Monday, May 24, 2010

Scrutinizing Irenaeus's Use of Hebrew Words

I have been thinking all day whether or not the evidence I brought forward yesterday really suggests that Irenaeus wrote in Aramaic or Syriac. I put forward four tracts of Five Books Against the Heresies (as well as Irenaeus's self-confession that he wrote in a βάρβαρον διάλεκτον) which have become hopelessly corrupt and seem to originate with references to a Semitic language.

The first reference was from Irenaeus's description of the prayers of the Marcosians:

Others still repeat certain Hebrew words, in order the more thoroughly to bewilder those who are being initiated, as follows: "Basema, Chamosse, Baoenaora, Mistadia, Ruada, Kousta, Babaphor, Kalachthei." The interpretation of these terms runs thus: "I invoke that which is above every power of the Father, which is called light, and good Spirit, and life, because Thou hast reigned in the body." Others, again, set forth the redemption thus: The name which is hidden from every deity, and dominion, and truth which Jesus of Nazareth was clothed with in the lives of the light of Christ--of Christ, who lives by the Holy Ghost, for the angelic redemption. The name of restitution stands thus: Messia, Uphareg, Namempsoeman, Chaldoeaur, Mosomedoea, Acphranoe, Psaua, Jesus Nazaria. The interpretation of these words is as follows: "I do not divide the Spirit of Christ, neither the heart nor the supercelestial power which is merciful; may I enjoy Thy name, O Saviour of truth!" Such are words of the initiators; but he who is initiated, replies, "I am established, and I am redeemed; I redeem my soul from this age (world), and from all things connected with it in the name of Iao, who redeemed his own soul into redemption in Christ who liveth." Then the bystanders add these words, "Peace be to all on whom this name rests."[AH i.21.3]

Harvey's notes to this section are "such passages are more open to corruption than others and it is more likely that the ignorance of the transcribers should have altered barbarous expressions that they did not understand than that Irenaeus, himself of Oriental extraction should have set down a cento of unintelligible words in Hebrew or Syriac. The interpretations may be referred to another hand" [p.184]

I am thinking in terms of Irenaeus writing continuously in Syriac (which the translator understands better) and then he shifts to Hebrew or Western Aramaic which the author doesn't seem to know so well. Could a Syriac speaker really have been utterly confounded by eastern Aramaic? Let's continue.

The next example was the misunderstanding of 'Colorbasus' - "This Marcus then, declaring that he alone was the matrix and receptacle of the Sige of Colorbasus, inasmuch as he was only-begotten, has brought to the birth in some such way as follows that which was committed to him of the defective Enthymesis." [AH i.14.1] - which as most of us know derives from the Hebrew kol arba 'all four' or 'voice of four.'

The third example was Irenaeus reference to 'Sura Usser':

Moreover, Jesus, which is a word belonging to the proper tongue of the Hebrews, contains, as the learned among them declare, two letters and a half, and signifies that Lord who contains heaven and earth; for Jesus in the ancient Hebrew language means "heaven," while again "earth" is expressed by the words sura usser. The word, therefore, which contains heaven and earth is just Jesus. Their explanation, then, of the Episemon is false, and their numerical calculation is also manifestly overthrown. For, in their own language, Soter is a Greek word of five letters; but, on the other hand, in the Hebrew tongue, Jesus contains only two letters and a half. The total which they reckon up, viz., eight hundred and eighty-eight, therefore falls to the ground. And throughout, the Hebrew letters do not correspond in number with the Greek, although these especially, as being the more ancient and unchanging, ought to uphold the reckoning connected with the names. For these ancient, original, and generally called sacred letters of the Hebrews are ten in number (but they are written by means of fifteen, the last letter being joined to the first. And thus they write some of these letters according to their natural sequence, just as we do, but others in a reverse direction, from the right hand towards the left, thus tracing the letters backwards.[AH ii.24]

I am fortunate to have one of the world's leading Semitic language experts as a close friend. Here is his FIRST attempt to explain the corruption:

I’ve been looking at the cryptic words by Irenaeus SURA ASSER, together with the cryptic mention of the name Jesus just before. Before committing myself, I will have to look at a critical edition to see if the mss. are unanimous. Provisionally, here is my solution for the corruption in transmission. The solution to the meaning will have to wait.

The editorial note connecting the three letters ישו with the initials of יהוה שמים וארץ can be kept. Then let us suppose that the Hebrew words were written with the Romanisation underneath, for the benefit of someone not knowing Hebrew. Let us suppose the Romanisation was on two lines, one line having the graphemic transcription (i.e. according to the letters) and the next line the phonetic transcription (i.e. according to the sound.

Let’s suppose that the source was an edition of the whole Torah in Hebrew letters and Greek letters and Greek phonetic transcription. Such editions are mentioned in the Talmud. Bear in mind what was said earlier on, that meaningless sets of letters tend to get re-arranged so as to yield something pronounceable, and also to yield something that looks like a familiar combination of letters.

