Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Biven and Roy B. Blizzard, Jr. is a unique book. While receiving the approbation of Jewish and Christians scholars, it has enjoyed much popularity among non-scholarly readers and thus has been a most effective tool in disseminating the basic views of the Jerusalem School. There are several important factors which have contributed to the book's relatively wide distribution: It is forcefully and concisely written; the authors present an impressive array of scholarly material in a readable and engaging way; the premise of the book is intriguing, viz., that our current Greek Gospels often obscure and distort the original Hebrew teaching of Jesus; the promise of the book is inviting: The reader will gain remarkable new insights into the Scriptures! In fact, without these insights, the authors believe that "one can keep reading the Bible until the day he dies, and the Bible will not tell him the meaning of these difficult Hebrew passages [in the New Testament]. They can be understood only when translated back into Hebrew" (21). Moreover, "had the Church been provided with a proper Hebraic understanding of the words of Jesus, most theological controversies would never have arisen in the first place" (105, my italics). These are strong claims!
Unfortunately, those readers for whom Difficult Words is intended lack the proper tools with which to evaluate the scholarly information presented, and they may not fully realize the implications of Biven and Blizzard's study: If Difficult Words is correct, then we must accept the fact that at present, we have no inspired New Testament text -- not even a reasonably well preserved copy! On this point, the authors have made themselves abundantly clear: "The [Greek] Gospels are rife with mistranslations"; indeed, some passages "have been misinterpreted to such an extent that they are potentially damaging to us spiritually. . . . Many Gospel expressions are not just poor Greek, but actually meaningless Greek" (105 and 37). In light of statements like these, it is no exaggeration to say that if Biven and Blizzard (and the Jerusalem School) are essentially correct in their overall thesis, the Church as a whole could be in serious error on numerous fundamental points of faith and practice. It will be the purpose of this review to examine critically the scholarly underpinnings of Difficult Words; in so doing, we will be able to assess whether this book's impact has been primarily positive or negative, and whether its hermeneutical presuppositions are helpful or potentially dangerous.
The basic premise of Difficult Words is expressed in the Introduction: "the original gospel that formed the basis for the Synoptic Gospels was first communicated, not in Greek, but in the Hebrew language. . . . Our reasons for writing the book are not only to show that the original gospel was communicated in the Hebrew language; but to show that the entire New Testament can only be understood from a Hebrew perspective" (19f., 22., my italics). This emphasis on Hebrew is critically important, since the authors are careful to discredit any notion that the teachings of Jesus were originally transmitted in Aramaic. For Biven and Blizzard, a Semitic understanding of the New Testament is not sufficient, nor is it adequate to refer to its Jewish background. It must be Hebrew! "The writers [of the NT] are Hebrew, the culture is Hebrew, the religion is Hebrew, the traditions are Hebrew, and the concepts are Hebrew" (22). Thus the authors criticize "The Assumptions of Liberal Scholarship" (Chapter Two, 25-27), finding fault with the "many Christians [who] still cling to the outmoded Aramaic hypothesis as if their faith depended on it" (33); yet Biven and Blizzard present their own case quite dogmatically: "it can be stated unequivocally that the original Life of Jesus was also communicated in Hebrew" (27). It is this "Life of Jesus" -- not simply an alleged Hebrew original of any of the current Synoptic Gospels -- that the authors seek to uncover. (This crucial point, which greatly colors the hermeneutics of the Jerusalem School, will be treated in greater detail below.)
In Chapter Three, Biven and Blizzard seek to refute the alleged Aramaic or Greek origin of the Synoptic Gospels. They dismiss "The Greek Theory" in short order (36-38), finding fault with the scholars who claim that the Semitisms of the Synoptic Gospels are primarily due to the influence of the Septuagint, rather than to a supposed Semitic undertext which lies behind the Synoptics. It is axiomatic for Biven and Blizzard that the "poor Greek of the Synoptics is found only in literary works that are translations from Semitic originals, such as the Septuagint" (36). Yet the opposite conclusion can just as easily be reached, viz., that it was the Greek of the Septuagint that heavily colored the Greek of the Synoptics. Moreover, Biven and Blizzard fail to account adequately for the fact that a Semitic author whose second (or third?) language was Greek would likely write in a Semitized Greek style, explaining away some of the alleged indicators of "translation Greek."
