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Semitic Language in Mark

February 4, 2018

It is interesting that Mark has more Semitic words/expressions (mainly Aramaic) than any of the other Gospels.  What are we to make of this?  Some might suggest that these are the residue of an Aramaic original.  But there is nothing that corroborates this, and a good deal that makes it improbable.

In preparing a conference paper on the ritual use of Jesus’ name in earliest Christian exorcism and healing, two instances of Mark’s “Semitisms” came up again for consideration:  the expression “talitha koum” in the raising of the girl in Mark 5:41, and the expression “ephphatha” in the healing of the deaf and mute man in 7:34, both expressions unique to Mark.  Scholars such as Adela Yarbro Collins (in her large and richly resourced commentary on Mark in the Hermeneia series) rightly judge that these are not spells or incantations.[1]  Other scholars, however, have proposed that they are magical terms, that they are examples of a magical device involving the pronunciation of foreign/exotic words or phrases.   There are many examples of this in the magical texts from the ancient world.[2]  But I tend to think that this reading of the Markan examples is incorrect.

My first reason is this:  If the author intended to depict Jesus using this device, why only in these two instances?  In particular, given the prominent place of exorcism in Mark’s account of Jesus, why is the supposed device not used at all in these narratives?

Second, it’s worth noting again my opening statement, that the author uses Semitic words/phrases a number of times, not just in these miracle texts.  Mark alone tells us that Jesus named the Zebedee brothers “boanerges” (3:17).  Mark alone has Jesus accusing the scribes of the practice of “corban.” And also Mark alone places “Abba” on Jesus’ lips in Gethsemane (14:36).

But, in addition, there are still other Semitic terms in Mark, that are also used by one or both of the other Synoptic Gospels: “Beelzebul” 3:22, echoed in Matthew & Luke); “Gehenna” (9:43-47, echoed in Matthew); “Hosanna” (11:9-10, echoed in Matthew); Golgotha (15:22, also in Matthew); and, of course, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani” (15:34, a variant form in Matthew).

In these other instances, it looks more like the literary or story-telling device of what we might call “language color.”  That is, inserting something of the language of the historical characters and events for dramatic effect.  It’s like what we have sometimes in English-language movies, in which scenes of foreigners speaking to one another will have them using their authentic language, to give a note of added realism.  So, I think that the two Semitic expressions in the two miracle narratives should be seen in light of this wider usage of Semitic terms in Mark, apparently for dramatic effect.[3]

My third reason for doubting that “talitha koum” and “ephphatha” were intended as quasi-magical devices is that, just as usually his practice in the use of the other Semitic terms, the author translated them for his readers.  But in ancient magical practice, you don’t translate the exotic words!  For it’s their sounds that make them magical, not their translation.  Indeed, to translate them is practically to strip them of their magical power.

Moreover, in these two instances, note the translations.  In the one, Mark renders “talitha koum” as “little girl, arise,” which is pretty much what the expression means.  And in the other instance, Mark also rightly translates “ephphatha” as “be open”.  In other words, these sonorous-sounding expressions simply convey the typically simple commands by which Jesus performs his various miracles, according to the Gospel narratives.  Translated, they are almost banal!

So, my final suggestion about these particular instances is this:  Not only are they not really instances of the magical use of foreign/exotic expressions, Mark may actually have intended to counter any such idea!  It is as if he “sends up” the practice, taking what at first might appear to be the magical device of exotic words, and then translates them, thereby voiding any magical power.  Perhaps the intention was, if there is any allusion to magical practice, in short, to distinguish Jesus’ miracles from it.


[1] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark:  A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007)

[2] Hans Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

[3] I made this basic suggestion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2003), 265-66, and still earlier in my commentary, Mark (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1989; republished Grand Rapids:  BakerBooks, 2011), 87.

