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Bad Aramaic Made Easy

Jimmy Akin

In 2002, a unique archaeological find was announced: a limestone ossuary (or bone box) that may have held the remains of James, the “brother” of Jesus. The box dates to first-century Palestine and is inscribed in Jesus’ native language, Aramaic, with the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

New attention was drawn to the ossuary by a book entitled The Brother of Jesus, by Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington. Shanks is the editor of BiblicalArchaeology Review; Witherington is a New Testament professor. To publicize it, the two wrote a tie-in piece in USA Today’s weekend magazine, in which Witherington (the primary author) asserted:

“It is possible the inscription on the ossuary—‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus’—provides us with a challenge in regard to some basic Christian assumptions about James. The Roman Catholic tradition is that Jesus’ brothers and sisters actually were cousins; Orthodox Christians believe they were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage. The inscription conflicts with both of those Christian traditions, in fact, for there certainly was an Aramaic word for ‘cousin’ that could have been used in this inscription but was not. If Jesus was the son of only Mary, and James was the son of only Joseph, then Jesus and James would not literally have been brothers, as this inscription states” (“In the Name of the Brother,” USA Weekend, April 13, 2003).

Witherington’s statement proved controversial. Though his characterization of Catholic teaching is not without problem, his assertion that there is an Aramaic word for “cousin” is egregious.

The Source of the Controversy

The New Testament is explicit that Mary was a virgin at the time she conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Christian tradition—later infallibly affirmed by the Church—acknowledges that she remained a virgin afterward. The great majority of Christians acknowledges this. Only the Protestant community dissents.

But there are certain questions to be answered, such as: Who are the “brethren” or “brothers” of Christ mentioned in Scripture?

In English, when we say “brother,” we usually mean full brother—a male sibling sharing both biological parents. But the term has a broader range of meanings. It can include “half-brother” (male sibling sharing one biological parent), “stepbrother” (male sibling sharing one parent by marriage), and “adoptive brother” (male sibling adopted into the family). It can be given figurative meanings, such as “comrade,” as when military men are described as “a band of brothers.”

Which applies to the brethren of Christ in Scripture?

It is unlikely that the term for “brother” is being used figuratively or mystically, because all Christians are Christ’s brothers in that sense, making it pointless to single out certain individuals for this description. “Full brother” is impossible, as Protestants also acknowledge, since Jesus was not the biological child of Joseph. “Half-brother” is ruled out by the fact that Mary remained a virgin. It is possible they were adoptive brothers, but there does not seem to be any evidence for this in the biblical or patristic record.

More plausibly, they were stepbrothers: children of Joseph who were Jesus’ brothers by marriage. There is some evidence for this in the writings of early Christians. The earliest discussion of the matter that we have—in a document known as the Protoevangelium of James (c. A.D. 120)—states that Joseph was a widower who already had a family and thus was willing to become the guardian of a consecrated virgin. Though not inspired, the document was written within living memory of Mary, when Christ’s family was still well known, as other sources attest (e.g., second-century historian Hegisippus). It may contain accurate traditions regarding the family structure.

The stepbrother hypothesis was the most common until Jerome (the turn of the fifth century) popularized the idea that the brethren were cousins. One would not guess this from a casual reading of the New Testament, but many have tried to deduce it from statements in the New Testament.

Part of the issue turns on the meaning of the word brother. Thus far we have been discussing the English word brother for simplicity. The Greek equivalent (adelphos) includes the same concepts in its range of meaning. But Greek also has a word for “cousin” (anepsios) that seems to have been the normal word used when referring to cousins. An advocate of the cousin hypothesis would need to explain why it wasn’t used if Christ’s brethren were cousins.

The standard explanation is that the New Testament isn’t ordinary Greek. Some have suggested that parts of it may be translations from Aramaic. It is unknown if or how much of the New Testament had an Aramaic original, but even if none did, Aramaic had a strong influence on it. Probably all the New Testament authors except Luke were native Aramaic speakers, and much of the dialogue in the Gospels originally occurred in Aramaic. Sometimes the Gospels even tell us the original Aramaic words (e.g., “Talitha cumi” in Mark 5:41).

This is important, because the meaning of the Aramaic word for “brother” (aha) not only includes the meanings already mentioned but also includes other close relations, including cousins.

In fact, there was no word for “cousin” in Aramaic. If one wanted to refer to the cousin relationship, one had to use a circumlocution such as “the son of his uncle” (brona d-`ammeh). This often is too much trouble, so broader kinship terms are used that don’t mean “cousin” in particular; e.g., ahyana (“kinsman”), qariwa (“close relation”), or nasha (“relative”). One such term is aha, which means literally “brother” but is also frequently used in the sense of “relative” or “kinsman.”

