The Markan Use of רב : Studies in Mark, Pt. 39

At present, I am fully persuaded that the author of Mark’s Gospel account was at the least, bilingual with some additional knowledge of Latin and perhaps Hebrew. However, Mark’s first language was the same as that of Jesus: Aramaic. Mark’s second language, which scholars have noted is incredibly rough and quite elementary was Greek. As Moulton has noted, as a translator, Mark’s Greek was always “translation Greek”. Indeed, when Mark wrote his account, he was translating from Aramaic into Greek. This accounts, I believe and so do other text-critics and biblical linguists, for a number of grammatical issues that often crop up in a close reading of Mark’s text.

As of late, I’ve written a few posts on Mark 2.26 (the Abiathar passage) and I have continued studying that verse in both it’s immediate and broader literary context. In fact, I went through, found, analyzed and compared every occurrence of the terms “rb” and “khna” (Aramaic) and their Greek counterparts. If nothing else, the results were interesting to me and I think they lend some support to my argument that in Mk. 2.26, one can certainly read “rb khna” (or khna rb) as “great priest” (as opposed to “high priest”).

Before delving into issues of Greek and Aramaic, I should say that while many are fine with suggesting that Mark 2.26 is historically inaccurate, to me, that answer is not satisfying. I find it lacking because it fails to consider evidence to the contrary, evidence that easily (perhaps too easily for some) makes sense of our modern confusion(s). Personally, I do not take Mark to be an idiot. Neither do I think he was so removed from Israel’s story and his immediate religio-political context that he was unable to differentiate between priests and their various roles in the Old Testament and the priests of his own day. It would be rather presumptuous of me, I think, to hold to such a weak theory.

In my survey of the Aramaic and Greek texts, here is what I found (for each use and its parsing information, see the listing at the bottom of this post):

1. Mark uses some derivative of "rb" times.

2. Mark uses "rb" 4 of those times in conjunction with “knwsta”. Literally, this translates into something like “great one of the community”, “chief of the school”, or “elder of the synagogue”. It is interesting to note that Mark does not use the typical “rs” here (“head” of the synagogue). Further, when he moves from the two Aramaic terms to Greek, he decides to use a compound Greek word: Arche/synagogon. We should emphasize here that Mark may be fond of taking two familiar Aramaic terms and trying to combine them into one Greek compound.

3. Mark also uses a cognate of “rb”, that is “rby”, 15 times. He uses it in conjunction with “khna” a number of times. However, when used on its own, Mark moves between 2 Greek terms: Rabbouni and Didaskale. In 14.45, Mark uses the word back-to-back (the only time he does this). It is hard to tell why Mark moves between the two Greek terms but we might suggest that he uses Rabbouni when he wants to connote a leader/follower relationship and Didaskale when he wants to emphasize teacher/disciple relationship. So, why would Mark use the same term to speak of a rabbi or teacher, that he did when speaking of the priest? One answer, and in Mk. 2.26 this seems especially true, is that there really wasn’t an alternative. This takes us to the next insight.

4. Twice in his account, Mark uses “rb” in a comparative sense (9.34; 12.32). The Greek word is “meizon”, meaning “great/greater/greatest”. Actually, in these two verses, Mark uses “meizon” in a superlative sense. Some have argued: “If Mark knows the term ‘great’ then why doesn’t he say that Abiathar is the ‘meizon iereus’ in Mk. 2.26? The answer to this is twofold: a) Mark doesn’t use ‘meizon’ in an attributive adjectival sense, and b) Mark only uses ‘meizon’ as a superlative. Thus, if he attempted to use it in 2.26 he definitely would have misspoken—he didn’t think Abiathar was the ‘greatest’ priest—in fact, Abiathar is placed beneath David and then paired with Zadok. It just wouldn’t work. Grammatically, the author of Hebrews made it work. Contextually, though, Mark couldn’t have made it work in 2.26 with the story he tells (and has Jesus telling).

5. Mark uses the word “khna” 19 times. Sometimes he uses it with “rb” and sometimes he doesn’t. This is critical because it suggests that if nothing else, Mark is aware of different types of priests and different priestly roles.