Robert Gordis has also raised a "fundamental objection . . . to the widely-held theory that a difficult text ipso facto presupposes a translation from another language." Rather, according to Gordis, when a translator comes across a difficult passage in the original, he "may misread it . . . [he] may tacitly emend the text, read irrelevant matters into it and generally fail to penetrate its meaning. But ultimately he decides upon some view of the passage, which he then expresses in his idiom. His version may be incorrect, but it will be clear and intelligible, far more so than the original, all the difficulties and alternatives of which will have been ignored or obscured in the process. . . . Other things being equal, it may therefore be maintained that a difficult text may be presumed to be the original rather than a translation." This observation provides a healthy caution to those who are zealous to find a "Hebrew" solution to every alleged difficulty in the Greek Synoptics.
In their rejection of "The Greek Theory," Biven and Blizzard criticize scholars like Nigel Turner who explain almost every lexical and grammatical Semitism in the New Testament as being due to the influence of the Septuagint. This of course represents the exact opposite position to that of Biven and Blizzard, who immediately translate every New Testament Greek word directly back into Hebrew, with no recourse to the Septuagint. Yet this procedure, not infrequent in the Jerusalem School, fails to take advantage of the very repository that would have most colored the thinking of a first century, biblically-oriented Jew translating a religious Hebrew document into Greek. It is true that Robert Lindsey could refer to his "tedious studies of word usage in the Septuagint and investigation of Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew models" when analyzing parallel passages in the Synoptics. Yet this utilization of the Septuagint is nowhere reflected in Difficult Words, nor is it generally found in popularizations of the Jerusalem School's findings. Thus, while Biven and Blizzard seek to recapture the first century Jewish/Hebrew background to our (current) Greek Gospels, they fail to adequately exploit one of the most important resources available: the Septuagint!
The arguments of Biven and Blizzard against "The Aramaic Theory" are: 1) the references in the Greek New Testament to "the Hebrew language" do, in fact, mean Hebrew, not Aramaic, as rendered in most modern versions; 2) the few Aramaic words found in the Gospels are in keeping with the occasional Aramaic words found in contemporary Hebrew literature; 3) there are far more Hebrew words in the Gospels than Aramaic; 4) many of the alleged Aramaic words are actually Hebrew; 5) many modern scholars recognize that Hebrew, not Aramaic, was the spoken and written language of the Jews in Israel in the time of Jesus. None of these arguments, however, is either decisive or entirely correct.
1) The Greek expressions "Hebrew" (hebraisti) and "Hebrew language" (hebraidi dialekto) can definitely be used with reference to Aramaic; cf., e.g., John 19:17, where the Aramaic place name golgotha' is identified as "Hebrew" (the Hebrew would have been gulgolet), and note that Philo (and probably also Josephus) can use the Greek term hebraisti ("Hebrew") to refer to Aramaic. In fact, when Philo means Hebrew -- including the Hebrew of the Tanakh -- as opposed to Aramaic, he sometimes speaks of it as chaldaisti, i.e., Chaldaic! It is clear, therefore, that first century Jewish authors could speak of either Hebrew or Aramaic as "Hebrew" in the sense of "the language of the Hebrews."
2) Biven and Blizzard are correct in noting that Aramaic words may appear in Hebrew documents; however, they fail to observe that in the case of the Gospels, these expressions, like talitha koum[i], indicate that at the very least, on certain occasions Jesus spoke Aramaic.
