plurals "ye" instead of the singular "thou", paralleling the Greek), to the Jews of His day, and at the same time, it is no longer Jesus alone that is speaking, it is the plural "we". as if it is the church speaking through Jesus.

This then is the Jewish Aramaic contributrion to the understanding of John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word (Memra) and the Word (Memra) was with God.. and the.Word (Memra)was God. "So, you have a hesitancy to say, to take on your lips, what you fear would lead you to blasphemy, that God actually took flesh and lived among us and suffered death on a cross. Very well. You use Memra, so as not to violate what the Hebrew Scripture itself leads us to see, that God comes down and walks with us in the midst of the vegetation of Eden. Very well, I understand. I, too, will use the Memra. As we have learned from Bereishit, from the Genesis of it all, in the the beginning. And in the beginning with God was this Memra, and so I tell you, now, that that Memra is God,You can see this for yourself, the Targum and the Tanakh side by side, and it is that Memra, as you would have it, who is God, which became Flesh, and dwelt among us."

It is not, in this view, that that logos is there primarily to communicate, but rather to rip away the subterfuge, and make the conclusion inescapeable.

Later Christianity would go various ways. The Latin centered in Rome, would stress jurisdiction, law and classification (among its other endeavors and proclivities). The Greek schools centered in Alexandria would stress allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and speculative theology. But the Aramaic Christian world, would center in both Bible Study and exposition of what is there, and in the drama of poetry. Exposition of what is there, is a form of ripping away subterfuge, and poetry is a way, seemingly contradictory to the former, but only seemingly, of plumbing the depths in another way, and seeing what is really there.

See also