Down Abi Road Again: Studies in Mark, Pt. 35

I thought I would take a break from the Abiathar issue but I found myself having to do at least one more post on it. So here are a few more comments (reflecting on and adding to what I’ve already said):

1. I’ve been looking in detail at the seeming screw-up in Mk. 2.26, the one where Jesus refers to Abiathar as the “high priest”. I've concluded that it does not have to be written off as an error (I should state again that I am not attempting here to cover up some uneasiness with what appears to be a historical slip-up so as to preserve a modern doctrinal construct).

2. Instead, there is a very good explanation as to what is going on in this verse.

3. That explanation has to do with Mark’s movement between two languages: Aramaic (his first language) and Greek (his second language).

4. When one reads the New Testament that we have, they find that Mark uses some form of the term “ἀρχιερέως” (generally, high or chief priest) eight times: Mk. 2.26; 14.47, 53, 54, 60, 61, 63, 66.

5. In nearly all English translations, those eight references are rendered “high priest”.

6. In Aramaic, each of these instances is "רב כהן" (great priest).

7. Thus, Mark goes from “great priest” every time to “high priest” with no distinction between the two – they are one in the same for him.

8. Now, there are only two sections in Mark’s account where he uses “ἀρχιερέως” (Mk. 2 and Mk. 14). In Mk. 14, every single instance of the term refers to the same person! (Thus to try to make too much of the multiple uses in Mark’s work, I think, is quite possibly a reach. If the uses were spread out a bit more, one might have more of a case. We would only expect Mark to use the same title as he keeps referring to the same person repeatedly within the range of a few verses.) In Mk. 2, the one occurrence refers to one person, Abiathar.

9. Clearly, there is a difference between the office and role of Abiathar in the OT and the high priest in the NT. Mark must have known this!!! My question is, Can we not grant him at least that much? And if we can sustain this, then, can we not also agree that though Mark used only one term in both languages, he and his audience realized the distinction? I mean, this is one of the hardest things about going from one language to another, as I’ve said before; especially when you’re only a novice at one of them.

10. It seems odd to me to write this off as an error (again, I’m not shaking in my boots at the sound of that term) when a sensible explanation can be offered. To me, allowing that Mark was aware of the OT & NT differences, though he used only one word in each language, is to rid myself of modern arrogance (saying that he was wrong or did not know what he was doing--the same goes for Jesus) and to acknowledge the difficulties in switching languages. Again, as is typical with Mark, if he had felt a need to define terms or to differentiate, he would have. However, it is likely that in his setting, he simply didn't need to: he and his audiences may have already been able to make the distinctions.

One other thing that I have not suggested is that Mark, in using only one term here, could be enacting a play-on-words. Clearly, in the story, Jesus is talking with religious leaders and is referring to Himself as a type of priest or religious leader. Therefore, to use the term could have simply been a play on words--a play that wasn't interested as much in historical accuracy as it was theological effect. I really like this idea. Perhaps I will think on it more.

For what it’s worth, I am in the main, attempting to show that as scholars, we often overlook the difficulties of translation (going from one language to another), especially if we’re not competent in those languages. Though many competent scholars have been befuddled by this passage, it may well be the case (as it so often is), that a simple answer has been sitting right under our noses.


  1. Have you not read Casey's "Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel" esp page 151? I think you have the Aramaic 'high' and 'priest' round the wrong way. Are you sure that Mark, as a bilingual, was first Aramaic speaking and not Greek speaking carefully translating Aramaic sources when he came to them?

    I'm glad you take possible Aramaic sources seriously. So often scholarship completely ignores it.

  2. Steph,

    Yes, I've looked at Casey's work, he offers some incredible insights that we would otherwise miss. As for my Aramaic on high and priest, they are correct. I'll have to look at Casey's work again as soon as I get a chance to see what exactly you're referring to.

