Saturday, June 02, 2007
The "Son of Man" Debate and Aramaic
Last year at the British New Testament Conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Maurice Casey and sharing a bottle of Australian red wine wth him at dinner (I use the word "share" rather loosely, since Maurice drank most of the bottle from what I remember). Over dinner, Maurice was celebrating his retirement and was opining the small number of Jesus/Gospel scholars who could actually read the language that Jesus spoke, i.e. Aramaic. Maurice has been at the forefront of research on the Aramaic approach to the Gospels, much in the tradition of Matthew Black and Geza Vermes. Part of the debate is whether the Aramaic bar nash(a) refers to "I" or "someone in my position" etc., as opposed to a titular usage in the Greek ho huios tou anthropou ("the Son of Man").
On the other side of the debate are scholars like Christopher Tuckett who understand "Son of Man" on the lips of Jesus as a self-reference to a corporate entity embodied in a single individual who experiences suffering and rejection and is clearly indebted to the mysterious figure of Daniel 7. Tuckett ask:
"Does not the language barrier militate strongly against such a view? Is it not the case that (assuming Jesus spoke in Aramaic) and the Aramaic phrase bar nasha(a) is such an ordinary, commonplace phrase that it simply will not bear the weight that the interpretation suggested above places on it. Are we enttield to try to work backwards from the Greek forms of the saying to any 'historical Jesus' witout first re-translating such sayings back into Aramaic and asking what such words would have meant to an Aramaic speaker or hearer? The argument has some force but, I believe, is not entirely persuasive ... Nevertheless it is now widely agreed in studies of semantics that words, or indeed phrases do not derive their meanings exclusively from themselves: meaning is often derived as much from the context in which words or phrases are used." (Christopher Tuckett, "The Son of Man and Daniel 7: Inclusive Aspects of Early Christologies," in Christian Origins: Worship, Belief and Society, ed. Kieran J. O'Mahony (JSNTSup 241; London: Continuum, 2004), 182-83.