3) Biven and Blizzard exaggerate the number of Hebrew words found in the Greek text of the Gospels and down play the number of Aramaic words. Of course, Greek scholars have long recognized the presence of both Hebrew and Aramaic words in the New Testament; no one would argue with this. But what is interesting is that all the words in Biven and Blizzard's own list of Hebrew lexemes found in the Gospels can be explained just as plausibly as being either Aramaic, borrowings from the Septuagint, and/or common Semitic loan words.
4) Although Biven and Blizzard attempt to demonstrate that Jesus' words on the cross ("My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?") should be seen as Hebrew, not Aramaic, noting that even the Aramaic verb sabaq is found in Mishnaic Hebrew, they fail to answer why, if Jesus was quoting the Scriptures in Hebrew, He said sabaqtani (reflected also in the Targumic tradition) and not `azabtani (as per the Hebrew text). The authors also deny that Greek words like sikera, Sabbata, and Pascha are Aramaic loanwords, arguing instead that they simply reflect the Greek neuter ending, not a transliteration from Aramaic. Once again, however, Biven and Blizzard have not correctly stated the facts: While Sabbata (from Sabbaton) is neuter, it is clear that, e.g., Pascha is indeclinable -- i.e., it is not neuter -- thereby substantiating the claim for the Aramaic origin of this word.
5) While scholars in recent decades have made a general correction by recognizing Hebrew as a living language in the time of Jesus, the consensus among most of the world's leading Semitists is still that Aramaic was the primary spoken language of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel in the first century of this era. This is the verdict of recognized scholars like Geza Vermes (Oxford University's expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Judaica), Joseph Fitzmyer (an American Catholic professor regarded as an authority in Aramaic and Gospel studies), and Klaus Beyer (the learned German author of the most comprehensive modern study [779 pages!] of Aramaic texts and dialects), to mention just a few. The only scholarly monograph in the last thirty years devoted primarily to the subject of the spoken language of Jesus, viz., the German work of Gunther Schwarz, "Und Jesu Sprach," categorically argues for Aramaic and against Hebrew; and a recent article by Johannes C. de Moor, a leading Semitic scholar in the Netherlands, claims that only when the words of Jesus are retroverted to Literary Aramaic (i.e., borrowing extensively from early Targumic traditions), does the full force and beauty of the Lord's teachings emerge. Chaim Rabin, a noted Israeli Semitist, does believe that "in Jerusalem and Judaea mishnaic Hebrew was still the ruling language [during the time of Jesus], and Aramaic took second place." Yet, he continues, "the situation must have been reversed in areas such as the coastal plain and Galilee."
Biven and Blizzard quote Pinchas E. Lapide in support of their position regarding an original Hebrew Gospel (41f.). However, his fully articulated position largely accords with what has been stated above: "In the days of Jesus the common language of most Palestinian Jews was Aramaic, . . . and [it] was the source of most of the semiticisms in the New Testament. But Hebrew remained the language of worship, of the Bible, and of religious discourse; in a word, it remained the sacred language (lswn hqdws) well into the period of the early Church. Otherwise it would be impossible to account for the great number of hebraisms in the New Testament . . ."
Remarks like this are much more in keeping with the current state of scholarly opinion. Thus James Barr, a sober philologian of international stature, could say concisely: "On the question, in what language the teaching of Jesus was given, an increasing number of scholars in recent years has considered Hebrew as a responsible hypothesis, though the evidence for Aramaic continues to be rather stronger." More negatively, regarding the question of the language which most probably underlies the Gospels, D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris -- respected evangelical New Testament scholars -- state: "In very recent times, a small number have argued that Hebrew (not Aramaic) underlies the canonical gospels, but this proposal has been rightly dismissed by the overwhelming majority of those who have looked into the matter."
Of course, the views expressed by these and other scholars do not constitute proof. Yet they do raise an important question: How decisive can the "pro-Hebrew" arguments presented by Biven and Blizzard possibly be? And, if there is abundant data which supports the Aramaic theory, is it right to disparage and belittle those who hold to it (see Difficult Words, 33)?
