Stumbling Blocks in the Bible..

Betsy Grooms Edmonds

November 12, 2019

‘You could have knocked me over with a feather!”
“You have led me down the primrose path!”
“The evil plan he proposed ‘stinks to high heaven’!

Hey, you understand what I’ve just said; but if you were an Aramaic Jew, a Semite, of Jesus time, it would be nonsense to you. 

Coming from another direction, many years ago I did community organizing for the Church of the Saviour.  We had a group of concerned people gather at the Potters House to plan for a day care center.   As I remember, nothing had been said about teaching children the Bible, but one of the outspoken women declared that, when it is taught, it will be literally taught word for word! None of this messing around with interpretations.

I have a life-long friend whose spiritual gift is evangelism.  For most of her life she has used the King James, Scofield edition of the Bible.  The consequence is that any progress in enabling her friends to understand the meaning of various scriptures, has been complicated by wading through a lot of archaic English, 400 years old.  In contrast, I was a late teenager and found great relief when I came upon the Phillips translation of the Bible.  I understood that some new translations were paraphrases, attempts to sacrifice immediate word accuracy for the more significant principle of just making the Bible understood. Nevertheless, the Lord honored my friend, Connie, and people have known the grace of God because of her.

Which, in fact, brings me to our thoughts for today.

Most of the Bibles we use today do not include the Aramaic background which was the culture in which Jesus spent his life.  He taught with words and thoughts foreign to us today.  How has this happened?  The great trend through the years of Western Biblical thought, until recently, has not included understanding the Semitic culture of the Middle Eastern areas.  This includes the areas where the great conquering empires moved back and forth in what is now Syria, Iran, Iraq and the surrounding areas, all the way over to Afghanistan. All that, today, we still know very little about- compared to what we know about our western life and culture.

It so happens that out culture, our words and our lifestyles are vastly different from the surviving Semitic culture of today, and even more different from Jesus’ time and culture.

Fred Taylor touched on some of this in his thoughts on the prodigal son, and the community’s reaction to the son who had lived with the pigs.  How remotely separated the great household of the father was from the unclean, unclean returning son and his degradation in feeding the pigs.  Fred was painting for us a picture of the Semetic culture in which Jesus lived.

The Semitic culture was a wholistic, unifying culture. Water, animals, your daily work, farming,  going to temple, the heavens above, everything that a person experienced  was part of the whole, part of the religion. Religion was all of life. Mystery was part of life.  They were at ease with God being God.  The Eastern Church of the ages, and up to today, embraces the mystery of life.  Everything does not have to be explained.

At this point, let me go back in the history for you: when King Nebuchadnezzar carted off the children of Israel north to Babylon, they were there for seventy years or so.  The invasion left the Temple and Jerusalem in a wreck. The city walls were crumbling down, many houses were unlivable, and the Temple was a heap of wood and stone.  The Babylonian captivity ended when the good king Darius decided the Israelites could go back home and rebuild.  Their king, Hilkiah, started the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.  As they were sifting through the debris, the high priest came upon a scroll of scripture.  To the delight of all, they quickly built a platform so the priests could read this book to the people. They read from morning to night with much praise and honor to the Lord. BUT Why did it take so long—a whole day?? Because it was in Hebrew. The priests had to translate it verse by verse, for the listening crowd who were Aramaic speakers. Aramaic was the common language over most of the middle and near East.  It continued to be the everyday language way past Jesus’ time.

There are many words in our Western scriptures, which seem contradictory and illogical.  These words have probably come through the Hebrew, Greek and Old English filters, before YOU tried to make sense of them.  Many, you and I do not understand until this day. 

We have touched on the culture of the time of Jesus.  The Eastern Semitic culture is radically different from our Western culture of today.  Moreover, Jewish life in the time of Jesus was very different from the life of his own ancestors in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus lived in a time of turmoil, both religious and governmental.   Several hundred years before Jesus’ life the Greeks had conquered the country.  The Greek systems of thinking and philosophy were extremely different from the Semitic culture and theology, which was more like our own.  So Greeks continued to be hated.  In Jesus’ time the Romans were grinding the Jews under their heel and any rebellion was a constant fear of both the Jewish and Roman rulers.

At home in Galilee, Jesus dealt with a formal religion now in splinters.  There were many factions, some used violence in their cause, such as the Zealots.  Others, such as the Jewish separatists in Qumran, seemed to have been pacifists, devoted to preserving their version of the true faith.  We are indebted to this community for the Dead Sea scrolls and the insight into the Jewish faith they left the world.

