2-6 The Words Of Jesus

From the larynx of a Palestinian Jew there came the words of Almighty God. And yet He spoke them in the accent of a rural Galilean. We know this because Peter was identified as being one of the Lord's close disciples because of His accent (Mt. 26:73; Mk. 14:70). The dialect of Aramaic used in Galilee was a permanent topic of sarcasm in Jerusalem circles. There is a story in the Mishnah (bErubin 53b) which mocks how the Galileans pronounced words which began with a guttural [deep-throat] consonant. It ridicules how a Galilean in Jerusalem tries to buy something in a market but is mocked by the merchant: " You stupid Galilean, do you need something to ride on [hamair- a donkey], or something to drink [hamar- wine], or something to make a dress with ['amar- wool], or something for a sacrifice [immar- lamb]" . What an essay in God's preference for using the things which man despises- that He should arrange for His Son to speak His words in the most humanly despised dialect of the ecclesia. In this context, it is interesting to note the debate over the original text of Mk. 5:41, where the Lord is recorded as saying the Aramaic words Talitha kum  in the oldest manuscripts, but it seems this has been changed to the more grammatically correct Talitha kumi in later codices. Kum would apparently have been the slovenly Galilean way of speaking, whereby the masculine form of the imperative is joined to a feminine subject. It could be that the Lord spoke in the Galilean way, technically incorrect grammatically- as a Londoner might say 'We was waiting for a bus' rather than 'we were waiting...'; or an Ulsterman 'how are yous all?' rather than using the more correct 'you' for 'you' plural. If this is so, we have another window into the person of Jesus. There was a naturalness about Him, an expression of the ultimate image of God in totally human form, which was so attractive.

Most 1st century religious Jews tried to pray to God in Hebrew rather than Aramaic. Yet even on the cross, Jesus prayed to His Father in Aramaic- Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani; rather than the Hebrew Eli, Eli lema 'azabtani. 'Abba' itself, which He so often uses, is an Aramaic rather than Hebrew way of addressing God.  From this, I rather imagine the 21st century Jesus saying 'You' rather than 'Thee' in His prayers; and reading from a contemporary Bible translation rather than from the AV. And not using Hebrew words for 'God', either; for Jesus addressed the Father in Aramaic, when He surely could have addressed Him in Hebrew. This was a radical departure from contemporary Jewish practice, where prayers were said three times / day, preferably in Hebrew. But Jesus removed prayer from being mere liturgy into being a part of real, personal life with God. The way Peter prays at 12 noon (Acts 10:9), and how Paul urges us to pray all the time (Rom. 12:12; Col. 4:2) are therefore radical departures from the concept of praying at set times, three times / day. Further evidence that Jesus prayed in Aramaic is found by comparing the two records of the Lord's prayer; Matthew has " forgive us our debts" , whilst Luke has " forgive us our sins" . The Aramaic word hobha means both 'sin' and 'debt'. The conclusion is therefore that Jesus taught the disciples to pray in their native Aramaic dialect rather than in Hebrew or Greek. Further, the Lord's prayer has many links to the Kaddish, an ancient Aramaic prayer which included phrases like " Exalted and hallowed be his great name...may he let his kingdom rule..speedily and soon" .

There can be no doubt that Jesus spoke the words of God, and therefore His sayings can be interpreted at the deepest possible level; and yet at the same time, they were so easy to understand. The sayings of Jesus have been translated back into Aramaic, the language of His day, by C.F. Burney (1). He was struck by the degree to which they had a rhythmic shape, like many of the prophetic sayings of the Old Testament. Thus a passage like Lk. 7:22 has six two-beat lines followed at the end by a three beat line; the commission to the disciples in Mt. 10:8 rhymes, both in Aramaic and in Greek. The Lord’s prayer is expressed in two-beat lines. The crunch point of the Lord’s forgiveness parable in Lk. 15:7, that there is joy in Heaven over one sinner that repents, uses the device of alliteration, i.e. similarly sounding words. He uses three words which feature the guttural ‘h’: joy = hedwa; one = hada; sinner = hateya. In passing, I find this kind of thing evidence that we do have in the Gospel records the actual words of Jesus, and not a rough summary of them interpreted by many others, as modern theologians wrongly suppose. Our view of inspiration enables us to return as it were to the actual, living voice of Jesus in confidence. If the record of His words is sure and true, then we can go on to guess in what tone of voice He would have spoken, and seek to define in our own minds ever more features of the Son of Man. This thought alone I find so immensely inspiring- for we hear the real Christ speaking to us down the centuries. The Lord’s teaching style thus reflected His recognition that He was speaking to the illiterate, and that many of those who followed Him would need to commit His words to memory; and so He spoke His words in a form which was memorable by them, as well as profitably dissectable by computer-aided intellectuals of the 21st century. In this alone is a marvelous insight into both His genius and also His sensitivity to His audiences, from which we can take a lesson. But  on a practical level, it is apparent that He had carefully prepared His sayings in advance, perhaps during His years up to age 30. I don’t see His sayings as off the cuff bursts of wisdom, neither words merely flashed into His mouth by the Father. They were God’s words, but carefully prepared by Him. He sets a matchless example to any would-be teacher in His church. Jesus spoke to the hearts of the people. He didn’t use words like ‘sin’ very often. He uses hamartia [‘sin’] in the Synoptics only 8 times, compared to 64 times in Paul’s writings. Jesus wasn’t talking theology, He didn’t speak in abstract terms. Rather did He speak of evil fruit, lost sheep, lost coins, no good sons… because He was framing His message for the illiterate, who thought in images rather than abstractions.

How He prayed is an example of the Lord’s words being made flesh in His living. He taught His men to pray “Your will be done”; and in Gethsemane, He prayed those very words Himself, even though praying them meant an acceptance of crucifixion (Mt. 26:52). In that same context, the Lord asks His men to pray that they enter not into temptation (Lk. 22:46). He was asking them to pray His model prayer just as He was doing. His own example was to be their inspiration. I wonder too, in passing, whether the Lord’s request at that time that the cup of suffering pass from Him (Mk. 14:35) was His way of praying not to be led into temptation- for perhaps He momentarily feared that He would finally spiritually stumble under the burden of the cross? This surely is the meaning of the hymn that speaks of living more nearly as we pray.

The theme of John’s writings is that “the word” which was in the beginning, the word of the Gospel, the word of command which brought forth all creation in the first place, is the same word that has been made flesh in Jesus, and which can likewise work a powerful new creation in the lives of all who allow that word to abide in them. Hence the emphasis of John upon the manner in which the word of the Lord Jesus was sufficient to bring about amazing miracles. Even Josephus noted this unique feature of the Lord’s ministry: “Everything that he [Jesus] performed through an invisible power he wrought by word and command”(2).


(1) C.F. Burney, The Poetry of Our Lord (Oxford: O.U.P., 1925).

(2) This is from the Old Russian text of The Jewish War; it is missing in many editions. I found the reference in  T.F. Glasson, Moses In The Fourth Gospel (London: SCM, 1963) p. 32.




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