Monday, June 06, 2005

Aramaic Wordplay in Matt. 3:9 par.?

I've been reading Maurice Casey's Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel, and so far (I haven't read much) it's good, especially on the methodological side.

I have some quibbles with the Aramaic, though. For instance: Casey discusses A. Meyer's idea that there is an underlying Aramaic wordplay at Matt. 3:9 || Luke 3:8: "God is able of these stones (Gk. lithon = Aram. abnayya ) to raise up children (Gk. tekna = Aram. benayya) unto Abraham." This suggestion has made its way into many a commentary.

But Casey says:
That is not unreasonable, but it does involve the selection of benayya, which might well have been translated huious, rather than ynqyn, which was bound to be rendered tekna. (p. 13)
Casey's point, and it is well taken, is that you can't just translate the Greek backwards into Aramaic to find wordplays and such; you have to imagine how a translator would most likely have rendered any putative Aramaic original. He thinks that benayya would most likely have been rendered "sons," not "children"; yanqin is the Aramaic word most likely to have been rendered "children."

However, this clashes with another one of Casey's methodological points, and that is that the words of a putative Aramaic original have to be attested from the Aramaic of the right period. And the word yaneq, plural yanqin, is not attested in Qumran Aramaic or other Palestinian sources of this period. Not only that but semantically yaneq (etymologically "suckling") focuses on the youth of the person designated, not on their biological descent. Therefore in different dialects, yaneq can mean "boy" (Targum Onkelos), "infant" (Targum Neofiti) or just "young one" (Elephantine papyri). The best Greek equivalent for yaneq in the New Testament period would have been paidarion or nepios, not teknon.

Plus, teknon is well-established in the LXX as a translation of Hebrew ben, "son, child" (e.g. Gen. 22:7). Therefore, I conclude that Casey's critique falls to the ground.

That does not mean that there really was a wordplay in Matt. 3:9||Luke 3:8, though. For the wordplay to work, both "stones" and "children" have to be in the emphatic state, equivalent to the Greek article. But in the Greek, "these stones" has the article, but "children" does not. Therefore, if there is an Aramaic original underlying this saying, "these stones" would have been abnayya illen, and "children" would have been just benin, not benayya as Meyer thought. Not much of a pun. Therefore, IMHO, there was no Aramaic wordplay present in Matt. 3:9||Luke 3:8.

UPDATE (6/7): Ken Penner rightly asks in a comment below whether the wordplay might be better in Hebrew, rather than in Aramaic. Yes, it might. Delitzsch, for instance, in his Hebrew New Testament, translates min ha-abanim ha-elleh yakhol ha-elohim le-haqim banim le-abraham. It is also undoubtedly true that in some instances Hebrew is just as good a candidate for the substratum of the Gospels as Aramaic, since we now know that Hebrew was by no means a dead language in the first century CE.

Nevertheless, this has to be weighed against the preponderance of evidence showing that Jesus taught in Aramaic and that the early church was Aramaic-speaking. Not only that, but the Hebrew back-translation is more vulnerable to Casey's critique than the Aramaic one, because, while tekna might be a perfectly good translation of Hebrew banim, it also might render Hebrew yeled, pl. yeladim, which, like teknon, is related to a root meaning "to beget." (See Gen 33:6 LXX.) (Now that I think of it, the Aramaic cognate yelad, yaldin would also fit.) Therefore, I think strong evidence is lacking for Hebrew or Aramaic wordplay in this pericope (which does not mean I think there is no evidence for a Semitic substratum in the Gospels).

UPDATE (6/10): Mark Goodacre comments here. Jim Davila comments as follows:
I think Casey's methodology is weak. His discussions of translation theory and bilingualism don't feed directly into the rest of the book in any way that is clear to me. And he neglects or ignores a considerable secondary literature on problems with retroversion of Hebrew and Aramaic from Greek (Beyer, Maloney, Martin, Fitzmyer, Barr, Tov, Wright, etc.).
I don't necessarily disagree with Jim, as I haven't read more than about 20 pages of Casey at this point, and haven't gotten past Casey's review of past literature. If what Jim says is true, then what is (in my opinion) the book's good beginning methodologically goes downhill. I'll let you know what I think.

I will say this: Based on some casual glances at Casey's retroversions later in the book, I would say that his grasp of Aramaic is weak and is not up to the task of retroversion (whether that task is worthwhile or not). That sounds terrible, I know, and I hope to back up that opinion later on with some examples. (In the meantime, see Randy Buth's comment below.) But it is a fatal weakness for such a book on such a topic.


Ken Penner said...
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Ken Penner said...

What about Hebrew?

buth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
buth said...

buth said...
I see that Ken Penner mentions Hebrew, too: banim//avanim.

Two big quibbles on Casey's methodology. 1) he doesn't recognize Aramaic narrative style. No comment anywhere on why Mark would never once reflect edayin, even where Matthew added tote.
Mark's semitic style is Hebraic.
2) he has Aramaic mistakes that are comical and not just typos. "tuv yade"?! instead of tavat yade. I quote this by memory from a few years ago but it stuck.
Randall Buth

Stephen C. Carlson said...

For what it's worth, the translator for the Hebrew version of Matthew found in Shem-Tov went with a form of ben instead of yeled. (For some reason, however, Shem-Tov used the singular, so it is by no means an exact translation of Matthew.)