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Ancient Revelations:
Aramaic Primacy

Charles C. Torrey
Late Professor of Semitic Languages at Yale

and the

Aramaic Period of the Nascent Christian Church

By John Reece

The appearance on earth of the Messiah signified the return of the Holy Spirit to the chosen people and the renewal of prophecy -- a phrase of deep meaning. It was the received doctrine that all the books of the Bible were written by prophets, that is, by men who had the Holy Spirit. "In Judaism the Holy Spirit is specifically the spirit of prophecy"; "The notion of inspired scripture thus grew naturally out of the nature of prophecy" (Moore).

Prophecy had ceased in the Persian period, but not forever. The Nazarenes laid stress on this doctrine : even though the Spirit had departed from Israel many years ago, it had now come back, and it rested upon the prophets and apostles who proclaimed the Messiah.

A significant feature of the new age, then, would be literature; inspired writings, in which the voice of the spirit of prophecy would again be heard in Israel. The nature of this literature none could foresee, beyond the essential : homage to the Anointed One, and the rehearsal of the promises made to the fathers. The language of the new scriptures must be one or both of the two sacred tongues, Hebrew and Aramaic; no other could be thought of in Jewish Palestine.

At the time when the followers of the Galilean Messiah were putting forth these documents of the day which had already dawned, the Jewish authorities were perfecting a most important new variety of Hebrew, a scholastic idiom which henceforth held an undisputed place in all the Jewish religious literature. It is characterized admirably and concisely by Moore, in his treatment of the Tannaitic literature, see Judaism I, 99f. It so happened, then, that the Christians and their writings in which rabbinical Hebrew had no place, were associated in thought with the diction and idioms of religious Aramaic; a language which the Jewish teachers had now discarded in their own religious writings, employing it only for popular anecdotes and the like.

However accidental the association of literary Aramaic with the Christian party may originally have been, it eventually was recognized as a familiar fact. Moreover, the early Christian writings aimed to imitate the language of the Hebrew Bible, thus lessening the gap between the old scriptures and the new. In the Aramaic-Greek of the Gospels there appear constantly idioms, borrowed from the Hebrew Bible, such as would never appear either in the Targums or in rabbinical Hebrew. The Jewish authorities, on the contrary, sought to keep the Biblical diction unique, thus making the gap as wide as possible between the divine oracles and all other writing. The contrast is striking and very significant. The Aramaic of the Nazarenes was not to favor the Jewish doctors.

The Nazarenes claimed inspiration for their Scriptures (Moore, Judaism, I, 189), which must then have been either Hebrew or Aramaic. Moore recognizes as originally Aramaic “the primitive Gospel and the first part of Acts” (I, 189). In these documents, at least, the Spirit would be speaking again to Israel. They are definitely Messianic literature, and this fact also would rank them as “prophecy” (see above). Whatever Moore’s phrase “primitive Gospel” may have been intended to mean, the fact is assured that our four Greek Gospels, as they stand, are close renderings of Aramaic originals. No one of these five documents, be it noted, makes formal claim to rank as “prophecy”, nor shows any consciousness of belonging to sacred literature.

In only one Christian writing of the Aramaic period, known to us, is the claim of divine inspiration made. This is the New Testament Apocalypse, the Revelation of John ; and in the writing itself the claim is definitely and repeatedly presented. The Holy Spirit, the writer insists, has returned to Israel. It has now brought a revelation for all the Christians, telling them what is soon to take place ; also messages to seven of the Greek churches of Asia, where encouragement is especially needed (see below).

John is a prophet ; he and his brothers of the of the new era continue the line which began with Moses and was broken off with Malachi. See Revelation 19:10; 22:8-9. [...] The testimony to Jesus (1:2, 9) is “the spirit of prophecy” (19:10; 22:6). (1:3) and at the end (22:7, 10, 18,19), where the phrase “the words of the prophecy of this book" is repeatedly employed. There are still other indications, subtle but effective , tending to support the claim of divine revelation.


It was about this time that the Jewish authorities took official notice of the Nazarene scriptures, in a formal pronouncement which by good fortune has been preserved. The date of the document is the first century, and it can be easily shown that it is earlier than the destruction of the temple by the Romans. There is specific mention of the “Gospels” (gilyōnīm); other “books of the heretics” are including in the ruling, but only in this indefinite phrase.

Footnote: Gilyōn was the customary abbreviation of a malicious pun on the Greek word for “gospel”, ewangelion, of which the first half was interpreted as the Hebrew awen, “nothingness, vanity”, the second half made to mean either “tablet (Jes 8:1) or “blank margin” (of a scroll). See quotation from Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Jochanan in Shabbath 116a, where two forms of the pun are given.

In the early rabbinical literature there are numerous passages in which mention is made of the Christians and their writings, particularly the Gospels. One of these passages stands forth conspicuously, in it's tone widely differing from any other such allusion in the rabbinical literature; an utterance very interesting in itself, also one of historical importance because of the inferences that are clearly to be drawn from it. It is an official ruling, authoritative but anonymous, to the effect that the claim of divinely inspired Christian writings is futile. The text of the decision is preserved in Tosephta Yadaim 2, 13 and reads as follows:

“The gilyōnīm and the (other) books of the heretics (mīmīm) are not inspired scripture. The books of Ben Sira, and whatever books have been written since his time, are not inspired scripture”.

The significance of this little document was first pointed out by Moore, in an article published in a volume of essays presented to Professor Charles A. Briggs, New York, 1911. The article caught the attention of the editors of “The Beginnings of Christianity” (London, Macmillan, 1920), and in Vol. I, pp. 318-320, they give considerable exerpts from it. Their conclusion is expressed as follows: “The extreme importance of this evidence is twofold. First, it can scarcely refer to Greek books. It is therefore the earliest and most direct evidence that we possess for the existence of Aramaic (or, conceivably, Hebrew) gospels” ... “Secondly, this ... is probably the earliest evidence for ‘gospels’ in any form”.

Since, however, the editors (like Moore himself) took it for granted that our Gospels were originally Greek and of late date, the interest in the ruling was mainly academic, and the matter was allowed to drop.


It is clearly implied, in the official ruling just quoted, that among those to whom the decision was addressed there were many who held that the writings named were holy scripture ; indeed, it was only to a large and influential element of the Jewish people that such formal recognition could have been given. The document comes from the time, above described, when the Nazarenes were still a part of the Jewish body.


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Date: 18 Jan 2011
Time: 12:29:28

Your Comments:

Interesting, I'd appretiate some good bibliography about the subject

Date: 07 Apr 2013
Time: 07:38:49

Your Comments:

Hey, this consists of, for the most part, a cut and paste of research done by me (copying from a German academic journal published in the 1950's) and posted by me (John Reece) at See here:

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