There is, in fact, much evidence which can be marshalled in favor of "The Aramaic Theory," as the following divergent examples will illustrate: 1) Acts 1:19 makes reference to the toponym Akeldama, noting that the people of Jerusalem "called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood." Of course, it is only in Aramaic that Akeldama (hakel dama') means "field of blood." Thus, in a most casual way, the reader is informed that Aramaic was commonly spoken in Jerusalem. 2) Mark 4:12, citing Isa. 6:9, does not follow the Masoretic Text, nor is it in harmony with the Septuagint (or even the citations of Isa. 6:9 elsewhere in the Synoptics); rather, the rendering of Isa. 6:9 in Mark 4:12 agrees closely with the reading preserved in the Aramaic Targum. This is only one of many examples where it is Aramaic, Targumic traditions which elucidate the meaning and/or background of specific verses in the Greek New Testament (not to mention the contribution to New Testament studies which has been made by the discovery of Qumran Aramaic). 3) The meaning of the Greek verb eurisko, "to find," may occasionally point back to an idiomatic usage (technically, a verbal calque) of Aramaic 'askah, "to find > to be able." Thus, Luke 6:7b, which is literally, "so that they might find an accusation against him," would better be rendered, "so that they might be able to accuse him." If accepted, this could be explained only as an Aramaism, not a Hebraism. Unfortunately, the reader of Difficult Words would be led to believe that such examples -- which could easily be multiplied -- do not even exist.
The strongest and most useful section of Difficult Words is Chapter Five, "Extra-Biblical Evidence for Hebrew" (45-78), where Biven and Blizzard present their case for Hebrew as the literary language of first century Jews living in the Land. Yet, because of their polemical tone, they often overstate their case, leaving the reader with erroneous impressions regarding the current scholarly consensus. This is a constant fault of Biven and Blizzard's book: Any positive contribution that could have been made to Gospel scholarship is vitiated by the authors' polemics. For this same reason, Difficult Words cannot serve as a reliable guide -- or even helpful resource -- for the untrained pastor, teacher, or layman.
At the beginning of Chapter Five, Biven and Blizzard state: "An impressive amount of extra-biblical evidence points to the use of Hebrew in first-century Israel: the testimony of the church fathers, the Dead Sea Scrolls, coins, and inscriptions from the first centuries B.C.-A.D., the writings of Josephus, and Rabbinic Literature" (45). Once again, however, these broad, sweeping statements need correction. With regard to "the testimony of the church fathers," it should be noted that virtually all of the fathers cited (Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius; Difficult Words, 46-48) were apparently following the single testimony of Papias (60-130 C.E.?), bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, whom Eusebius quoted as writing: "Matthew put down the words of the Lord in the Hebrew language [hebraidi dialekto], and others have translated [or, interpreted] them, each as best he could." With the exception of Jerome, none of the other church fathers seemed to have any first hand knowledge of Matthew's "original" gospel; they were simply repeating what they had heard. Moreover, the statement of Papias is open to widely divergent interpretations, and Jerome's own testimony is difficult to evaluate, since he makes reference to either two or three different gospels, called by various names, which he either saw, translated, or transcribed, and apparently none of these gospels is our canonical Matthew! In addition to this, one of the gospels which he saw was actually written in Aramaic, not Hebrew.
