Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Not Above Correction

You blind guides! You strain out a tiny bug, but swallow a truck-sized beast!
Matthew 23:24
Contrary to popular belief, Christianity does not give its followers the right to stick to their heart-felt preconceptions and prejudices, regardless of the observable evidence. The fundamental truth that there is a fundamental truth forces us to examine and align what we internally believe against an external, transcendent reality.

What this means, in practical terms, is that Christians cannot hold themselves above correction. We cannot simply fall back on our instincts and say “it’s not true because it doesn’t feel true”, even for our most intimate, core beliefs. That there is a light mandates us to push ourselves, sometimes kicking and screaming, into it. And, when we’re wrong, we’d better man up and say so. (What else is faith and repentance?)

So, with this in mind, I moderated a recent challenge to my last post about the Puns of Jesus, in particular the legitimacy of the Aramaic word, “galma” and its English translation, “gnat” (as quoted in Matthew 23:24). I must also confess to doing this partly out of a gratified vanity that someone had actually read my piece and had gone to the effort of posting a response. I digress, but it’s true.

My challenger had searched for “galma” but could not find it in the lexicons. Instead, a search for the Greek term “konops” (gnat), came up as בקא “bakae”. The wider inference (if I read his post rightly) is that much of Christianity and Christian apologetics is nothing more than the blind leading the blind (if I may borrow a phrase from the passage of Matthew’s Gospel under consideration).

Being entirely dependent on the one and only source in my blog, and finding my inferences being potentially founded on sand, I determined to find out more, and to publish whatever I discovered, even if it meant being damned, to boot. (Oh dear, Wellington’s boot prompts yet another pun - I can’t seem to avoid them on this topic).

There are, as a quick Google search will demonstrate, a multiplicity of blogs, sites, theological dictionaries, and other theologizings on the (supposed) Aramaic word-play on “gnat” and “camel” in Jesus’ now famous sound-bite. Obviously, I was a relative latecomer to this particular homage. However, truth is not a democracy, and something doesn’t become true just because a large number of people believe it. (Popular Atheism springs to mind, but I digress again.) Was this a myth that had been propagated throughout the Christian community to uphold an untruth about the sources and reliability of the Gospels? There is certainly enough motivation to sustain it, but is there a more solid foundation in an observable, external reality?

To be fair to my challenger, one on-line English-Aramaic Lexicon returns “baqa” for “gnat”. Further, it is difficult to find dictionary sources (as opposed to derivative blogs and books) for the Aramaic word “galma”. “Gamla” (camel), by contrast enjoys much attestation, and I can claim some familiarity with it, having spent a few days many years ago helping to dig up the city of the same name in the Golan Heights. The city, incidentally, gets its name from the camel-back shaped hill that it sits on, which is something I can confidently confirm, having seen it with my own eyes.

At this point, my inferences appear to be quite shaky, and if I am to be found wanting, I’d be better off falling on my own sword than someone else’s. However, my (admittedly cursory) exploration of the subject is not concluded yet.

One of the problems, I found, is that the Anglicisation of the Aramaic word for “gnat” is variously spelled “galma”, “kalma” or “qalma”. Searches for the two latter variants yield a multitude of translations, including “gnat”, “louse” or “vermin”. Entries for “louse” and “vermin” in the on-line English-Aramaic Lexicon yield “galma” (or “kalma” or “qalma”) as quoted in our English translations , and extend the semantic range to “bugs in grain”.

Another problem, which I must defer to scholars more knowledgeable than me, is that forms of Aramaic have survived until recent times. A lexicon of the dialect that survived until 1988, “TheNeo-Aramaic Dialect of Barwar” records “baqa” as “gnat” and “qalma” as “louse”. The linguistic puzzle here is that I don’t know if the modern semantic range of “qalma” (meaning “louse”) reflects the Aramaic of Jesus’ time, some 19 centuries prior, or if it had changed over time.

However the etymology works, the imagery of Jesus’ saying remains intact; you strain out tiny bugs, but swallow truck-sized beasts of burden. (Incidentally, both are "unclean" and therefore forbidden for consumption, even inadvertently.) The only concern, then, is whether the traditional rendering of “galma” as “gnat” should be something else, say “louse” or “vermin” or “tiny bug”. None of these sound as good in English, however, and the Aramaic pun fades in translation.

Translation, I believe, is a process of compromises, though I hesitate to go as far as Professor Robert Alter (a stellar scholar of Old Testament Hebrew) who holds that all translation is blasphemy. We might not capture all the associations and word-plays from the now-extinct languages of the Bible but, surely, the search for their meanings is not entirely hopeless.

The second objection of my correspondent is somewhat beyond the scope of my original blog; do Christians foster and promote untruths in order to support their beliefs? As I noted at the start, we have a mandate not to but, that’s no guarantee of success. As a Christian, I have the freedom to own my blindness because the light is there whether I see it or not. The question remains though; am I blind because my eyes are faulty, or is it because there is nothing to see? The answer to that question would take far more than this brief survey of gnats and camels allows.


  1. Hi Martin,

    I'm late to the party as usual, but thanks for the good research here.

    I also really like your take on people in your mini biography: "My motto for life could be "Never underestimate how stupid people can be" (especially myself) which I hope to balance with an unmodulated concern for their well being."

    Best wishes,

  2. Martin,
    I read through the prior post and this one after searching for the "puns of Jesus", for which there are few illuminating results. I was led to search for that which perusing Warraq's "Christmas in the Koran", which alludes to the paronomasia (puns) of the language of the Gospels, particularly in the sayings of Jesus, as one of the factors which does not compromise the Christian understanding of the veracity of the New Testament (cf. your observations about translation, compromise and meaning) but which turn out to be fatal to the traditional Islamic understanding of the source of Koran having emerged from its supposed literal utterance from Allah mediated by Gabriel to the Prophet of Islam. Turns out it's a mashup of Arab politics and a bastardized version of Syriac writings largely consisting of "pre-Islamic Christian strophic [same-melodied] hymns" (Günter Lüling) and other distortions of Syriac originals.