What language is it that Jesus spoke? “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” or “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” and what is the difference between the two readings?
Some say it is Hebrew – others Syriac. Rather, as the evangelists quote it, it is neither. Matthew comes nearest to the Hebrew, אלי אלי למה עזבתני Eli, Eli, lamah azabthani, in the words, Ηλι, Ηλι, λαμα σαβαχθανι, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani. Eli, Eli … – This language is not pure Hebrew nor Syriac, but a mixture of both, called commonly “Syro-Chaldaic.” Others say the words are partly Hebrew, and partly Chaldee; the three first are Hebrew, and the last Chaldee, substituted in the form of “Azabthani”; as it was, and still is, in the Chaldee paraphrase of the text in 22:1 which is where the quote comes from.
Why the difference between Matthew’s reading and Mark’s?
The prime difference is easily spotted. Simply the spellings of the reference to “My God” . Matthew uses ηλι [Eli] while Mark uses ελωι [Eloi]. Both are taken from the Hebrew Masoretic text of Psalm 22 [אלי אלי למה עזבתני] ’ēlî ’ēlî lāmâ ‘ăzabtānî . Neither text is a transliteration of the Hebrew but appear to follow the Aramaic from the Syriac Peshitta [’alāh[î] ’alāh[î] lmānâ šbaqtān[î] ]. These words are more likely to be Aramaic and not Hebrew, which was the language Jesus spoke. There are portions of the Bible written in Aramic, but they are in the Old Testament and not the New Testament. These words have then been transliterated or transposed into Greek letters. But all the sounds of one language can not be fully represented by the script of another language. Herein lies the problem. Further there are problems which come from the ancient world in which these languages were spoken because there was usually great variance between the way words were spelt. That is normal because there was not yet any standardization of the spelling conventions of the language. This is the case with many of the unwritten languages of the world today. There is often great variation in the way words are written. But there is no great significance or meaning behind the variations. It is interesting to note that the two written forms of “My God”, namely ηλι [Eli] and ελωι [Eloi] are found in the two Targums of this reading. [Eloi] appears to be the Aramaic spelling of ‘my God’, while [Eli] follows the Masoretic Text and is the ancient Semitic name for the supreme deity recorded in Akkadian and Ugaritic.
Some believe the words, as they stand in the Hebrew and Syriac, are capable of a translation which destroys all objections, and clears up the difficulty. The particle למה lamah, may be translated, to what – to whom – to what kind or sort – to what purpose or profit: [Gen_25:32; Gen_32:29; Gen_33:15; Job_9:29; Jer_6:20; Jer_20:18; Amo_5:18; and the verb עזב azab signifies to leave – to deposit – to commit to the care of. [Gen_39:6; Job_39:11; Psa_10:14, and Jer_49:11]. There is a Hebrew manuscript from the twelfth century, which instead of עזבתני [azabthani] – forsaken me, reads שכחתני [shechachthani] – Forgotten me. This word makes a very good sense, and comes nearer to the sabachthani of the gospel writers. The words might be thus translated: My God! my God! to what sort of persons hast thou left me? The words could be taken to be referring to the Jews rather than to Jesus, and are an exclamation indicative of the obstinate wickedness of his crucifiers, who steeled their hearts against every operation of the Spirit and power of God.
Through the whole of the Bible, God is represented as doing things in accord with His providence. Therefore, the words, to whom have You left or given me up, could carry the meaning, “How astonishing is the wickedness of those persons into whose hands I am fallen!” If this interpretation is accepted, it frees this passage from much embarrassment, and allows for more consistency of internal meaning with the rest of Scripture and with the dignity of the Son of God Himself. The words of Mark 15:34 agree more closely with the translation of the Hebrew: Εις τι με εγκατιλεπες; To what [sort of persons, understood] hast thou left me? A literal translation of the passage in the Syriac Testament gives a similar sense: “To what hast thou abandoned me?” And an ancient copy of the old Itala version, a Latin translation before the time of St. Jerome, renders the words thus: Quare me in opprobrium dedisti? “Why have You abandoned me to reproach?”
Some object, that this doesn’t agree with the ἱνατι, “why” of Matthew. But ἱνατι must have here the same meaning as εις τι – as the translation of למה [lama]. If the meaning is to be interpreted differently, we must follow Mark who expresses most literally the meaning of the original. The Septuagint (LXX) often translates למה by ἱνατι instead of εις τι, which proves that it often had the same meaning. There is huge debate among the experts over this. The subject is difficult and while I have tried to summarize the points for you it may still leave you “lost in translation”. But whatever we may think of the above possible interpretations, one thing is clear. The words could not be used by Jesus in the sense in which they are generally understood. Rather He well knew why He had come to that hour. Nor could he be forsaken of God, in whom dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.
This is without doubt a complicated discussion. I have tried to clip from the various sides of the debate the salient points above but I am aware that it may all be rather confusing to some of you. For all the difficulty between the readings it is interesting to note that both Matthew and Mark give the reading that has the same translation or interpretation. Namely My God My God, why have You forsaken me?” Note that Jesus calls on God and refers to Him as My God, rather than the normal way in which He refers to God as “Father”. There is much to ponder here.
As I teach in Deeper Bible, we must always look to the bigger picture and use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Note the relationship between the ridicule of Jews toward Jesus with the words “He trusted in God that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.” (Matt 27:43). They quoted the eighth verse of Psalm 22 to which Jesus immediately responds with the first verse – My God! my God! Oh there is strong relationship between the event and responses made and the whole of the passage quoted by both Jews and Jesus alike. It bears further investigation. I have therefore given you below the text of the 22nd Psalm again. Spot the connections! Highlight them.
Here then is the whole context.
For the choir director; upon Aijeleth Hashshahar. A Psalm of David.
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest. Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel. In You our fathers trusted; They trusted and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were delivered; In You they trusted and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm and not a man, A reproach of men and despised by the people. All who see me sneer at me; They separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying, “Commit yourself to the LORD; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him.”
Yet You are He who brought me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon my mother’s breasts. Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother’s womb. Be not far from me, for trouble is near; For there is none to help.
Many bulls have surrounded me; Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me. They open wide their mouth at me, As a ravening and a roaring lion. I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue cleaves to my jaws; And You lay me in the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots.
But You, O LORD, be not far off; O You my help, hasten to my assistance. Deliver my soul from the sword, My only life from the power of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth; From the horns of the wild oxen You answer me.
I will tell of Your name to my brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You. You who fear the LORD, praise Him; All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, And stand in awe of Him, all you descendants of Israel. For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.
From You comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him. The afflicted will eat and be satisfied; Those who seek Him will praise the LORD. Let your heart live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, And all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the LORD’S And He rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth will eat and worship, All those who go down to the dust will bow before Him, Even he who cannot keep his soul alive. Posterity will serve Him; It will be told of the Lord to the coming generation. They will come and will declare His righteousness To a people who will be born, that He has performed it.Psalm 22:1-31
In the next Gem we will turn our attention to “the Psalm 22 connection”.
Trying times are not the times to stop trying!Anon
Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want!Anon
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.Martin Luther King
If you’re growing, you’re always going to be out of your comfort zone!Ian Vail
Some people’s tombstone is just going to be a certificate of attendance? Come on, do something worth recording for eternity!Ian Vail