In reviewing all this material, I found that my interest and concern began two years ago.  I began our thinking together with some idioms.  Here are some more; you understand the meaning when you hear them:

‘You don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“What he said ‘knocked my socks off!’”
“Speak of the devil, and in walked Fred Taylor!” (sorry, Fred)
‘Trump will apologize for his errors when pigs fly!”
That car “cost an arm and a leg!”
“Why can’t you be still? Do you have ants in your pants?”

However, the Aramaic-speaking Jews of the Bible hearing these, would be completely lost, so to speak.

SEMITIC/ARAMAIC IDIOMS-

Semitic idioms are not exactly like ours in English. They seem to have much more content. The author, Errico, notes that there are over 1000 idioms in the Bible.  He says, “they were translated faithfully and accurately, but literally.  Therefore, their true meanings are misconstrued.” And I might add, used as material for critics of the Bible.

Matthew tells us that Jesus said ”If your right eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it away from you.”
And these words, “if you commit an offense with your right hand, cut it off!”  (However Jesus never did teach anyone to cut off any body part!  It was understood by His Aramaic listeners that you must quit! STOP doing what you are doing! They never took those words literally, exaggerations were to prove a very serious point!  Jesus amplified his points through exaggeration!
Jesus told his disciples that they could “remove mountains,” “tread on serpents.” And “cast out demons.”

These IDIOMS refer to overcoming very hard situations, and to healing various diseases.  Jesus’ listeners understood what He meant; even if we have not, and so, people have died from proving their faith by dealing with poisonous snakes. Some have even cut off a hand!

You may well ask, why on earth didn’t we know about all this Aramaic thing?   George Lamsa, the translator of the Peshitta, the Eastern Holy Bible, writes this,”there were little or no contacts between East and West, until after the conquest of India by Great Britain, and the rise of their imperial power [throughout the Middle East.]”   “[Through the centuries] the reformations and controversies in the western church had destroyed Christian unity.  Moreover the scriptures in Aramaic were unknown in Europe.” …  “Fifty-to-one-hundred years ago, the knowledge of Western scholars relative to the Eastern scriptures, and the Christian Church in the East was [just guesswork]. Moreover, these scholars knew very little of the Eastern customs and manners in which the Biblical literature was nurtured. Today, thank God, new discoveries have been made; new facts have come to light…”

Evidently, Aramaic scriptures were NOT known or acknowledged in our seminaries, and not available to many translators until the 1950’s.  It is also very hard for scholars, preachers and individuals to deal with change. And a whole ALTERNATE Bible! The Peshitta, Wow!

My study for today has made me aware of my Bibles which have influenced my life: the little white Bible given me when I joined the church; my big study Bible for my 14th birthday, now in tatters; my green “Living Bible” was given to me when I spoke at a retreat at the University of Alabama (and autographed by the attendees).  I left this most precious version here in this lectern the last time I spoke and it disappeared.

But Jesus probably did not own personal scrolls of the Scriptures; however, we know He did read Hebrew; and at his Hometown synagogue He read and declared Himself as fulfillment of Isaiah’s Messianic prophesy. “This very day, I have fulfilled this prophesy before your very eyes!”

The Galilean Aramaic was only one of many variations of Aramaic, which began in Syria ages before.  As the language of Aram, Syria, spread, it took many forms and variations through the ages.  Variants are still spoken and written in scattered areas throughout the Eastern World.

The true inspiration for our talk today, is Rocco A. Errico’s book, LET THERE BE LIGHT- The Seven Keys.

His keys outline the difference between our Western thinking and the Semitic/ Aramaic thinking, which is about 180 degrees. His keys are “Aramaic,” “Idioms,” “Mysticism,” “Culture,””Psychology,” “Symbolism” and “Amplification.”  There is so much material here; this may be a Part 1 talk, if there is interest.

SO, I have already given examples of idioms, but I wanted to focus on some of the most troublesome and divisive scriptures:

This is the first key:  ARAMAIC

Let’s take HELL:

Our word Hell comes from the old Anglo-Saxon English, meaning a hidden place, or to hide.  Unfortunately, our one English word “hell” covers the meaning of two Aramaic concepts (?). The first is “Sheol,” the place where everyone finally goes under the earth, to rest and be quiet until judgment day. The second is “gehenna,” the valley of Hinnom where they burned trash and plague corpses in Jesus’ day.  In earlier times, there was an altar to the god Moloch, where children were burned in the god’s iron stomach as an offering.  Horrendous history.

