The Aramaic Old Testament, the Memra (the Word)

The modern manner of interpreting Biblical text is commonly called exegesis. This method concerns itself mostly with the literary and grammatical context of Scripture verses. Practitioners of exegesis sometimes view anything beyond the literal text as “isogesis” and often pay it little heed to it, or regard it with suspicion. This is an unfortunate error, a result of a backlash against improper allegorizing of the Scriptures, resulting in a case where “the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.”With regard to the proper understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures in their proper context, including the “New Testament” books, there are in fact “levels” of interpretation that must be taken into consideration. This was the method used to write and interpret Scripture by the authors themselves as well as the audience of their time and culture.

The four levels of interpretation are called: Parshat, Remez, D’rash & Sod. The first letter of each word P-R-D-S is taken, and vowels are added for pronunciation, giving the word PARDES (meaning “garden” or “orchard”). Each layer is deeper and more intense than the last, like the layers of an onion.


P’SHAT  (pronounced peh-shaht’ – meaning “simple”) The p’shat is the plain, simple meaning of the text. The understanding of scripture in its natural, normal sense using the customary meanings of the word’s being used, literary style, historical and cultural setting, and context. The p’shat is the keystone of Scripture understanding. If we discard the p’shat we lose any real chance of an accurate understanding and we are no longer objectively deriving meaning from the Scriptures (exegesis), but subjectively reading meaning into the scriptures (eisogesis). The Talmud states that no passage loses its p’shat: Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbath Folio 63a – Rabbi Kahana objected to Mar son of Rabbi Huna: But this refers to the words of the Torah? A verse cannot depart from its plain meaning, he replied. Note that within the p’shat you can find several types of language, including figurative, symbolic and allegorical. The following generic guidelines can be used to determine if a passage is figurative and therefore figurative even in its p’shat:

  1. When an inanimate object is used to describe a living being, the statement is figurative. Example: Isaiah 5:7 – For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant; and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

  2. When life and action are attributed to an inanimate object the statement is figurative. Example: Zechariah 5:1-3 – Then I turned, and lifted up my eyes, and looked, and behold a flying scroll.  And he said to me, What do you see? And I answered, I see a flying scroll; its length is twenty cubits, and its width ten cubits.  And he said to me, This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole earth; for everyone who steals shall be cut off henceforth, according to it; and everyone who swears falsely shall be cut off henceforth, according to it.

  3. When an expression is out of character with the thing described, the statement is figurative. Example: Psalm 17:8 – Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of your wings …

REMEZ (pronounced reh-mez’ – meaning “hint”) This is where another (implied) meaning is alluded to in the text, usually revealing a deeper meaning. There may still be a p’shat meaning as well as another meaning as any verse can have multiple levels of meaning. An example of implied “REMEZ” Proverbs 20:10 – Different weights, and different measures, both of them are alike an abomination to the Lord. The p’shat would be concerned with a merchant using the same scale to weigh goods for all of his customers. The remez implies that this goes beyond this into aspects of fairness and honesty in anyone’s life.

D’RASH (pronounced deh-rahsh’ also called “Midrash”) This is a teaching or exposition or application of the P’shat and/or Remez. (In some cases this could be considered comparable to a “sermon.”) For instance, Biblical writers may take two or more unrelated verses and combine them to create a verse(s) with a third meaning. There are three rules to consider when utilizing the d’rash interpretation of a text:

  1. A drash understanding can not be used to strip a passage of its p’shat meaning, nor may any such understanding contradict the p’shat  meaning of any other scripture passage. As the Talmud states, “No passage loses its p’shat.”

  2. Let scripture interpret scripture. Look for the scriptures themselves to define the components of an allegory.

  3. The primary components of an allegory represent specific realities. We should limit ourselves to these primary components when understanding the text.

Sod (pronounced sawd or sood [like “wood”] – meaning “hidden”) This understanding is the hidden, secret or mystic meaning of a text. Some examples of this would be the “dragon,” “whore of Babylon,” and number “666,” all from the book of Revelation. Others would include; John 1:11:14 and Yeshua’s command in John 6:53, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” Or Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:26,”But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” John 1:1 Aramaic Peshitta verse taken from the Khabouris Codex. ܒܪܫܝܬ ܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܗܘܐ ܡܠܬܐ ܘܗܘ ܡܠܬܐ ܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܗܘܐ ܠܘܬ ܐܠܗܐ ܘܐܠܗܐ ܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܗܘܐ ܗܘ ܡܠܬܐ  

 In this study we consider the roots of the Logos in the Aramaic OT. Since most Christians know practically nothing about the Aramaic background of the early church, we will here provide a brief “intensive” introduction to this matter so important for properly understanding the gospels and John 1 in particular which is the Sod level of interpretation. 

