An Aramaic Approach to the Church Epistles

An Aramaic Approach to the Church Epistles
By Karen Masterson

Commentaries and biographies almost unanimously regard the Apostle Paul as a Hellenistic Jew. They regard him as a Jew whose native language was Greek, who thought in terms of Greek ideas and culture. They compare him to men such as Philo, who explained Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy. They regard Paul as the man who took the Semitic ideas and teachings of Jesus Christ and re-explained them in terms palatable to the current Greek thought outside of Israel.

For centuries men have pointed to Paul’s birth in Tarsus, a great center of Greek learning and pagan religion, and have conjectured that he was raised there also. They insist that Paul wrote all his epistles in Greek and quoted the Septuagint version of the Old Testament because it was that with which he was most familiar.

The commonly held beliefs that Paul was a Hellenistic Jew and that he grew up in the Hellenistic influence of Tarsus present a problem because they contradict the testimony of God’s word. The problem exists in part because theologians have failed to recognize that differences between Paul’s and Jesus Christ’s teaching results from the change of administration rather than from Paul’s Hellenistic background. A study of the administration change, however, is beyond the scope of this article. Rather, it is a study of Paul’s historical and cultural background which will show the Aramaic basis of his life and epistles.  In order to understand Paul’s background and its significance, it is necessary to understand the terms used to describe Jews of the day, the differences between the terms, and the origins of these differences.

And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.
(Acts 6:1)

“Grecians” (Hellenists in Greek)  refers to the Hellenistic Jews. This is contrasted with the word “Hebrews,” meaning Aramaic-speaking Jews. A Hellenistic Jew is also called a Hellenist or, as the King James Version translates it, a Grecian. These were Jews who spoke Greek and were influenced by Greek civilization. The headquarters of their theology was Alexandria, and their great spokesman was Philo, who admittedly knew no Hebrew. The work of the Hellenists was “to accommodate Jewish doctrines to the mind of the Greeks and to make the Greek language express the mind of the Jews. ” (W.J. Conybeare and J.S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1980), p.30.) The Hellenists used the Greek version of the Scriptures called the Septuagint. The direct opponents of the Hellenists were Hebrews as the King James Version has it. These were Jews who opposed Greek learning as repugnant to Judaism. They had a saying: “Cursed be he who teacheth his son the learning of the Greeks. ” (Conybeare and  Howson, The Life and Epistles, p. 30)

To the Hebrews, Greek was the speech of idolatry, of dangerous doctrines, of vain speculation. It was the speech of the tyrant Antiochus who had endeavored to introduce the worship of Jupiter into the Temple at Jerusalem. The event of the cleansing of the Temple is still commemorated from the “abomination” of Antiochus after his overthrow by the Maccabees, the champions of Judaism’s purity from Greek influences. (Conybeare and  Howson, The Life and Epistles, p. 21, p.30.)  This feast is known as Hanukkah (see John 10:22).

The Hebrews spoke Aramaic as their native language and studied either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Aramaic Targums. In contrast, the Hellenistic Jews praised the Greek translation of the Scriptures (the Septuagint) as inspired. But later Hebrews from Israel said that when the law was translated into Greek, “Darkness came upon the world for three days. (F.J. Foakes-Jackson, The Biblical History of the Hebrews to the Christian Era (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1922), p. 385.) They also stated that “the day was a hard day for Israel, like as when Israel made the Golden calf.” (Foakes-Jackson, Biblical History of the Hebrews, pp. 385-386.)

Even after members of these two factions (the Hellenists and the Hebrews) were born again and became members of the Church of God, there arose a division in the Church, “murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” Understanding the distinction between Greek-speaking Jews (Hellenists) and the Aramaic-speaking Jews (Hebrews) lays an important foundation for a study of Paul’s life.

Almost all of those who have written on the life of Paul assume that the greater part of Paul’s childhood was spent in Tarsus, where he was heavily influenced by Greek thought and language. For example, T. Wilson writes, “The environment in which a man spends the most impressionable years of his life leaves an indelible mark upon his character. It is therefore highly important that we should get a true estimate of the influence of Tarsus in the making of St. Paul.” (T. Wilson, st. Paul and Paganism, quoted in W.C. Van Unnik, Sparsa Collecta, The Collected Essays of W.C. Van Unnik, Part One , Supplements to  Novum Testamentum, Vol. 29 (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1973), p. 263.)