The first Christians in Palestine, not having a word for “cousin,” normally would have used a general term to refer to whatever cousins Jesus had. In translating their writing or speech into Greek, it is quite likely that the Aramaic word aha would have been rendered literally with the Greek word for “brother” (adelphos).

Which James?

There may be as many as seven men named James mentioned in the New Testament. For our purposes the most important are:

1. James “the Lord’s brother” (Matt. 13:55; Acts 15:13–21; 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19),

2. James “son of Zebedee” (Matt. 4:21; 10:2; 17:1; Acts 12:2),

3. James “son of Alphaeus” (Matt. 10:3; Acts 1:13).

It is the first whose ossuary may have been found. He often was called “James the Just” and was martyred in the A.D. 60s (cf. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20:9). He is not the same as James son of Zebedee, who was martyred earlier (cf. Acts 12:2). Advocates of the cousin interpretation commonly seek to identify him with James son of Alphaeus.

Engaging the Argument

In the USA Weekend piece, Witherington criticized both the stepbrother and the cousin hypotheses. Regarding the former, he wrote, “If Jesus was the son of only Mary, and James was the son of only Joseph, then Jesus and James would not literally have been brothers, as this inscription states.”

This argument is flatly wrong. The inscription does not state that Jesus and James were “literally” brothers. It says that they were brothers, period. It doesn’t say “James, son of Joseph, literal brother of Jesus.”

And what does Witherington mean by “literally”? To most ears, the most literal meaning of brother is “full brother,” all the other senses being in some sense accommodated to this primary sense. But we know that James cannot be a full brother because Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father (a point that Witherington, who has written a book critical of liberal reinterpretations of Jesus, acknowledges).

Witherington is trying to get too much out of the single word for “brother” in the inscription. Its range of meaning is simply too broad to rule out James being a stepbrother.

Even in English, which includes the term stepbrother, we tend to use just brother. Someone making introductions is more likely to say, “This is my brother” than “This is my stepbrother,” unless family relations are icy.

Witherington dismisses the cousin hypothesis by simply asserting, “There certainly was an Aramaic word for ‘cousin’ that could have been used in this inscription but was not.” For this argument to work, several premises have to be granted:

1. The ossuary is that of James the Just. Otherwise the ossuary has no relevance to the Holy Family.

2. The person who wrote “brother of Jesus” knew whose bones were in the ossuary. This is necessary because, even if the box did belong to James the Just, the inscriber had to correctly record his relationship to Jesus.

3. There is a word for “cousin” in Aramaic. This is the premise Witherington’s argument hinges on.

4. This Aramaic word was used in first-century Palestinian Aramaic. Aramaic is a language that goes back four thousand years. It served as the lingua franca of the Middle East for centuries, developing numerous dialects. Hypothetically, some dialect could have acquired a word for “cousin.” But the fact that one dialect would have such a word—and that it might conceivably be found in some Aramaic dictionary (not one I have located)—would not prove that it could have been used on the James ossuary. For that to happen, it would have to have been part of first-century Palestinian Aramaic.

5. This was the preferred term for describing cousins at that time. By way of comparison, if I wanted to talk about someone’s housecat, I might refer to his domestic feline. That’s possible in current English, but not preferred. I’d be expected in normal speech to use the preferred term housecat or, more likely, simply cat. If there were a “cousin” term in first-century Jewish Palestinian Aramaic but it was a rare or non-preferred term, we would not expect it to be used on the ossuary. It would have to be preferred for the argument to have weight.

How probable are the five premises?

Premise one is possible. There is a good case to be made that the ossuary was that of James the Just (see Hershel Shanks’s part of The Brother of Jesus). Yet it is possible that the ossuary belonged to someone else.

This could happen if the inscription has been parsed incorrectly. It has been generally assumed that the phrase “brother of Jesus” applies to James. This is not certain; it may apply to Joseph (cf. Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2003, 12). In other words, the box belonged to a James who was the son of a Joseph, and Joseph was a brother of someone named Jesus. In this case, Jesus would be the uncle of James.

What would make this Jesus worth mentioning? If he were Jesus Christ, that would do it. Christ had a “brother” named Joseph (cf. Matt. 13:55), so he might have had a nephew named James. If so, Witherington’s argument can be reconstructed, because then Joseph is being described as Jesus’ brother.

It also is possible that the box has no connection with the Holy Family, and the Jesus of the inscription is worth mentioning for a different reason. It has been suggested that the inscription is due to a levirite marriage (cf. ibid., 14). According to this Jewish marriage custom (which lasted until the Middle Ages), if a man died childless, his brother was obliged to marry the widow to become the biological father of children whose legal father would be the dead man. Thus the box might belong to a James who had both a legal and a biological father, the two being brothers. So while premise one is quite possible, it is not certain.

The same is true of premise two. A few scholars have suggested that the part of the inscription that reads “brother of Jesus” may have been added later than the first part—though still in antiquity, since it also is highly weathered. If this was added, then the scribe presumably did so to clarify which “James son of Joseph” was being discussed—the one with the famous relation named Jesus.

