Sunday, September 29, 2019

A Study of Hebrew or Aramaic Loan-Words: 4 Canonical Gospels and 8 Non-Canonical Gospels

This post concludes the recent series studying Hebrew and Aramaic loan-words in various documents that are commonly referred to as gospels, whether inside or outside the New Testament. I approach the study of these documents as an exercise in data analysis, employing computerized methodology whenever possible to give the most objective results that I can manage.

Use of Hebrew or Aramaic Loan Words

The chart below summarizes the total occurrences of Hebrew or Aramaic loan words that I was able to discover in these gospels. Within that total count, there is also a breakdown of how often such words were used in phrases attributed to Jesus by the author ("red letter" usage, based on the typographical convention of some texts that use red letters to show Jesus' words). Currently, full phrases such as Jesus' cry from the cross are counted as a single use in this chart.

The results range from the Gospel of Mary on the low end, where I was not able to find any Hebrew or Aramaic usage in the surviving text, to the Gospel of John on the high end. In the break-down of red-letter usage, most of the texts studied did not contain any Hebrew or Aramaic words attributed to Jesus. The exceptions -- the ones which preserve Hebrew or Aramaic words within sayings attributed to Jesus -- are the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.

Some of the differences in the number of words may be attributable to the difference in lengths of the documents, and a useful follow-up would be to evaluate the relative frequency of the words (as opposed to simple counts) to control for the length of the documents. Again, some of the differences in the number of "red letter" occurrences may be due to either the shortness of the documents, or the relative or complete lack of sayings attributed to Jesus in some of the documents, and a supplemental review of the relative frequency would be useful.

Range of Vocabulary

This second chart shows the number of distinct words or sayings from those languages contained in each document.

The results range again from the Gospel of Mary on the low end, where I was not able to find any Hebrew or Aramaic usage in the surviving text, to the Gospel of Mark on the high end with the highest number of unique and distinct words. Again, whole phrases in the underlying languages (one such phrase in Matthew, two phrases in Mark) are currently counted as single items. For methodology, it would ultimately be cleaner to break those phrases into their underlying words, as an open item for further work.

Points of Interest

Comparing the charts to each other brings out some interesting points about individual documents:
  • The Gospel of John may have had the most individual occurrences of these words, but that was boosted the usage of "Amen" -- that is, by how often the words in question were, "Truly, truly I tell you". When counting distinct words and range of vocabulary, Mark has the widest range -- even here when currently counting the full phrases found in Mark as single items rather than breaking them into their underlying vocabulary.
  • The Gospel of the Savior follows a pattern not too different from the Gospel of John, in that the use of the word "Amen" constituted a high percentage of the words in question. In the case of the Gospel of the Savior, this is mostly attributed to a single prayer-like section where "Amen" is given as a response 23 times in the reconstructed text. The repeated response of "Amen" accounts for all but one of the appearances of a Hebrew or Aramaic word in that text.
  • The Gospel of Philip may have only had 6 total words in Hebrew or Aramaic, but only "Sabbath" was repeated more than one time causing it to have a relatively high range of different vocabulary words. This reflects the unique vocabulary found in the Gospel of Philip, with its usage of words such as Echmoth and Echamoth which do not appear in any of the other documents referenced so far.
References - Links to Underlying Word Studies
The summary charts are based directly on totals from the material in the linked documents.

1 comment:

Michael said...


This is excellent research. This needs to be published. Can you work this material into an article?

Michael Metts
PhD cand. NT
University of Aberdeen