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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

The name, fame and shame of Bartimaeus

46 Comments

Yesterday’s Gospel was Mark’s pericope of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho (Mk 10.46–52; synoptic parallels Mt 9.27–31, 20.29–34, Lk 18.35–43). It struck me that passing characters in the gospels, especially recipients of healing, are anonymous (Luke’s version does not name the blind man, and Matthew makes him two anonymous men). Most of us treat ‘Bartimaeus’ as a straightforward name, but I think it’s unusual for a couple of reasons.

He is introduced as “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus” (ὁ υἱὸς Τιμαίου Βαρτιμαῖος, ho huiòs Timaíou Bartimaîos). This is often read as if Bartimaeus is his name, and his father is Timaeus. However, the simple fact that ‘bar’ is the Aramaic for ‘son of’ suggests that ‘son of Timaeus’ is the partial translation of ‘Bartimaeus’. It’s always interesting to see what the Syriac Peshitta does with such translations of Aramaic, seeing as there is usually no need for a gloss on Aramaic (Syriac being a variety of Aramaic). The Peshitta translates the name as ܛܝܡܝ ܒܪ ܛܝܡܝ (Ṭimai bar Ṭimai). Although this suggests once again a proper name ‘Timai bar Timai’, this still does not make a great deal of sense.

The pericope uses the title ‘Son of David‘ twice to refer to Jesus, which has messianic connotations. I believe that reading ‘Son of Timai’ as a counterpart to ‘Son of David’ might help us find meaning in the name.

The essential question is what does ‘Timaeus’ or ‘Timai’ mean? There are two ways we can translate it:

  1. The Peshitta spelling supports an understanding that the root is the Aramaic word טימא or ܛܝܡܐ (ṭimē), which is itself borrowed from the Greek τιμή (timē), meaning ‘honour’, ‘worth’ or ‘price’. It might then be able to translate ‘Bartimaeus’ as ‘the honoured one’, ‘the worthy one’ or even ‘the ransomed one’ (bought at a price). This last understanding of the term suggests a type of Israel, which would fit well with the prophetic thrust of Jesus’ blindness signs: that the Son of Israel is a blind beggar crying out for the Son of David.
  2. The alternative lexical root could be the pure Aramaic word טמא or ܛܡܐ (ṭmā), meaning ‘unclean’, ‘impure’, ‘unchaste’ or ‘abominable’. In this sense, ‘Bartimaeus’ could mean ‘son of my impure ones’, which is in keeping with the general bigotry against those with disabilities that they inherited a parental fault or sin.

I think the first interpretation is slightly stronger, having the backing of the Peshitta and involving interplay with the only similar name in the pericope, ‘Son of David’. However, it might be possible, although more complex, to understand Bartimaeus as a type of Israel as an unclean people. Perhaps one could relate the injunction against the blind sacrificing as priests (Lev. 21.18-20). The Book of Isaiah also has a number of references to blindness indicating a lack of spiritual understanding. However, forming a coherent argument about the meaning of the name in this way seems somewhat awkward.

An easier answer would be that ‘Timaeus’ is a proper name, which is shared by the Platonic character Timaeus of Locri and by Timaeus the historian. However, this connection does not seem meaningful either. There is always the nagging chance that ‘Bartimaeus’ was a historical person with a meaningless name all along.

All thoughts welcome below.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

46 thoughts on “The name, fame and shame of Bartimaeus

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  7. Honoured, worthy & ransomed but blind…Israel & all mankind…needing Jesus…it fits, wonderfully !

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  10. I love the ambiguity, that is probaly the reason why teh name IS significant. In my experience God uses ambiguity to open doors of understanding. What is unclean in one culture is to be honoured in the other, this is the way God works to transform lives. The story is at the hinge point of the Gospel, leaving teh teaching behind and challenging Jerusalem. Thank you for confiming the significance of the passage – It is the way we enter into the new Kingdom…. note where the story is placed… Jesus is teh new Joshua… again related names.

  11. Great article. I love to turn to the Peshitta for more contextual clues when I’m in a bind. Thanks for your insight, you’ve saved me about an hour of research! Thanks again for the article.

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  15. Histories of St. Mark indicate he was well educated so very likely familiar with Plato’s Timaeus. In the Timaeus, Plato presents his account of the formation of the universe and its order and beauty. In Mark’s Gospel, the blind Bartimaeus ask Jesus to “see” and because of his faith is immediately given his sight and follows Jesus. What Bartimaeus then “sees” and identifies with is the Son of the order and beauty of the universe, Jesus, and follows him.

    • Hello Mike. This is a line of thought that has crossed my mind; I have thought of writing a new Bartimaeus article with a bit more meat to it than this old one. However, I don’t think there’s an obvious connection between the Platonic Timaeus and Bartimaeus. All of the defences for a connection I find rather too vague to take seriously. Also, I’m not sure about calling the author of Mark’s gospel ‘well educated’, as that’s an accusation more appropriate to Luke.