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  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    A fascinating paper that elaborates on Mark’s use of “Ephphatha” is found here:

    I think what we might discern from Mark is that Jesus did not use things like amulets associated with Solomon, or appeal to any other powers than the spirit of God, or perhaps better, the finger of God, as entering into himself. However, I think it is a stretch to suggest that Mark is out to “distinguish Jesus’ miracles from magic.” Rather, I think Mark is only preserving the tradition more accurately than Matthew, Luke and John. These later evangelist have removed the pronouncing of foreign phrases for some reason. But why? The likely reason is that foreign phrases like “Ephphatha” fit well into a magical tradition of healing contemporary with Jesus. It is Matthew, Luke and John that want to distinguish Jesus’ miracles from magic. By contrast, Mark has no agenda in this regard, other than wishing to convey that Jesus’ magical agent was God himself. This bothers Matthew, and perhaps Luke and John, if we guess they know the “Ephphatha” story also, but it does not bother Mark. Mark seems to be simply reporting a tradition he inherited.

    • John: It would help if you could notice my arguments. E.g., why is there this use of Aramaic phrasing only in some miracles and not others? If the aim was to show Jesus acting as a magician, this is rather sloppy.
      Second, why the use of Aramaic phrases in non-miracle scenes, e.g., the prayer in Gethsemane, and the cry on the cross?
      Third, and most important/obvious, the magical use of foreign phrases NEVER involves translating them for the benefit of readers! Mark’s consistent translation shows that he uses the phrases for effect, for linguistic color, but as he explains Jewish handwashing customs in Mark 7.
      No, John. Mark doesn’t align Jesus with magical practice. He tries to show Jesus as acting by God’s power in a unique capacity, over against the charges of opponents in Mark 3 that he is a sorcerer.

  2. About “βοανηργές, ὅ ἐστιν υἱοὶ βροντῆς”—

    βοανεργές is already a perfectly good Greek word (“thunder-workers”)— so why is the author translating it into bad Greek (i.e., Greek with a Semitic accent)?

    I read somewhere that “Boanerges” was a reference to Castor and Pollux, the Twins, the Gemini, whose rising signaled the coming of stormy weather. Mark never explains *why* Jesus referred to the brothers Zebedee by this epithet, but if Lk 9.54 supplies the answer— “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them?” If so, then Jesus’ response— “he turned, and rebuked them, and said, You don’t know what kind of spirit you have” (Lk 9.55)— would effectively mean something like, “Who do you guys think you are, Castor and Pollux?”

    But if this astronomical explanation is true, then it seems to me that the author— whether he’s misreading an original Mem-final (ם‬), for Samekh (ס) or not— is addressing two groups, one of which is comprised of ordinary Greek speakers, and the other, Semitic speakers who are comfortable with Greek but have their own way of referring to things relevant to both of them, as a constellation signaling the arrival of a stormy season would be. At first i thought the dual Greek expressions might help to determine who Mark’s audience was, and therefore where it was written, but it turned out that the rising of Castor and Pollux (the Gemini) was important for both sailors and farmers. And that would fit not only both Rome/Ostia, an important seaport (cf Eusebius/Papias report that Mark was Peter’s amanuensis in Rome), and Alexandria (with which Mark has been connected from ancient times). But it would also fit Pella or other areas of agricultural activity. So the phrase, “βοανηργές, ὅ ἐστιν υἱοὶ βροντῆς” by itself doesn’t seem to help us determine the provenance of Mark.

    None the less, i wonder whether you make anything of the astronomical reference, or of the fact that the author translating perfectly good Greek into Greek with a Semitic accent?

    • Ah, John, “boanerges” isn’t “a perfectly good Greek word”. It doesn’t even appear in dictionaries such as Montanari’s. So, your elaborate comment is based on a fallacy.

      • Do you speak Greek? I’m a little rusty, since the last time i was in Greece was 25 years ago; but we do use Byzantine Greek in church all the time (i’ll let you guess which one), so i can claim some competence with how the language works— actually from Homeric up to Modern, since i was a Classics major too.

        I’ll grant you that “-erges” is unusual, but its meaning is clear enough; it would be a plural adjectival or perhaps agent form based on the root “ergazomai”; that is, “workers” or “working [ones]”.

        Well I’m sure that the English expression “pointmissing” isn’t in any dictionary either. But it’s a perfectly good English word, even if a neologism, and it would communicate exactly what you meant, if you used it, and would do so in proper grammar. Though one might argue for a hyphen; but then, there were no hyphens in ancient Greek either.

        So i’m interested why you think “boanerges” (“thunderworkers”) would not be a garden-variety accusative noun compound, a common enough construction in just about any indo-european language you can think of? I mean, i admit to being a little surprised by your comment, since you are certainly a bigger guy than i am; but this seems a no-brainer. What am i not seeing?

