Thursday, July 1, 2021

How a Gentile Religion Emerged from a Jewish Sect


Jesus spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. I have written a lot about Hebrew in the past, but not much about Aramaic lately. Below are some things you need to know about three of the five dialects of Aramaic that are related to the Bible.[1]


Ancient Aramaic is the language of the ancient Aramaic inscriptions up to 700 BCE (from Upper Mesopotamia, northern Syria, and northern Israel).


Official Aramaic was in use from 700 to 300 BCE. This particular Aramaic dialect served not only as the official language of Persia but also as the lingua franca of the Near East. The Aramaic parts of the Bible are: Genesis 31:47 (two words); Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 2:4–7:28; and Ezra 4:8–6:8; and 7:12–26.


Middle Aramaic was used from 300 BCE to the early centuries CE. The Aramaic inscriptions in Jerusalem and the Aramaic words found in the New Testament, are all in Middle Aramaic. 


During the time of Jesus Middle Aramaic was the language of commerce and widely spoken in Judea and the Galilee. It was the language of schools and markets. In synagogues, the Hebrew Bible was orally translated into Aramaic, line by line, for the benefit of those who did not understand Hebrew. Later Aramaic became the language of the Talmud. This creates a very unusual and challenging situations in Christianity.


Jesus spoke and taught in Hebrew and Aramaic,

but every book in the New Testament was written in Greek.


We do not know whether Jesus spoke or understood Greek. It is likely that he knew a few words, the kind you might use at the market or on the street. But there is no evidence that Jesus thought, taught or prayed in Greek. What evidence we have is overwhelmingly against it. This creates a unique phenomenon in the histories of religions:


A religion whose sacred texts were written in a largely unintelligible

language its founder and original members would not have been able to read.


This brings us back to the history of Christianity. In the first decades after the Romans executed Jesus, his movement could have gone in either of two directions and become:  


A Hebrew/Aramaic speaking Jewish sect under the leadership of Jacob (James) the brother of Jesus.


A Greek speaking Hellenistic Jewish sect under the leadership of Saul a.k.a. Paul.


The Greek speaking movement of Paul rapidly increased in size because he attracted Hellenists Jews and God-Fearing Gentiles that adopted some aspects of Judaism, e.g., kept Shabbat, attended synagogues, etc. A critical component of Paul’s movement was the Septuagint -- the Greek translation of the Hebrew Jewish Scriptures made in Ptolemaic Egypt in the third century BCE. It was the first Bible Gentiles read, taught and memorized stories. Greek was the natural language of thought for Paul, the writers of the Gospels, the authors of the other books of the New Testament, the early Church Fathers and the first Christian theologians. It was their genius that shaped Gentile Christianity.


If Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic been closely related languages, this might have been of little consequence. But first-century Greek and Hebrew were not just different languages – they were different types of societies with realities that were diametrically opposed. Concrete acts were the pillars of Jewish societies. Reason and abstract thought produced beliefs that were the foundation of the Greek societies.


Later, for Gentile followers of Paul, the meanings of the Hebrew words ELOHIYM, YHVH, TZEDAQAH, SHALOM, AHAVAH, TESHUVAH, etc. were unknown. They were replaced by the meanings of the Greek that replaced them in the Septuagint. A good example of this is the verse that Paul’s gospel and movement are based on. It is Paul’s answer to a question he asked in Romans 4:3 – “For what does the Scripture say?” This was his answer:


Abraham believed God,

and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”


For Greek speakers, “believed God” was understood to mean “construct philosophical proofs of the existence of God.” But the verse in Romans is a direct quote of Genesis 15:6 -- which was written in Hebrew.


Abram trusted God, and He credited it to him as TZEDAQAH.


Trusted God” in Hebrew meant “being faithful to God.” In Hebrew, “faithfulness is a matter of how people behave, not a matter of what people think.” Believing and doing are part of a single continuum -- both are a measure of a living relationship characterized by loyalty to God and to those created in His image.


Faithfulness to God is a relationship in which humans become

God’s partners in the work of doing acts of TZEDAQAH

concrete acts that are TOV that restore SHALOM.


For Paul’s Greek speaking Gentile followers, believing God was demonstrated by the strength of their reasoned arguments about abstract notions – when Jesus became the Christ; whether God and Jesus are creatures of the same substance; how one changes his mind to repent; what one must believe to be saved from Hell; what the afterlife will be like; to name a few.


For Jesus and his Hebrew speaking Jewish followers, faithfulness to God was observable” – everyone could see concrete acts of compassion, generosity, kindness, and understanding; i.e., feeding the hungry, healing the sick, housing the homeless, visiting prisoners, forgiving others, and fighting for justice.


After the Romans beheaded Paul (between 64 and 67 CE), and then destroyed the Jerusalem Temple (70 CE), Paul’s movement quickly lost any links it had to its Jewish roots. It rapidly spread through Gentile cultures which resulted in “new beliefs based on reasoned arguments, persecutions by Roman emperors and internal wars between Christians themselves.” From those things, the universal Gentile religion emerged that caught the attention of Constantine the Great, Emperor of the Roman Empire.

However, embedded in the Sacred Scriptures of this Gentile religion are “the stories of the Jewish Hebrew speaking Anointed One” – the one they call “The Christ.”


Today those original stories are being heard again!


Choose Life 1st by Doing TOV,

Jim Myers


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