F.W. Farrar writes:

Now certainly, in it’s proper and technical sense, the word “Hebrew” is the direct opposite of “Hellenist,” and St. Paul, if brought up at Tarsus, could only strictly be regarded as a Jew of the Dispersion – a Jew of that vast body who, even when they were not ignorant of Hebrew – as even the most learned of them sometimes were – still spoke Greek as their native tongue. It may, of course, be said that St. Paul uses the word Hebrew only in its general sense and that he meant to imply by it that he was not a Hellenist to the same extent that, for instance…Philo was…St. Paul might call himself a Hebrew, though technically speaking he was also a Hellenist….( F.W. Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul, 2 vols. (London: Casswell, Petter, Galpin and Co., 1879), 1:16.)                                                                                                                            

Paul was not a Hellenist. Consider the Scriptures.

Are they Hebrews? So am I. are they Israelites? So am I. Are they of Abraham? so am I.
(2Cor. 11:22)

Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee.
(Phil. 3:5)

The expression ” Hebrew of the Hebrews” is an idiom peculiar to Semitic languages which do not possess the superlative. In this idiom “a noun is repeated in the genitive plural in order to express very emphatically the superlative degree.” (E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1898; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968), p.283.)  Paul, by revelation, emphasizes that he is a Hebrew of the highest possible degree, not a Hellenistic Jew as many claims today. However, many theologians say that technically he was mistaken, that in reality, he was not a Hebrew but a Hellenist.

Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.
(Acts 23:6b)

The Aramaic and some Greek manuscripts read instead of “son of a Pharisee:: son of Pharisees,” indicating he was a tri-pharisaios, a Pharisee of the third generation. (Farrar, The Life and Work, 1:4 note 3)

And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
(Acts 26:14a)

The “Hebrew tongue” mentioned here means Aramaic. The very first “heavenly vision” received by Paul came to him in Aramaic. Do you suppose that God would give Paul a vision, his very first, which was absolutely crucial to his getting born again and set his whole ministry to the Gentiles, in a language that was not his native tongue? Why would God have even mentioned the “Hebrew tongue” in the record if it were not important? The clearest record about Paul’s upbringing occurs in Act 22:3.

(And when they heard that he spake in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence: and he saith,) I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Galicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.
(Acts 22:2-3)

As translated in the King James Version, the verse says that Paul was born in Tarsus, but brought up in this city, Jerusalem. Some have taken the words “brought up” to refer here only to mental or spiritual nurture. Conybeare and Howson and others agree that Paul came to Jerusalem as a “young man,” after he had received his earliest impressions and formation of his mind in the Hellenistic culture of Tarsus. They have taken the words “brought up” and “taught” as the figure of speech hendiadys, expressing the same idea of Paul’s Pharisaic training with Gamaliel, which would not have begun before the age of ten and probably closer to fifteen. There is evidence, however, that the verse has been wrongly translated due to both a wrong understanding of the Greek word for “brought up” and wrong punctuation of the verse. The words “brought up” are the Greek word anatrepho  meaning “to bring up, nurse, cherish, educate.” The root trepho means “to make firm, thick or solid, hence,   to… fatten, nourish,… make to grow.” (E.W. Bullinger, a Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, (1877; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), s.v. anatropho and tropho.) The word anatrepho occurs twice in Acts 7:20 and 21: In which time Moses was born, and was exceeding fair, and nourished up, [anatrepho]  in his father’s house three month:

And when he was cast out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him up and nourished [anatrepho]  him for her own son.

Tischendorf and other authorities prefer the reading anatrepho for trepho in Luke 4:16: And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.