        I wish i could remember where i saw that reference to Castor and Pollux. Malina and Pilch, maybe? Alas, don’t have it handy to check.

      • John: “Boanerges” isn’t just irregular in form, it isn’t used . . . ever, outside of this Gospel text, ever. And the one place where it is used, it is treated as a Semitic term and translated. Those are the facts. What’s the point of inventing a Greek word? Let it go.

  3. John Mitrosky permalink

    I once asked John Dominic Crossan, “Do you think the healing of the deaf and dumb man (Mark 7:31-37) is the closest we get to the historical Jesus doing a healing act?” He replied, “Yes. That is the closest we get!” One thing I find fascinating about this story is that Jesus “looks up to heaven” when saying, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” It is a wonderful image. I wonder if prayers for help, for Jesus was such an act of looking up? Maybe we have it all wrong bowing our heads? What do you think Larry? Is it possible when Jesus asked God for help he looked up?

    • John: On your specific question about prayer posture, the standard posture in ancient Jewish and early Christian prayer was standing, with arms raised, and looking heavenward. Indeed, some early church fathers say that the only time for bowing in prayer was for petition or confession. See the following:
      –D. Plooij, “The Attitude of the Outspread Hands (’Orante’) in Early Christian Literature and Art,” Expository Times 23 (1912): 199-203, 265-69
      –Uri Ehrlich, “‘When You Pray Know Before Whom You ARe Standing’,” Journal of Jewish Studies 49 (2000): 38-50

  4. Nice post. You might find a linguistic framework for your “language color” idea in a 2016 Vetus Testamentum article a student and I wrote on Jonah. Different testament and languages, but similar ideas. I’d like to see your idea fleshed out.

  5. Kunigunde permalink

    Hallo Prof. Hurtado,

    thank you for this very interesting and well-considered post. I have just a marginal question. Do you know whether the Arabic word for “open” (iftah ya) in “Open Sesame” in the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” has the same Semitic root as the Aramaic “ephphatha”? Friendly greetings, Kunigunde

  6. timoneill007 permalink

    “Some might suggest that these are the residue of an Aramaic original. But there is nothing that corroborates this, and a good deal that makes it improbable.”

    Maurice Casey makes a sound case not for an “Aramaic original”, but an Aramaic source drawn on by the author of gMark. This not only explains these occasional uses of Aramaic words and phrases, but also some of the oddities we find in gMark that the other synoptics find themselves smoothing over. One example is Mark 1:41) which begins “And being angry,” and says Jesus stretched out his hand and healed the man with a touch. Matthew (8:3) and Luke (5:13) offer the same story, in mostly the same words, except they avoid the opening because it made no sense. Casey argues that the author of gMark was working from an Aramaic source that used the word regaz, which can indeed mean “tremble with anger”, but has a broader meaning of “moved (by pity)”. He gives a number of other examples where strange readings in gMark’s Greek are well explained by the author’s misreading of an Aramaic original.

    So there is a chance that the Aramaic words in gMark are a little more than “language colour” and may derive from an Aramaic source. Of course, this line of argument is part of the reasoning behind Casey’s very early dating of gMark, which I can’t say I find very convincing. His stuff on a posited Aramaic source is very interesting though, especially as it pushes back the date of the earliest written material on Jesus’ life.

    • Yes, Casey’s very confident theory about this matter hasn’t won the same sort of confidence from other scholars, including particularly scholars at least as competent in Aramaic.

      • timoneill007 permalink

        As I said, I don’t find his dating of gMark arguments convincing, but the examples he gave which explained some oddities in that gospel by reference to an Aramaic source made a lot of sense to me. What are the counter arguments?

      • The basic problem with the kind of detailed claims Casey made is that our base for establishing what was or wasn’t vernacular Aramaic in Jesus’ time is so limited, essentially Qumran texts. Casey’s method was to go ranging up and down the centuries looking for an Aramaic form that he could use, arguing that Aramaic didn’t change. That’s a methodological error in the view of most of us who study languages.
        It’s in principle quite plausible that the Greek Gospels show the occasional influence of prior Aramaic tradition. But Casey was often over-confident in some of his proposals. On the larger question, see, e.g., Loren T. Stuckenbruck, “An Approach to the New Testament Through Aramaic Sources: The Recent Methodological Debate,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 8 (1991): 3-29.