In Jesus time, “Gehenna” suggested regret, remorse, mental agony and mental suffering. The author notes that the early Christians would not have taken this literally.  However we in the West have taken this concept literally and so have misconstrued its meaning.  Unfortunately.

HATE

David Dorsey recently mentioned his rediscovery of the word “hate.”  The old English word does not begin to include the vast meaning of the original Aramaic word.  The original meaning of their word, “hate” goes from Extreme Despising all the way to honoring one person less than the other. The Aramaic word indicates that we are not to hate our parents, but to honor them less than you honor God.  The Almighty asks for your ultimate honor.  The CONTEXT of the word is important.

FEAR

And the word “awe” has similar very broad meanings, all the way from the children of Israel falling down on their faces in the dust when God roared from Sinai.  But we go to the other end of these two words, awe and fear, and you find deep respect, honor and special regard. When I think of my own father, I always loved him, but I also held him high, with a bit of awe. In Aramaic, I “feared’ him.

MYSTICISM, the 3rd Key:

The author, Errico, notes, “Semites often say: ‘Our senses can hear the intimate whispering of the Devine Spirit.’  He continues: ‘’Over 40 percent of the Bible is based on mysticism. The spectrum of mysticism encompasses dreams, visions, voices, acts of healing, clairaudience (inner hearing,) clairvoyance (inner seeing), and bi-location (out of body experience).”  These were part of the Semitic life experience, but for so many of us, Western, Greek, linear, Socratic thinkers, they are fantasy, certainly not to be believed and are food for critics.

Let me share one example of clairaudience: Peter was asleep on the roof when the sheet came down from God with all the forbidden foods. He heard guidance from God and eventually went downstairs as the Lord instructed to greet three messengers from the house of Cornelius.  “To sum it up, the early Christian Church grew out of a spiritual movement of inner expressions, inner voices, dreams, visions and revelations.” The least we can do is honor what has been shared with us, coming down from that time, however mystical.

Next, let’s go to the fourth Key: CULTURE:

For instance, the funeral.  When we attend funerals we dress somberly, act quietly and speak softly, to respect the departed.  But at my brother Frank’s funeral, I spoke of him, as I valued his humor, his quirkiness, his special, lovable speech patterns, that he was a real character, and so on. And I wore a red plaid suit, the only clothes I had to wear.  Later, his wife, who was from a different Christian tradition up North, let me know, in her own special time and way, that what I had said was irreverent. Whoaaa!

But if we should attend a Semitic funeral in Jesus’ time, or even today, in some Middle Eastern settings; we would see mourners draping themselves across the casket, crying aloud for their loss.  The more you express yourself, wailing, the more you care.  It was appropriate, in Jesus’ time, to hire mourners who would wail and cry aloud, amplifying the grief of all the mourners.  This was their normal way to show respect for the departed.

Another interesting insight comes from TRAVELING in Semitic lands:

Jesus gave very specific instructions to his disciples as they were sent out.  The instructions were practical, not religious.  They were to “Carry neither purse, nor scrip, not shoes; and salute no man by the way.”  To us, this sounds strange, and lacking neighborliness.  However, in those times, when a traveler hurried on without greeting, it was understood that they may be on urgent business.

Jesus’ also knew that if you greeted one another, you will certainly end up at the man’s home, enjoying their lavish hospitality for three days, and not be able to get away until then.  This was obligatory hospitality.

The term  “scrip” means a traveling bag, in which you might carry food, garments or shoes.  Their money purse was in a belt around the waist.  Bandits knew this. So Jesus was protecting his friends from the bother of having their mission interrupted, either by hospitality or bandits.

At his point in our cultural explorations, I want to focus on the Great Antioch Debate: Paul vs. Peter in Antioch. Let’s go back to Antioch ……

There were three major issues the new non-Jewish Christians faced.  The first was the eating of food offered to idols.  God directly dealt with Peter who had the treat of food being lowered to him in a sheet, and a voice from heaven telling him to EAT!   In the sheet were all kinds of food forbidden to Jews.  The significance of this was to get Peter and his followers to understand it is not what you ate, which defiles a person, but avoiding those things which pollute a person’s mind and heart.

