From Discovering the Language of Jesus: Hebrew or Aramaic? Click here to listen: Discovering the Language of Jesus Douglas Hamp or El Lenguaje de Jesus
Mark 15:34 records some of the last words of Jesus as he was on the cross. They have been used to support the claim that Jesus spoke Aramaic and not Hebrew. “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” These words closely parallel the words in Psalm 22:1 in both the original Hebrew and in the Aramaic Targumim, though His words, as recorded in Mark 15:34 match neither exactly. Many scholars have glossed over this utterance as Aramaic without even really taking the time to see if it indeed is.
The table below lists Jesus’ phrase according to Mark and Matthew and then gives the text from Psalm 22:1 in the Hebrew original, the Targum (Aramaic) and then the Christian Syriac version (Syriac and Aramaic are basically the same). Notice that none of the aforementioned texts is exactly the same. Matthew’s version is exactly the same for the first three words: Eli Eli, lama but then differs with sabachthani. The Targum of Ps 22:1 has shabachtani like in Mark and Matthew but then differs on the following: Eli Elahi instead of Eli Eli, and metul ma instead of lama. While these are similar in meaning, it must be conceded that they are significantly different to merit investigation. The Syriac version is the closest but again, it is not an exact match since lama is written lamna. It must not be overlooked, however, that the Syriac version was written as a translation to the New Testament and thus cannot be used conclusively to prove one way or the other the exact words of Jesus. The rest of the table lists the different ways of saying God in Hebrew and Aramaic (Syriac).
Table 3 Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabaktani
|Mark 15:34||᾿Ελωΐ, ᾿Ελωΐ λαμὰ σαβαχθανι||Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani|
|Matthew 27:46||ἠλι ἠλι, λαμὰ σαβαχθανί||Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani|
|Psalm 22:1 Hebrew (original)||אלי אלי למה עזבתני||Eli eli lama azavtani|
|Psalm 22:1 Aramaic (Targum Psalms)||אלי׳אלהי מטול מה שבקתני||Eli elahi metul ma shabaktani|
|Syriac (Aramaic) Mark 15:34||ܐܠܗܝ ܐܠܗܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ||Elahi elahi, lamna shabaktani|
|Syriac (Aramaic) Matthew 27:46||ܐܠܝ ܐܠܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ||Eli eli, lamna shabaktani|
|Hebrew God||אלהים /אלוה / אל||Elohim / Eloah / El|
|Aramaic God||אלה / אל||Elah / El|
|Hebrew/Aramaic My God||אלי||Eli|
|Hebrew (only) My God||אלהי||elohai|
|Aramaic (only) My God||אלהי||Elahi|
|Septuagint Judges 5:5 my God||Ελωι||Eloi|
We have some interesting evidence in the New Testament given that the original words of Jesus have been recorded by two of his disciples – Matthew and Mark (according to early church tradition, Mark received his Gospel from the testimony of Peter). It is interesting to note that Matthew’s version is slightly different from Mark’s. Matthew records, in 27:46 that Jesus said Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (resembling Psalm 22:1 in Hebrew eli, eli lama azavtani) while Mark’s account says Eloi Eloi. I believe that we can safely assume that Jesus did not say it one way for Matthew and another for the writer of Mark while on the cross. Matthew’s version – Eli Eli is what we would expect in Hebrew or even in Aramaic. Eloi, however, is a mystery. Which way he said it has to do with the issue of transliteration and will be answered in the course of our search.
