|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999|
|The Aramaic argument claims that Jesus and the Apostles spoke and wrote in Aramaic, not in koine Greek. Translations from the Aramaic to Greek and then into English have left the Bible with “numerous errors,” which must be corrected by someone knowledgeable in the Aramaic language.|
Reduced to its simplest form, the Aramaic argument may be summarized as follows. Jesus and the Apostles not only spoke in Aramaic (a Semitic language similar to Hebrew, originally of the Syrian Aramaeans), they also wrote in Aramaic. Therefore, the original inspired writings of the Apostles were written in Aramaic, not in koine Greek. Translations from the Aramaic to Greek and then into English have left the Bible with “numerous errors,” which must be corrected by someone knowledgeable in the Aramaic language. Lamsa believed the original Aramaic text was the Syriac Peshitta, and thus he argued, “The Peshitta New Testament text varies considerably from the Greek and Latin versions which were made later for the use of new converts to Christianity. There are hundreds of passages where the meaning is different from that of the Greek version.” Of course, everything depends on the assumption of the primacy of the Peshitta, an assumption we will show is false.
Before beginning our analysis, we should point out that no one can lightly dismiss the influence of the Aramaic argument. For instance, Lamsa’s own translation of the Bible and many of his books are regularly found in evangelical bookstores. Lamsa’s translation is published by the A. J. Holman Company, a large publisher of Bibles and Christian books that is now Broadman and Holman. His New Testament has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Lamsa himself wrote a score of books, among them Key to the Original Gospels; New Testament Origin; Idioms in the Bible Explained; The Hidden Years of Jesus; Gospel Light; Old Testament Light Commentary; and New Testament Commentary. Classes in “Aramaic and the Bible” are taught nationwide by various “Lamsa groups” and others with related interests.
Despite all this, in considering his life’s work, four basic points should be stressed:
Nevertheless, Lamsa argued that the original Aramaic text of the Bible was the Syriac Peshitta, hence his magnum opus comprises an English translation of this document, titled The Holy Bible From Ancient Eastern Manuscripts. There are over a dozen new religious groups (such as Astara, Edgar Cayce study groups and Victor Paul Wierwille’s The Way) which make use of this Bible and Lamsa’s other writings to change the meaning of the biblical text into their own meanings. Lamsa and his co-workers are particularly adept at using an idiomatic argument to deny Scripture: many things in the Bible are (supposedly) mistranslated or misinterpreted because we do not understand Aramaic figures of speech.
For over half a century certain scholars theorized about or attempted to make a case for Aramaic originals. C. F. Burney, in The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel (Oxford, 1922), and C. C. Torrey, in The Four Gospels: A New Translation (1933) and Matthew Black in An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (1946) are representative. Even though all attempts to discover Aramaic originals have failed, George Lamsa was convinced he had succeeded, and his friend and confidant, Rocco A. Errico, broadcasts such information widely as a “fact.”
In the introduction to his Bible, Lamsa claims that “Greek was never the language of Palestine” and that teaching it was forbidden by Jewish Rabbis. Elsewhere he says, “Paul did not write in Greek”; and “not a word of the Scriptures was originally written in Greek.” To the contrary, there is abundant evidence that Greek was one of the Palestinian languages, and all doubt has been removed concerning the Greek composition of the original New Testament. Not surprisingly then, historians like Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, a scholar from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, points out that Lamsa was ignorant of basic facts.
