This article deals with seven keys, outlined by Dr Rocco Errico, to be aware of when interpreting the Bible.
The keys, that help unlock the holy text and aid in Bible understanding, are:
1. The original language of the New Testament times was Aramaic.
2. The Bible uses many idioms, which if not understood in their context can be mistranslated.
3. The mysticism of the Near East needs to be considered.
4. The Semitic culture of the Near East has to be taken into account.
5. One needs to understand the psychology of the Near East.
6. The symbolism of the Near East needs to be understood.
7. Amplification or embellishment of stories is a common Near Eastern practice.
Let’s now consider these keys more specifically.
Aramaic and Hebrew are cognate (sister) languages. Around the 8th century BCE, Aramaic, a Semitic tongue, was the language of three powerful imperial nations: Assyria, Babylon (Chaldea), and Persia (known today as Iran). Aramaic was also the spoken tongue of Palestine during the life of Jesus. It remained the religious and commercial language throughout the Near East until the 7th century, CE. Then Arabic began replacing Aramaic as the lingua franca of the region.
Aramaic is far from a dead language. To this day, Aramaic is spoken in various parts of the world. There are many Assyrian and Chaldean Aramaic-speaking communities, large and small, throughout the United States, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sweden and Australia.
In the 20th century, two individuals, Dr George Lamsa and Dr Rocco Errico, Lamsa’s student and successor, felt called to focus on the Aramaic tongue and its influence on and importance to New Testament studies. Dr Lamsa translated the Bible afresh, using ancient Aramaic texts rather than Greek texts used for the popular King James Bible. He claims there are approximately 10,000 to 12,000 vital and major differences between his English rendering of the Bible (published in 1933) and the King James Version.
Idioms in the Bible
An idiom is a peculiar expression of speech that says one thing but means something else. The Bible contains over a thousand idioms. They were translated faithfully and accurately, but often literally. Therefore, their true meanings are more than likely misconstrued.
Over forty percent of the Bible is based on mysticism. The spectrum of mysticism encompasses dreams, visions, revelations, voices, acts of healing, clairaudience (inner hearing), clairvoyance (inner sight), and bi-location (out of body experiences).
The astounding appearances / visions of God and angels (messengers) usually occurred in the minds of the people while they were sleeping or in a trance. All biblical prophets received spiritual ideas and illumination through dreams and visions. Whenever God and men, angels and men, or God and angels are holding a conversation, we may safely interpret the incident as a dream, vision, or revelation. We need to understand that a theophany (God’s appearance) comes through an altered state of consciousness – a vision.
According to the gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. The same Gabriel came to Daniel and then later to Muhammad. “Gabriel” in Aramaic means “man of God”. “Angel” means “counsellor”, “messenger”, or metaphorically “God’s thought”. An angel is the presence of God counselling an individual who may be receiving a dream or vision.
To sum up, the expansion program of the early Christian church grew out of a spiritual movement of inner impressions, inner voices, dreams, visions, and revelations.
Semitic Culture of the Near East
It is important to understand the culture to correctly interpret any given passage. An example is the Wedding at Cana (John 2:3-5):
John in his gospel reports a wedding feast that he attended with his master at Cana in Galilee. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also present with her son and a few of his disciples. “And when the wine ran low, his mother said to Jesus, ‘They have no wine.’ Jesus said to her, ‘What is it to me and to you, woman, my turn has not yet come.’ His mother said to the helpers, ‘Whatever he tells, you, do it.’”
The King James Version reads differently. It says: “Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.”
It appears as if Jesus had rebuked his mother, but this was not the case. Jesus spoke to his mother in a very mild manner. Calling her “woman” is a typical Aramaic expression of politeness. Attha, “woman”, is similar to our respectful English term “ma’am”.
A better rendering of the phrase “my hour has not yet come” is “my turn has not yet come”. Shaa means “hour”, “turn”, and “time”. In this passage it implies “turn” and not “hour”. The entire passage points to the Eastern custom of purchasing and providing wine at wedding feasts. What Jesus really says to his mother is: “What concern is it of ours? It is not yet my turn to provide wine for the guests.”
One must understand the custom of entertaining at an ancient reception. At the banquet house, men sit on the floor in a line according to their age and social status. Women usually sit on the opposite side, but in a circle. Near the door, servants usually stand by, ready to attend to the guests. Musicians may also occupy a position near the door.
The groom supplies all the food. Certain neighbours also bring in other favourite foods on trays as gifts to the couple. However, individual guests provide wine. That is, each guest takes his turn in ordering the servants to serve the wine. As they pour and distribute it, the server announces the name of the person who purchased the wine. Then everyone drinks to the health and happiness of the newlyweds.
