Discovering the Language of Jesus: Hebrew or Aramaic?

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24 see also Luke 16:9,11,13)

The word mammon[1] has long been assumed to be Aramaic.  In fact, every Greek lexicon I checked said unambiguously that it is of Aramaic origin.[2] Many lexicons simply relegate the word to Aramaic a priori based on the fact that it is not Greek.  The word, in fact, comes from an old Hebrew root המון hamon meaning a number of different things making it somewhat difficult to translate.  But essentially, it means many, a lot.  Among the meanings [3] are riches and abundance.  It might seem to be somewhat of a stretch to say that hamon could become mammon.  However, considering that it was quite common for the letter mem to be added to the front of words to make them into other classes of words, it is not a stretch at all.  Consider the following examples:

  • targum (translation), becomes translator by adding the letter mem to the front of the word – meturgeman
  • melech (king), becomes kingdom by adding a mem to the beginning – mamlacha,
  • zamar (to sing) becomes melody, psalmmizmor
  • yesha (salvation) – (from which comes the name Yeshua – Jesus) becomes with the memsavior moshia
  • hamon (a lot) becomes (money) mammon

Equally important is the fact that the word mammon is actually attested outside of the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament.  We find it nine times in the Mishna.  The passages in which mammon is found are in Hebrew (not Aramaic!) and are in reference to money and terms of payment.  One says, “If they give you a lot of money [mammon], you will enter…” Seder Nizikin 3:4 [4].  Another says, that if certain services are not performed, then a fine of money [mammon] will be paid (Seder Nizikin 4:8 [5]. And lastly, Seder Nashim Ktuvot 3:2 says in unambiguous terms that if so and so undertakes or commits to do something and then doesn’t pay then he will be fined as it says in Exodus 21:22:

  • (Mishna Nashim Ktuvot 3:2)וכל המתחייב בנפשו–אינו משלם ממון, שנאמר “ולא יהיה, אסון–ענוש ייענש (שמות כא,כב) …Vkol hamitchayev benafsho – eino meshalem mammon, sheneamar velo yihiye, ason – yenosh yeanash (shmot 21:22).
  • (Hebrew Bible, Exodus 21:22) – וכי־ינצו אנשׁים ונגפו אשׁה הרה ויצאו ילדיה ולא יהיה אסון ענושׁ יענשׁ כאשׁר ישׁית עליו בעל האשׁה ונתן בפללים) – …he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

There are two things in this text that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that mamon is a Hebrew word for money.  First of all, the Hebrew word “pay” (meshalem) appears before mammon (money) and secondly is the reference given to Exodus 21:22b which says “yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay (natan, literally give) as the judges determine.”  We see that the Mishnaic text actually uses some of the same words but updates pay (natan in Exodus 21:22b) with the up-to-date term pay money (meshalem mammon).  Since they use it in conjunction with that verse, which we know means pay and then update it with meshalem mammon, which, by the way, are in a 100% Hebrew context, we can definitively conclude that mammon was Hebrew.  While we cannot say that this was not an Aramaic word, it is worth noting that Targum Onkelos translates the word in the Exodus passage, which is related to the above Mishnaic passage, as natangive. Moreover in places where the Hebrew Bible writes money as kesef (literally silver), Targum Onkelos follows suite with כַספָא kaspa.  If mammon were such a common Aramaic word then why is it not used in this of all verses when the Mishna does use it?

[1] The Textus Receptus has the spelling mamon, which agrees with Luke in every manuscript.  However, for sake of the accepted convention mammon will be used in this book.

[2] See in situ Thayers Greek Lexicon, Strong’s Greek and Hebrew Lexicon, Friberg Green Lexicon, UBS Greek Dictionary and Louw-Nida Lexicon

[3] The meaning of hamon: cry aloud, mourn, rage, roar, sound; make noise, tumult; be clamorous, disquieted, loud, moved, troubled, in an uproarAbundance, company, many, multitude, noise, riches, rumbling, sounding, store, tumult.  (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament hamon entry).

[4] Seder Nizikin 3:4 (im notnin lecha mammon harbe, ata niknas) אם נותנין לך ממון הרבה, אתה נכנס

[5] Seder Nizikin 4:8 (she-ein chayavin ela al tviat mammon kfiqudin)שאין חייבין אלא על תביעת ממון כפיקדון