God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Did God Abandon Jesus in Mark 15:34?

Polycarp asks on the about page about a comment to a thread he started.

The issue is Mark 15:34: eloi eloi lema sabachthani. The Greek — which appears almost identically in Matthew 27:46 — is actually transliterated Hebrew/Aramaic. In Mark we find eloi, which is probably Aramaic; in Matthew eli, probably Hebrew. The only line of scripture that repeats eli is Psalm 22:1, and the only time we find eli lama is also Psalm 22:1. So this is almost certainly a rendition of Psalm 22:1 (also numbered Psalm 22:2): eli eli lama azavtani.

The Hebrew there means “my God, my God, why have you left me.” (Or, “…why did you leave me.” It’s an important difference for another time.) And both Mark and Matthew continue with a translation the Greek-transliterated Aramaic, and though the wording differs, both Mark and Matthew translate the line as “my God, my God, why have you abandoned [egkatelipes] me.”

The question from the original thread is whether the Aramaic shavaktani (which is spelled sabachthani in Greek) really means “abandoned.” And the answer is almost certainly “yes.” It’s conceivable that both Mark and Matthew translated it wrong, and it’s conceivable that Jesus substituted another word rather than translating azavtani directly, but we have external evidence about shavaktani.

In particular, we find the same verb (in different conjugations) in Ezra 6:6, Dan 4:12, Daniel 4:20, and Daniel 4:23. In each spot, it looks like it has to do with “leaving alone.” Furthermore, we frequently find the Aramaic shavak as a translation for the Hebrew azav (just for example, in Targum Onkolos to Genesis 2:24).

In his book Idioms in the Bible Explained and A Key to the Original Gospels, George Lamsa claims (p. 103) that:

“Jesus [in Matthew 27] did not quote the Psalms. If He had He would have said these words in Hebrew instead of Aramaic, and if He had translated them from Hebrew He would have used the Aramaic word “nashatani,” which means “forsaken me,” instead of the word “shabacktani,” which in this case means, “kept me.”

I believe that Lamsa grew up speaking Syriac, but even so, his Syriac would have been nearly 2,000 years removed from the Aramaic Jesus spoke, so I think it’s a mistake to rely on native intuitions here. And I’m not convinced by Lamsa’s (unsupported) claim that Jesus would not have referred to the Psalms in Aramaic.

So while there’s a lot I don’t know about Aramaic, in this case I have to say that the evidence seems overwhelmingly in favor of sabachthani meaning just what Mark and Matthew say it does. We can wonder if it meant “abandoned,” “forsaken,” “left me,” or some other nuance, but I think it was probably something along those lines.

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November 30, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , ,

21 Comments »

  1. Excellent! Thanks so much.

    On a side note, do you think that Christ meant the entire Psalm when he quote that one verse which does include a reunion of sorts?

    Comment by Joel | December 1, 2009 | Reply

    • What an interesting suggestion!

      It seems like hubris to suppose that I have any special insight into what Jesus meant, but I do think that the most natural way to refer to an entire Psalm would have been to quote the first line of it, and that’s what we find here.

      Furthermore, the psalm as a whole seems entirely appropriate in context. Here’s how The Jewish Study Bible summarizes Psalm 22 (with my emphasis):

      The psalm opens with a plea from a person in dire straits, apparently a serious illness. His prayers having been answered, he brings the offerings he vowed and gives public acclaim to God as he promised. God is praised for His care of all people, and all people now and in the future, should praise God.

      (And really, if you don’t own The Jewish Study Bible, now’s the time to buy it. It’s as much a “Study Guide of the Jewish Bible” as it is a “Jewish Study Guide of the Bible,” and it does a good job in distinguishing academic scholarship from Jewish thought.)

      Inasmuch as the psalm is about a seemingly dire situation that actually turns out all right, it seems to fit here perfectly.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 1, 2009 | Reply

  2. Very cool.

    Lamsa grew up speaking Aramaic and, yes, he has his critics. Linguistics fascinates me… I’ll watch Profs. Scott (regardless of their theology) just to see them translate into numerous languages and note the nuances between each of them.

    One major criticism of Lamsa’s translation is the form of the word [shvaqtani] which Aramaic references say is the perfect 2nd person singular.

    I’m fascinated by your blog and your education… to almost a geek-like intensity. :-) I look forward to reading much more of your stuff.

    Comment by Christian S. | December 1, 2009 | Reply

  3. Now, Christian, don’t forgot about us other bloggers :)

    Thanks, Joel, for all the help.

    One other thing…Matthew Black’s work on the Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts. Is it any good? (Although I would still follow Greek primacy)

    Comment by Joel | December 1, 2009 | Reply

    • Black’s An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts is pretty much the standard work on Aramaic in the NT, and, more precisely, Aramaic as a precursor to the Greek NT. But I haven’t read it.

      However, Maurice Casey, in An Aramaic Approach to Q: Sources for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Cambridge University Press) warns that, “Believing correctly in the historicity of much of the Q material, and knowing that Jesus spoke Aramaic, Black tried to reconstruct as many Aramaic features in the supposed source(s) of Q as he could. Unfortunately, he thereby produced Aramaisms rather than reconstructing them….” But Casey also introduces the book as “the most important contribution to the study of the Aramaic substratum of the Gospels.”