Aramaic, the language of Palestine and the primary language of Jesus (Yeshua)

The learned Jewish scholar Rabbi Samuel Sandmel (who, unlike many other rabbis, exercised a more understanding attitude to­wards the New Testament) wrote,

“Netzarim sect was born in Palestine, within Judaism. The lan­guage spoken by Jesus (Yeshua) and his immediate followers was Aramaic, a language as closely related to Hebrew as one might say, Portuguese is to Spanish.

“The New Testament itself attests to the knowledge that the beginnings of the Netzarim
movement were in a locale linguis­tically Aramaic, for it preserves within its Greek text Aramaic words in quotation. Somewhere in the line of development of Netzarim, probably while its accumulating tradition was still being carried on orally, translation of some things from Aram­aic into Greek took place.” (Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, p.13)

Rabbi Sandmel compared the relationship of Hebrew and Aramaic with that of Portuguese and Spanish. The prolific (having written over 70 books) Catholic scholar Henri Daniel-Rops wrote that Aramaic was “in no way at all a corrupt form of Hebrew, a kind of degenerate dialect that the Jews brought back with them from Babylon. Aramaic was just as much a true language as Hebrew: it was the language of those active, stirring tribes which moved about the Fertile Crescent from the earliest times—those tribes from which the Israelites claimed descent.” (H. Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, p.267.)

Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford, wrote in his recent book The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, Penguin 2004: “Ideally this analysis [of the gospel of Jesus should be applied to the original language of the teaching of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic; Aramaic was the Semitic tongue used by most of his compatriots.” (A Note on the Sources, p.x)

Here Prof. Vermes, one of the foremost authorities on Jewish studies, states three things:

(1) The language which Jesus spoke was Aramaic, therefore

(2) Jesus’ original teaching was in Aramaic, because

(3) Most of the people of Palestine in his time spoke Aramaic.

However, the Gospels are now available to us only in Greek, so the task of the scholar is to try to understand the underlying Aramaic forms of expression, and even words (e.g. ‘Abba’, meaning ‘Father’), to attain a clearer understanding of Jesus’ teaching. For this purpose, Vermes mentions three sources which provide ex­tremely valuable material:

“The most important Bible commentaries are [1] the Tannaitic Midrashim (plural of Midrash, works of Scripture exegesis) on the Law of Moses…; [2] the Midrash Rabbah, the Large Midrash…; and [3] the Targumim (plural of Targum, translation) covering a variety of popular Aramaic versions of the Hebrew Bible classified as the Targum of Onkelos on the Torah, various recensions of the Palestinian Targum on the Torah, the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets, etc.” (p.xvi, numbers in square brackets added)

But few Christian scholars are acquainted with this large body of material. For those able to read German, a standard reference work in 4 volumes by H.L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, has long been available. For those unable to read German, there is the much smaller and older work by John Lightfoot, A Commentary of the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, which was pub­lished by Oxford University Press in 1859. Few people, however, perceive the importance of all this material for understanding the NT, so references to it even in scholarly works are sparse. To this can be added the fact that some of the most important Aramaic material, notably Targum Neofiti, were discovered only 50 years ago, and the Dead Sea scrolls (containing significant Aramaic writings) just 60 years ago.

General Observations on Aramaic

The learned Catholic scholar and expert on the Aramaic Targums, Martin McNamara, reminds us of the Jewish origin and character of the gospel:

“Yet we can never lose sight of the fact that the preaching of the gospel had its origins within Judaism. Christ (Yeshua) and the Apos­tles were Jews. The gospel tradition, too, was formed in a Jew­ish atmosphere within Palestine during the early years of the nascent Church. And this tradition was formed by men who for the greater part were themselves Jews. And even when Christ­ianity moved beyond Palestine to the Greek world, it was brought there by Jews. They may preach to Greeks, but they would naturally have thought as Hebrews.” (McNamara, Targum and Testament, p.1f)

Elsewhere McNamara makes reference to “the early Aramaic-speak­ing Church” and “the nascent Aramaic stage of the Church” (both p.130, Targum and Testament); and again, “the language used by Christ (Yeshua) and by the Aramaic-speaking nascent church” (p.164).