    As for Mk. speaking Aramaic, I am convinced that this was his native tongue. Many scholars, without even paying attention to Mk's Aramaic, have noted how broken and rough Mark's Greek is; this is surely correct. This is one of the best proofs that he spoke Aramaic first and Greek second--Not to mention all of the Aramaic disclaimers he gives throughout his work.

    I must say that outside of Mk I have not dug into Aramaic, indeed, I am no pro with it but I do take it seriously and I dare not ignore it. Steph, thanks for your insights and comments. I hope you will continue to visit and comment on Pisteuomen. Thanks for stopping by; Merry Christmas.

  3. Steph,
    I looked at Pg. 151 and I see what you're referring to. Casey has "khn" before "rb". In the Aramaic Peshitta, it is the other way around. Just as well, it is this way in the Hebrew Scriptures. I'm not sure why he has "khn" (priest) before "rb" (great, abundant - Aramaic). Maybe he was doing this for emphasis, I don't know. But without a doubt, "khn" is priest and "rb" is great/abundant and in the Peshitta and Hebrew Scriptures they are in the same order in which I wrote them.

    Thanks for pointing Casey's reversal out to me, though it is quite mysterious.

  4. Maurice discusses "interference" in translators, common amongst biglinguals. Hence Mark is bilingual rather than better at Aramaic than Greek.

    I understood the adjective should be after noun - I'll have to ask the him.

    I was noting page 151 not so much in reference to the word order but Maurice's explanation of the ambiguity of the Aramaic and interpretation not dissimilar to what you suggest.

    Thank you for your response - I hope you have a very happy Christmas with your family.

  5. Greetings Michael. I hope you enjoyed Christmas.

    Here is the background below: the attributive adjective does come after the noun.

    Casey used br Nhk in the reconstruction on p.138, and this is repeated correctly 3 times on p.151. The apparent occurrence of Nhk br on p.151 is a printing error by CUP, at a line break, because their technology could not cope with line breaks.

    The peshitta of this passage does indeed have )nhk br, whereas the Harclean has )nhk #yr. Both mark )nhk as plural, so br is not an attributive adjective. Casey used br as an adjective, and put it after its noun because this is the normal position of attributive adjectives with nouns. Cf e.g. Rosenthal, Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, section 41: “Adjectives are placed after the nouns to which they belong.” Cowley, Aramaic Papyri no.30 line 18 has )br )nhk for the High Priest. Beyer, aramaischen Texte vom Toten Meer vol. 2 p. 136 records the same expression in a fragmentary description of the New Jerusalem from Qumran, and there are lots of later examples.

    Anyway, I hope this helps.

  6. sorry for the script - I can't do it on this blogger thing.

  7. Steph,

    thanks for the info. you've dug up some good stuff. are there instances in aramaic / syriac where attrib./adj's are before the noun? i will look in mk for more examples but you raise some fine issues here.

    for the record, i am unclear as to whether or not you are saying casey is right in how he positioned the words or not? you seem to suggest that he broke a grammatical rule.

    further, why can it not still be attrib. if knh is pl.?

    again, i'm enjoying the convo, thanks for your reserach and insights.

  8. I didn't suggest that Maurice broke a grammatical rule. Maurice is right in the way he positioned the adjective after the noun. The one example contrary is a printing error by CUP because they can't read the nota bene programme. The plural examples aren't attributive adjectives. And then Rosenthal, Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, section 41: “Adjectives are placed after the nouns to which they belong." and the other references.

    I hope this makes sense! (smiley face)

  9. Steph,

    I think where we've differed are on several points:

    1) I based my reading off of the Peshitta. Here, the adj. is before the noun. You did not base your reading off the Peshitta but the Harclean. There, the terms are opposite in order.

    2) You seem to be suggesting that your rendering (as well as Casey's and the Harclean) is correct based on the grammatical supposition that the adj. comes after the noun. While that may well be the case, I'm not sure that it makes a whole lot of difference here.

