The Aramaic Revelation

By James David Audlin. Drafts for the introduction to the restoration of the original Aramaic text of The Revelation to John, to be published in 2015 by Editores Volcán Barú. Copyright © 2014 by James David Audlin. All worldwide rights reserved. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Editores Volcán Barú.

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It is all but certain that the Revelation was composed in Aramaic; the most obvious reason among others is that the Greek text is riddled with grammatical mistakes, nearly all of which turn out to be good grammar in Aramaic. This is a clear sign that the scribe who put it into Greek was so filled with piety for the holy, inspired work in front of him that he rendered it with slavish literality, preferring to translate it so exactly that his Greek syntax suffered to the point of frequent near-incomprehensibility. So verbatim is this translation that to anyone familiar with both languages it has the same clumsy clunkiness of a text translated by computer. Unfortunately, this putative original author’s version in Aramaic does not survive. But the good news is that the Greek Textus Receptus must be very close to that original, and, where it is difficult to follow, the solution should be found by consulting the best and earliest Aramaic text we have, the so-called Crawford Revelation.

It is also a near certainty that this best and earliest Aramaic text is not a direct translation from the Greek. The Crawford manuscript (so named for a previous owner) is the oldest complete New Testament in Aramaic; by “complete” I mean that it includes the Antilegomena (II Peter, II and III John, and Jude) and the Revelation, works which for centuries were not part of the New Testament in Eastern Christianity. In fact, the Crawford includes the earliest extant Aramaic version of the Revelation. In its entirety, especially in the Revelation, this Syriac manuscript displays an eloquent, literary, often explicitly poetic, and virtually flawless Aramaic. Moreover, when the Crawford New Testament quotes the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament), the wording clearly comes from a Semitic original, either the Hebrew Bible or the Aramaic Targum, and not from the Greek version, the Septuagint. And also, no Greek text or combination of Greek texts could possibly be the original behind the Crawford Revelation. Thus it overstrains credulity to believe that an Aramaic original of presumably high literary quality was translated into inferior Greek, which was then back-translated into beautiful Aramaic.

For the most part the Crawford and the standard Greek text of Revelation agree in meaning, and that is an important consideration; the latter, as a direct translation of the lost Aramaic original, must be consulted in any effort to establish that original. Still, there are many significant differences between the two that strongly suggest the Crawford does not rely on the Greek. Indeed, when compared to the Crawford, the Textus Receptus displays another fault: the translator’s decision to mirror the Aramaic in the Greek ran into a problem when he came upon Aramaic words that had no exact Greek equivalent, and so he was forced to make up some kind of approximation in Greek.

For instance, in the very first chapter, in verse 13, the Crawford says the figure is wearing an ܐܲܦܼܘܼܕܼܵܐ (ˀăpūḏā), an ephod, the breastplate traditionally worn by the high priests in the Temple, but the Greek incorrectly says instead that the figure is ενδεδυμενον ποδηρη, “clothed to the feet”. If the scribe responsible for the Crawford had been basing it on the Greek, he would have simply translated “clothed to the feet” into Aramaic, for there is nothing in that phrase that even hints at the ephod. Only if he were endowed with the most astonishing parapsychological powers could he have known to put down ܐܲܦܼܘܼܕܼܵܐ for ενδεδυμενον ποδηρη.

What is not clear is the relationship between these two Aramaic texts, the lost original and the Crawford. The author’s draft of the Revelation was written down in the year 68, and the Crawford manuscript dates to the twelfth century, more than a millennium later. It would thus be foolish to say it is a faithful copy of the Presbyter’s original text, or something close to it, or that it is the source for the Greek Textus Receptus, as does one Crawford translator, David Bauscher.

Some scholars think the Crawford New Testament may be, or may be closely related to, the Philoxenian (completed in 508) or Harklean New Testaments, which may or may not be the same thing; I think not, since what we have of these versions (completed respectively in 508 and 616) is heavily influenced in vocabulary and text by the Greek, and the Crawford shows not the least sign of such influence.

First, we must remember that during those twelve hundred years Eastern Christianity had virtually no interest in the Revelation: it was for that communion not even part of the New Testament canon, and so no wonder that, though a plethora of Eastern theological texts and hymns survive, there is very little that even might be based on the apocalyptic imagery of the Revelation.