6. Mark uses “rb” and “khna” together 17 times. As may be typical of him, when he has two Aramaic terms, Mark may try to combine them into one Greek compound that he’ll use repeatedly. Here, that Greek compound is “archiereus”. In Greek, this could have a number of meanings when taken with priest (e.g. head, top, chief, great, first, etc.). Now, even though Mark sticks with this one compound all throughout his work, this does not mean this compound could not have different meanings in different places. We’ve already seen that Mark cannot use “meizon” in 2.26 because it is impossible. We’ve also seen that Mark knows that different types of priests exist. We also know that Mark uses “rb” to denote different things (e.g. “leader of the synagogue”, “rabbi”, “great teacher”, etc.). Therefore, it is not at all unthinkable that Mark could have meant “great priest” in 2.26—after all, what other word could or should he have employed?

It is clear to me that Mark chose the right words and that he stuck with what he knew. Without a doubt, Mark was more comfortable with his Aramaic than his Greek. This is made clear by the simple fact that his Aramaic was much more fluid. That is why he could use this one word 29 times with such great ease (e.g. it had various meanings) but when he crossed over to Greek, he attempted (and I would say, struggled) to find words—he tried using 5 different terms—that wouldn’t confuse his Greco-Roman audience(s). Being a translator myself, from the vantage point of such work, I recognize that it is often tough to move from language-to-language. I suspect that the same was true for Mark. Again, I would submit that this is certainly why we see his Aramaic fluidity with one term slow down and take on different forms in the Greek language.

List of relevant terms and parsing information in their respective locations:

1.44: knh = priest (Grk. Iereus - Dat/Sg/Ms)
2.26: rb knh = great, high – priest (Grk. Archiereus – Gen/Sg/Ms)
2.26: knh = priests (Grk. Ieries – Acc/Pl/Ms)
5.22: rb knwsta = synagogue rulers (Grk. Archesynagogon – Gen/Pl/Ms)
5.35: rb knwsta = synagogue ruler (Grk. Archisynagogou – Gen/Sg/Ms)
5.36: rb knwsta = synagogue ruler (Grk. Archisynagogoi – Gen/Sg/Ms)
5.38: rb knwsta = synagogue ruler (Grk. Archisynagogou – Gen/Sg/Ms)
8.31: rby knh = high priest (Grk. Archiereon – Gen/Pl/Ms)
9.5: rby = rabbi (Grk. Rabbi - Voc/Sg/Ms)
9.34: rb = greatest (Grk. Meizon – Adj/Nom/Sg/Ms/Comparative)
9.38: rby = teacher (Grk. Didaskale – Voc/Sg/Ms)
10.33: lrby knh = great, high priests (Grk. Archiereusin – Dat/Pl/Ms)
10.51: rby = rabbi (Grk. Rabbouni – Voc/Sg/Ms)
11.18: rby khna = great, high – priest (Grk. Archiereis – Nom/Pl/Ms)
11.21: rby = rabbi (Grk. Rabbi – Voc/Sg/Ms)
11.27: rby khna = great, high – priest (Grk. Archiereis – Nom/Pl/Ms)
12.31: drb = greater (Grk. Meizon – Adj/Nom/Sg/Fem/Comparative)
12.32: rby = teacher (Grk. Didaskale – Voc/Sg/Ms)
14.1: rby khna = great, high – priest (Grk. Archiereis – Nom/Pl/Ms)
14.10: rby khna = great, high – priest (Grk. Archiereis – Acc/Pl/Ms)
14.43: rby khna = great, high – priest (Grk. Archieron – Gen/Pl/Ms)
14.45: rby rby = teacher/ great, teacher (Grk. Rabbi – Voc/Sg/Ms)
14.47: drb khna = high, great - priest (Grk. Archiereos – Gen/Sg/Ms)
14.53: rb khna = high, great - priest (Grk. Archierea – Acc/Sg/Ms)
14.53: rby khna = high, great - priest (Grk. Archiereis - Nom/Pl/Ms)
14.54: drb khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereos - Gen/Sg/Ms)
14.55: rby khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereis - Nom/Pl/Ms)
14.60: rb khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereos - Gen/Sg/Ms)
14.61: rb khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereus - Nom/Sg/Ms)
14.63: rb khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereus - Nom/Sg/Ms)
14.66: drb khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereos - Gen/Sg/Ms)
15.1: rby khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereis - Nom/Pl/Ms)
15.3: rby khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereis - Nom/Pl/Ms)
15.10: rby khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereis - Nom/Pl/Ms)
15.11: rby khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereis - Nom/Pl/Ms)
15.31: rby khna = high, great – priest (Grk. Archiereis - Nom/Pl/Ms)