In my straight-through reading of the Bible, I desired to encounter the narrative with a sense of hearing the story for the first time, again. That led me to select less familiar translations, beginning with Everett Fox’s Five Books of Moses, and moving on largely through the New Jerusalem Bible rather than those more closely aligned with the King James (Revised Standard, New Revised Standard, New International, especially).
With the New Testament, I was leaning toward The Four Gospels and the Revelation: Newly Translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore, in part for its possibilities free from doctrinal lenses. As a Greek scholar who claimed no religious faith, he was simply surprised to discover how naturally the Gospels flowed when he began translating them. He simply wanted to see how the texts stood on their own.
But then I chanced upon a more controversial choice, a translation drawn from Aramaic, the tongue of Jesus and his contemporaries and, thus, some insist, must have been the language in which the New Testament was written. Aramaic is, by the way, a close relation to Hebrew, unlike Greek.
Few Biblical scholars agree, but the advocates of the Aramaic Peshitta New Testament present their cause passionately and that, in turn, makes for some lively reading.
It’s a fascinating argument, even before getting to their contention that the oldest existing Aramaic New Testament is the original text, the source for the earliest Greek versions. A more pressing problem to my eyes is the fact that the oldest surviving complete New Testament comes from the early eighth century CE, and only manuscript fragments survive from before that. We have no way of knowing how much St. Jerome recomposed or censored in creating the officially approved Vulgate translation in Latin in the fourth century.
In other words, the New Testament would have been translated into Latin, edited or revised, and then translated back into Greek and Aramaic. It’s safe to assume much was lost in even the most faithful translation, and that’s before we get to deliberate changes made to support one side of the theological debates over the others. If we ever discover the books in versions before Jerome’s editing, the impact could rock conventional Christianity to the core.
The most readily available translation from Aramaic I located in print is a small-press offering from Australia by Glenn David Bauscher, a pastor in Glens Falls, New York, trained at Bob Jones University, and father of 12 homeschooled children. His theological convictions come through clearly enough in the extensive notes, and while he and I diverge on doctrine, his rugged independence is refreshing, especially after the smoothness of conventional committee-based versions in wide circulation. The faction of Aramaic advocates, for that matter, appears to be small and widely opinionated in their challenges to or in support of Bauscher.
How different is this Aramaic approach? Consider that the word “Christ” never appears in Bauscher’s New Testament, fitting with a common understanding of Christ as a Greek word for Messiah. What Bauscher uses instead is Yeshua The Messiah or simply The Messiah. In contrast, when reading translations from Greek, I often stop at a mention of Christ to ask whether this instance must necessarily be viewed as an aspect of the person of Jesus or as something larger — aka, the Logos or the Holy Spirit. In effect, Bauscher backs away from the ancient Greek philosophical body of Logos teaching and its many potential applications to understanding and doctrine. As he repeatedly argues, Jews wanted nothing to do with Greek thought or culture, a stand that leaves me wondering about all those Hellenized Jews we’ve already encountered.
Others see the root of Christ as “anointed,” the way a king is anointed with oil, which gives an alternative understanding of Jesus as a spiritual king of Judea. Does this in some way diverge from the definitions of Messiah? Does it make for a more political interpretation, then and now?
Robert Eisenman (in James the Brother of Jesus) notes yet another possibility when the historian “Josephus employs the adjective in Greek, ‘chrestos,’ to describe Agrippa I’s character” — a word “which means in Greek gentle-tempered, generous, Righteous, or kindly.” This hardly encompasses either of the Messiah or anointed dimensions, as far as I perceive. Such are the consequences of our choices in translation.
One of the fascinating aspects of Bauscher’s publication is the close comparison of alphabetic strokes in Aramaic and often Greek to illustrate ways a misreading in translation could occur or to support his word choice. As one who is relearning Spanish, I am deeply impressed by the diligence required to explore ancient languages in such nuanced detail.
One of the surprises I encountered in this straight-through reading comes in realizing just how compact the New Testament is in comparison to what comes before it. The New Testament comprises less than a fifth of the Bible. It’s shorter than the Psalms combined with the Five Books of Moses!
It should surprise no one that Christian worship typically emphasizes the New Testament, often with a gospel reading which, in some traditions, is accompanied by a selection from one of the epistles. To that may be added an Old Testament passage. The resulting impression is that the New Testament is as big as the earlier Scriptures, which is far from the actual case.