Second, the shelf life of manuscripts was usually far shorter than a millennium; they often were destroyed by fire, mold, worms, political tyrants, or (worse) self-appointed theological censors and santizers. In fact, it is a miracle that we have as many New Testament manuscripts as we do, and we must not forget that they are but a tiny (and very likely in some ways unrepresentative and even misleading) portion of all the manuscripts that were produced, to say nothing of the far greater provenance of oral witness, in a day when oral witness was not only much more common but generally more trusted (see The Gospel of John, pages 219-21). Therefore, the chain of manuscripts that led to the Crawford had to comprise a minimum of links, and in every generation of copies only one or a very few copies must have been made. Since it is a basic fact in the study of ancient manuscripts that the more copies the greater the number of textual variations, this situation tells us that over the centuries there was far less possibility of multiple versions than in the West, where the Greek (and later Latin) copies were in such abundance that the number of variant readings for nearly every New Testament verse is bewildering. In turn, the small chance of variant readings in the Syriac Aramaic Revelation over these twelve centuries maximizes the possibility of the Crawford being reasonably faithful to its predecessors.

Put another way, the fact that we have not even a single stepping stone of textual evidence between the original manuscript of Revelation and the Crawford Revelation actually is far from a fatal blow to any theory that the two are related. In fact, it tells us something extremely important: that the number of generations of copies between them – each of which could easily result in some straying here and there from the original text; indeed, even a lot of straying – is decidedly small. There is always that chance, be it great or small, that the Crawford was copied directly from the autograph or an early and faithful copy thereof.

There are internal clues in the Crawford. For the most part, it is equivalent to the much later Peshitta version, but clearly with added corrections. Sometimes the Crawford text simply reads differently from the Peshitta as if it were at such a point copied directly from another manuscript unlike the Peshitta. Sometimes we find a corrected word squeezed into the available space after the incorrect Peshitta word was scraped away by the scribe. Sometimes, when the corrections would not fit within the body of the text, we find them added in the margin, together with notes regarding their proper placement, as in verse 2:23.

Therefore, a reasonable guess is that the Crawford was made by consulting two earlier manuscripts. One must have resembled the Peshitta text, and this one was the main one used for simply copying text. The other was one that was carefully compared by the same or another scribe to the Peshitta-type text, and where it differed from the latter, he saw to it that the Crawford followed this non-Peshitta-type manuscript. The fact that the Crawford was not simply copied from this better non-Peshitta manuscript but the less correct Peshitta-type text suggests that the latter was more recent and therefore sturdy enough to withstand constant daily use required by the copying process, and the other, better, text that was the source of the corrections was fragile – too fragile to use on a constant basis as a base text, but that still be carefully consulted for purposes of comparison and correction. This scenario suggests that the better manuscript was far older than the one used simply for copying.

Of course it is possible that the older, better manuscript was the autograph or something very close to it. But we must not leap to that conclusion. Arguing against such a claim is the presence of obvious interpolations, such as the one in verse 1:7 that comes from Matthew 24:30, a gospel that was not written for quite a few years after the Revelation was first composed. Certainly this interpolation may be present in the Crawford simply because it was found in both the source manuscript and the correction manuscript. On the other hand, any number of scenarios could explain why the scribe might retain such interpolations even if he found them only in his source (Peshitta-type) manuscript: for instance, because they were by then considered authentically part of the Revelation, or because since they came from other parts of scripture (Matthew in this case) they had to be retained because they were scripture.

I think the Crawford is probably closely related to the Presbyter’s original text, but what the exact relationship might or might not be I care not to guess – and nobody knows, despite all the arguing. While I admire the many scholars and amateur enthusiasts who insist that much or all of the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic, I am frustrated by the energy they put into foolish rationalizations. If any canonical text was written in Aramaic, it is the Revelation, but calm and caution will serve better to establish that than histrionics. I am equally frustrated by the scholars who insist that the entire New Testament, including the Revelation, was composed in Greek, who even as they sneer at the Aramaic primacists resort to irrationally complex and hence unlikely theories to explain away the plain evidence and common-sense conclusion that the Crawford is related to the autograph.