Every guest contributes to the success of the wedding feast and must show his friendship and loyalty to the bride and groom by giving generously when it is his turn. Nonetheless, each guest must be careful not to call the servants to bring wine before his proper time. If this should happen, even unintentionally, it would create resentment among the others, and be especially offensive to the guests who are of a higher social status. Guests would regard anyone who stepped out of turn as an enemy. The wedding feast must preserve and follow protocol.
Jesus knew when it was his turn to order wine. And this is all that he meant by telling his mother: “My hour (turn) has not yet come.”
A country’s customs and manners usually derive from its national consciousness and traditional thinking. When we strive to discern the characteristics of a specific ethnic group, we need to understand their psychological background. Therefore, comprehending the unique makeup of Near Eastern Semitic people is vital to biblical studies.
When we thoughtfully consider a race’s basic individual psychology from a non-judgmental attitude, we can comprehend certain behaviours and speech that may seem strange to us. For example, many critics of Jesus’ teaching brand some of his sayings as “contradictory”, “impractical”, and “irrelevant for today’s world”. The reason for this harsh critique is that these same commentators either do not know or do not consider the Semitic psychological complexity from which Jesus taught. We can easily draw invalid conclusions from various biblical passages simply because we see them through our own eyes and not those of the Near East.
For example, Semites value friendships and relationships more highly than they do the observance of time. Family ties, including distant relatives, are very strong in this culture. An Easterner does not pay much attention to the clock, details, or perfect accuracy in things he says or does.
One cannot legislate to make anyone practice love, especially an enemy. Nonetheless, Jesus understood that only love from each individual soul could heal hatreds and resentments. Each individual must look to his/her own heart and find the wellspring of love and spiritual strength that resides within him/herself. When we practice this kind of love, we truly find God.
No wonder Jesus said that God lets His sun shine on the good and the bad, and lets His rain fall on the just and unjust. We do not know our capacity to love until we find ourselves in a situation that calls for the depths of love from our own souls.
Love is a powerful antidote to human ills – it doesn’t make any difference what kind of human malady. Love is the only remedy for us mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Hatred and vengeance only breed more hatred and vengeance, but love nourishes and encourages the finest in human beings. Jesus was practical in his teaching. The kind of love of which he spoke does not refer to human sentiment but to a deep care and concern for others. Again, Jesus always called upon the best and finest in a human being. A pragmatic practice of love in the human family is the only answer to hatred and prejudice.
Symbolism falls into three categories: parables, metaphors, and poetic philosophy. Aramaic and Hebrew are very visual languages. Their alphabets have 22 letters, and each consonant is developed from a picture form (pictograph).
A parable is verbal imagery which portrays and illustrates an event or teaching. The main purpose of a parable is “to convey an impression and not to construct definitions or establish dogmas.”
The abundant use of metaphors is what makes a colourful language and especially so to an Easterner. For example:
“Satan” derives from the Aramaic root sata, and means “to slip’, “to slide”, “to deceive”, “to miss the mark”, and “to cause one to be misled or go astray”. In Aramaic, calling an individual a “satan” means that the person is going astray or misleads others. “Satan”, as a Chaldean-Aramaic term, does not denote an individual.
In 75% of the time, the New Testament uses the term “devil” to refer to someone as “crazy” or “insane” and not as a supernatural creature. In the Near East, the general populace calls an insane person or a crazy action a “devil”.
Concerning “Lucifer”, there is absolutely no Scripture that says that God created a supernatural being that turned on Him. “Lucifer” comes from the Hebrew word helel and literally means “the shining one”, also translated as “day star” or “morning star”. In speaking about Lucifer, Isaiah refers to the King of Babylon, not an angelic, supernatural force. The prophet uses descriptive Near Eastern metaphors in proclaiming the end of the Babylonian Empire along with its exalted leader and king.
“Christ” is a title, not a proper name. Jesus was the Anointed or the Christ because his ordination was from God. Jesus’ followers, the Christians, too were anointed or “christed” by God to carry out a unique mission for humankind by walking in their master’s footsteps.
Semites enjoy putting more “colour” into a situation than merely describing an actual happening with detailed accuracy. What better way is there to glorify an event and to make an everlasting impression than to amplify and magnify the occurrence! This amplification is totally acceptable and agreeable to Eastern listeners. Many passages of the Bible contain exaggerated speech and story amplification in order to glorify an idea or event.
Because of this accepted practice, we have several varying accounts of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish. One gospel writer says Jesus fed 5,000 men. Another writer says that he fed 4,000 men. Each one flavours the event the way he chooses. Of importance is that Jesus fed hungry men, women, and children. The need was met. We do not have to concern ourselves with the exact figure. In the West, we want details. But in the Near East “it does not matter”.
To conclude, familiarity with the above seven keys can significantly assist in Bible understanding.
Reference: Let There Be Light: The Seven Keys