Keith Johnson has taught me that sometimes the "pastoral" thing to do is to let your opponents speak. In this spirit, he has posted the "highlights" of an interview with the self-proclaimed "instigator" behind the recent events that led to the "Aramaic Letter". Keith has also added some pictures of documents mentioned in the interview along with images that reflect his interpretation. The highlights of the interview with the instigator are posted at: http://vimeo.com/22128964. I believe this interview fully confirms everything I said in my note "The Aramaic Letter Exposed". The full 95-minute uncut interview can be found at http://truth2u.org/.
The recent incident with the Aramaic Letter reminded me about an unreturned library book that I took out from the Spertus College of Judaica in 1990. When I was in high school I used to ditch class to go to the college's library in downtown Chicago to read books about Jewish history and Biblical studies. One of the books I came across mentioned a Jewish translation of the Tanakh preserved by the Syriac Aramaic speaking church. I grew up reading Jewish Aramaic translations of the Tanakh such as Onkelos and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan. The thought that a lost Jewish translation would be preserved by a Christian church fascinated me. I searched through the library catalogue and discovered they had a series of volumes containing the "Peshitta" translation of the Tanakh into Syriac Aramaic. When I opened up the Peshitta Tanakh I was surprised to find it written in an unfamiliar script. Jewish Aramaic is written in Hebrew script, but this Christian version of the Old Testament was written in "Syriac" Aramaic. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic that in ancient times was spoken in the region of Edessa, today in northern Syria and eastern Turkey. The Syriac script contained the same twenty-two letters as Hebrew but was written in a cursive style that looked like Arabic squiggles. I decided to take out a Syriac grammar from the library and teach myself to read the script. It took me months but in the end I was able to decipher the Syriac text. I remember going to visit a Syriac Aramaic speaking church in Chicago to consult the priest about proper pronunciation. This was the first time I ever spoke to a Christian priest in my life. I'd be lying if I said this experience was a paragon of Jewish-Christian dialogue. The priest remarked to me that I could read better than many of the teenagers in his church; I was 16 at the time. He then added in a disappointed tone: "If only you believed in Jesus!" He went on to tell me I needed to accept Jesus or burn in hell forever and tried to shove his beliefs down my throat. It was a very unpleasant experience and needless to say I never went back to that church. I decided to check out the Syriac Aramaic Peshitta translation of the Old Testament from the library and kept renewing it so I could practice reading the exotic script on my own.
After graduating high school, I spent the summer of 1990 in California and when I returned to Chicago I found out my mother had decided to make Aliyah (move to Israel). In preparation for her move she sold her massive collection of books to a used book store. She apparently didn't realize that among her thousands of books were about a dozen of my library books including the Syriac Aramaic Peshitta translation of the Tanakh. That used bookstore sure got a bang for its buck buying my family's books in bulk. Also included in the sale were two binders full of rare coins that I spent my childhood collecting. To this day I get choked up remembering my precious Morgan dollars and Walking Liberty half-dollars that were gone when I returned from the West Coast. In retrospect the loss of the coins and the library books was well worth it as it resulted in the Aliyah of my mother and two youngest sisters. I haven't thought about this in years but last week I contacted the library and compensated them for the library books I never returned.
A few years after my encounter with the Aramaic priest in Chicago, I was studying at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There I learned about two encounters that the Jews of the Middle Ages had with the Syriac Aramaic translation of the Tanakh, encounters that went far better than my own. The first is mentioned in a letter written by Timothy I, the Nestorian catholicos (patriarch) of Baghdad (Seleucia), around the year 800. Timothy writes about an Arab hunting dog that ten years earlier disappeared in the area of the Dead Sea. When the dog's master went looking for his pooch he stumbled upon a cave full of Hebrew scrolls. The Arab hunter informed the Jews of Jerusalem who came down in droves to redeem their sacred writings. Timothy was in communication with these Jews about the content of the ancient scrolls discovered in the caves. He was interested in Old Testament quotations in the New Testament which seemed to differ from his own Syriac Aramaic Old Testament. Timothy wanted to know whether any of these quotations matched the Hebrew scrolls discovered in the cave.
This seemingly fanciful story is confirmed by a 10th century Karaite Jewish historian named Jacob al-Kirkisani who mentions a Jewish sect called the "Cave People". Kirkisani explains that they are called this because their writings were discovered in a cave. A second confirmation comes from the Cairo Geniza, a medieval repository of discarded Jewish writings. The Cairo Geniza contained two key Second Temple period documents, the Damascus Covenant and the Wisdom of Ben Sira. Both documents were believed to have been lost after the destruction of the Temple but then suddenly re-appear in the Cairo Geniza a thousand years later. Apparently they were rediscovered in the cave mentioned by Timothy I. Timothy's exchange with his Jewish informants in Jerusalem is a rare example from the Middle Ages of positive interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews, one based on mutual study and cooperation rather than antagonistic disputations and argumentation.
A second example of Jewish contact with the Syriac Aramaic Tanakh comes from the time of Hai Gaon who was the rabbinical leader of the large and important Jewish community of Babylonia in the 11th century. Hai instructed one of his disciples to contact the Nestorian catholicos and ask him about the Syriac Aramaic translation of the word YANI in Psalms 141:5. This unusual word is of uncertain meaning even today. The King James Version translates it as "(it) shall (not) break (my head)" in the verse,
Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be excellent oil, which SHALL not BREAK my head… Psa. 141:5 [KJV]
The Jewish Publication Society translates the same word as "let (my head not) refuse", a profoundly different translation from the King James. A survey of other English versions turns up a variety of translations such as "let (it not) anoint (my head)" (NRSV) and "let (it not) make fat (my head)" (Wycliffe). All of these are educated guesses.
Hai Gaon understood that Aramaic is a sister language to Hebrew and hoped he could learn something about this obscure word from the Syriac Aramaic translation. Today this approach is called Comparative Semitic Linguistics. It's based on the observation that all Semitic languages share common roots with similar meanings. Any modern scientific lexicon of Biblical Hebrew should contain a survey of the meaning of a given root in all the Semitic languages including Aramaic, Arabic, Akkadian, Sabean, and Geez. Hai Gaon was a pioneer in this field by consulting the Syriac Aramaic Tanakh and was revolutionary in engaging in interfaith dialogue with the Aramaic-speaking church. Here too, this interfaith dialogue was constructive and focused on learning from one another rather than divisive disputations and argumentation.
The lesson of the lost library book is that some people are not spiritually mature enough for constructive interfaith dialogue but we shouldn't let that spoil it for the rest of us. My prayer is that God continues to grant me the opportunities to follow the example of Timothy I and Hai Gaon in building bridges and looking for common ground so I can learn from others who believe in the one true God and his prophet Moses. Now if only I could find someone who can read Syriac Aramaic!
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