BMCR 1999.12.03

Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, 102

, Aramaic sources of Mark's Gospel. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph series ; 102. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 1 online resource (x, 278 pages).. ISBN 9780511035975. £37.50.

The phrase “Aramaic substrata of the Gospels” is bandied about by many, but the number of people actually engaged in such study is very small. Despite the fact that in the four canonical Gospels there exist Aramaic words or phrases that Jesus reportedly uttered, many of which the evangelists felt compelled to translate, only minimal comment was made about this fact until the period of the Renaissance, when Semitic studies had their modern origin. Even since that time the study of the Aramaic substrata has constituted a small, almost parallel, field to New Testament studies. Those few who did venture into this field have been hampered by two fundamental difficulties: the lack of texts and the lack of any clear methodology.

Early scholars were confined to later Aramaic documents such as the Targums and some Rabbinical writings. Learned scholars sometimes even appealed to Syriac Christian texts. This century, however, has seen a relative explosion of important discoveries of Aramaic ostraca, inscriptions, and texts, including the Elephantine letters, the Bisitun inscription, the Proverbs of Ahiqar, the Sefire inscriptions, and the complete Targum Neofiti. Other finds include numerous texts that are clearly of Palestinian provenance, including those from Masada and Murabba’at, but perhaps the most significant find is the large collection of Aramaic texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include, among many others, a Targum to Job, the Genesis Apocryphon, and large fragments of Enoch. The availability of modern, critical editions of these texts, modern critical editions of texts previously known, and modern linguistic studies have all added greatly to our knowledge of Aramaic and of its development.

Unfortunately, despite some influential and ingenious studies of this century scholars have not, until very recently, developed any critical method of relating these texts to the New Testament data. While dating is admittedly frustratingly elusive, works such as the Targums and the Babylonian Talmud were indiscriminately cited as if they were contemporary with the New Testament; nor was any real attention paid to the fact of the difference among Aramaic dialects. Research was almost exclusively of a micro-philological nature, often based on only a word or phrase. Even the two most important studies of this century, those of Meyer and Black,1 were deficient in all these regards. Casey’s monograph then is the first attempt at reconstructing significant portions of the New Testament making use of all these newly discovered texts, particularly those found near the Dead Sea.

After a review of the more important previous scholarship (pp. 1-72), Casey sets out his ideas on method in two requisite preliminary discussions: one on the languages spoken in Palestine during the time of Jesus and those which Jesus himself might have spoken; and another on the general nature of the phenomenon of bilingualism. Following general consensus, Casey demonstrates that Aramaic was almost certainly the lingua franca of the Jews of Palestine during the first century AD. He notes that Greek was primarily the language of commerce and politics and wisely warns against the indiscriminate use of the Greek materials, particularly the tomb inscriptions, as much of this material may not be prior to the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, a date which no doubt had serious repercussions on the demography of the region. Hebrew, while clearly still in use, seems confined to the educated Jewish classes. As for Jesus himself, he no doubt spoke Aramaic, was probably familiar with the Hebrew bible, and may have spoken some Greek. Casey also argues here against the general conception that only Galilean Aramaic can be properly used in reconstructing the sayings of Jesus; very little clearly Galilean Aramaic is extant, and the Aramaic texts from this period manifest a strong uniformity in vocabulary and structure. Vocabulary differences would mostly involve words that are of little or no theological consequence, and the distinctiveness of Galilean Aramaic seemed rather to have involved problems of pronunciation than of vocabulary or structure (cf. Mt 26:73; Babylonian Erubin 53b). The discussion of bilingualism is a nice, concise summary of modern studies of this phenomenon, not only demonstrating the many factors involved in translating texts from one language to another but highlighting the numerous cultural factors that are also involved in the enterprise of translation. Thus, on the basis of his evaluation of the efforts of previous scholars and on these observations, Casey proposes a seven point method of recovering the Aramaic substrata of the canonical Greek gospels, which can be summarized as follows: 1. Select only passages that show signs of literal translation.
2. Determine Aramaic substratum, utilizing first-century Aramaic.
3. Verify that reconstruction is sufficiently idiomatic Aramaic.
4. Interpret the reconstruction from a first-century Jewish perspective.
5. Re-evaluate the reconstruction from the perspective of the translator.
6. Determine whether there was deliberate editing on the part of the translator.
7. Final assessment of probability of reconstruction.

Contrary to what one might presume from the title of the book, Casey does not survey the entire Gospel of Mark, but rather applies his method to only four passages: Mark 9:11-13, Jesus’ understanding of John the Baptist’s death;
Mark 2:23-3:6, two Sabbath controversies;
Mark 10:35-45, the question of James and John;
Mark 14:12-26, Jesus’ final passover with his disciples.

Each of these passages Casey himself has previously addressed on at least one occasion, and each involves that oft-debated phrase “a/the son of man”. In order to evaluate the merits of Casey’s book, it might be useful to discuss as separate issues his Aramaic reconstructions of these passages and then his interpretation of those reconstructed passages.