    • Good insight but nothing JESUS did is to be compared to Plato, or any of his accounts of the universe. Plato has a human view of beauty, not comparable to any Light given by Jesus. Be careful in comparing anything to JESUS, accept His work by faith

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  19. Please look at Joshua 6:26. This will clear up for anyone, without a lot of theologocal goop, who Bartimaeus was and who he became. God’s representative (Joshua) cursed the man and God’s Son redeemed him.

    • Ha ha! I love your description ‘theologocol (sic) gloop’! Of course, Joshua 6.26 doesn’t clear up anything without a good dose of interpretation. That interpretation brings up more questions. On the face of it, the quoting of this one verse is more of a rhetorical grenade than an attempt to shed any light on the matter.

  20. i have just been confused over the two meanings however i knew the first one from abible teacher who never told the source of information and gave us the meaning of the name as forsaken, but now i can understand that he might have been in the first difination he became hounarable and the last one was his first state . be blessed so much. rev moses buyinza church of God outreach min. int

    • Dear Moses, thank you for your comment. Unfortunately in this life, many things will remain unanswered. That is why I do not simply say that the name means this or that. Let us be honest, and talk about the possibilities and the strengths and weaknesses of each. It is far too easy to preach definitive answers when the truth is more subtle. Exploring the hidden subtleties of truth is far more rewarding than forcing a quick, easy answer.

  21. Thank you for your carefully constructed analysis here. It seems like all these other comments have scratched out nothing but hyperbole of the most distracted order. JESUS – Son of David – is doing what only Jesus can do – taking the Son of Poverty, wretchedness, ” Spiritual Blindness” and sin – the one that others wished to silence and discard ( he wore a cloak – which was a symbol in his society of his “LOT in life” – he was a no good beggar). and restores his sight. Now Bartimaeus can see Jesus as he is. Now Bartimaeus is following Jesus.

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  23. It’s a question of the Bible being the Word of God and therefore every word in it becomes important. The name Bartimaeus obviously has significance, because I can’t think of any other blind man in the gospels being given a name. In the Aramaic the name has negative connotations; in the Greek, positive. We, as sinners, are saved by grace; but God’s purpose is that we are ‘called to glory’. Bartimaeus covers the the ‘gamut’ (if I may use the term) from grace to glory.

    I wish you were born again, and God opened your eyes, even as He opened the heart of Lydia (Acts 16.14). All our research is useful only up to a point. If the Bible has to be understood, it is understood by (God-given) revelation. Read Luke 24. He ‘opened their minds’ to understand Scripture.

    Blessings.

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes, I believe every word of scripture is important. But that, in itself, is a rather vague sentiment. I don’t believe that Bartimaeus’s name has to mean anything. If you want to be totally literal, it is just his name. If it has a special meaning, then we are beginning to read the text allegorically. What you write about the two meanings that I outlined in the article – you say the Aramaic meaning is bad, and the Greek meaning is good – is an oversimplification. I outlined the two because it is possible to read it two ways, but one makes much more sense on reflection. I am happily born again, and read the scriptures twice daily. But that probably won’t satisfy you, as you seem to have judged me already, a sin particularly prevalent in some churches.

  24. Hello Gareth.
    I read the story as an allegorical tale.
    The healing of the bind man of Bethsaida (8:22-26) and the healing of blind Bartimaeus (10:46-51) act as book ends for a beautiful section of scripture that deals with our attitude toward others.
    Within this section of scripture are three prophecies of the Passion. Before the first prophecy, Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ. After Jesus explains the distinct nature of his Messiahship in the first prophecy of the Passion, Peter “rebukes” him. This leads to Jesus rebuking Peter in return.

    >>> We should not desire to impose our will on others.

    Closely following the second prophecy of the Passion is a statement from John: “Master, we saw a man who is not one of us, casting out devils in your name, and because he was not one of us, we tried to stop him”. Jesus responds:
    “Do not stop him,” Jesus said.
    “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.

    >>> We should not believe that we are more virtuous than others

    The third prophecy of the Passion is followed by the request of James and John to be allowed to sit at the right and left of Christ in glory.
    The response of Jesus to their request is:
    “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

    >>> We should not believe that sacrifice of ourselves for our faith makes us more worthy than others.

    Then we have Bartimaeus. Significantly, Bartimaeus first addresses Jesus as “Son of David”. The Jewish people saw themselves as the “chosen” people and the “Son of David” was the prophesied one to lead them into a kingdom of peace and prosperity.
    The Jewish people saw themselves as more worthy than others.

    But Plato in the Timaeus, describes a vision of an ideal state where procreation is arranged by lottery – a lottery that is fixed so that the “good” of either sex be coupled and the “bad” of either sex be coupled. The offspring would be separated so that the progeny of the “bad” would be dispersed among the “inferior” citizens whilst those of the “good” would be educated in the finest arts.

    Plato also saw some as more worthy than others.

    When Bartimaeus discards his cloak, he is discarding his vanity and addresses Jesus as “Rabbi” (teacher, in some translations) or “Rabboni” (master, in others).

    it is only AFTER we discard our vanities that we can truly recognize Christ.