My conclusion that both the Crawford and the Greek Textus Receptus are close to the autograph, though in different ways. Therefore my decision is to base the reconstruction herein of the original text primarily on the Crawford – not only is it the only Syriac manuscript of Revelation that is not overtly a translation from the Greek, but it is a work of extremely high literary quality. As a close second to the Crawford my approximation is founded on the Greek Textus Receptus, and tertiarily on the standard Syriac version that is now (but was not originally) part of the Peshitta New Testament, referred to henceforth simply as the Peshitta.

 

There is more discussion and explanation of the Aramaic original in my commentaries to this work than of Greek in the commentaries in the previous volumes. Even though presumably most readers read neither Greek nor Aramaic, they are still more familiar with the Greek language, which as an ancestor of most Western European tongues has contributed a vast number of words to them: the modern speaker of English is talking in Greek far more often than he or she realizes. What is more, modern Westerners are the children of the Greek world. Its philosophers, poets, and historians are the founders of their culture, and the Græco-Roman way of viewing the world in the first centuries of the common era still pertains today as normative: like those Greek philosophers, the modern Westerner has a sense of self as somewhat divorced from its surroundings, in which the individual takes precedence over the people, and in which one must compete with one’s fellows rather than coöperate with them for the greater good. The Bible, though written almost entirely by Semitic people, is read and interpreted through an exclusively Greek perspective, from which God and heaven are hope distant in time and space (if not nonexistent for them) and Satan or at least evil, seen as a puissant force of malevolence nurtured in the hearts of everyone they hate, is constantly besieging them and requiring a doughty defense using the same methods used by these others.

Thus to do my job adequately well I must hold up as often as I can a Semitic lens to this text, and one important way to do this is by discussing the original language of the text to enable the reader to have a better sense of its meaning for the author and his original readers.

Indeed, I think John the Presbyter was very conscious of these two extremely different worlds. His earlier works, with the probable exception of the short letter called II John, and most prominently the Gospel of John, were originally written in Greek – excellent Greek to be sure, but still a foreign language to him. John was taught the tools of logic and historical analysis by Philo in Greek, but he was taught about life and God by Jesus in Aramaic. John wrote Greek well, but he did his deepest thinking in his mother tongue, Aramaic.

Why then, after decades of composing great works almost exclusively in Greek, did the Presbyter on Patmos and ever after write his last major works, the Revelation and the Songs of the Perfect One, in Aramaic? In short, his earlier Greek works brought Jesus to the world, but his later Aramaic works brought the world to Jesus.

John’s Greek writings were immediately intelligible to most people in the eastern Mediterranean region and a large plurality in the Italian peninsula and to its west as well. But what these readers were reading were translations: they were John’s best approximation in Greek of Jesus’s teachings in Aramaic, and so the sublime wisdom was inevitably distorted to a degree. His last works would have been comprehensible to only a very few outside the communities of Jews and Samaritans in Judæa and the surrounding countryside, and in the cities of the Diaspora, such as Alexandria, Ephesus, and Rome – but no more. Still, these works were the truth: they were lenses without defect, letting through directly and ideally the light of Jesus’s teachings, which John believed was given to Jesus by God.

John’s first works were also in what were familiar formats in the pervasive Græco-Roman civilization. His gospel was structurally modelled on classical plays, Platonic dialogues, and histories. They use the Greek mind-tools of logic and reason. But his last works were not only linguistically but culturally foreign to the imperial world. The Greeks and Romans as individuals and as a culture believed in seizing power and using it to take advantage of others before they did the same thing to you, but faithful Jews and Samaritans sought to love their neighbors as themselves; they saw holiness and deity as extremely vividly present in their daily lives, as more present to them than even this mundane world, more present to them than even themselves: with every breath they inhaled the ruach of God and exhaled the sacred name YHWH. Thus at the climax of his first great work in Aramaic, when in Revelation 21:1-3 John saw heaven coming down to be united with earth, he was seeing the Semitic way being imposed upon the Greek way: heaven as no longer far away, God no longer as just a distant concept, but coming down to earth and wiping away all the tears of pain and grief.