      So, at the risk of judging a book by its cover, I would say — and this is typical of linguistic work done more than 50 years ago — that the book should probably be read more for its data than for its conclusions.

      (By the way, Casey has a gift for engaging prose. He starts his work by telling the reader: “The present state of research into ‘Q’ varies from the chaotic to the bureaucratic.” Makes you want to read on, doesn’t it?)

      Comment by Joel H. | December 2, 2009 | Reply

  4. Oh, Joel, I wouldn’t forget ya!

    I’m interested in Black’s, too. It’s on my “to buy” list.

    Are there any other reputable Aramaic sources for study?

    Comment by Christian S. | December 1, 2009 | Reply

  5. One other thing: if you take the “Why have you forsaken me?” in Mark together with “it is finished” in John (who may or may not have known the Synoptics), it fits well as the beginning and end of Ps. 22, which ends with “he has done it.”

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | December 1, 2009 | Reply

  6. Back to studying then!

    Comment by Joel | December 1, 2009 | Reply

  7. My take is that we are to understand this prayer as “Why have you left me in the lurch?” In other words, Jesus had prayed three times that his death be speedy so that he would not buckle in his integrity because of the pain. I take the purpose of the prayer that the breath is willing, but the flesh is vulnerable” to mean “talk is cheap, but nobody can endure very much pain.”

    However, right after that, his prayer was answered, and he said, “Yippee! It’s finished!,” gave up his breath [to God that gave it] and died after only three short hours, instead of the usual days of ever-increasing pain and agony. He got off easy.

    Mr 15:44 And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead.

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 4, 2009 | Reply

  8. Actually, rather than “It is finished,” I would want to translate it as “It’s over!”

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 4, 2009 | Reply

  9. The problem with “It’s over” is that it doesn’t really account for the “accomplished” aspect of things—again in line with Ps 22.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | December 4, 2009 | Reply

  10. That is not a linguistic problem, nor contextual problem, only a problem for those who want the verse to say that he “accomplished” justification, which, of course, he clearly did not. Were you justified back then? Of course not.

    Look at this example of the sense of the word:

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=dianu%2Fw&la=greek#lexicon

    διανύω 1 2
    to bring quite to an end, accomplish, finish, κέλευθον, ὁδόν h. Hom., etc.;—hence (ὁδόν omitted), διὰ πόντον ἀνύσσας having finished one’s course over the sea, Hes.:—c. part. to finish doing a thing, Od., Eur.

    What, in particular, are you referring to in Ps 22? There he claims that God “heard him from the horn of the unicorn” and delivered **him** from his horrors, does he not.

    Psalm 22:
    19 (21:19) But thou, O Lord, remove not my help afar off: be ready for mine aid.
    20 (21:20) Deliver my soul from the sword; my only–begotten one from the power of the dog.
    21 (21:21) Save me from the lion’s mouth; and regard my {1} lowliness from the horns of the unicorns. {1) See Hebrew}
    22 ¶ (21:22) I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I sing praise to thee.
    23 (21:23) Ye that fear the Lord, praise him; all ye seed of Jacob, glorify him: let all the seed of Israel fear him.
    24 (21:24) For he has not despised nor been angry at the supplication of the poor; nor turned away his face from me; but when I cried to him, he heard me.

    Remember how he was taunted?:

    Mt 27:43 He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God.

    Matthew 27:
    49 The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him.
    50 ¶ Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 4, 2009 | Reply

  11. I wasn’t referring to justification at all, as justification doesn’t factor into the verse. I was referring to the end of Ps 22, which I think is in play here:

    22:31 They will come and declare his righteousness to a people who will be born, that he has done it.

    My case (as stated above) is that “it is finished” is a reference to the end of the Psalm, only it’s not “he has done it” (since Jesus himself is the one having done it and is the speaker) but “it is accomplished.”

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | December 4, 2009 | Reply

  12. Internal evidence (such as the first two words of the 4th gospel) indicate that the source text is the OG, not the Hebrew, and it has this:

    Ps 22:31 (21:31) And they shall report his righteousness to the people that shall be born, whom the Lord has made.

    So that wouldn’t correspond. In fact, it may accurately reflect the meaning of the Hebrew, because AWSAW in the Qal is used of the making of man:

    Ge 5:1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made (8804) he him;

    Here’s a little more from Liddle:

