Viewing Gospel in Aramaic of Jesus’ Time Is Best Translation

The ancient Greek word for sin, hamartia, is an archery term that refers to missing the mark. It evokes an image of someone who tries to hit the bull’s eye, who has the intention of hitting it dead on, but who fails.

As pure as our intentions may have been, what if our past interpretations of Jesus’ message have created a Gospel that was never meant to be? Wouldn’t that mean that we have sinned against the gospel?

It is important to remember that Jesus spoke Aramaic better than he spoke Greek and Latin, and that most of the people with whom he interacted likely spoke Aramaic as well. It was the common language spoken by most of the locals. Given this fact, wouldn’t it make more sense if we bypassed the intermediate translations and tried to find out what his message was in his own idiom? Thinking that we can only find truth in Jesus’ words in our own language makes no more sense than accepting at face value a Spanish text translated into English via Russian.

That’s what a new movement of Aramaic linguistic study is all about: Discovering the words of Jesus in his spoken tongue.

The ancient Greek word for gospel was euangelion, which meant, literally, “good news.” It was a term employed by messengers to announce to a ruler that his armies had won a battle. For delivering euangelion, the messenger would receive a reward from the people, which was also referred to as euangelion; thus, euangelion referred to politically charged good news and the subsequent reward for that news.

Applying the word euangelion to Jesus’ message, then, implies that it was laced with political treason. This is definitely a possibility, but what if euangelion is not what he called it? In Aramaic, the word for gospel was sevartha, which means, simply, “hope.” It was not a politically charged word; it had no connection to a government in place. It just meant hope.

Some circles within Christianity define the Gospel as a verbal message that should end with the listener’s conversion. This is not what the words for gospel meant in either ancient Greek or Aramaic. Maybe if we look at the original words in context, we might get a better picture of what Jesus meant.

Matthew 4:23 reads, “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.” In this context the Gospel of Jesus is about healing people. In a society where diseases got people kicked out of town and isolated from human interaction, the act of healing such outcasts, of dealing directly with them, had political, social, economic, and spiritual ramifications. The gospel then becomes about inclusion.

Could the Gospel of Jesus be hope in the form of healing? Healing governments. Healing homelessness. Healing indifference, intolerance, and injustice. If the Gospel of Jesus is about hope, then to prescribe a formula to it (i.e., you must say this prayer to be saved) is to introduce caveats that Jesus never intended. If we accept that the gospel is some determined mechanistic formula that excludes rather than includes, than we deny the very Gospel that Jesus came to bring.

Out of either fear or an inadequate spatial awareness, we have for centuries perpetuated a gospel of exclusion. Christianity needs to be healed from the oppression it might have helped create by treating the Gospel as a tool for exclusion. In seeking to find ways to create exclusion rather than inclusion and thus subverting the grace of God, we have sinned against the gospel. Even if we had good intentions behind our need to define who’s in and who’s out, we ultimately chose a different gospel from the one Jesus sought to impart.

What about the Kingdom of God? In context, Jesus seems to talk about the Kingdom of God in terms of whom it interacts with. He treats the Kingdom of God as dynamic and alive. It empowers. It inspires. It doesn’t constrain or confine. If anything, it opens up possibilities. In ancient Greek the word can mean “realm.” We might think of the word “realm” literally, as a geographical space, but it may have meant something more like “reality.”

If the Kingdom of God is a reality, then everyone everywhere can participate in living it out together. There are no denominations, no religions, and no labels. It’s people working together to live out heaven here. Now.

The Aramaic word that is rendered as “Kingdom of God” is melak, which meant “counsel” or “advice” and typically had a divine connotation. (It was related to the Aramaic word for angelic messenger.) In this light, the Kingdom of God is better understood as the Divine Counsel of God. Does that change how we see the message of Jesus? When Jesus begins parables saying, “The Kingdom of God is like…,” he is essentially saying that God wants to interact with his Creation, not be separated from it. This is why believing that we are separated from God cheapens the desire that God has to be with all of his creation and unintentionally alters Jesus’ message.

A child who is learning to walk might bump into the same object over and over while he is learning to adjust to his surroundings. What he doesn’t understand is that he is only bumping into a corner of that object, all the while missing the rest of that object. I think that’s what has happened over hundreds of years. We’ve somehow touched only a corner of the gospel, and in recent years we are discovering the rest of it. I think it’s safe to say that the gospel is bigger than you or I or even one religion. I want to make it clear, though, that I am not an enemy of Christianity, and that I do not want to dissolve it. I am simply looking for a new kind of Christianity that exists beyond our presumptions. The Gospel as we know it is one of the presumptions I am dealing with.

Looking at the gospel in its original Aramaic reminds us that it isn’t ours to claim, that everyone can join in it, and that it should compel us to bring hope in its many forms. It opens us up to the realization that preaching the gospel means looking for arenas where we can heal others. It doesn’t mean that we should colonize; it simply means that we should participate in the creative, subversive application of extreme hope to all of the contexts in which we found ourselves. It means that we should believe in hope over religion. It means that love has the last word.

Perhaps we shouldn’t call it “gospel” but “hope.” Hope against all hope. The sort of hope that transforms governments. The sort of hope that ardently views humanity as healed rather than broken. The sort of hope that lives and embraces the reality of hope having the last word. When we start living in that kind of reality, we are already perpetuating the Gospel.

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