Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Puns of Jesus

A frequent objection to the Christian Gospel is the translation of the Bible, promulgated by some Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s witnesses and Dan Brown sympathizers. 

Essentially, the objection runs along the lines of “the Bible has been translated from translations of translations to such an extent that its original message is barely recognizable”. It’s an argument that is most often found amongst those who object to the claims of the orthodox Christian churches about the full deity of Jesus Christ. According to the objectors, the first Christians never understood Jesus to be fully and wholly God, and the evidence presented by the Bible has been corrupted. Orthodox churches have therefore misunderstood and misrepresented Jesus' message.

It’s an urban myth, and it is usually extrapolated well beyond mere translation to comprehensibility, but the issue is a serious one as all serious translators know.

Whilst not offering a comprehensive or conclusive response, I chanced upon one aspect of the teachings of Jesus that support the authenticity of the accounts that have survived long enough to get included in our modern New Testament – the Puns of Jesus.

Puns are plays on how words sound. We use them to make a phrase or statement more memorable, or even to package two meanings into the same statement, sometimes for amusement, sometimes to delight in the irony, and sometimes to provoke thought. Because they play off the sound of the words, they are notoriously difficult to translate. It’s not that the individual words are difficult to translate; puns use common words that are easily recognized. The difficulty is in adequately conveying the vocalization.

This is exactly what’s going on in Matthew 23:23-24 
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
We all know what Jesus means; he’s condemning the religious leaders for getting obsessed with little things, while ignoring the big things. It’s about the comparison of little things and big things.

But, why would Jesus compare a gnat and a camel? Why this particular pairing of a little thing and a big thing. Why not, say, "seed" and "tree", "dove" and "eagle", "frog" and "whale"?  

If we were to write this in a modern(ish) English pun, we might say “You strain out a mote and swallow a mount”. The vocalization of “mote” and “mount” give us the pun we’re looking for, and they vividly convey the meaning of the phrase.

Of course, Jesus didn’t speak English. As a language it had not yet come into existence, so our version would be a clear indicator that we were projecting a foreign, later idiom onto the teachings of Jesus. In other words, we would be putting words into Jesus’ mouth, thus vindicating the critics’ accusations.

The interesting point here is that Jesus’ quip about the gnat and the camel does not work fluently as a pun in Greek, which is the language that the Gospel-writers wrote in. The Greek words for gnat and are konopa and kamelon, respectively (see

Though the Gospels were written in Greek, Jesus spoke in Aramaic. The Gospel-writers therefore had to translate his sayings from Aramaic to Greek. Fortunately for them, konopa and kamelon are fairly close, but they would have known that the phrase would have sounded much better in Aramaic. The words for gnat and camel in Aramaic are galma and gamla respectively, thus allowing the formation of a memorable pun; you strain out a galma and swallow a gamla!

Several more examples of Aramaic puns are described in my chance-discovery ebook, the Methods and Message of Jesus of Nazareth, by Robert H Stein, including kepha in Matt 16:18 and ruha in John 3:8 .

In other words, what we see in the Greek translation is a serious effort to capture the Aramaic puns of Jesus. This places the source material in the Aramaic, not the Greek, which is what you’d expect if the Greek were attempting to reliably capture the meaning and vocalization of Jesus’ original Aramaic sayings. Its not what you’d expect from a bunch of Greek scribes attempting to put their sayings into the mouth of Jesus.

The reliability of the New Testament in conveying the teachings of Jesus and the first Christians rests upon much more than this cursory exploration of Aramaic puns. However, it does add to the case for the defence against the objections of the prosecution.


  1. Thanks, Martin, that was interesting.

  2. Sir, I am searching for the supposed Aramaic word GALMA = gnat and cannot find it. The best Aramaic lexicons show that GALMA = hill etc., but no gnats. The oldest Aramaic NT translation (Peshitta) renders the Greek term KONOPS (gnat) as בקא BAKAE'. A simple Google search reveals a lot of web pages claiming this pun, but none refers to a serious source. If theology, if not religion, is as serious as this scholarly pun, then what's the conclusion?

    1. F G L

      Thankyou for visiting my blog, and making the effort to post a response.

      I have to admit to being wholly dependent on my one and only source for the Aramaic for "gnat". Until your challenge, I had no reason to doubt it. Not wishing to rush in with a glib reply, I took a short while to search the subject more thoroughly and I refer you to the results of my brief exploration here ...