Dr. Yamauchi observes that Lamsa stoops to misquoting Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews xx.12.1 to support his beliefs. Lamsa claimed that Josephus argued that “hardly any” Jews succeeded in learning Greek and he quotes Josephus in the previous passage. But what Josephus actually said is that he, personally, did not attain precision in Greek pronunciation. Lamsa also misunderstood Jewish views about learning Greek in the Mishna, Talmud and Tosefta, which ban teaching Greek to children, not adults. The fact that there are about 1,500 Greek loan words in Talmudic literature is evidence of knowledge of Greek among Rabbis. (Half of Rabbian Gamaliel’s students—500—studied Greek literature.) In his article, “The Language of the New Testament,” J. H. Greenlee of Oxford University provides ample evidence for Greek as a known language in Palestine. For example, when visiting Greeks wished to see Jesus (John 12:20-21), no indication is given that Philip had any problem in communication with them. Neither is there evidence that an interpreter was needed between Pilate and Jesus during His trial. Greenlee argues in detail why the “Aramaic argument” is wrong:
It is unlikely that the Roman governor was conversant with Aramaic and even less likely that the Jews knew Latin. The logical assumption is that the entire discussion was carried on in Greek. Paul wrote his Epistle to the church at Rome in Greek, not in Latin or Aramaic. Even the Epistle “to the Hebrews” was written in Greek—indeed, in the most literary Greek of any book of the NT. It was in Greek that the Roman tribune and Paul conversed after the apostle had been rescued from the Jewish mob at the temple (Acts 21:37). Peter’s communication with the Roman centurion Cornelius and his friends (Acts 10) must have been in Greek, and likewise his sermon on the day of Pentecost. It is noteworthy that Greece is not included in the list of lands in whose (foreign) languages the disciples’ praises of God were being heard (Acts 2:5-11). At the same time, local languages were maintained alongside the use of Greek, just as scores of tribal languages are maintained today alongside Spanish, French, and other trade languages. This was clearly the case with the Jews and their use of Aramaic. The fact that certain Aramaic expressions are found in the Gospels... should not therefore be taken to mean that Jesus normally spoke in another language and interjected this Aramaic phrase for some special effect (though it could be thus interpreted if other evidence supported the hypothesis). It appears, rather, that they were words from expressions the NT writers chose to preserve in their original form because of their special significance or the significance of the events in connection with which they are used.
Nevertheless, Lamsa declared he was the only competent translator (hence interpreter) of the Bible, summarily dismissing all the exegetes of history! In More Light on the Gospel, he declared: “The author, through God’s grace, is the only one with the knowledge of Aramaic, the Bible customs and idioms, and the knowledge of the English language who has ever translated the Holy Bible from the original Aramaic texts into English and written commentaries on it.”
Before we consider specific theological errors from the writings of Lamsa (and Rocco Errico of the Noohra Foundation), we first note the conclusions of Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, a scholar whose academic background eminently qualifies him to assess Lamsa’s claims. Dr. Yamauchi is an authority on Mediterranean studies and a specialist in Mandaic, an Eastern Aramaic dialect and author of Mandaic Incantation Texts, 1967. The material below is excerpted from his article in Bibliotheca Sacra, “Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic or Syriac?: A critique of the claims of G. M. Lamsa for the Syriac Peshitta.” He begins by dismissing Lamsa’s premises, noting his grave errors in assigning authority to the views of the Assyrian Church of Iraq and the primacy of the Syriac Peshitta:
It is in fact Lamsa’s faith in the dogma of the Assyrian Church of Iraq which he grandiosely calls “the Church of the East” which serves as the basis of his conviction in the superiority of the Syriac Peshitta Version.... The Syriac of the Peshitta is not the language of coastal Syria around Antioch, which was evangelized in the first century A.D., but of the area in the interior around Edessa, one hundred fifty miles from the coast, which was evangelized between A.D. 116 and 216.... No one but an unquestioning adherent of “The Church of the East” would subscribe to the legendary account of the apostolic roots of the Edessene church. In the light of the claims advanced by Lamsa for Syriac, it should be underlined that Syriac is an eastern and not a western dialect of Aramaic, and indeed that it is “a form of Aramaic that emerges toward the beginning of the third century A.D.” As such it is one of the least suitable of the Aramaic dialects to use for a reconstruction of the Jewish Palestinian Aramaic used by Jesus. As the basis of his translation Lamsa uses the Peshitta Version of the Old and the New Testaments, which serves as the “authorized version” for the Syrian Orthodox Church. The Peshitta was accepted as the official version before the split of the Syrian Church into the West Jacobite and the East Nestorian branches in the fifth century. The Peshitta Canon omitted 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation, which Lamsa therefore translates from unidentified “later Aramaic texts.”