As far as the Dead Sea Scrolls are concerned, the fact that Hebrew documents at Qumran and Wadi Murabba'at far outnumber Aramaic documents does not indicate that most original (Jewish) writing of the day was carried out in Hebrew. This phenomenon could just as well be explained by remembering that the Qumran sectarians saw themselves, sui generis, as the rightful heirs of Moses and the Prophets (cf. esp. the Temple Scroll!); hence Hebrew, the sacred tongue, would be their primary literary language. In spite of this, the Scrolls serve as a remarkable repository of ancient Palestinian Aramaic, and they can be used to argue for extensive first century literary output in either Hebrew or Aramaic. As for the inscriptional evidence, recent studies indicate a preponderance of Aramaic over both Hebrew and Greek, especially in Galilee. With regard to the writings of Josephus, it has been previously noted that they provide no conclusive data. In fact, as noted immediately above (end of n. 44), when Josephus referred to his "vernacular tongue" in the introduction to his Jewish War (I.3), it is almost certain that he meant Aramaic.
More important to Biven and Blizzard, however, is the evidence of the rabbinic literature, which is of paramount concern to their case. According to the authors, "The largest and most significant body of written [sic!] material from the time of Jesus is known as 'Rabbinic Literature.' Except for isolated words or sentences, it is written entirely in Hebrew. . . . It may come as a surprise to some, but most of the difficult passages or problems confronted in New Testament studies could be solved through a knowledge of Rabbinic Literature. Many of Jesus' sayings have their parallels in Rabbinic Literature" (69f., my italics). Yet most of what is commonly known as "rabbinic literature" received its primary shaping in the centuries after Jesus, and the Mishnah -- composed almost entirely in Hebrew, and representing some of the earliest strata of rabbinic literature -- does not reflect the general linguistic situation of Palestinian Jews in the first two centuries of this era, since it presents a picture almost diametrically opposed to that which is provided by almost all other contemporary literary and epigraphic sources. In other words, in no contiguous inscriptions, ossuaries, letters, or other literary productions was Hebrew used to the virtual exclusion of Aramaic or Greek (as is the case in the Mishnah and early halakhic midrashim).
Of course, almost no one today would deny that Hebrew was a living language in Jesus' day, nor would many deny that Jesus Himself knew and used Hebrew. And there is certainly nothing wrong with arguing for either a Hebrew original to our canonical Gospel of Matthew, or an original Hebrew "Life of Jesus" (a central thesis of the authors). Scholars have been debating these and similar issues for decades -- if not centuries. None of these points is either new or problematic. What is problematic is this: Biven and Blizzard seem to put far more confidence in the veracity and accuracy of the rabbinic texts than they do in the veracity and accuracy of the Greek New Testament. They put more stock in the alleged words of, e.g., a second-century Palestinian rabbi(like Rabbi Akiva), as quoted by a fifth-century Babylonian sage (like Rav Ashi), than they do in the words of a first-century Palestinian rabbi (Jesus!) as quoted by a first-century Palestinian disciple (like Mark). This is not only unscientific; it is positively unsound, inevitably leading to a subservience of the message of the New Testament to that of the later rabbis. Moreover, incredulous leaps of logic are sometimes called for, illustrated by Biven's treatment of Mat. 11:12 (admittedly a difficult passage). He states that the "key to its understanding turns out to be an old rabbinic interpretation (midrash) of Micah 2:13 discovered by Professor Flusser," wherein "the 'breach-maker' [of Mic. 2:13] is interpreted as being Elijah, and 'their king' as the Messiah, the Branch of the Son of David" (123f.). From this Biven deduces that, although "Jesus does not refer directly to his own role as the shepherd leading the sheep out, no listener could possibly misunderstand Jesus' stunning assertion -- I am the LORD" (125, my italics).
Aside from the fact that it is misleading to say that Flusser "discovered" this "old rabbinic interpretation" -- it is found in Radak's twelfth century commentary to Micah (as noted by the authors), and was widely discussed over 100 years ago by Christian scholars -- there is no attempt to date this scant and unattributed midrashic comment. For all we know, it could postdate Matthew by 500 years! How then can it possibly be used with any certainty to elucidate the words of Jesus, especially when the new interpretation that emerges -- viz., an unqualified assertion by Jesus that He is Yahweh -- is so far from the text and foreign to the context? This is hardly an example of careful exegesis.