    Either way, I still think Casey was basically right that and that following the Peshitta, we can take rb as meaning "great". I think I am going to do a short post on Mark's use of rb and its derivatives soon. I may not but it's looking like I will.

    Am I right in how I've broke down our agreements/disagreements here?

    Anyways, can I ask where you are from and if you have a site/blog of your own? Glad you're reading, I'm enjoying your comments and insights.

  10. Both the Peshitta and Harclean mark chief as plural so it rb is not an attributive adjective.

    A grammatical supposition that has been demonstrated by Rosenthal for example Matthew Black too I think but my books are, once again (sigh), in transit. From yesterday until the weekend. The joys of moving.

    I'm enrolled as a phd candidate (synoptic problem) in the UK, internet has been a necessary evil. I have no site. I am a Kiwi struggling with the UK culture shock.

  11. Steph,

    I'm glad you're able to converse, despite lack of books and internet troubles.

    If you're not going to take "rb" as an adj. what do you take it as?

    Also, when translated into Grk., Mark uses the compound archiereus. Clearly, this is meant in an attributive or descriptive sense (e.g. "great" or "cheif" or "high" or "top" priest).

    You have to do something with "rb", I'm not getting what exactly you "do with it". Please, if you can find the means and time, let me know.

  12. Steph,

    I see, you're arguing that it is a noun, based on your two grammatical suppositions. Good insights, I'll definitely think on these things.

  13. Rather than an attributive adjective, ie. chief priests, with the rb following the noun, it is "the priests who are chief".

    I'm scrolling down a long way to get to this post - and I think it might disappear before long!

    Happy New Year - only a few hours away, where I am at the moment, now.

  14. Steph,

    So, I'm guessing that you would also translate the sg. as "the priest who is chief"? Mark moves back and forth between sg. and pl. In 2.26, the Grk for "rb khna" is in the gen/sg. not the plural. However, later on in that verse, khna is in the pl. Did you get these confused?

  15. No I am not confused. The first mention is to the "great priest", khn rb, and the second is to "priests" khna. If Mark's Aramaic source had been rb khn, he would have read it as "the priest is great". Casey has khn rb in his reconstruction and the two mentions on p. 151 should be khn rb too - he has told me that rb khn was a misprint by CUP due to technology differences - their programme not reading right to left in line splits.

  16. Steph,

    It appears to me, then, that Casey's (reconstruction?) follows the Harclean. Of course, this is opposite the Peshitta. So, do you agree w/Casey and the Harclean or not?

    Also, in Aramaic the adj. can come before the noun (as in the Peshitta) if it is a modifier (as some grammars note). Of course, all of the biblical languages have their quirks and do not follow the supposed rules %100 percent of the time (nor does any language). What do you make of this?

    I guess I'm wondering, having thought through this and looked at the evidence, where do you end up? Oh, and Happy New Year to you too. About 10 hrs away here.

  17. I'm sorry for your sarcasm. Maurice Casey himself seeks to "reconstruct" so why do you question mark it? No it does not follow the Harclean. And no, it is not, of course, opposite to the Peshitta. The adjective only comes before the noun when it is not an attributive adjective. We have no evidence to support your perception of a quirk that the rule was not followed.

  18. I should have added that Maurice's proposed reconstruction, with the rb following the khn, reading right to left khn rb, is logical on the assumption that Mark translated into Greek from Aramaic in the normal way. The second reference in the Gr text 2.26 is just to pl. "priests" without adjective and so Maurice translates this as khna. I am quite clear and Maurice is correct.

  19. Steph,
    No sarcasm intended at all. I was asking sincere questions. I was just attempting to crystallize where both you and I stood, nothing more. I am enjoying the conversation. Even at the points where I might question or challenge some of your points, I am not being sarcastic. Instead, I am just asking questions. Have a blessed day.

  20. Steph,

    In the next couple of days, I think I will post a new column on this. I hope you will continue the convo with me there.