The second, was eating with non-Jews, for then, you put yourself in an unclean situation; gentiles are unwashed, impure.  Yet they were to be fellow Christians!  Paul seems to have no problem dealing with foods, or Gentiles, and he gives gentle instructions to that effect.

The third issue was that of Circumcision.  This is a deeply ingrained religious and cultural practice from the earliest times, signifying the man as a Jew.  He belonged to the Lord.  When the Messiah came in Jesus, the religious and cultural norms within Judaism were already thrown up topsy- turvy.  For the ordinary Jews and the religious leaders to change eating practices and circumcision was unthinkable.  The problem for the Christian leadership was to select the practices essential to being a follower of Jesus. That’s the heart of why the two great leaders of the faith, Paul and Peter met up in Antioch

According to Prof. Pinchas Shir, when there is a disagreement between Jews, according to the Torah, This situation is a Mitzvah, or commandment, called a tochecha.   In this situation, Jewish men debated opinions and disagreed but remained in fellowship, sort of like an on-going, in-house debate.  In this kind of confrontation, which many of us have never heard of, much less understood, a person can rebuke another person, and completely avoid a huge misunderstanding, and still be friends.

The question of Circumcision seems to have been the crux of the matter in this get-together, for at times when Peter came to Antioch and elsewhere, he ate with gentiles, until he was criticized from the sidelines.  Here we have, on one hand, Paul, the Seminary-trained under Gamaliel, the Jew of all Jews, who came to Christ through a spectacular intervention on his way to Damascus.  On the other hand is the ex-fisherman who sat at the feet of the Master, who polished this rough edges off, and gave him a towering conviction.  These two Giants of Judaism recognized in each other their authentic faith in Jesus.  That was fine.  But this circumcision issue was extremely sensitive, as centuries of practice had ingrained it into the Jewish psyche.  However, various peripheral individuals were causing disruptions in the churches over it. The situation was painful.  Paul’s great dissertation, recorded in his letter to the Galatians, evidently convinced Peter that the essence of relationship to God was not in anything done outward, but through the inward faith. 

Finally, Peter went back to the Jewish churches down south, and Paul continued on to his great ministries to the gentiles.  Centuries after God had promised Abraham that the entire world would be blessed through his faith, Paul reminded Peter of this promise.

Paul’s final word were “a real Jew is one who is inwardly so, and circumcision is of the heart, spiritually, and not literally; [and] whose is praise is not from men, but from God.”

The persons of opposite persuasions in the Tochecha, remain in fellowship, not enemies, as many detractors would have us believe. This is the Semitic way — 180 degrees from our Western thinking. Maybe we can see it as a “gentlemen’s’’ agreement,” as opposed to a religious knock-down-drag-out, which it wasn’t.

Although this could go on and on, I will leave you with two final detours in our thinking:

The first is Lot’s wife.  As Lot’s family left the doomed Sodom and Gomorrah, The Almighty commanded them to rush on and not look back.  Whether out of curiosity, or nostalgia, Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt, or rock.  She could not, and did not move, because she was paralyzed.  The folks back then understood that she had had a stroke and died.  There have been centuries of western speculation and scholarly work figuring out what really happened to this mineralized lady.  Just like solid rock. She could not move. She was dead. They understood that.

Second, the Aramaic, which Jesus spoke routinely was in every way normal.  People understood his parables and teachings; because they are couched in the way people spoke and lived their daily lives. In contrast,

Hebrew was used differently.  The religious leaders, the courts and observances related to the temple and holy days used Hebrew.    Hebrew and Aramaic are viewed as “cousin” languages.   Even as Jesus was teaching about the kingdom of God, he was talking to his listeners in their Galilean Aramaic. We can hear some of His expressions at several times in His ministry: when he healed the deaf man, when he brought the little girl back to life:  “Talitha Cum!” - Little girl, get up!  - and when He died on the cross. 

The true translation of His cry to God on the cross can be helpful and comforting to many:

Most of us Western church people hear Jesus crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

We have heard it read many times: “Eloi Eloi, lama sabachthani!!

But listen to the Aramaic, which those mourners at the foot of the cross heard, “My God, my God — for this, I was spared!”   Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!” My God, My God — for this, I was spared!

This is no pitiful cry of despair, but the heroic voice of a man victorious in fulfilling His mission.

Doesn’t that just blow your mind?   

HALLELUJAH!  AMEN!