In Acts 22:3 there are three Greek verbs of the same form, nominative perfect passive participles, which Paul uses to give the background of his early days. These are gegennemenos , born; anatethrammenos, brought up; and  pepaideumenos, taught. These three words occur in the same sequence in Acts 7:20-22, referring to Moses’ life: He was born  [gennao], then nourished up [anatrepho] in his fathers house three months; Pharaoh’s daughter nourished [anatrepho] him up for her own son, and Moses was learned [paideuo] in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. W.C. Van Unnik, in an article entitled “Tarsus or Jerusalem,” has cited exhaustive evidence to show that these three words form a “fixed literary unit”: (1) birth; (2) life in the home and the upbringing received there; and (3) education received outside of the parental home. (Van Unnik, Sparsa Collecta. p. 287)

The question of the translation of Acts 22:3 depends therefore on the placing of the comma in the text, whether “at the feet of Gamaliel” goes with “brought up” or with “taught.” The American standard version translates it:”…a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city and educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the Law of our fathers.” From the literary evidence given by Van Unnik, “at the feet of Gamaliel” can only go with the word “taught.” He concludes: In this context, anatethrammenos can refer only to Paul’s upbringing in the home of his parents from the earliest years of his childhood until he was of school age: pepaideumenos refers to the instruction which he received in accordance with the Eastern custom “at the feet of” Gamaliel. This of itself solves the problem about the punctuation. Greek readers, who knew the significance of anatrepho in such a context, would, of course, have regarded it as quite foolish to connect “at the feet of Gamaliel” with that word.

This is not undone by any considerations about the rhythm of the sentence. The name Gamaliel in its third member has probably been brought forward in order that full emphasis may fall upon it at once… from the contrast between Tarsus as the place of birth and Jerusalem as the city of the  (upbringing in the home circle) and the paideia (study under Gamaliel), it is clear that according to this text Paul spent the years of his youth completely in Jerusalem. (Van Unnik, Sparsa Collecta. pp. 295-296)

A literal translation according to usage of Acts 22:3 is: I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but my parental home, where I received my early upbringing, was in the city [Jerusalem]; and under Gamaliel, a person well known to you, I received a strict training as a Pharisee, so that I was a zealot for God’s cause as you all are this day. (Van Unnik, Sparsa Collecta. p. 295)

Here Paul states that his life from the first was not among the idolaters at Tarsus, but among his own nation at Jerusalem. Conybeare and Howson write…St. Paul himself must be called a Hellenist; because the language of his infancy was that idiom of the Grecian Jews in which all his letters were written. Though in conformity with the strong feeling of the Jews of all times, he might learn his earliest sentences from the Scripture in Hebrew, yet he was familiar with the Septuagint translation at an early age. For it is observed that, when he quotes from the Old Testament, his quotations are from that version; and that, not only when he cites its very words, but when ( as is often the case) he quotes it from memory… (Conybeare and Howson, The Life and Epistles, pp. 32-33)

These authors qualify their above statement with “the family of St. Paul, though Hellenistic in speech, were no Hellenizers in the theology.” (Conybeare and Howson, The Life and Epistles, p. 33) The argument that Paul is a Hellenistic Jew because many of the quotes that appear in the Greek version of the Old Testament are from the Septuagint is inadequate. If his writings were originally written in Aramaic, his native language, the translator would not translate the Old Testament himself but would use the version that was most familiar to his readers (the same approach is used today in translations). The evidence from God’s Word causes us to take issue with the tradition which contends that Paul wrote in Greek. Knowing that Aramaic was his native tongue should prompt us to consider the language of an Aramaic original which lies behind the Greek and other versions to which we have access today.

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(Originally published in The Way Magazine; March-April 1984 pages 17-20; this article has been reproduced with two changes throughout- “Judean(s)” has been changed to “Jew(s)” and “Palestine” has been changed to “Israel”.)  Special thanks to NazareneSpace volunteer Mikha’Ela for typing in the original article).

The reproduction of this single article that once appeared in The Way Magazine should in no way be taken as an endorsement of any of the doctrines of The Way International.  

Karen Tourne Masterson now has a Ph.D. from UCLA in Near Eastern Languages (Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude graduate).   She is no longer a member of The Way International and did not have her Ph.D. when she wrote this article.

This article appeared originally in a copyrighted magazine.  It is presented here in accordance with the Fair Use policy in that it is presented here for a non-profit, educational purpose, the original work was non-fiction, educational article, the material here comprises only four pages of the original copyrighted work, and this use has essentially no effect on the potential market for or value of the original work.