To underscore these points, consider the following information provided in the Encarta Reference Library on “The Aramaic Targums”:

In Judaism, when Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the language of everyday life, translations became necessary, first accom­pany­ing the oral reading of Scriptures in the synagogue and later set down in writing. The Targums were not literal translations, but rather paraphrases or interpretations of the original.

When, after the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century bc, Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the generally spoken language, it became necessary to explain the meaning of readings from the Scriptures. These were the Targums; the word “targum” means “interpretation”. (Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2005)

The names of people mentioned in the gospels commonly used the Aramaic prefix “bar” (instead of the Hebrew “ben”) for the word “son” (as in “son of”); this clearly shows that Aramaic was the language of the common people. Consider, for example, these well-known names in the NT: Barabbas; Bar-Jesus; Bar-Jonah; Barnabas; Barsabbas; Bartholomew; Bartimeus, etc. Also words like Maranatha (1Cor.16.22), “Our Lord, come”, a common prayer in the church.

Jesus’ hometown Nazareth was in Galilee, situated in the north­ern part of the land of Israel. It was called “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Mat.4.15) probably because it was that part of Israel which had the most contact with the neighboring Gentile populat­ions, namely, the Greek-speaking cities of the Decapolis to the east and Scythopolis in the south. What language(s) then did the Galileans speak? This question is important for us because many of the twelve apostles were, like Jesus, from Galilee. Freyne’s standard work on Galilee provides the following answer:

“While Greek was certainly widely used even among the lower, uneducated classes, we have allowed, there seems little doubt that Aramaic remained the most commonly spoken language of the vast majority of the inhabitants of Galilee throughout the whole period of this survey. There is a growing consensus that Mishnaic Hebrew too was spoken in first century C.E. Palestine, and in fact had developed from spoken Hebrew of earlier times that had never been totally replaced. Given the close affinity of Hebrew and Aramaic it is quite possible that a situation of diglossia [simultaneous use of two languages] existed, namely Aramaic as the ordinary language for every­day speech and Hebrew for formal occasions, especially the cult [i.e. worship].” (Sean Freyne, Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian 323 B.C.E. to 135 C.E, p.144; italics and explanatory words in square brackets mine. Freyne was Professor of New Testament studies at Loyola University, New Orleans.)

Professor M. Black described it in this way:
“Four languages were to be found in first-century Palestine: Greek was the speech of the educated ‘hellenized’ classes and the medium of cultural and commercial intercourse between Jew and foreigner; Latin was the language of the army of occupation and, to judge from Latin borrowings in Aramaic, appears also to some extent to have served the purposes of commerce, as it no doubt also did of Roman law; Hebrew, the sacred tongue of the Jewish Scriptures, continued to provide the lettered Jew with an important means of literary express­ion and was cultivated as a spoken tongue in the learned coteries of the Rabbis; Aramaic was the language of the people of the land and, together with Hebrew, provided the chief literary medium of the Palestinian Jew of the first century; Josephus wrote his Jewish War in Aramaic and later translated it into Greek.” (Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (3rd edition), p.15f; italics added)

Aramaic still evident in the Greek (and English) Gospels
Those who read the gospels will often come across names and other words without knowing that these are Aramaic. For the reader’s convenience, the following material is ex­tracted from the detailed study in Wikipedia[43]:

— Start of Wikipedia article —

Talitha qoum (Ταλιθα κουμ)

Mark 5:41

And taking the hand of the child, he said to her, “Talitha koum”, which is translated, “Little girl, I say to you, get up”.

The Aramaic is tlīthā qūm. The word tlīthā is the feminine form of the word tlē, meaning “young”. Qūm is the Aramaic verb ‘to rise, stand, get up’.

Ephphatha (Εφφαθα)

Mark 7:34

And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha”, which is ‘be opened’.

