A chapter from Ian Wilson’s
Jesus: The Evidence
Bultmann died in 1976, at the age of ninety-two. A whole generation of modern New Testament scholars, among them his Marburg successor Werner Kiimmel, Bristol University’s Dennis Nineham, Harvard University’s Helmut Koester, and others, acknowledge an immense debt to him for introducing a whole new school of thought in theological research. Others, however, recognize that Bultmann went too far, and have challenged his rigid, unshakable attitudes: in Britain, while acknowledging that each gospel per se may have been written at second hand, several scholars have devoted great attention to the detection of underlying first-hand sources. Not long after Bultmann had begun his professorship at Marburg, across the Channel at Queen’s College, Oxford, a shy and retiring Englishman, Canon Burnett Streeter, quietly put the finishing touches to The Four Gospels: A Study in Origins.
By this time, thanks to both British and German theological re- search, it was already recognized that the authors of Matthew and Luke, in addition to drawing on the gospel of Mark, must have used a second Greek source, long lost, but familiarly referred to by scholars as ‘Q’ (from the German ‘quelle’, meaning source). It was even possible to reconstruct Q’s original content from passages in which Matthew and Luke bore close resemblance to each other, but not to Mark. While reaffirming this thinking, Streeter postulated at least two additional sources: ‘M’, which seemed to have provided material peculiar to the Matthew gospel, and ‘L’ which furnished passages exclusive to Luke. Streeter evolved a chart of the synoptic gospels’ possible interrelationship and dependence upon such sources. ‘M’ and ‘L’ may well have been written in Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his disciples.
Streeter died in 1937, but his line of thought was developed by other major British theological scholars, among them Professor Charles Dodd, who went on to make his own special contribution to an understanding of the John gospel.
To this day the broad outlines of Streeter’s hypothesis remain the basis for much synoptic literary criticism. And the clues to underlying Aramaic sources are indeed there. In the Luke gospel, for instance, which includes ‘exclusives’ such as the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, there occurs the following saying:
Oh, you Pharisees! You clean the outside of cup and plate, while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness… Instead give alms from what you have and then indeed everything will be clean for you. (Luke II: 39-41).
‘Give alms’ appears to make no sense, yet it occurs in the very earliest available Greek texts. All becomes clear, however, when we discover that in Aramaic ‘zakkau’ (to give alms) looks very similar to ‘dakkau’ (to cleanse). That the original saying referred to ‘cleansing’ rather than ‘giving alms’ can be checked because Matthew includes a parallel passage in what we may now judge to have been the correct form: ‘Blind Pharisee! Clean the inside of cup and dish first so that the outside may become clean as well…’ (Matthew 23: 26). As has been remarked by Cambridge theologian Don Cupitt, this tells us more clearly than any amount of scholarship that whoever wrote Luke was not inventing his material, but was struggling with an Aramaic source that he was obviously determined to follow even if he did not fully under- stand it.
A similar misunderstanding is detectable in the Matthew gospel, notable for its remarkable ‘Sermon on the Mount’ passages, some of which, when translated from Greek into Aramaic, take on such a distinctive verse form that Aramaic must have been the language in which they were first framed. It is like translating the words ‘On the bridge at Avignon’ back into their original French.
(To be continued…)