    • I was about to also point to Casey as well, but for a different reason.

      In his argument, boanerges came from gMark’s author reading bene re’em as bene re’es, mistaking the final letter, Mem (ם‬), for Samekh (ס). This explanation is found as far back as Jerome, who wrote that ‘sons of thunder’ is ‘not boanerges, as most people assume, but is more correctly read benereem’.

      This seems to me a convincing explanation for the origin of the nickname and gMark’s interpretation of it. Would it not require *some* form of Aramaic written text (even something as simple as a list of Jesus’ disciples) in order for gMark’s author to visually confuse one Aramaic letter for another? Or is there a more likely explanation for the origin of ‘boanerges’ and gMark’s interpretation for it?


      • As Adela Yarbro Collins notes (Mark: Hermeneia, 219-20), it is not entirely clear what Boanerges renders, but one option is Hebrew: “bene” (“sons”) “rogez” (“agitation/tumult”).

  7. I think the Gethsemane episode in Mark is interesting because it conveys a tradition that Jesus didn’t think he needed to die to fulfill God’s plan, and the words from the cross, (“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”) if they are taken somewhat out of the context of their Hebrew Scriptures original sense (analogous to the way Matthew takes Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son”, out of context ) may suggest that Jesus, even till the end, may have believed God was going to intervene in history and save him. Perhaps Jesus never had atonement in mind.

    • Hmm. I think you may be wish-reading more into the Markan text than is really there. What we have is Jesus wishing that it were not necessary for him to suffer, but accepting that it was. And a fair case has been made that the quotation from Psalm 22 signalled a devout Jew’s death, reciting the first word of a Psalm that ends with divine vindication. Holly Carey, Jesus’ Cry From the Cross: Towards a First-Century Understanding of the Intertextual Relationship Between Psalm 22 and the Narrative of Mark’s Gospel, LNTS, no. 398 (London: T&T Clark, 2009).

      • Dr. Hurtado said “What we have [in the desperate Gethsemane prayer] is Jesus wishing that it were not necessary for him to suffer, but accepting that it was.”

        Actually, Jesus is portrayed as saying ” “Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine (Mark 14:36).” This passage clearly does not suggest Jesus thought it was necessary for him to suffer, but instead means Jesus was willing to suffer if that was what God willed, but Jesus didn’t think his suffering was necessary for Jesus to ultimately carry out the main part God’s plan for his life (IE, proclaiming the message of love of God and neighbor, in preparation for the imminent End of the Age and the coming Kingdom of God on earth).

      • John: The Greek of Mark14:35-36 = “and going on a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed if it is possible the hour might pass from him, and he said ‘Abba, father, all things are possible with you. REmove this cup from me. But, not what I wish but what you wish.” It pictures Jesus as wishing it could be some other way, but realizing that it couldn’t. You’re trying to milk more theology out of the scene, John, than it will bear. Let it go.

      • Dr. Hurtado said: ” It pictures Jesus as wishing it could be some other way, but realizing that it couldn’t.”

        No, you are quite clearly wrong about this. It does not picture Jesus “wishing” it could be some other way but realizing that it couldn’t. It pictures Jesus “praying” to God to change His mind about Jesus having to suffer: “He fell to the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour would pass from Him (Mark 14:35).” This clearly implies Jesus thought he could serve God’s plan without having to suffer, if only God would change His mind about Jesus needing to suffer.

      • John: I’m afraid that, although you’re quite steamed up about your view, you’re reading into the text far, far more theology (and anachronistic theology at that) than the text warrants. But, you’re quite clearly unwilling to do otherwise. So, as the man said, “you’re entitled to your opinion, but not to your own truth.” This isn’t getting anywhere, so this ends it.

  8. If they were used for dramatic effect by Mark, should we assume that Mark could actually speak Aramaic? If not, where did he get those Semitic expression from? Thank you.

    • Perhaps the author knew some Aramaic. But perhaps also some words conveyed in tradition. There are some curiosities about the specific likely Aramaic verb forms used.

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