Biven and Blizzard also give the largely false impression that New Testament scholars have barely begun to utilize the abundant rabbinic data at their disposal. On the contrary, having used rabbinic texts quite freely for well over a century, New Testament scholars are now becoming aware of the difficulties involved in the utilization of this material in the elucidation of the New Testament. In fact, of the non-controversial, New Testament exegetical examples offered by Biven and Blizzard in Chapters Six, Eight, and the Appendix, similar interpretations can readily be found in standard New Testament commentaries and scholarly works.
Yet these methodological concerns pale when compared to the fundamental thesis of the authors, as presented in Chapter Seven, "Recovering the Original Hebrew Gospel" (93-103). Following Lindsey, who along with David Flusser is the doyen of the Jerusalem School, Biven and Blizzard posit a novel sequence of gospel transmission: STEP ONE -- "Within five years of the death and resurrection of Jesus, his words were recorded in Hebrew (tradition states by the Apostle Matthew)." This was "a simple and straightforward Hebrew biography . . . approximately 30-35 chapters in length." STEP TWO -- "Almost immediately," so as to meet the need of the Greek-speaking churches outside the Land of Israel, a "slavishly literal" (yet greatly lengthened) translation of the Hebrew Life of Jesus was made. STEP THREE -- "Within a few years, very probably at Antioch, the stories, and frequently elements within the stories, found in this Greek translation were separated from one another, and then these fragments were rearranged topically . . . . (What remained were fragments that were often divorced from their original and more meaningful contexts.)" STEP FOUR -- "Shortly thereafter, a fluent Greek author, using this topically arranged text, attempted to reconstruct its fragmented elements and stories in order to produce a gospel with some chronological order. . . . In the process of reconstruction, he improved its (Step Three's) grammatically poor Greek, as well as shortening it considerably" (94-95).
What then were the sources for our canonical gospels? "It was only . . . the 'topical' text (Step Three), and the 'reconstructed' text (Step Four), that were the sources used by our writer Luke. Mark followed Luke's work and Matthew utilized Mark's. . . . However, the texts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke show they did not have access to the original Hebrew Life of Jesus (Step One), or to the first Greek translation of the Life (Step Two). The Hebrew Life was lost . . . " (95).
The implications of this theory of the Jerusalem School are far reaching in the extreme. In fact, they cause the problems which surround Lindsey's argument for the priority of Luke, as well as questions regarding the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek Urtext of the gospels, to fade into insignificance. Let it be stated clearly: The theories of gospel transmission presented in Difficult Words do not belong to what is commonly called "lower criticism" (i.e., textual criticism), but rather are part of a radical form of "higher criticism." They do not simply seek to uncover the literary, oral or editorial history which might underlie the Synoptics. Rather, they posit that the Greek text of the Synoptics is often misleading and incomplete, and it is the alleged Hebrew original that is most truthful and trustworthy. These theories, if carried to their logical conclusions, would absolutely undercut the authority of the Greek New Testament, since according to Biven and Blizzard, our canonical (Synoptic) gospels are uninspired reconstructions based on other reconstructions of translations which are themselves reconstructions.
In light of this, one can only wonder how accurate our Synoptic gospels could possibly be. In what sense could they be an "infallible rule of faith and life"? It is one thing to point out that behind our current Greek Synoptics there are widely varied source materials. It is another thing entirely to follow Biven and Blizzard and argue that the source materials alone are accurate (and hence, authoritative), and that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are error-filled, often chronologically-incorrect, texts. Although evangelical textual critics hold only to the complete inspiration of the so-called original autographs, they also believe in God's providential oversight in the process of transmission and canonization. In other words, while there may be some minor errors of textual transmission in our current manuscripts, these manuscripts provide accurate and trustworthy copies of the original "Word." What scholars of the Jerusalem School imply is that even the original autographs of the Greek Synoptics are faulty!