Casey is clearly conversant with the available Aramaic literature and is careful always to utilize only datable first century Aramaic texts where possible. When clear first century corroboration is not available, he always provides sound reasoning for his conjectures and often numerous examples in support; in this he follows his own method very rigorously. In only a few instances, and all of little consequence, would I quibble with Casey’s choice of vocabulary. For example, at Mark 2:28, I think MRY preferable to ShLYT as it is less likely that ShLYT would have been rendered as κύριος. As Casey realizes, there is no clearly decisive factor here and, in either case, the meaning of the verse would be unaffected. Casey’s reconstructions are also of immense usefulness on two other grounds. First, if Casey’s reconstructions are at all close to Mark’s original source, then he clearly demonstrates that Matthew and Luke are both indebted to Mark as their source, and that their own renderings of these same passages clearly represent attempts to sort out the problems of Mark’s ‘translationese’. Secondly, Casey’s reconstructions also demonstrate that Mark had a written Aramaic source and not an oral source, though whether this might actually be the enigmatic ‘Q’ source is a question which he never addresses. (Parenthetically, it is for this reason that it might be worthwhile, although I suspect Casey is correct, to verify whether the expression ‘BD ‘WRKh (literally, ‘to make [one’s] way’, as against the more common ‘BR ‘WRKh, ‘to traverse a road/path’) can already be found in pre-Christian Aramaic texts, even if only by Hebrew interference as it already occurs, as Casey notes, at Judges 17:8. I do not agree with Casey that Semitic R could be misheard as D (or vice versa) as it is so often misread, but because of the implications here for a written source, it should be verified.) On the basis of these observations, Casey offers a date of c. 27-40 CE for this written version of Mark’s Gospel. To many scholars this date will no doubt be considered far too early.

As noted above, the four passages that Casey has chosen for reconstruction are not only ones he has addressed in previous publications, but the interpretation of each passage also hinges on the precise referent of the phrase “a/the son of man,” a subject that has occupied Casey for well over two decades. This review is not the place to rehearse the long, complex history of this particular debate, but as Casey himself has noted recent scholarship has offered four “solutions” to the problem of the phrase “a/the son of man”: a. the equivalent of the first person pronoun (e.g., Vermes); b. an idiomatic use referring to a class of persons with whom the speaker identifies himself (e.g., Lindars); c. an indefinite sense but as a deliberately oblique self-reference (e.g., Bauckham). Finally, Casey has himself on a number of occasions argued that, according to normal Aramaic usage, “all the proposed examples of this idiom are in fact general statements, which were used by Aramaic speakers with reference to themselves.”2 The more traditional connection to the apocalyptic figure of Daniel 7:13 has, except for a few instances, generally fallen by the wayside.

Casey brings this method of interpretation to the texts of Mark that he has selected for this purpose, and, while he garners much corroboration for his interpretation, one is still left with certain puzzles. For instance, in the first case that Casey selects, Mk 9:11-13, which concerns the death of John the Baptist, his identification with Elijah, and the problem of the prophesy of his/Elijah’s death, Casey renders the passage as follows:

And (they were) asking him and saying, ‘Why do (the) scribes say that Elijah is going to come first?’ And he said to them, ‘Elijah comes first and turns back all, and how it is written of (a/the son of) man that he suffers much and is rejected! And I tell you that, moreover, Elijah has come, and they did in the case of him whom they desired according as it is written concerning him/it. (pp. 121-122)

Casey marshals much evidence in favor of his rendering the common Aramaic expression “son of man” in its usual generic sense “man/humanity”. He thus argues that the expression has traditionally been mistranslated as referring to Christ here thus compounding the problem in the next phrase concerning the prophecy about John the Baptist’s death, of which nothing is found in biblical or extra-biblical texts. The rendering “son of man” in the sense of “men/mankind”, thus seems to resolve the problem. Unfortunately, by separating these three verses from the rest of the pericope, Casey has completely lost track of the fact that these questions have risen because Jesus just told his disciples not to tell anyone about the transfiguration they had just witnessed “until the Son of Man should have arisen from the dead (Mk 9:9)”. Would Jesus appeal to a general human suffering and rejection to explain this enigmatic statement? Casey seems to miss the contrast of Jesus’ initial response to the Apostles’ question “Why do the scribes say that Elijah is going to come first?” Jesus’ response can be paraphrased as follows: “As the scriptures witness, Elijah will indeed come first to restore all things. But how would you reconcile this with the fact that I/the Son of Man must suffer and be condemned? What sort of restoration is this?” Jesus leaves this last unanswered but adds, in what I think is the easier explanation: “Elijah has indeed already come and they did to him as they pleased, just as it is written of him, i.e., the Son of Man.” This interpretation presumes the use of the ambiguous Semitic pronoun, found in so many Semitic texts. This last suggestion could certainly be debated, but the connection with the rest of the pericope must be maintained for a proper understanding of the passage.

