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.

November 30, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 25 Comments