For example, Brad Young, a professor at Oral Roberts University and one of David Flusser's top students, argues that Mat. 21:43 is a late redactional insertion which "distorts" the meaning of the preceding parable, contradicting Matthew's generally positive attitude "toward the Jewish people as well as the law." Young adds, "Certainly, Paul would not have accepted this radical approach (Rom. 9:4-5)." Taking this a step further, Flusser, detecting an anti-Jewish bias in the final redaction of Matthew, could state that, "Matthew's fabrication [i.e., the alleged addition of Mat. 8:11f.] is so subtle and clever that his bias is not obvious . . ." According to Flusser, Matthew (i.e., the final redactor of that Gospel) was "evidently a Gentile and is the oldest witness of a vulgar approach which caused much harm to the Jews and did not promote a true understanding of the very essence of the Christian message." In fact, all passages in the Synoptics "where tension against Jews and Judaism is felt . . . were introduced only at the Greek stage of its development." It is "practically certain," argues Flusser, that Matthew, along with these other late, Greek redactors, was part of a "pseudo-Christian group" whose ideology was "only loosely connected with the gist of Christian belief and in many ways contradicts genuine Christian values." And what is the source for determining true Christian beliefs and values? The reconstructed Synoptics of the Jerusalem School!
What then can be made of the exhortation of Biven and Blizzard, urging that "no effort should be spared in correcting every mistranslation and in clarifying every misinterpretation of the inspired text" (117, my italics)? Which "inspired text" are they referring to? Is it the alleged original "Life of Jesus" (a text which exists with certainty only in the minds of those who are attempting to reconstruct it)? Or is it our Greek New Testament which is the "inspired text"? If so, how can it be rife with mistranslations and misinterpretations? Biven and Blizzard -- along with "evangelical" scholars of a similar ilk -- owe it to their constituency to clarify where they stand on these critical issues. Are our Greek Synoptics authoritative and trustworthy or not?
According to Lindsey's reconstruction, the Greek Synoptics are not primarily based on eye-witness testimonies or first-hand records; with rare exception, they do not have access to the ipsissima verba of Jesus (in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek); and the Gospel of Mark -- generally considered by New Testament scholars to be the earliest of the Synoptics -- is actually five steps removed from the original Hebrew "Life of Jesus" (97). Yet Biven and Blizzard note that when Lindsey began his translation of Mark into modern Hebrew, he was surprised to discover "that the Greek word order and idiom [of Mark] was more like Hebrew than literary Greek" (93f.). In fact, the authors confidently assert that, "Often whole sentences, even whole passages, of our Gospels translate word for word right back into the original Hebrew" (83, my italics). What an amazing claim!
Almost 100 years ago, the Jewish Semitic scholar D. S. Margoliouth attempted to translate the Greek text of Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sira) back into Hebrew. He knew for a fact from the prologue to Ben Sira that it had been translated into Greek directly from a Hebrew original, and he had at his disposal not only the Greek text, but Syriac and Latin translations as well. Yet when sizable portions of a Hebrew Ben Sira were discovered in the Cairo Geniza, it was found that he did not correctly translate even one single verse!
Back-translation (called "Ruckubersetzung" in German) is extremely touchy business, even when we are dealing with sources that are only one step removed from the original. But to postulate that accurate Ruckubersetzung can be carried out from sources four or five steps removed from the alleged original is almost unthinkable. And it is entirely out of the question to suggest that wholesale reconstruction -- not just retranslation -- of an alleged original text (here, the "Life of Jesus") can be carried out from such a distance. Such an effort can only be viewed as pure conjecture. To reconstruct the original Hebrew or Aramaic text of even the Lord's Prayer -- based on the extant witness of Matthew and Luke -- is fraught with difficulty. To attempt to reconstruct the entire (alleged) original Hebrew Gospel-- without access to even the supposed primary Greek sources -- is nothing more than a counsel of despair.
