Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Scandalous Origin of the Divinity of Jesus

It may be that a scandalous pun played a role in the development of Christianity.

Jesus, like all Palestinian Jews of his time, spoke Aramaic. Only the highly educated knew Hebrew, and all of them spoke Aramaic in everyday conversation. Jesus' teachings to his disciples, his conversations at home, and his debates with priests and pharisees, were in Aramaic.

Yet the New Testament is written in Greek. And therein could lie a scandalous pun that played a role in how, and why, Jesus became known as the Son of God.

Jesus was known as the son of Mary.

Mary in Hebrew is Miriam. In Aramaic, Maryam. In Greek, Maryam can become either Mariam or the shortened Maria (the Gospels use both, sometimes to describe the same person, Maria/m Magdalene). To the Roman and Greek speaking world, Jesus' mother was Maria. Just like modern Spanish.

Now to the pun. The Aramaic word for "Lord" (used extensively in the Aramaic version of the Jewish Bible where Jews wished to respectfully avoid using YHWH, the name of God) is "Marya". Jesus son of Maria. Jesus son of Marya. Oops.

With Christianity emerging from the reverberation between Greco-Roman and Aramaic cultures, the possible confusion between Maria and Marya might have had a real impact on how people understood things. Imagine Jerusalem street urchins chanting "Jesus son of Maria" in Greek, and tweaking the accent just a bit to goad their local priest into apoplexy at their heresy.

Hence perhaps also some of the reverence given to Maria/Marya. It could make for an interesting feminist interpretation.

Or maybe it's just insider language. Diaspora Jews spoke Greek, but if they knew any Aramaic words at all, surely "Marya" was one of them. So a street preacher could proclaim about Jesus son of Marya to a flock of diaspora Jews, and they'd get it, and the watchful Roman legionary would hear "Maria" and be none the wiser, or could at least choose to ignore it. For only Caesar could be acknowledged as ultimate Lord.

All this is fascinating, but to my mind not of much importance. What makes scriptures significant is the reverence in which the living hold them. What makes written narratives significant is the power they have to reveal, to enlighten, their readers. I don't care about how a narrative evolved, I care about what truth about life is expressed in the story.

The truth about life encapsulated neatly in the divinity of Jesus is that God, in all God's creative power, is to be recognized in the pinnacle, the essence of humanity, a servant, who would rather die than coerce, and who has the gall to call us to repent for behaving otherwise.

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photo credit: Lawrence OP Pieta via photopin (license)