    διανύωδιᾰνύω (also διᾰνύτω S.Ichn.64, X.Mem.2.4.7) [ῠ], pf. -ήνυκα Plb.4.11.7: — bring quite to an end, accomplish, finish, κέλευθα δ. finish a journey, h.Cer.380, cf. h.Ap.108; δίαυλον E.El.825; τὸ ἑξῆς τῆς ὁδοῦ X. l.c.; τὸν πλοῦν ἀπὸ Τύρου Act.Ap.21.7; πόνους Vett.Val. 330.9; τὰ προσήκοντα POxy.1469.4 (iii A.D.): c. acc.loci, πολὺν διὰ πόντον ἀνύσσας having finished one’s course over the sea, Hes.Op.635; πλεῖον δ. traverse, of a point moving along a line, Arist.LI968a25, cf. Archim.Sph.Cyl.Praef., al.; τόπους Plb.4.11.7: abs., δ. εἰς τὰς ὑπερβολάς arrive at a place, Id.3.53.9: — Pass., ὁδὸς διηνυσμένη ib.63.7: aor. inf. διανυσθῆναι Hsch.: c. part., finish doing a thing, οὔ πω κακότητα διήνυσεν ἣν ἀγορεύων Od.17.517; but πόνοις σε διδοῦσα διήνυσεν continued giving . ., E.Or.1663: abs., live, Vett. Val.58.17.

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=dianu%2Fw&la=greek#lexicon

    Well, I hope you’ll consider my view with an open mind.

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 4, 2009 | Reply

  13. It’s certainly possible that you’re right, but to suggest that John only used the OG (and thus wouldn’t know any other textual readings) seems like a bit of a stretch to me. That said, my hearing a faint echo here may also be a bit of a stretch. I’m not willing to die on this hill…

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | December 4, 2009 | Reply

  14. The verb shabaq is Aramaic, and is equivalent to the Hebrew verb azav. So when Yeshua says shabaqtani, he is speaking Aramaic, which should not come as a surprise since Aramaic was what Jews in 1st century Palestine spoke. He is still quoting Psalm 22, however – but just speaking in Aramaic (to be more widely understood) rather than Hebrew. I think Lamsa is wrong when he says Yeshua is not quoting from Psalm 22.

    Comment by Aramaic Scholar | December 14, 2009 | Reply

  15. If Jews of the 1st century spoke Aramaic, why are there zero Aramaic NT documents?

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 14, 2009 | Reply

    • Because Greek was the language which mattered most.

      Comment by Joel | December 14, 2009 | Reply

  16. [...] 27.46. John records the last words of the Psalm; compare John 19.30 with Psalm 22.31 (See the Discussion [...]

    Pingback by Confluence of Texts? Matthew 27.43, Psalm 22 and Wisdom 2.18 | The Church of Jesus Christ | January 8, 2010 | Reply

  17. The common interpretation, that God “hid his face” from Jesus (because he had turned into sin) is explicitly refuted in the Psalm:

    JPS
    Psalm 22:24 (22-25) For He hath not despised nor abhorred the lowliness of the poor; neither hath He hid His face from him; but when he cried unto Him, He heard.’

    He did not:

    * despise
    * abhor his lowliness
    * nor hid his face from him

    Rather, when he cried unto him:

    * he listened*

    “Listened” means “heard and responded,” not just that he “heard.”

    Death by crucifixion, when accompanied with *strong breath,* is miraculous. This is why the soldier marveled:

    Mr 15:39 And when the centurion, which stood over against him, **saw that he so cried out**, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the [a] Son of God [the gods].

    Pilate also marveled at the speedy death.

    Psalm 22 ends with the declaration that the deliverance shall spark faith among the gentiles:

    18 (22-19) They part my garments among them, and for my vesture do they cast lots.
    19 (22-20) But Thou, O LORD, be not far off; O Thou my strength, hasten to help me.
    20 (22-21) Deliver my soul from the sword; mine only one from the power of the dog.
    21 (22-22) Save me from the lion’s mouth; yea, from the horns of the wild-oxen [or, unicorn - Hebrew unknown, but comes from "lift up"] do Thou answer me.
    22 ¶ (22-23) I will declare Thy name unto my brethren; in the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee.
    23 (22-24) ‘Ye that fear the LORD, praise Him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify Him; and stand in awe of Him, all ye the seed of Israel.
    24 (22-25) For He hath not despised nor abhorred the lowliness of the poor; neither hath He hid His face from him; but when he cried unto Him, He heard.’
    25 (22-26) From Thee cometh my praise in the great congregation; I will pay my vows before them that fear Him.
    26 (22-27) Let the humble eat and be satisfied; let them praise the LORD that seek after Him; may your heart be quickened for ever!
    27 (22-28) All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn unto the LORD; and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before Thee.
    28 (22-29) For the kingdom is the LORD’S; and He is the ruler over the nations.
    29 (22-30) All the fat ones of the earth shall eat and worship; all they that go down to the dust shall kneel before Him, even he that cannot keep his soul alive.
    30 (22-31) A seed shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord unto the next generation.

    It is this fame of God for saving his servant from the jaws of those in who’s power he is taken that seems to be the subject of the last verse.

    31 (22-32) They shall come and shall declare His righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that He hath done it.

    While it might be Christian to imagine that a resurrection is in view, it seems clear that the gospels see it as referring to a miraculous death.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 10, 2010 | Reply

  18. [...] 27.46. John records the last words of the Psalm; compare John 19.30 with Psalm 22.31 (See the Discussion [...]

    Pingback by Confluence of Texts? Matthew 27.43, Psalm 22 and Wisdom 2.18 | Joel L. Watts | April 16, 2010 | Reply


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