Step one. SURA is a re-arrangement of SRAU, itself a corruption of SSRAU. The letters follow the order of a graphemic transcription written right to left directly underneath a Hebrew word, each letter right under its equivalent.

Step two. USSER is a corruption of UARESS (The combination SS at the end of a word does not occur in Latin or Greek, but is common within a word).

Step three. Here is a sample of the original book. In the transcription system of the original book, S = Samech and probably Sin, and SS = Tsade. I assume there must have been some diacritical mark on the S representing Shin. The combination of words is from Genesis II: 4. I have used the Byzantine form C for a capital Sigma.

יהוה שמים וארץ
και γην ουρανον Κυριος

Now my reconstruction of the original statement.

”Moreover, IEUE (or IEU) [the Tetragrammaton], which is a word belonging to the proper tongue of the Hebrews [Hebrew, not Aramaic, but perhaps also meaning untranslatable], contains, as the learned among them declare, two [ordinary] letters [He and Vav] and a half [half-sized letter, Yod], and signifies that Lord [Greek Kyrios, the usual pronounceable equivalent for the Tetragrammaton] who contains both Heaven and Earth [Or who is manifested both in Heaven and on Earth.

Remember what I’ve told you about the repetition יהוה יהוה The author of the inserted gloss has probably not understood this implicit argument, though I think Irenaeus understood it]. {{Now an inserted gloss by an ignorant copyist using a text of the Torah in Hebrew and Greek with phonetic equivalents}}. {{Omission of a sequence of letters by later copyists, i.e. later than the author of this gloss. Something like MIMS SAMEM has been left out}} in the ancient Hebrew language [Hebrew not Aramaic] means “Heaven”, while again “Earth” is expressed by SRAU UARESS. [Showing that he does not understand that there SEEM to be two words in the Hebrew because one is the graphemic transcription and one the phonetic transcription. He reads the graphemic transcriptions backwards. With this degree of ignorance, he MUST have had a fourth line in Greek before him to find the words he was after. This is probably not Irenaeus, but a pig-ignorant earlier author.

Irenaeus was able to work out the dialect differences between his native language, Galatian [Galatia in SW Turkey], and Gaulish [most of France], both Celtic. He wrote in Greek. He must have had some linguistic ability]. The word, however, which contains both Heaven and Earth is just [one single word] IEU [or IEUE]”. [Because the third line was blank because no phonetic equivalent could be given for the Tetragrammaton]. {{End of incompetent guess at connecting the double significance of the Tetragrammaton with the name Jesus}}.

What follows brings these three words into connection with the name Jesus by pointing out that the three initial letters Yod-Shin-Vav spell Yeshu, showing how the name Yeshu hints at the double significance of the Tetragrammaton. Note the word “hint”. I don’t think Irenaeus thought it to be proof. To Irenaeus, that probably meant the name Yeshu hinted at the doctrine of the Incarnation, though I think he has misunderstood that doctrine in the same way as most theologians these days.

This is a summary of my reading of the passage in Irenaeus.

Irenaeus: Moreover, IEU (IEUE), a uniquely Hebrew word, having two full letters (He [twice] and Vav) and one half-letter (Yod), and pronounceable as Kyrios (Lord), unites Heaven and Earth.

Misguided glossator: [Missing two words] in Hebrew means Heaven, and srau uaress means Earth, whereas the name for what unites Heaven and Earth, Ieu or the Tetragrammaton, is a single word.

The hint used (not a proof, but what the Talmud calls a remez) is easily memorable, because the verse Genesis II: 4 and its context are appropriate.

There is no point in trying to re-interpret the two transcribed Hebrew words, because what is said about them is not part of Irenaeus’s work, but merely a bad guess by a glossator on what Irenaeus said. The two words must be:

(a) a graphemic transcription of וארץ according to the standard system of the time, written from right to left because originally written letter by letter under the Hebrew OR IN PLACE OF HEBREW LETTERS

(b) a phonetic transcription of the same word, copied from a column in which it was written from left to right.

The first word must be SSRAU and the second must be UARESS. I now see that I assumed too much when saying all this the first time round. I was thinking of a KNOWN DOCUMENT, the second column of Origen’s Hexapla. This is commonly cited in early Christian commentaries as ho Hebraios ο Εβραιος. It is always spoken of as if it were a single column, but it must in fact have been divided into two parts. Otherwise the first column must have been the Hebrew text in Greek letters, not Hebrew letters, according to a rigid graphemic transcription.