But since the hypothetical second scribe was at least somewhat later than the first, he might have been more removed from the facts and thus might not have known the exact relationship between the two. Thus, per premise two we must assume that whoever wrote “brother of Jesus” knew whose bones the ossuary contained.

That’s not unreasonable, but the uncertainty increases the later in time the hypothetical scribe lived. If he was in the third or fourth century, then the exact knowledge of Jesus’ family relations had likely vanished by the time he wrote.

Premise three—that there is an Aramaic word for “cousin”—is where Witherington’s argument falls apart. He does not tell us what word he is referring to, either in the USA Weekend piece (which seems understandable) or in his part of The Brother of Jesus (which seems inexcusable, since his case hinges upon it and he liberally produces other foreign-language words).

After the article was published, I had a couple of cordial exchanges with Witherington. He seems to be a nice guy, but it does not appear to me that he knows Aramaic. New Testament professors in Protestant seminaries are well trained in Greek and have some background in Hebrew but almost none in Aramaic. In our first discussion, Witherington referred me to one of his colleagues, whom he described as “the real expert” and who had “assured” him that there was a word for “cousin.”

Witherington’s lack of ease with Aramaic is apparent by the fact that, in his part of The Brother of Jesus, he freely explains Greek words for things but tends to fall silent when it comes to Aramaic. From what I can tell at present, he was just basing his argument on what he has heard from others.

Those others would not seem to include his co-author, Shanks. In his part of The Brother of Jesus, Shanks writes things that undercut Witherington’s claim. For example, he quotes the paleographer Emile Peuch, O.P., as saying “the specific relationship of James and Jesus in our ossuary is quite simply indeterminable. . . . The term ‘brother’ actually concurrently [in the first century] meant blood brother, half-brother, husband, uncle, nephew, cousin, friend, and companion” (51).

To my knowledge, I am the only full-time Catholic apologist who makes a study of Aramaic. I’ve paid particular attention to the cousin issue because of its apologetic implications. Still, I am not an expert, so I consulted several people who are more knowledgeable.

The first was Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., and he confirmed that he also was unaware of any Aramaic term (in any dialect) that means “cousin.”

Next, I visited my Aramaic teacher, Fr. Michael Bazzi, a Chaldean Catholic priest from Mosul, Iraq. He is a native speaker of Aramaic (the ethnic language of Chaldeans) and the author of several textbooks on both modern and classical Aramaic. Fr. Bazzi confirmed that there is no term for “cousin,” and whenever one wishes to pick out the cousin relationship, one uses one of the various possible circumlocutions. Neither did the dictionaries that Fr. Bazzi and I checked produce words for “cousin.”

Finally, I corresponded with Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. Though scholarly reserve would prevent him from saying so, he is regarded as an 800-pound gorilla among American scholars of Aramaic. In The Brother of Jesus, Shanks notes, “No one wants to get into the ring with Joe Fitzmyer when it comes to Aramaic” (47).

Fr. Fitzmyer was quite helpful and direct: “In first-century Palestinian Aramaic there was no word for ‘cousin,’ but one used the circumlocution, ‘son of the uncle.’” Further, he added, “I do not know of any word for ‘cousin’ [apart from the circumlocution] in any other Aramaic dialects.”

Concerning the word for “brother,” Fitzmyer noted, “The word did not simply mean ‘blood brother,’ and you will find in the book of Tobit a variety of broader meanings: ‘compatriot,’ ‘kinsman,’ ‘relative,’ and even a generic usage when a speaker employs it, not really knowing (yet) the relationship proper. The young Tobias even calls the angel Raphael (in disguise), ‘Brother Azariah’ (Tob. 6:7, extant in Aramaic). By that he certainly did not mean ‘blood brother.’”

While I was checking with my experts, Witherington was checking with his, and by the time of our second exchange, he was prepared to concede the key points. In an e-mail he wrote, “In Aramaic there is no technical singular term for cousin, unlike anepsios in Greek, so a circumlocution must be used in Aramaic if you want to affirm that someone was a cousin and not a blood brother.”

He further noted, “The term ahui [the word corresponding to brother on the ossuary] can of course be used in a broader sense to mean ‘relative.’”

While Witherington does not support a Catholic interpretation of the brethren of Christ, he now tacitly acknowledges that he was wrong, and there is no Aramaic word for “cousin.”

This serves as a caution for those who would make such a claim. Not only would they need to produce such an Aramaic word, along with the evidence backing up its existence in first-century Aramaic; they also would need to show evidence that it was the preferred term for “cousin” at that time.

Unless they can do this, it is irresponsible to tell the public that there is such a word. To do so misleads individuals of multiple religious persuasions, disturbs the faith of some, confuses others, and sparks needless arguments.

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