Once again, the Aramaic word is given with an attempted transliter­ation, only this time the word to be transliterated is more complicated. In Greek, the Aramaic is written εφφαθα. This is from the Aramaic ‘ethpthaħ’, the passive imperative of the verb ‘pthaħ’, ‘to open’.

Abba (Αββα)

Mark 14:36

And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.

Abba, an Aramaic word (written Αββα in Greek, and ’abbā in Aramaic), is immediately followed by the Greek equivalent (Πατηρ) with no explicit mention of it being a translation. The phrase Abba, Father is repeated in Romans 8:15 andGalatians 4:6.

Note, the name Barabbas is a Hellenization of the Aramaic Bar Abba (בר אבא), literally, “Son of the Father”.

Raca (Ρακα)

Matthew 5:22

But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and who­soever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Raca, or Raka, in the Aramaic of the Talmud means empty one, fool, empty head.

Mammon (Μαμωνας)

Gospel of Matthew 6:24

No one can serve two masters: for either they will hate the one, and love the other; or else they will hold to the one, and des­pise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Luke 16:9-13

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of themammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will com­mit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Rabboni (Ραββουνει)

John 20:16

Yeshua saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. (KJV)

Also in Mark 10:51. Hebrew form rabbi used as title of Yeshua in Matthew 26:25,49;Mark 9:511:2114:45John 1:494:316:259:211:8. In Aramaic, it could be (רבוני).

Maranatha (μαρανα θα)

1 Corinthians 16:22

If any man love not the Lord Yahshua haMoschiach , let him be Anathema Maranatha.

In Aramaic (מרנא תא) it means Lord, come! or Our Lord, come!

Eli Eli lema sabachthani (Ηλει Ηλει λεμα σαβαχθανει)

Matthew 27:46

Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying “Eli Eli lema sabachthani?” which is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Mark 15:34

And at the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, “Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, for what have you forsaken me?”

This phrase, shouted by Jesus from the cross, is given to us in these two versions. The Matthean version of the phrase is trans­literated in Greek as ηλει ηλει λεμα σαβαχθανει. The Markan version is similar, but begins ελωι ελωι (elōi rather thanēlei).

The lines seem to be quoting the first line of Psalm 22. However, he is not quoting the canonical Hebrew version (êlî êlî lâmâ `azabtânî), but is using an Aramaic translation of it (targum).

In Aramaic, it could be (אלהי אלהי למא שבקתני).

Jot and tittle (ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία)

Matthew 5:18

For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law (that is, the Torah) till all is fulfilled.

The quotation uses them as an example of extremely minor details. “Jot and tittle” is iota and keraia in the Greek. Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet (ι), but since only capitals were used at the time the Greek New Testament, was written (Ι), it probably represents the Aramaic yodh (י) which is the smallest letter of the Aramaic alphabet.

Korbanas (κορβανας)

Matthew 27:6

But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury (Gk. text: korbana), since they are blood money.’

In Aramaic (קרבנא, korbana) it refers to the treasury in the Temple in Jerusalem, derived from the Hebrew Corban (קרבן), found in Mark 7:11 and the Septuagint (in Greek transliteration), meaning religious gift.

Sikera (σικερα)

Luke 1:15

for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink (Gk. text: sikera); even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

In Aramaic (שכרא, sikera) it means barley beer, from the Akkadian shikaru.

Hosanna (ὡσαννά)

Mark 11:9

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

According to the Bauer lexicon, see references at end, this word is derived from Aramaic (הושע נא) from Hebrew (הושיעה נא) (Psalm 118:25, הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא), meaning “help” or “save, I pray”, “an appeal that became a liturgical formula; as part of the Hallel … familiar to everyone in Israel.”


The most prominent feature in Aramaic names is “bar” (Greek trans­literation βαρ, Aramaic bar), meaning ‘son of’, a common patronym prefix. Its Hebrew equivalent, ‘ben’, is conspicuous by its absence. Some examples are:

Matthew 10:3—Bartholomew (Βαρθολομαιος from bar-Tôlmay, perhaps ‘son of furrows’ or ‘ploughman’).

Matthew 16:17–Simon bar-Jona (Σιμων Βαριωνας from Šim`ôn bar-Yônâ, ‘Simon son of Jonah’).

John 1:42–Simon bar-Jochanan (‘Simon son of John’).