Either way, there was both a graphemic and a phonetic transcription. (There must originally have been some diacritical mark distinguishing sigma representing samech from sigma representing shin. We see from this fragment that sigma representing tsade was written double). When ho Hebraios is quoted, it can be according to either system or BOTH. Thus the first word of Genesis is recorded with the graphemic (letter by letter) transcription ΒΡΑΣΙΘ and the phonetic (sound by sound) transcription ΒΑΡΗΣΕΙΘ. (Remember what was said earlier about transcription of the sound of the sheva by A; and note also that in Greek of this period EI represents a long I sound, and not the diphthong [ei] which it represented in earlier Greek). We are not told whether the columns of the Hexapla were vertical or horizontal. The surviving fragments all have vertical columns. I used an arrangement of horizontal columns for clarity of exposition.

Boid then wrote back again and noted:

After a lot of thought, I have decided that the double SS in the corrupted form of the transcription is not original, but a concession to normal Latin spelling. [Remember this text is mostly preserved in Latin and Armenian translation]. My main reason for the decision is that in the numerous extant fragments of ho Hebraios there is no trace at all of any use of a doubled SS to show a distinction between tsade and samech. I therefore conclude that the distinction between tsade, shin, and samech was done by diacritical marks. My secondary reason is that the extant transcriptions distinguish between single and double consonants, so there could not have been any special use of a doubled SS, since it would have caused confusion.

My final reconstruction is therefore SRAU UARES from a Greek transcription CPAOY OYAPEC

As much as I appreciate all of Boid's effort I don't know how much further that this takes us. I would obviously agree that the Latin is dependent on a Greek text, but the real question is whether the Greek is the original. Let's move on to the final example.

The text now goes on a little later to reference something called a 'Mamuel' used by the Samaritans in their Aramaic texts:

Inasmuch, then, as He terms those "the slaves of sin" who serve sin, but does not certainly call sin itself God, thus also He terms those who serve mammon "the slaves of mammon," not calling mammon God. For mammon is, according to the Jewish language, which the Samaritans do also use, a covetous man, and one who wishes to have more than he ought to have. But according to the Hebrew, it is by the addition of a syllable (adjunctive) called Mamuel, and signifies gulosum, that is, one whose gullet is insatiable. Therefore, according to both these things which are indicated, we cannot serve God and mammon.[AH iii.8.1]

Boid acknowledged he could work this out but even without his assistance we can I think start to notice a pattern.

All of the references MUST HAVE INVOLVED Irenaeus originally WRITING THINGS IN HEBREW LETTERS. I know it is possible that Irenaeus COULD HAVE written in Greek and then inserted the original Hebrew letters in the text but let's consider the four examples again:

(1) If Irenaeus had actually included the original Hebrew prayer of the Marcosians why is it now so utterly screwed up? Clearly the only solution in my mind is that Irenaeus laid out the Hebrew AND DID NOT PROVIDE a translation for his readers otherwise the translator couldn't have ended up screwing everything up so badly. That ambiguity had to be inherent in the original material.

(2) Colorbasus was originally Hebrew BUT as Harvey notes the WHOLE SENTENCE in which it appeared is now hopelessly corrupt. I don't know how this corruption got into the material. Could it be that the Hebrew phrase kol arba was set in Hebrew letters in the original text? I really don't know. Greater minds haven't been able to figure this out.

(3) I think the phrase 'sura usser' appeared in Hebrew letters in the original text. This would explain the subsequent corruption.

(4) I think that the word 'Mamuel' must have appeared in Hebrew letters in the original text but this again can't explain the whole sentence being corrupt. Again this can't all have been originally written in Greek. There seems to have been a fundamental miscommunication going on. Irenaeus must have known what he was talking about. He seems very familiar with Aramaic and is describing a concept he fully understood.

In my mind it likely all comes down to the βάρβαρον διάλεκτον mentioned at the beginning of the work. Either he is saying that he wrote in 'barbarous' Greek (i.e. a dialect) or that he wrote in Syriac or Aramaic. I suspect that the answer lies with the latter scenario. Irenaeus didn't write in Greek in my estimation. The easiest explanation is that the material was originally written in Aramaic and then LOOSELY rendered into Greek by someone like Hippolytus.

I just can't explain how or WHY Irenaeus would have thrown in so many references to Hebrew and assumed that his audience had sufficient knowledge and understanding of this terminology if even his later Roman translator couldn't get it right.

The question all comes down to - who was Irenaeus addressing with this material? Was it written to 'all the bishops' in the worldwide Catholic Church or was it a single individual? Answers here are difficult to come by.

If there are those who still want to promote the 'Greek hypothesis' they have to assume that he wrote in barbarous Greek and included frequent references to words in Hebrew letters.

Yet the Mamuel reference clearly assumes that the recipient has some familiarity with Aramaic. I can't believe that Irenaeus would just launch into this level of technical detail without some kind of preliminary explanation.

My guess is that the original recipient was Theophilus of Antioch or his successor but beyond this it is difficult to determine anything for certain ...

Email with comments or questions.

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