Thursday, February 11, 2010

Is Sin in Aramaic a Commercial Term?

I have not yet read Gary Anderson's Sin: A History, but Bruce Marshall, in discussing the book, attributes the following view to Anderson:
Before the Babylonian exile ... sin was sometimes described as a defiling stain but mainly as a burden to be borne. . . . Part of the reason all this changed after the Babylonian exile was linguistic. Aramaic became the primary tongue of the Persian Empire in which the Jewish people lived during the Second Temple period, and in Aramaic the language for religious transgression comes directly from the world of commerce. The word for a debt owed to a lender is the same as the word for a sin.

The Aramaic word that Anderson (or Marshall) refers to is ḥōb, which can indeed mean in many Aramaic dialects either a debt owed to a lender or a sin. However, this does not mean that Israel's view of sin changed because the nation adopted the Aramaic language.

1. The earliest occurrences of ḥōb in Aramaic sources – in this case, the Elephantine papyri – refer exclusively to commercial debt. The verbal/nominal root for "religious transgression" in the earliest sources is ḥṭʾ, as in Hebrew.

2. The single occurrence of ḥōb in the Hebrew Bible, in Ezek 18:7, also refers to commercial debt (apparently; the text is in some disorder). The post-exilic texts that Anderson (or Marshall) cite (Second Isaiah, Daniel) don't use the term (except Dan 1, which uses the verbal root metaphorically for "making something forfeit"). Therefore the Exile is not the key phase linguistically.

3. The use of the verbal root at Qumran does refer to religious transgression, but is not used very often either in Hebrew (CD 3:10, 4Q266, 4Q276 [?]) or in Aramaic (4Q534, 4Q537, 4Q550, 11QtgJob [2 or 3x]). (Note also the related word ḥōbā in 4Q162 [Hebrew] and 4Q534/4Q536, 4Q542 [Aramaic], which means guilt or obligation). The primary word in both languages is still ḥṭʾ (Hebrew and Aramaic), ʿwn (Hebrew), or pšʿ (Hebrew).

4. The great increase in the attested uses of ḥōb for "religious transgression" happens after the Second Temple period in both Hebrew (see the Mishnah) and in Aramaic (see Targum Onkelos). It is also used in these sources to refer to non-religious obligations or duties.

I infer from these facts that the Babylonian exiles did not encounter a form of Aramaic that used a commercial term for religious transgression, leading to a change in the concept of sin. Instead, the change in the concept of sin occurred first and then the commercial term was gradually adopted to express it. This may have happened to some degree in Second Temple Judaism, but the sources don't suggest a big terminological change at this time.

In fact, the idea of debt and sin are necessarily related, whether terms from commerce are used or not. Sin is necessarily understood as something prohibited; and, if it occurs, there is an obligation to seek a remedy (forgiveness or expiation) if one is available or undergo punishment if not. In any case, something is owed. The semantics of religious obligation are thus very close to the semantics of commercial debt; in both cases, a duty exists to make up for a lack that one is responsible for. It is not surprising or wrong that eventually the language of financial debt should eventually be adopted to express religious or moral obligation. But the idea that Aramaic facilitated this process is incorrect.

I'm not sure that the other conclusions Anderson (via Marshall) draws from this are warranted, but my concern in this post is to establish the philological facts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bruce D. Marshall, "Treasures in Heaven," First Things (January 2010, no. 199), pp. 23-26.

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