Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Gospel of the Hebrews as 'the Gospel of the Eunuchs'

I have always suspected the latter possibility - i.e. that ALL members of the presbytery in Egypt were ritually castrated - but I don't want to get too deeply into the reasons for this, I just wanted to make a small tangential point.

Most of us know that Irenaeus and many others speak of a 'Gospel of the Hebrews' where 'Hebrew' is presumed by many to be a designation for 'Jewish Aramaic.' The problem of course is that outside of Christianity we have no attestation for identifying 'Hebrew' as 'Aramaic.' Indeed Jews themselves did not identify Hebrew as 'Hebrew' until the late second century BCE (the Greek prologue of Ecclesiasticus) and it was still called 'the Holy Tongue' in Aramaic speaking communities into the third century CE.

Interesting it is only Greek texts related to Christianity which identify Aramaic (the language Jews and Samaritans actually spoke to one another) as 'Hebrew.' This has always puzzled me. There are - theoretically at least - two terms which Jews in Palestine, Syria and Arabia could have used to denote the Aramaic language - aramy or sursi. Aramy was the original term which dates back to the legendary figure Aram who was the father of the Syrian people. But what few people realize is that it is highly unlikely that Jewish converts to Christianity living in Palestine would have called their language aramy. As Stern notes:

The identification of 'Arameans' with all Near Eastern Aramaic-speakers is however by no means certain. Indeed, the languages which we call 'Aramaic' do not necessarily correspond to the Aramit mentioned in rabbinic sources. Rabbi distinguishes between Aramit which is spoken in Babylonia, and Sursi (ie 'Syriac') which is spoken in Syria: B.Sot. 49b; B.BK 83a. Indeed, Aramit is mentioned more frequently in the Babylonian Talmud (B.Sot. 33a; B.Sanh. 21b-22a; etc.) than in the Palestinian Talmud (only in Y.Sol. 9,13 (cf B.Sot. 49a and ib.33a; also in M.Shek. 5.3 and Sifre Deut 343) whereas Sursi is more common in the Palestinian Talmud (Y.Pes. 5,3 (= Mekh Bo 3); Y. Meg.1,9, Y.Sot 7,2). than in the Babylonian Talmud (B.Pes. 61a). Most significantly, the Palestinian Talmud calls the language of Laban (in Gen. 31:47) sursi even though Laban comes from Aram and is called (in Gen. 31:20) the Arammi (Y.Sot ib)! If we are to conclude that rabbinic sources generally refer to Western Aramaic as 'Syriac' (just as, according to Josephus Ant. 1144, the Greeks call the Arameans "Syrians"?), then the term 'Arameans' may need to be restricted to the non-Jewish inhabitants of Babylonia alone.[Sacha Stern, Jewish identity in early rabbinic writings p.18]

The identification of Jewish Aramaic as Sursi is evident from contemporary references in the Mishnah too. R. Judah HaNasi declared "No one should speak Sursi in Palestine. Let him speak either Hebrew or Greek!" (Sotah 49b)

As such one can only expect that the term which Irenaeus translates as the 'Gospel of the Hebrews' into the Greek language was originally 'the Gospel of the Sursi.' The same would be true of other Aramaic references which are (strangely) translated as 'Hebrew' in the received texts of the NT (John 19:20).

Indeed the Peshitta seems to anticipate this when it substitutes the word 'Greek' and 'Gentile' for 'Syrian' throughout the Apostlikon:

Jews demand miraculous signs and Syrians look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Syrians, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Syrians, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.[1 Cor 22-24]

and again:

Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Syrian; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Syrian [Rom 2:9 - 10]

Was Syrian a technical term which perhaps meant or was related to the class of 'proselyte'? Perhaps but for the moment it is enough to say SINCE the 'Gospel of the Hebrews' is almost always taken to mean 'the Aramaic gospel' I think there is a possibility that the text was never identified by the Jewish-Christians by this title but more likely 'the Sursi Gospel' owing to the fact that Aramaean not only meant Babylonian but ALWAYS an 'outsider' and even - an enemy to Israel (aramy is frequently used to designate 'Rome' owing to self-censorship on the part of the scribes).

Origen references what he calls the 'Gospel of the Hebrews' on a number of occasions. He obviously used it as his preferred text. Origen was also a saris (a self-castrated man). A Sursi gospel would clearly have a second meaning of the 'gospel of the castrated' or the 'castrated gospel.' Jastrow compares it to the meaning of the Greek apokopos.

I wonder if the term had a double meaning that was known to Origen and his secret community of Christian eunuchs which included - according to Severus of Al'Ashmunein - the Patriarch Demetrius himself!

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.