Dr. Yamauchi also refutes a number of Lamsa’s additional teachings, including his claim that the Greek Septuagint was never read by Palestinian Jews who spoke Aramaic and read Hebrew. “Lamsa’s contention that the Septuagint ‘was never officially read by the Jews in Palestine who spoke Aramaic and read Hebrew,’ is flatly contradicted by the discovery of Septuagint fragments at Qumran and the quotations from the Septuagint in the New Testament which are more numerous than quotations from the Masoretic [Hebrew] type texts.” Dr. Yamauchi next dismantles Lamsa’s approach to the Old Testament text, noting that his views here are “pure fantasy.” About the New Testament, he observes that Lamsa “willfully disregards” the consensus of sound scholarship in order to uphold his own biases:
The suggestion of Lamsa that one can revise the Old Testament text on the basis of the ambiguities in either the consonants or vocalization of the Syriac Peshitta text is pure fantasy. The value of the Peshitta for the text of the New Testament is quite minimal. Lamsa willfully disregards the view of scholars that Sinaitic-Curetonian Syriac texts of the New Testament are older than and superior to the Peshitta New Testament…. Since Lamsa quotes from Kenyon’s (Handbook to the) Textual Criticism of the New Testament, he cannot be ignorant of the evaluation of the Peshitta by scholars but has chosen to deliberately disregard their views. In contrast to Lamsa, all reputable scholars hold the Peshitta New Testament to be based on translations from Greek texts—and from relatively late and inferior Greek texts at that. According to Metzger: “in the Gospels it is closer to the Byzantine type of text than in Acts, where it presents many striking agreements with the Western text.”
As Yamauchi contuse, he observes that even Lamsa’s translation of the Peshitta is of poor quality:
In spite of Lamsa’s outrageous and mischievous claims for the Peshitta, he might have done a service by offering a usable English translation of the Peshitta. Instead, his translation is defective in many respects. In some cases, Lamsa has slavishly copied the King James Version even where the Syriac could be rendered differently. For example, in Philippians 2:6-7…. Where Lamsa does offer an original rendering, it is at times a misleading [one, e.g.] “Caesar’s court,” in Philippians 1:13 for the Syriac Pretorin, which is simply the transliteration of the Latin praetorium, the emperor’s praetorian guard.
Finally, Dr. Yamauchi observes that one may utilize Aramaic if one does so with caution. He discusses the reasons for this and concludes that the “cautious circumspection” of Aramaic scholars is in marked contrast to the “reckless speculation” of Lamsa. Though it is impossible to lend any credence to the fantastic claims of Lamsa, there,
…are sources of Aramaic which can be used with caution. In contrast to Lamsa, who minimizes the dialectical differences between late, eastern Syriac and early, western Aramaic, Fitzmyer warns us: “We should be suspicious of philological arguments about the Aramaic substratum when they depend on texts and dialects of Aramaic that come from a later date (e.g., from the third century A.D. or later), precisely because a new phase of the language begins about that time with clear geographical distinctions”….
How far removed is the cautious circumspection of Aramaic scholars from the reckless speculations of G. M. Lamsa!
With this brief background, we now examine the writings of Lamsa and Errico. To start we should observe that Lamsa claimed he was a Christian. “I pray God this translation will benefit Christians everywhere and will help them toward a better understanding of the greatest and most inspiring book of all ages. After all, sincere faith in Jesus Christ has its own reward and devotion to Christ is the principle of all Christianity.”
Did Lamsa remain faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible in his translation? The plain answer is “no.” In his writings, Lamsa denied the deity of Jesus Christ, the biblical teaching on salvation, the judgment, the personality of Satan and demons and numerous other cardinal doctrines of Christianity. Far from being a careful exegete of the Holy Scriptures, Lamsa played so fast and loose with the biblical text that it becomes obvious why so many different cults that deny the Bible turn to him for inspiration.