Casey’s second example, a somewhat reworked version of an earlier article,3 is Mk 2:23-28, which recounts the time when Jesus and his disciples were confronted by the Pharisees for plucking grain on the sabbath. Casey rightly reconstructs this passage as being rather a matter of the Jewish law of Peah and, therefore, not a matter of simply walking or plucking grain on the sabbath as traditionally understood. This original context was then later lost by Matthew and Luke. While Casey finds corroboration of this in only a single passage from Philo, he is no doubt correct in restoring the passage to this context. Here too though we find the phrase “a/the son of man”; which Casey insists on translating as “man”: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Surely, then, a man (emphasis mine) is master even of the sabbath.” In isolation this is perhaps a defensible interpretation and his comments here are convincing, but Casey also notes that this pericope is actually part of a larger section, 2:1-3:6, which consists largely of conflict stories that seem to have been collected somewhat haphazardly at a late stage of composition (p.138). The point of each of these stories, however, seems to be specifically to highlight the uniqueness of the person Jesus, that he forgives sins, heals, no one need fast in his presence, etc. It seems unlikely that these particular pericopes have been preserved simply to preserve general aphorisms concerning humanity.

The last example I will mention is the third of Casey’s selected texts. This concerns the discussion whether James and John might sit at Jesus’s right hand (Mk 10:35-45). The crux here is at Mark 10:45: “a/the son of man does not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life/soul/self as a ransom for many”. Noting, as others have, that despite a long tradition that connects this verse with Isaiah 53:10, there is in fact no textual evidence for connecting Mark’s λύτρον with ‘ShM of Isaiah 53:10, which is always translated in LXX as ( ἁμαρτία. Casey notes that λύτρον is, with the exception of the parallel passage in Mt 20:28, found nowhere else in the New Testament, and that no identification of Jesus as ‘ransom’ is found in Paul. Casey collects several verses that speak of a person as a ransom for another person or a group and once again interprets Mark 10:45 as speaking of humanity, in general. Unfortunately for Casey’s argument, the idea of Jesus being the ransom is clearly found in other New Testament texts. While not in Paul, Jesus is specifically referred to as this ‘ransom’, in verbal forms of λυτρόομαι, in Titus 2:14 and I Tim 2:6. There is also that classic statement of Jesus as ransom in I Pet 1:18-19, a tradition of which Mark would presumably have been aware.

These comments are not in any way meant to refute Casey’s arguments, rather to indicate that in a few instances at least there seem to be certain considerations that would merit some further reflection. In general, Casey does a very fine job in his reconstruction of these four passages (though he comes perilously close on occasion to considering his reconstructions as Mark’s very source) and in this alone has made a significant contribution to New Testament scholarship. But in trying a bit too hard to force his interpretation onto the passages, he tends to lose track of the entire context of the particular passage under consideration.

Casey will no doubt, and perhaps not completely without reason, come under heavy fire from certain theologians. Casey is rigorously faithful to his own method, insisting on using only first century Aramaic texts where available; he is firm in insisting equally on first century Judaic social customs in making his reconstructions. As a consequence, he is rightly on guard against certain exegetes who are guilty of reading certain later developments and trends back into these first century sources. But theologians will rightly ask if Casey is not himself reading twentieth century presumptions back into these sources and using his Aramaic reconstructions to support them. Clearly, Casey’s conclusions bring to mind the position of people like Bultmann, who attribute to the Church all attempts to ‘divinize’ Jesus and to make him into some sort of apocalyptic figure. Casey certainly offers a more recent version of this sort of thinking, although he is most ‘apologetic’ on this issue elsewhere.4 Nonetheless, in this monograph Casey has brought before the scholarly community an important study that deserves to be considered very seriously and, one would hope, may even provoke some sort of dialogue between theologian and ‘philologian’. This reviewer particularly hopes that the large number of people engaged in various aspects of the “Historical Jesus” problem take his methodology to heart. It is curious that these people for the most part eschew the question of the underlying Aramaic of the New Testament, much as the strongest proponents of cultural diversity refuse to include the study of the language in their programs.


1. A. Meyer, Jesu Muttersprache: Das galiläische Aramäisch in seiner Bedeutung für die Erklärung der Reden Jesu und der Evangelien überhaupt (Freiburg im Breisgau/Leipzig, 1896). M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (Third Edition; Oxford, 1967).

2. P.M. Casey, “General, Generic and Indefinite: The Use of the Term ‘Son of Man’ in Aramaic Sources and in the Teaching of Jesus,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29 (1987) 21.

3. Maurice Casey, “Culture and Historicity: The Plucking of the Grain (Mark 2.23-28),” New Testament Studies 34 (1988) 1-23.

4. See, especially, P.M. Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God: The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology. The Edward Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham, 1985-86. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1991.