We know what Eloi means, due to the convenient translation in the text, that is my God. The question of course, is whether it is Hebrew or Aramaic. The truth is, as such, it is neither Hebrew nor Aramaic. While it is close to the Hebrew form of אלהים elohim, it falls short. Its form is not found even once in the Hebrew Bible and since elohim is such a common word, not finding it there forces us to conclude that it is not Hebrew. However, it is not Aramaic either. If Eloi were Aramaic, as is assumed, then why don’t we see at least one example of its use in the OT since in both Daniel 4:5, and 6:22, which were plainly written in Aramaic, the words “my God” are not Eloi but אלהי elahi. The form spoken by Jesus as recorded in Mark is conspicuously absent! Furthermore, the Targumim translate my God as elahi just as the Aramaic does from the time of Daniel. Targum Psalm 22:1, has אלי אלהי eli elahi (Targum Psalms). Moreover, the Syriac (Aramaic) version of the New Testament (written about 200 AD) actually translates the Greek text of Mark 15:34 (my God) ὁ Θεός μου (ho Theos mou) as elahi and not Eloi! Apparently the Aramaic speakers didn’t consider it to be Aramaic either since they wrote Elahi. Considering that this text was written after the time of Jesus just further serves to demonstrate that Eloi is not Aramaic.
If Eloi is neither Hebrew nor Aramaic, then what is it? There are three ways to say God in Hebrew:אלהים Elohim (2605 times) only in Hebrew, used most often to refer to the God of Israel, אל El (242 times), both Hebrew and Aramaic, more often used of foreign gods, though nevertheless, used in reference to the true God of Israel, and אלוה Eloah (56 times) used only in Hebrew texts (primarily in Job). All of them have a general meaning of mighty one – really just a title, which can theoretically, be applied to any one who “is mighty”.  Elohim, unlike el and Eloah, is the plural form meaning gods. Whenever used of the one true God of Israel, however, the verb related to it is always singular.  To say my God with el simply requires that one add the letter yud to the end of the word. Thus, El becomes Eli. To add my to plural masculine nouns like Elohim, however, basically requires adding the vowel a and dropping the mem (mem makes a masculine noun plural). Elohim therefore, becomes Elohai. To make the first person possessive of Eloah is similar, though, unfortunately, the first person singular my is not found in the pages of the Bible. There is, however, one passage in Habbakuk 1:11 which does have the possessive pronoun suffix his אלהו – Eloho. Thus, according to the conventions of Hebrew grammar, the way to say my God would be Elohi. (Gallagher, personal correspondence) Aramaic has two ways to say God, El, which is exactly the same as the Hebrew counterpart and the other way is אלה Elah. To say my God is Eli and Elahi similar to the Hebrew forms.
Thus in either Hebrew or Aramaic, we should see one of four forms: Elohai or Elohi (only Hebrew), Eli (both Hebrew and Aramaic) or Elahi (only Aramaic). There are no other possibilities and Eloi is simply not one of the options. In order to discover which language Jesus spoke, we will limit our discussion to Mark’s Eloi since Eli could be either Hebrew or Aramaic. We will essentially address two questions:
- What happened to the letter he in the middle of the word (equivalent to the letter H)?
- Are there any occurrences of Eloi in the Septuagint?
Without Eli we have limited our focus to three candidates for the mysterious Eloi, the two Hebrew words Elohai, Elohi and the Aramaic Elahi. We don’t have the actual Hebrew or Aramaic word written in the Hebrew/Aramaic  script but the Greek transliteration, which can sometimes be tricky. Some languages don’t have the rough breathing sound that the letter H makes. English, for example, can make the sound at the beginning and middle of words but not at the end (this seems normal to us; however, Hebrew can do all three!). Greek is able to produce the H sound at the beginning of words, but not in the middle or end.  So, how would one transliterate any of the three from either Hebrew or Aramaic to Greek? There is, in fact, no way to transliterate the words other than by transliterating them without the rough breathing sound, which would yield three different options: Eloai, Eloi and Elai.
To prove the theory, we will select words which we know have the letter ה (letter H) in the middle and then compare them to the Greek transliterations (in the Septuagint) where, if the theory is correct, there should be the absence of a rough breathing mark (like the letter H). For example, Abraham in the Septuagint is Αβραάμ (Abraam).