In his Idioms in the Bible Explained: A Key to the Holy Scriptures, we find a typical example of his approach to the Bible: allegorical and non-literal interpretations abound. The following examples, taken from pages 1-6 and 60-83, in his mind represent the true meaning of the following Scriptures. “Let there be light” in Genesis 1:3 refers to enlightenment or understanding. The Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:8 is a metaphor for a wife or a family. The tree of life in Genesis 2:9 refers to sex or posterity. The angels in Genesis 19:1 indicate God’s counsel, or spirits or God thoughts. Wrestling with an angel in Genesis 32:24 refers to being suspicious of a pious man. In Exodus 3:2, the burning bush means that difficulties lie ahead. In Exodus 3:5, “take off your sandals” means to disregard pagan teachings or to cleanse your heart. In Matthew 2:1-10 the wisemen following the star of Bethlehem is interpreted as “walking in the direction of the stars.” “The only begotten Son” (KJV), referring to Jesus Christ in John 1:18, signifies “the first one who recognized the fatherhood of God” and “the only God-like man, hence a spiritual son of God.” In Matthew 5:22, “fire of hell” means mental suffering or torment.
Lamsa in particular did not like the idea of a real devil or demons, and so in Matthew 8:31, “the demons” refers to insane men. In Matthew 12:43 “evil spirit” means an evil inclination or a demented person. In Mark 1:34, “he would not let the demons speak” is interpreted as Jesus not allowing the insane to speak after he had healed them. In Mark 5:9, “My name is Legion,” means that the possessed man had many wrong ideas or that he was a hopeless case. In Luke 4:41, when the demons came out of men, it indicates that many insane men were restored to mental health. In Luke 8:2, “seven demons,” refers to seven bad habits or wrong inclinations. In Luke 10:18, “Satan” expresses the idea of to stray, to slide, to mislead and to slip, and “[I saw] Satan fall” indicates that evil is destroyed.
In Lamsa’s book, More Light on the Gospel, he attempts to explain over 400 New Testament passages. Again, typically, we find non-literal renderings. In Matthew 4:8 the term “high mountain” is figurative and “means he took Him to the summit of his highest human imagination” (p. 2). The word “hated” in Romans 9:13, although perhaps used relatively, still means hate, but for Lamsa it is defined as “to put aside” (p. 187). Lamsa states, “God did not hate Esau. God is love and there is no hatred in Him” (p. 188); never mind that Scripture declares that God does hate (Psa. 5:5; Zech. 8:17; Mal. 2:16; Rev. 2:6). He denies that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, in spite of Romans 9:17-18 and Exodus 4:21, and he rejects that God judged the Canaanites, in spite of the clear testimony of the book of Joshua (p. 189). He also denies eternal punishment, despite Jesus’ clear teaching in Luke 16:19-31, which he calls “wholly allegorical.” In relation to 2 Corinthians 5:10, which refers to the judgment seat of Christ, Lamsa misinterprets the verse and states, “God and Jesus punish no one. People bring punishment upon themselves through their own evil deeds” (p. 227). This is in direct contrast to 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8 and many other verses. In Revelation 20:13-14, where death and hell are cast into the lake of fire, Lamsa says that “these sayings are used metaphorically,” and he again implies there is no eternal punishment (p. 363). Lamsa also has an unorthodox view of the second coming.
Even more disturbing are Lamsa’s view on Jesus Christ. In The Hidden Years of Jesus, Lamsa expresses a characteristic New Thought and Mind Science view of Jesus Christ: “Jesus” was the man; “Christ” was the God-part of him (cf. 1 John 2:22). “Jesus was born a man. He died on the cross a man, but Christ, God dwelling in him—his divinity, was not subject to human suffering nor to birth nor death” (pp. 10-11). The following statements by Lamsa, in More Light on the Gospels, also document his false view of Jesus Christ. “Jesus did not believe in the power of death” (p. 37). “Jesus... was the first to restore man’s divinity... he became the begotten son of God” (p. 120, emphasis added). “As Jesus advanced in his studies, he discovered that he himself was the man [the messiah] who was to take this mantle of the prophets” (emphasis added).
