The Peshitta (Aramaic New Testament)

My previous post made mention of an Aramaic New Testament.  This has turned out to be an interesting side trip in my studies.  The assertion I mentioned is that the original gospels were written in Aramaic rather than Greek.   However, regardless of whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually wrote in Greek, it is important to note that the actual verbal sayings of Jesus to his disciples were almost certainly in Aramaic.  So the “original Greek texts” that we refer to so often in modern times can only be translations at best.  It seems to me that reading a transliteration of the New Testament in Aramaic would be the closest we English speakers can get to receiving the actual words of Christ.

Some years ago I was given a copy of the The Peshitta on CD ROM.  The Peshitta is the official Bible of the Church of the East.  The name Peshitta in Aramaic means “Straight”, in other words, the original and pure New Testament.  The Church of the East believes that the Peshitta is the only authentic and pure text which contains the books in the New Testament that were written in Aramaic, the Language of Mshikha (the Messiah) and His Disciples.

In reference to the originality of the Peshitta, the words of His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun, Catholicos Patriarch of the Church of the East, are summarized as follows:

“With reference to….the originality of the Peshitta text, as the Patriarch and Head of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East, we wish to state, that the Church of the East received the scriptures from the hands of the blessed Apostles themselves in the Aramaic original, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and that the Peshitta is the text of the Church of the East which has come down from the Biblical times without any change or revision.”

The above information is from an excellent web site:  http://www.peshitta.org/.  This website includes the full Aramaic text of the four gospels plus Acts, along with an interlinear English translation.  I keep finding new things to study much more rapidly than I can keep up!

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More Books

I love bookstores.  I discovered a nice little bookstore in Cottonwood, Arizona yesterday.  Their inventory was pretty unusual, and I found a couple of books (at half price!) to add to my collection.  That is one reason why I entitled this post “More Books”.

The other reason that I chose that title is that are many more books and writings that were written in the early years after Christ than those which are included in our Bibles today.  They are sometimes called the New Testament Apocrypha.  Many are similar in form and content to the gospels and epistles that are in our Bibles, but they were not judged suitable to be included with the canonical books of scripture.  The names of these books could lead one to believe that they were written by apostles or other prominent figures of Jesus’ day.  However, actual authorship is often questionable.

The two books that I just purchased are text and commentary on The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Judas.  I already had a book on the New Testament Apocrypha which includes a large number of early writings, including The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Bartholomew and The Gospel According to Mary.   I have a lot of studying to do!  Even if we accept that the early church leaders were correct — or even divinely inspired — in their selection of the canonical books, these writings of the first centuries after Christ can inform us on what the earliest Christians thought was important.  They are part of the history of Christianity.

Another subject for my future studies and future blog posts will be the history of how we got our Bibles.  The selection of the books to be included is one major aspect, but there are also issues surrounding the identification of the earliest/original texts, the accuracy of the copies made by scribes, and the accuracies of the various translations.  For example, I came across some information a while back that theorizes that the original gospel writings weren’t in Greek at all.  That theory is based on some textual analysis plus the idea that the Jewish apostles would almost certainly have written in their native Aramaic language and not the Greek trade language.  In that case, what we consider “original Greek” texts today would actually be early translations from Aramaic.  The more I dig into the earliest Christian history, the more I learn that those formative first centuries were much more complicated than I thought!

The Rules

I read recently about a Christian woman who asked her unbelieving friend what she had against Jesus.  The friend replied “Oh, I have no problem with Jesus.  It’s just everthing SINCE Jesus that I have a problem with!”  I think this is true for a lot of people.  Faith in Christ is one thing.  The religion that has developed in Christ’s name is something else again.

To me, a formal religion is defined by two things:  To Whom do you pray?  and What are your rules?  As we look at the history of the church, we can see that many different rules have come into play that have little if anything to do with Jesus.  Oftentimes these rules have done more to drive people away from faith than to strengthen their spiritual lives.

Rules were a major part of church experience when I was a child.  I’m sure they weren’t written down anywhere, but they were certainly prominent and consistent in the little fundamentalist church I attended.  They didn’t make much sense to me then, and even less sense today.  Here are some of the rules that were enforced in my church and my home:

1-      No card playing.  No game that used the classic playing cards (aces, clubs, hearts, and diamonds) was acceptable.  However, if we played the same games with cards that looked different (e.g., Rook) that was OK.

2-      No movies at the theaters.  But most of us watched a lot of TV.

3-      No drinking alcohol.  I remember hearing sermons that said that Jesus drank only unfermented grape juice.  Of course, there is no historical or translational basis for that assertion.

4-      No dancing.  But the church actually sponsored roller skating parties where it was fine to skate with a partner.

Just when I thought I had heard all the rules, a high school friend declined my invitation to play a game of chess.  She said her church had a rule against that.  That one really baffles me.

Those rules that I experienced as a child were really pretty harmless.  However, in the history of the church there have been some rules and practices that were much more damaging.  The rules that led to the Inquisition and the witch burnings are probably the most egregious.