    Kind Regards

    DominickG

  25. THE SCRIPTURE WRITER JOHN MARK WAS THE SON OF A WEALTHY ROMAN FATHER AND HEBREW MOTHER. WELL EDUCATED HE WAS PETER’S TRANSLATOR AND SCRIBE FOR MANY YEARS IN THE EARLY DAYS OF THE CHURCH. IT IS LIKELY THAT HE WAS WELL ACQUAINTED WITH PLATO’S TIMEAUS THAT STATES THE EYES ARE THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT GIFT OF GOD.
    ALL LIFE AND SIGHT REQUIRES LIGHT. TO THE PEOPLE OF THIS TIME LIGHT WAS LIFE. IT PROVIDED WARMETH, GREW CROPS, MADE AIR TO BREATH……etc. THE ANALOGY IS CHRIST’S LIGHT GIVEN TO ALL WHO ASK IS LIFE BY SALVATION.

  26. I could not refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written!

  27. I want to to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoyed every little bit
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    you post…

  28. Our pastor preached a wonderful sermon on this passage yesterday. And yes , he pointed out that Bartimaeus means “son of filth” which chimes with the Aramaic interpretation which you give.

    There is obviously the Greek meaning which is the opposite of the Aramaic. However, I believe the intent of God’s Word can be discerned if we take the entire context. The story of the healing of the blind man follows the incident involving the request of James and John.

    I don’t believe these or any other Gospel narratives are placed randomly.

    In fact, the hinge on which both accounts turn is Jesus’ question : “What do you want me to do for you ?” (verse 36 and verse 51).

    So the lesson is that those who think highly of themselves go to the back of the queue and those who are or have been pushed to the back of the queue ( like a “son of filth”) get promoted to a place near Jesus and have their request granted.

  29. Hello all! My name it Tymaeus Love and I have been looking for a straight forward definition for my name… I see that there is more to the name then just one answer and that is a good thing!! I came onto this blog and I found it to be rewarding!! I Have a good spirit and I know that this is me even when things are not going well in my life… This goodness is a gift and I will use it always no matter what!! Even my last name says a lot “LOVE”!!!

  30. This is a private reply.

    Very nice article about Aramaic.

    Are you sure that, “No gospels were first written in Aramaic?” No original book of the Bible has ever been discovered, so how can anyone make a dogmatic statement about this. You use the internet, but you obviously prefer university parlance.

    The Fathers of the Church, such as Papias of Hierapolis and Irenaeus of Lyons that clearly state that Matthew originally wrote the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew (or Aramaic)?

    • Dear Sunny,

      It looks like you’re commenting not on this article but on the article at https://christhum.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/what-is-aramaic-and-syriac/. Specifically, you are referring to my statement: “No gospels were first written in Aramaic — There are people around (in the Internet sense rather than around universities) who will go to great lengths to prove that some of the New Testament was written in Aramaic, and then later translated into Greek. They are wrong”.

      I can understand if you find that statement a bit curt, but it’s like that because the Internet is full of people who will argue otherwise without any decent evidence. The canonical gospels we have were originally written in Greek. There is no reputable scholar of the gospels who will tell you otherwise. There are no extant copies of the gospels in Aramaic that are not translations from the Greek. So much is certain, but the murkier aspect is whether certain gospel texts exhibit ‘Aramaicisms’. Whether they do or don’t, it does not undermine the earlier two points. Such ‘Aramaicisms’ are not solid entities, and occasionally could be said to exist only because the enthusiast wishes to see them. They are insufficient to consider the gospels to be translations into Greek from Aramaic, and may be simply the product of writing Greek in the cultural atmosphere of Aramaic. It is true that Papias mentions a ‘Hebrew’ original to Matthew’s Gospel. Of this, the first point is that it is no longer extant, and the second is to ask the question of what exactly is meant, seeing as we are not dealing with a modern publication process. Perhaps the ‘Hebrew’ was an Aramaic aide-mémoire or preacher’s notebook with the sayings of Jesus and observations of miracles, and that it provided material for an original Greek composition of the gospel. In the end, it becomes such a guessing game based on one line of a later witness.

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  32. Appreciate your work here and its caused me to wonder. Is Mark possibly using the name of the blind man to address his audience in this story. A play on the name ironically referring to both the blind man and the formerly blind redeemed people?

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  34. Good article, thanks.

  35. Not only have I learned to understand the past, but I’ve also learned that when you trace the etymology, or the history of a word, especially when dealing with scripture, it gives you a better picture of the whole account…

  36. I think I will lean towards the translation “son of the unclean”, and here’s why. One, the term of “son of David” is only used here, in Mark, so I think there is a direct parallel between the son of the unclean and the son of David. Barricades wants to exchange sonships, in a sense. And two, it fits with this stark reality…you have a crowd of clean, religious people, on their way to the Holy City for the Passover, who are literally passing over, an unclean, non-religious person, sitting outside a cursed city (Joshua 6:26). That direct, stark contrast, is not coincidence. It’s powerful stuff. The layers of Scripture are so intriguing.

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