Further, in his 400 page text Gospel Light, Lamsa states that Jesus was never worshipped as God (p. 353), and that Jesus was not the Son of God as Christians understand the term (p. 148). “Any claim which Jesus might have made to be greater than God or even to be God himself would certainly have caused misunderstanding even among his own followers. He always declared that he was in accord with God who was greater than he” (p. 369).
Lamsa’s views on salvation are also heretical. In More Light on the Gospels (pp. 117-120), commenting on John 3:16, Lamsa rejects the clear meaning for his own biased interpretation. He actually denies that on the Cross Jesus atoned for the sin of the world:
No verse in the Holy Bible is more quoted than this one and yet none is probably more theologically misunderstood. This is because the Western reader does not understand Eastern customs and mannerisms of speech.... It is often said that Jesus Christ died for our sins, and that our sins could never have been forgiven without his death. The Aramaic word mitol means “because, or on account of or for” but the preferred meaning is “because.” I am inclined to believe that Jesus died because of our sins, because of man’s transgression against God’s law [i.e., not in an atoning sense but as a victim because evil men killed him]. God, being the living father, does not need to be appeased by his children [i.e., Jesus]. No human father would try to appease his wrath by putting one of his sons to death.... Assuredly the death of Jesus on the cross was predicted by the prophet Isaiah.... The prophet did not at any time say that Jesus’ death would reconcile God.... The Scripture says “God is love.” Indeed, love could not demand human sacrifices because there is nothing in love to be appeased. Jesus died on the cross not to appease God or the evil forces, but to prove that [all human] life is indestructible and everlasting because God is indestructible and everlasting.
Thus, “Jesus, through his death, became an everlasting example of meekness and loving kindness” (p. 228). “We do not mean that Jesus died to pay a price to the forces of evil for the sins of the people, but that he risked his life to rescue them from sin” (p. 229). “Jesus through his resurrection saved all mankind in that he gave to them an assurance of life here after” (p. 249).
In the quote above, Lamsa claims Jesus’ death did not atone for our sins or reconcile us to God. But one only need read Isaiah 53 to see how wrong Lamsa was. Finally, rejecting the biblical meaning of the term regeneration, he says that, “to be born again means to start over, to become like a child, receptive, like the first Adam before the transgression” (p. 310).
From all of this it is clear that Lamsa’s theology was not Christian, despite his claims. It is not surprising then, that his chief disciple, Rocco A. Errico, also denies basic Christian teachings.
Rocco A. Errico and the Noohra Foundation
The Noohra Foundation is the brainchild of Rocco A. Errico, whose purpose involves a “special emphasis on the teachings of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and related subjects.”
Errico and Lamsa were close friends. For seven years Errico studied under Lamsa, whom he believed to be a biblical authority and Aramaic expert. By and large, both Errico and Lamsa have taught doctrines close to New Thought teachings in general. In the quarterly publication Noohra, Vol. 4, No. 4, Errico states, “Man is God in disguise” (p. 3) and that false thinking, not sin, is the cause of human misery. “Jesus spoke of true freedom, i.e., freedom from erroneous thinking which is the cause of all human difficulties and enslaving philosophies, politically and religiously.”
Looking at Errico’s doctrines comprehensively, he denies the biblical nature of God, man, Jesus Christ and salvation as well as the biblical teaching on prayer and many other topics. On page 30 of The Ancient Aramaic Prayer of Jesus—The Lord’s Prayer, he states, “When we say the words ‘our universal Father,’ we are automatically recognizing other people’s sonship with the Father.... This means that the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese, the Arabs, and all people everywhere are the sons of God!” Because everyone is already one in essence with God, no one needs repentance from sin or the atoning Savior. People only need to realize that they are fully redeemed children of God; nothing else is necessary.