Table 4 Loss of the ה(H) Sound in Greek
|Verse||Hebrew Bible||Transliteration of Hebrew||Septuagint||Transliteration of Greek|
|I Sam 1:1||אליהוא||Elihu||Ηλιου||Eliu|
|II Sam 8:16||יהושׁפט||Jehoshaphat||Ιωσαφατ||Josaphat|
|I Kings 16:1||יהוא||Jehu||Ιου||You|
|II Kings 23:34||יהויקים||Jehoiakim||Ιωακιμ||Yoakim|
Notice from the table that the Hebrew words lose the H in the Greek (and English transliteration). As expected, the Greek version cannot reproduce the H and so it was left out in the transliteration. Therefore, the word Eloi is not necessarily Aramaic simply based on the lack of the letter H. However it is too early to conclude that it is Hebrew. Clearly, the Hebrew letter he or H was lost due to transliteration, but was the original Hebrew or Aramaic? The loss of the letter he in the Greek transliteration leaves us with the following three possibilities: Eloai, Eloi, and Elai.
Clearly Eloi fits perfectly what Mark recorded and fortunately we have an example of this in the Septuagint. Judges 5:5 “The mountains gushed before the LORD, this Sinai before the LORD God of Israel” κυρίου Ελωι, τοῦτο Σινα ἀπὸ προσώπου κυρίου θεοῦ Ισραηλ (kuriou Eloi touto Sina apo prosopou kuriou theou Israel). Notice that they translated the word LORD (YHWH in Hebrew) into Greek as kuriou (Lord) and then added the word Eloi (my God), which is not in the Hebrew text. There are two things that must not be missed here. First of all, the mysterious word in Mark is attested in the Septuagint with exactly the same spelling. Secondly, the Septuagint was translated into Greek from Hebrew and not Aramaic. Thus when looking at Mark 15:34 we have solid evidence of how Elohi was transliterated from Hebrew (not Aramaic!) in to Greek. If Mark had been transliterating from Aramaic, he would probably not have written Eloi ᾿Ελωΐ  with the letter omega (ω) since the Aramaic is distinctly elahi and would have better transliterated it as ᾿Ελaΐ with the letter alpha.
In summary, we see that there is no way to actually write the Hebrew Elohai, Elohi, or the Aramaic Elahi except by dropping the letter he. Of the three, Elohi fits perfectly and is attested once in the Septuagint – ᾿Ελωΐ Eloi – the exact same spelling and meaning as what is in Mark 15:34. Furthermore, if Mark had been transliterating Aramaic, it most likely would have appeared as Elai and not Eloi. Our findings may explain the difference between Matthew and Mark since Matthew records Eli, Eli – which has the same meaning but does not present any problems of transliteration. Perhaps knowing this, we might conclude that Matthew simply wrote Eli Eli and not Eloi knowing that Greek letters could not reproduce the word Elohi and since Eli, Eli is how the Hebrew text of Psalm 22:1 reads. And it would seem that Mark opted to write the specific literal words, even though they could not be written exactly in Greek.
Lama למה, meaning why, is an extremely common word and is used least 145 times in the Hebrew OT in almost every book. It is seen in every phase in Hebrew – from proto Hebrew to Standard Biblical Hebrew to Late Biblical Hebrew and numerous times in the Mishnah. So, we should not be surprised to see it here in Jesus’ day as well. The root letters lamed, mem and he are also found in Aramaic, though it should be noted that the vocalization (the vowels) are slightly different than what is recorded in Mark 15:34. The Aramaic word is lema.  It is possible that Mark was transliterating the Aramaic lema as λαμα (lama) – although we cannot be dogmatic about the issue, he could have more accurately written it with the Greek letter epsilon (λεμα) if that were the case.  However, as the historical sources indicate, it would seem that Mark was simply writing in Hebrew. Moreover, the word lama does not appear in the (Aramaic) Targum of Psalm 22:1. Even though lema exists in Aramaic, the translators of this Targum used two words metul ma, also meaning why. Thus, not only does the Hebrew lama fit better than the Aramaic lema but even the Targum doesn’t use the word. Only the Hebrew text has the word that Jesus used while enduring our sins on the cross.