Matthew 27:16—Barabbas (Βαραββας from bar-Abbâ, ‘son of the father’).

Mark 10:46—Bartimaeus (Βαρτιμαιος from bar-Tim’ay, per­haps ‘son of defilement’ or ‘son of a whore’).

Acts 1:23—Barsabbas (Βαρσαββας from bar-Šabbâ, ‘son of the Sabbath’).

Acts 4:36—Joseph who is called Barnabas (Βαρναβας from bar-Navâ meaning ‘son of prophecy, the prophet’, but given the Greek translation υιος παρακλησεως; usually translated as ‘son of consolation/encourage­ment’).

Acts 13:6—Bar-Jesus (Βαριησους from bar-Yêšû`, ‘son of Jesus/Joshua’).

Mark 3:17—Boanerges (Βοανηργες)

And James, the son of Zebedee, and John, the brother of James, and he gave them the name Boanerges, which is Sons of Thunder.

Yeshua surnames the brothers James and John to reflect their impet­uosity. The Greek rendition of their name is Βοανηργες (Boanērges). Given the Greek translation that comes with it (‘Sons of Thunder’), it seems that the first element of the name is ‘bnê’, ‘sons of’ (the plural of ‘bar’), Aramaic (בני). The second part of the name is often reckoned to be ‘rğaš’ (‘tumult’) Aramaic (רניש), or ‘rğaz’ (‘anger’) Aramaic (רנז). The Peshitta reads ‘bnay rğešy’.

Cephas (Κηφας)

John 1:42

He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John, you shall be called Cephas”, which is translated ‘Peter’. (New International Version)

1 Corinthians 1:12

But I say that each of you says “I am of Paul”, or “I am of Apollos”, or “I am of Cephas”, or “I am of Christ”.

Galatians 1:18 NRSV

Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days;

In these passages, ‘Cephas’ is given as the nickname of the apostle better known as Simon Peter. The Greek word is trans­literated Κηφᾶς (Kēphâs).

The apostle’s given name appears to be Simon, and he is given the Aramaic nickname, kêfâ, meaning ‘rock’. The final sigma (s) is added in Greek to make the name masculine rather than feminine.

Thomas (Θωμας)

John 11:16

Then Thomas, who was called Didymus, said to his co-disciples, “Now let us go that we might die with him!”

Thomas (Θωμᾶς) is listed among the disciples of Jesus in all four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. However, it is only in John’s Gospel that more information is given. In three places (John 11:1620:24 and 21:2) he is given the name Didymus (Δίδυμος), the Greek word for a twin. In fact, “the Twin” is not just a surname, it is a translation of “Thomas”. The Greek Θωμᾶς—Thōmâs—comes from the Aramaictômâ, “twin”.

Tabitha (Ταβειθα)

Acts 9:36

In Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha, which is trans­lated Dorcas.

The disciple’s name is given both in Aramaic (Ταβειθα) and Greek (Δορκας). The Aramaic name is a transliteration of Tvîthâ the female form of טביא (Tavyâ). Both names mean ‘gazelle’.


Gethsemane (Γεθσημανει)

Matthew 26:36

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane.

Mark 14:32

And they went to a place that has the name Gethsemane.

The place where Jesus takes his disciples to pray before his arrest is given the Greek transliteration Γεθσημανει (Gethsēmani). It repres­ents the Aramaic ‘Gath-Šmânê’, meaning ‘the oil press’ or ‘oil vat’ (referring to olive oil).

Golgotha (Γολγοθα)

Mark 15:22

And they took him up to the place Golgotha, which is trans­lated Place of the Skull.

John 19:17

And carrying his cross by himself, he went out to the so-called Place of the Skull, which is called in ‘Hebrew’ Golgotha.

This is clearly Aramaic rather than Hebrew. ‘Gûlgaltâ’ is the Aramaic for ‘skull’. The name appears in all of the gospels except Luke, which calls the place simply Kranion‘the Skull’, with no Aramaic. The name ‘Calvary’ is taken from the Latin Vulgate trans­lation, Calvaria.

Gabbatha (Γαββαθα)

John 19:13

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew, Gabbatha.

The place name appears to be Aramaic. According to Josephus, War, V.ii.1, #51, the word Gabath means high place, or elevated place, so perhaps a raised flat area near the temple.

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