Like Lamsa, Errico alters the biblical text to conform it to the purported Aramaic original. For example, in Psalm 7:11 we read, “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day.” Errico changes this to “Alpha is a just judge and He is not angry every day.” Errico has changed hundreds of Scriptures like this, and he claims that thousands of others need changing! In effect, Errico and others are rewriting the entire Bible in accordance with their own wishes; they are restructuring biblical teachings into New Thought teachings (or whatever) by appealing to “Aramaic originals.” Thus God is defined as “infinite intelligence,” “the essence of all things... the entire cosmic system is alive,” “one power,” “life forces,” “the Source,” “inherent spiritual power” and so on. “He [God] is not someone to be feared.” God cannot be understood intellectually or doctrinally, He can only be perceived intuitively.
Errico’s teachings on Jesus Christ are also quite wrong. To him, Jesus is little more than a New Thought practitioner. To pray in Jesus’ name means experiencing the same New Thought awareness that Jesus supposedly felt: that all people are one and God is the universal Father; only the Good exists). In The Ancient Aramaic Prayer of Jesus, Errico offers us his new Christ. We are told that Jesus changed the Old Testament concept of God from a God of fear to a God of love. Errico also states, “Jesus knew that man’s spirit and God’s Spirit are of the same essence.... God and man, then, being of the same spiritual essence, are able to communicate—the infinite with the Infinite.” In John 8:24, where Jesus says, “You [will] die in your sins [if] you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be,” Errico argues, “‘Ye shall die in your sins’ means ‘You will die in your mistaken ideas, not knowing the truth.” John 14:13-14 is translated and given an expanded New Thought meaning from the Aramaic, “And anything you may ask according to my method I will do it for you so that the father may be celebrated through his son. And if you will ask me in my way, I am doing it.”
Errico’s views on salvation are also unbiblical. What we need is salvation from our ignorance about our oneness with God. Jesus never had to die on the Cross for sin because no one was ever separated from God. “And yet, we have been taught to approach God as if we were totally degraded, no good, unworthy sinners. Jesus never taught us this! It is a misunderstanding of Scripture!... At no time can there be separation from God! If we believe that we are cut off or separated from Him, then it is we who bring the sense of division. It is not God who does this; it is our own mental attitude. God is! And He is everywhere! He hasn’t changed! We have to change our wrong attitudes!”
Finally, we should note that given their New Thought worldview in general, the teachings of Lamsa and Errico endorse interest in the occult world. Lamsa stated, “Man has unlimited power within himself.” Errico has made an approving, if casual reference, to those who “seek aid and assistance from their personal spirit guides.”
This openness to the occult is evident in Noohra Foundation publications. Errico teaches psychic development classes titled “Intuitive Development Workshops” where people are taught psychic meditation and how to develop their “intuition”—psychometry, clairvoyance, clairsentience, clairaudience, “auric” and “pranic” healing and so on. Psychic development is also integrated into Errico’s Bible studies; for example, titles of his studies include “Moses and the Mystery Schools” and “Seers, Kings and Prophets—The First School of Psychic Development and the Methods Used by Samuel.” A Noohra Foundation brochure confuses the supernatural and natural realms when it declares: “Supernatural? Intuitive development will show you just how ‘super’ the natural in you really is. Learn to develop your healing and intuitive forces.... Allow yourself to be receptive; turn within and listen; the voice that speaks to you through you is known as intuition.” However, as we documented in our Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs in the chapters on New Age Intuition, Inner Work and Channeling, such attempts at psychic development often lead to occult involvement and have been employed by aspiring mediums and occultists for millennia. The end result here can hardly be different.
In conclusion, we lament that Errico has not taken his own advice: “We have become too bogged down in outward forms and dogmas and have set aside his [Jesus’] original teachings.” And, “it is the tendency of so many biblical authorities to complicate the obvious and simple meaning of the Scriptures.”