Jesus gave us only the simplest of rules:  Love God, and love our neighbors.  I’m sure that most of  the rules that the church has added to Christian faith and practice since then have been intended to help us in our spiritual walk.  But the rules themselves can easily become the primary focus in our lives.  People can even fool themselves into thinking that adherence to a given set of rules is what saves us.  I believe that Christianity would be much more vibrant today if there were less focus on The Rules, and more focus on The Ruler.

Blogging

It has been about a month since I started this blog.  I have enjoyed my research into the history of Christianity, and I have enjoyed sharing some of what I have learned.  I plan to continue posting two or three times each week.

In addition to learning a lot about the history of Christianity I am also learning about blogging.  I feel like I am still “finding my voice”.   I hope you readers will bear with me as I experiment a bit with subject matter, length of posts, and references to other sources of information.  It would be really helpful to get some feedback from you.  Please feel free to comment on any of my posts, or even on the comments that others might make.

I hope that at least some of you are checking in every few days to see the latest posts.  If you want to make sure you don’t miss the latest ones you can sign up for email notifications.  In the right hand column of Church of Our Fathers, just click on Follow Blog via Email.

Unity in Diversity

In my previous post I used the phrase “unity in diversity”.  I have personally experienced the bond of Christian brotherhood with believers from traditions very different from my own, and that is a wonderful experience.  However, this kind of Christian unity is far from the norm in the history of the church.

The most notable conflicts would be those that arose in the reformation period, between Catholics and Protestants.  These conflicts often went way beyond disagreement and argument.  Believers on both sides were put in jail, tortured and killed – all in the name of Christ.  The situation was particularly bad as Calvanism (Protestantism) spread into France.  Fierce religious wars broke out there.  Protestants destroyed Catholic churches and smashed images and crucifixes.  Some even wore strings of priests’ ears.  Catholics were responsible for the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew in which many Calvinists lost their lives at the hands of their neighbors.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the emerging Protestant denominations didn’t get along well with each other either.  The Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, and Quaker churches were often in conflict.  Some of that enmity carried over into the American colonies as various groups sought to escape religious persecution by coming to the New World.

Conflict between various Christian groups continues today.  There is less bloodshed – at least in America – but there is still a significant degree of anger and hurtful argument.  It seems that a common attitude is “If you don’t worship the way I do, and hold to the same detailed doctrines that I do, and even hold the same political views that I have, then you are WRONG and unworthy of my fellowship”.

I sometimes consider the “isms” and schisms of today’s Christianity and think that this can’t possibly be what Jesus had in mind when He told Peter he was going to build His church.  I think Jesus envisioned unity in diversity.

Ancient Fire Ritual

Since I have become more intentional about my study of the history of Christianity, I have begun to notice relevant bits of information that pop up in the secular media.  I found another example today.

Today’s Arizona Republic newspaper contains an article entitled “Ancient fire ritual lures Christians to Jerusalem”.   This annual ceremony to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus goes back at least 1200 years.  Thousands of Christians gather to light candles and torches from a flame that emerges from the tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  They then pass the flame to other pilgrims waiting outside the church, symbolizing the light of Christ spreading around the world.  This long-standing ritual, which I had never heard of before, apparently attracts a wide range of participants – from Palestinian Christians to international pilgrims to clerics from a variety churches.  This reminds me again of the unity within diversity that has characterized Christianity around the world and through the ages.

The article also revealed that this event yesterday coincided with Easter celebrations for the Eastern Orthodox churches and several others that celebrate Easter this week using the older Julian calendar.  So Happy Easter … again!

The Earliest Christians

What were Christians like during the first centuries after Christ and the Apostles?  As I have been reading “A People’s History of Christianity” and other books, a clear picture is emerging.  Those earliest Christians were rooted in the same basic faith that we hold today, but the focus of their daily lives was really quite different.

Early Christianity developed across the world in many diverse regions and cultures.  It cut across the barriers of social class, race and gender as well.  Christians stood out from their nonchristian neighbors by their humility, love, and service to others.  Christianity was understood primarily as a way of life, not a doctrinal system or just a means to eternal salvation.  Their common focus was the Great Command to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

The earliest Christians were called “The People of the Way”.  This Way, and the dramatic transformation that it brought into the lives of believers, challenged the status quo and infuriated the adherents of the various pagan religions.  The awful persecutions that these early believers endured were not due to doctrine or ideology, but rather to the radical difference in their lifestyle that raised misunderstanding and suspicion among their neighbors.  They stood out because they did not pursue power or possessions.  They weren’t out to change the world or to “win” in some sense.  They just wanted to follow Jesus.  And their numbers grew because others could see how The Way provided a practical spiritual pathway that changed and improved their lives.

The earliest Christians had no church buildings, no elite clergy, no political agenda, and no fundraising except to give to the poor.  All of that came later as Christianity “progressed” toward what we experience today.  We would do well to consider the example of our first Christian forefathers, and reexamine our own spiritual priorities.  Can our neighbors recognize that we follow The Way without reading our bumper stickers?