Biven and Blizzard supply an example of Lindsey's alleged original "Life of Jesus" (98-101 -- "The Mary and Martha Story Reconstructed"). Yet it not only involves a totally theoretical rearranging of texts that goes far beyond a Synoptic harmony; it asserts that without this rearrangement, we would not even know what Jesus often meant. I fail to see how the Jerusalem School can claim that the results of its research "are confirming the authenticity of the Gospel texts." Rather, its research seems to lead to a very different conclusion than that expressed many years ago by the great Aramaic scholar, Gustaf Dalman. Based on the very probable fact that Jesus and His disciples were quite familiar with Greek, Dalman asserted that "we gain the confident certainty that the Gospels present an essentially faithful reproduction of the genuine thoughts of Jesus. There is no necessity for conjecture concerning their original form, possessing, as we do, in the Greek text a sound bridge over the gap between us and it." Readers of Difficult Words would be left with a quite different impression, viz., that the current Greek text is anything but a "sound bridge" to the original words of the Lord.
It is impossible to interact here with all the examples of supposed mistranslations and misinterpretations offered by Biven and Blizzard. Let it simply be reiterated that Chapter Eight, "Theological Error Due to Mistranslation," was removed in its entirety from the Spanish version of Difficult Words, and that almost all of the novel interpretations proposed by Biven and Blizzard are based on either: 1) faulty treatment of the Greek; 2) exaggeration of the alleged difficulty of the extant Greek text; 3) problems arising because of King James English; 4) overly simplistic usage of rabbinic texts; or 5) failure to reckon with other, more satisfactory interpretations to the text.
This is not to say that no positive contributions have been made by the authors, nor is it to deny their scholarly credentials nor their evident zeal for their task. And it is to be hoped that, in spite of Biven and Blizzard's polemical style, some of their arguments would help the educated readership to look into the question of the possible Hebrew substratum of the Synoptics. But one cannot overlook the massive flaws of the book (and with it, some of the weaknesses inherent in the approach of the Jerusalem School):
1) Any serious study of the Semitic background to the Greek New Testament must take into account the pervasive influence of the Septuagint, both syntactically as well as lexicographically. This the authors have not done. They have also grossly exaggerated the translation technique of the Septuagint, claiming that Greek translators "in those days" would always use the same Greek word to translate a given Hebrew word, even when contextually inappropriate. 2) The failure of Biven and Blizzard to incorporate the rich results of Aramaic studies for the elucidation of New Testament texts seriously mars their approach. This is part of what I term "linguistic Zionism." 3) The confidence with which whole verses -- not to mention entire texts -- are retroverted into Hebrew is unacceptable. 4) In keeping with this, the cavalier method with which the Greek New Testament is handled is to be deplored. 5) The authors' simplistic usage of rabbinic parallels must be rejected as unscientific, since it fails to account for the varieties of Judaism which existed in the time of Jesus, nor does it take seriously the difficult nature of determining the date, accuracy, and provenance of any given rabbinic saying. 6) The overall thesis of Biven and Blizzard, viz., that the authoritative record of the life of Jesus is to be found in a (presently) non-existent Hebrew text which must be reconstructed from relatively distant sources threatens to undermine the authority of the Greek New Testament.
For all these reasons, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus is to be most seriously discommended. To the extent that it accurately represents the hermeneutical approach and overall methodology of the Jerusalem School, the constructive nature of the School's work must also be questioned. In fact, a word of warning is in order: It has often been demonstrated that once belief in the reliability of the biblical text has been surrendered, within one generation, established tenets of the faith also begin to be surrendered, notwithstanding the disclaimers of those of the first generation. Will a similar scenario be repeated here? Will fundamental beliefs in, e.g., the person and work of Jesus, the teaching of Paul, or the message of John soon be questioned? There is some disquieting evidence which suggests that this scenario is already unfolding. It is hoped that evangelicals interested in the work of the Jerusalem School would be wise -- and beware.