Shabachtani שׁבקתני appears to be a word of Aramaic origin. It means to leave, leave alone, entrust, bequeath, divorce, permit, forgive, abandon and forsake. It is used a total of five times in the Old Testament, all of which are found in the Aramaic portions of Daniel and Ezra. However, given that there was a limited amount of Aramaic influence exerted on the Hebrew language after the return from the Babylonian captivity, we later see the root shabak  שׁבק attested in Jewish writings such as the Jerusalem Talmud, which is where the Mishna is found.
Of the seven occurrences of shabak in the Mishnah, four are clearly couched in Hebrew prose. A passage from the Jerusalem Talmud (31:5:1), is an especially good example of the words surrounding shabak. The text contains certain grammatical structures and vocabulary which occur only in Hebrew and not Aramaic. A few examples are the use of the letter ה he found at the beginning of words which means the (Aramaic has א – aleph at the end of words). Also the word שׁ Shay, that, (used only Hebrew) versus די di  (used only in Aramaic). Thus the word shabak, which Jesus spoke on the cross, we find situated in the midst of Mishnaic Hebrew words and grammar, and therefore, we can safely conclude that while this was originally a loan word from Aramaic, by Jesus’ day, it had become common place in the Hebrew language. We should actually expect there to be some loan words in the language.
Consider for example, if you live in France and you hear someone say that he intends to do “le jogging” you should not conclude that he is actually speaking English! Likewise, consider the dramatic influence French had on English – we use without any thought words such as pork and beef not knowing that these words are not originally English. This does not lead us to the conclusion that Americans are speaking French, though it does imply that there was some French influence upon the English language. In fact, pork and beef have become so common that we are often surprised to learn that they are French. Nevertheless, though pork and beef are clearly French, the way they are spelled (vs. porc and boeuf) shows that they have been completely assimilated into the English language.  And so it is with Shabaktani – the word seems to have come originally from Aramaic but was completely assimilated into (Mishnaic) Hebrew as attested by its usage in the writings of the Mishnah, which as pointed out already, was the final stage of ancient Hebrew before its demise around 200 AD . Also, the ending of the word “ta+ni” is exactly what we would expect in Biblical Hebrew  viz. shabakta=you forsook +ni=me.
 Jesus makes reference to this word in John 10:34 of the leaders and judges of Israel.
 A beautiful example of the Trinity in the Old Testament (first occurring in Genesis 1:26).
 Both Hebrew and Aramaic were written in what was known as Aramaic script just like how English is written using Latin letters.
 My lovely wife, Anna, pointed this out to me!
 Mark includes the breathing marks and accents making it even clearer that it is to be pronounced Elo-i demonstrating that the Hebrew letter he has been dropped.
 The e is written with a shewa which is a very short sound.
 Some manuscripts do contain the variants λεμα lema, λιμα lima, – see The Robinson/Pierpont Byzantine Greek New Testament. However, the Textus Receptus and the Vulgate have λαμμα lamma or λαμα lama respectively.
 The Aramaic word is actually Shabachtani – Greek does not have the “sh” sound which is why the NT text has transliterated it as Sabachtani.
 The last root letter is like the letter K as in kite. Again this is a matter of transliteration.
 The other uses are: זאת zot, בן ben, אני ani, את et – these words are specifically Hebrew. The Aramaic counterpart is different enough so that we can conclude that these words are Hebrew and not Aramaic. Ben and bar (in a later chapter), however, are often interchangeable.
 Perhaps even more surprising is discovering that the word sack is in fact a Hebrew word – it is found 17 times in the Old Testament. It has been so completely assimilated that few people ever give it a second thought. It is indeed English, but was originally (and still is!) Hebrew.
 Hebrew essentially died as a spoken language but was still in use in Jewish life up until the establishment of Modern Hebrew.
 The form, though, is the same in Aramaic.