So John’s shift to Aramaic was a shift from adjusting Jesus’s teachings to fit the Greek world (the Gospel of John) to expecting the world to adjust to Jesus’s teachings (the Revelation and the Songs). The world might or might not do so – but, to adopt Ezekiel’s analogy, John’s responsibility was only to blow the warning bugle; if the world ignored his clarion alarm, it was the world’s fault, not John’s.

The Presbyter’s “return to his roots” is also intimately related to a fundamental change in his central philosophy, as has been discussed elsewhere in this group of books. John, together with Simon the Rock (Peter) and James the Just (Jesus’s brother) had originally expected Jesus to retire from the world stage for a time, while they spread his teachings far and wide, among the Semitic peoples and the Greeks and Romans as well; and then Jesus would come back and lead a peaceful revolution of his followers to overthrow and replace the evil Roman Empire with an earthly approximation of God’s sacred realm, the Æon. This, of course, is the original sense of the “immediate parousia”; the word παρουσια refers to a king coming in full pomp and splendor to review the troops after they have won the war, to receive from them power over the newly conquered territory.

But Jesus (as discussed for instance in The Gospel of John at pages 1039-40) was in terrible physical condition following his crucifixion, and eventually he with Mary relocated in Rome and then Gaul (ibid., pages 208-18). Furthermore, a man known both as Saul and Paul, who had never even met Jesus, let alone discipled with him, had single-handedly taken nearly complete control of the Jesus movement, teaching Jesus as a Roman-style incarnated godling in a spiritual body not subject to the pain or desires of human flesh, and assuring gentile converts that Jesus did not require them to obey the laws of the Torah. Paul also urged docile obedience to the imperial hegemony, and vehemently dismissed Simon, James, and especially John as hypocritical charlatans. And Paul’s highly evangelistic followers were actively seeking converts among John’s own congregations (as the seven letters in the Revelation attest), even sometimes arranging their arrest or execution (as the Revelation letters suggest Paul himself did to John; see ibid., pages 255-57) such that the number of those who held to the original teachings of Jesus as imparted by John was rapidly and significantly shrinking. Given these two contextual realities, to say nothing of the adamant might of the Roman Empire, the possibility of Jesus establishing a heavenly kingdom on earth would be impossible.

Struggling with this issue, John eventually settled on what I call his “brave new theology” (ibid., pages 362-70), in which the troops were Jesus’s teaching and the new territory not on land but the soul of the individual, and the objective was to persuade each person who encountered this teaching to live in accordance with God’s Logos, God’s perfect plan and natural law for the unfolding of the universe, such that individual by individual the Æon would be established – not as a territory but as a people. And thus the παρουσιαwas the individual’s welcoming of God and God’s appointed emissary-son, the Master Jesus, into one’s soul. This “brave new theology” is expressed in the later chapters of the gospel, but it it is at the heart of the Revelation and the Songs of the Perfect One – and, written in Aramaic, they come from John’s heart and ultimately from Jesus’s heart, and challenge the reader to adjust him- or herself to these teachings, not to read them as already adjusted to one’s own language and culture, as watered down and made palatable to questionable foreign ways.

Ironically, this idealistic hope on John’s part that he could open the Græco-Roman world up to the Semitic spirituality was in vain. The Revelation was blatantly reinterpreted in a Greek way, as some kind of Sibylline Oracle, as something mad spouted by a priestess at Delphi drunk on poisonous fumes venting from deep caverns. Today the book is smothered under two millennia of misunderstanding, widely used by religious leaders as a fear-eliciting tool to keep the faithful masses under their thumb and providing them with money and power out of dread of an end-of-the-world scenario that has always been just around the corner for two thousand years. And the Songs of the Perfect One – with their very physical Jesus coïtally and spiritually one with his wife Mary, so contrary to the Pauline dogma of Jesus as God in a spiritual body free from human desires – were not banned, which would have encouraged covert attention to them, were not burned, which would have sent copies into hiding, but simply labelled as uninstructive and uninteresting, so they would be destroyed by time: languishing forgotten on dusty back sheles until every copy had moldered or been consumed by worms. This brilliant move very nearly succeeded: today very few manuscripts survive of the Songs, part of the first song and all of the second are utterly lost to time, and only a handful of specialists (and a few dedicated if wacky New Age writers) have even looked at this last and most sublime work of the Presbyter.

 

James David Audlin (89 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.


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