Amen - Jesus's Catchphrases and His Greek
One word that encapsulate Jesus's humor and proves that he spoke Greek.
The word of the day is amen, a surprising word, a funny word, and an extremely useful word, because everyone thinks they know its meaning when they don’t. This is funny because Jesus used it as a joke, a part of his system of humor. It is useful because it demonstrates conclusively that he taught in Greek. In this post, I wanted to discuss all three topics, and it came to me that this word was the perfect vehicle for doing so.
Why Amen is Funny
Most Christians grow up thinking we know what Amen means, saying it at the end of every prayer, thinking it means “we agree,” close to its real meaning of “truly.” Jesus uses it a lot, in ninety-one verses, usually beginning a sentence, never ending one. This is disguised in many Bibles because it is translated as “truly,” “of a truth,” “verily,” and so on.
What makes it funny is that it is an Aramaic word, not Greek. However, it means the same as the Greek word, men (μὲν). Jesus used this word as well, thirty-three times. You can see how similar the words are: amen and men, but their difference is funny, because, in Greek, the letter “a” used as a prefix means “not.” So, to someone speaking standard Greek, instead of the koine of Judea, the word means “not truly.” The joke is that what is true for Judeans is not true for everyone else. For some reason, Jesus found this funny, and so do I. Truth may be an important concept, but Jesus found a way to have fun with it.
The humor of the word, however, doesn’t stop there. Jesus uses amen as a part of his most common catchphrases. You know what a catchphrase is, a line repeated so often that it becomes funny. “Yada, yada, yada." from Seinfield. "How you doin'?" from Friends. "Come on down!" from the Price is Right. Jesus used numerous such catchphrases, but this was the most popular, “Truly, I’m telling you.” It begins so many lines that when titling verses, I just use an ellipsis to represent it. I am too lazy to check if amen always appears in this catchphrase, but it is the standard way it is used. When Jesus just wanted to say “truly” in a sentence, he uses the Greek word, men.
How Amen Indicates that Jesus Spoke Greek
You might have been told that Jesus taught in Aramaic, and that the Greek words that humanity has preserved for two thousand years is a translation. The word amen disproves that. For those interested in a more detailed, scholarly work with lots of citations that demonstrates the same thing, I strongly recommend the book, Did Jesus Speak Greek? by G Scott Gleaves. I will not go into why most scholars claim Jesus spoke Aramaic, on very skimpy evidence, because this little word proves them all wrong.
First, let me be clear. The koine of Judea at the time of Jesus was a mixture, primarily a generic form of non-classical Greek, common to all the nations conquered by Alexander the Great, with a few Aramaic words, very few, thrown in, words like amen, Pharisee, satanas, and so on. Judean children, especially in rural areas, grew up speaking the local Aramaic in their homes, but the public, common language was the local koine Greek.
We can know this because of the frequent appearance of amen in the Greek text. If Jesus did not speak Greek, occasionally using Aramaic words, why is amen left untranslated? Why did the translators of Jesus’s Aramaic choose not to translate this particular word? Or, more precisely, why did they translate it about one-fourth of the time into men, and not translate it most of the time leaving amen? It simply doesn’t make sense.
I have spent about 20,000 hours translating foreign languages, and another 20,000 analyzing other people’s translations. I can tell you that no translator goes along deciding which words to translate and which ones to leave untranslated. That would be insane. How could they decide? On what basis? Why? To believe that Jesus taught in Aramaic translated into Greek, you must believe that his translators chose not to translate this word for no reason at all. Does that sound credible?
How do translators normally deal with a word in a different language from the text they are translating? They don’t translate them. If you read a translation of Dostoevsky from the Russian, you will encounter untranslated French words, left in French because the author meant his Russian readers to encounter French at that point in his book. Biblical translators, converting the Greek source to English, follow this rule for words like Pharisee and several other Aramaic words, but they do not follow it consistently. We can see this with amen, which always gets translated into English.
Translating the Humor of Jesus
The humor in a word like amen is difficult to capture in translation. It is an internal contradiction, a little like the statement, “Sorry!…Not sorry!” However, the humor in Jesus use of catchphrases can be captured. His frequent use of the “Truly, I say to you” phrase comes across as folksy, so I like to translate it as “Honestly, I’m telling you.” Earnest, but a little self-deprecating, as if we wouldn’t believe him.
However, much of Jesus’s humor is easier to understand. The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount is a good example. It is literally, “Fortunate, these beggars,” a humorous contradiction if there ever was one. By definition, beggars neither have a fortune nor have been lucky, but that is how Jesus begins his best-known sermon, which, reading the Greek, couldn’t have been a “sermon” at all, but that is another article.
One last note: In a few months I will be publishing my new novelization of the Sermon on the Mount, called Meeting Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount. In it, I try to capture most of the humor of Jesus. It will be the first book in a series of four or five books novelizing all the words of Jesus in Matthew and, hopefully, bringing all the political intrigue of his era to life. To introduce it sooner, I am thinking about offering it in serialization, one chapter at a time, for paid subscribers here on Substack. If anyone likes this idea, let me know.
Hasn't been released yet. Also trying to decide on the best place to serialize it. First releases is going to be to get feedback. Gary
Gary Where is this serialization?