Yesterday, being Palm Sunday, we read the Passion Gospel. Even though we should have been reading Luke’s Passion because we are in Year C of lectionary, we ended up with the shorter version of Matthew‘s Passion for some reason. Afterwards there were a few questions about the words of Jesus from the cross, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’. So, I thought I should write some words about this phrase, which appears in both Matthew and Mark:
At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
καὶ τῇ ἐνάτη ὥρᾳ ἐβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ· ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι; ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνεθόμενον· ὁ θεός μου ὁ θεός μου, εἰς τί ἐγκατέλιπές με;
And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
περὶ δὲ τὴν ἐνάτην ὥραν ἀνεβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ λέγων· ηλι ηλι λεμα σαβαχθανι; τοῦτ’ ἔστιν· θεέ μου θεέ μου, ἱνατί με ἐγκατέλιπες;
The main difference between the two versions, apart from Greek grammatical differences are the spellings of the call on God: Mark’s ελωι and Matthew’s ηλι.
The words are the incipit of Psalm 22, for which the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text reads:
אלי אלי למה עזבתני — ’ēlî ’ēlî lāmâ ‘ăzabtānî
אלי אלי מטול מה שבקתני — ’ēlî ’ēlî meṭûl mâ šbaqtanî
אלהי אלהי מטול מה שבקתני — ’ĕlāhî ’ĕlāhî meṭûl mâ šbaqtanî
ܐܠܗܝ ܐܠܗܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ — ’alāh[î] ’alāh[î] lmānâ šbaqtān[î]
There is good reason to believe that these words transliterated into Greek letters in the gospels are Aramaic and not Hebrew. The verb šbaq seems only to have been borrowed into Hebrew at a later date, and is clearly attested in the targums of the psalm. Also, the numerous occaisions where the gospels present us with transliterations of non-Greek words of Jesus, they are all Aramaic.
It is interesting to note that the two version ελωι and ηλι are represented in the two targumic versions. The former seems to be a straightforward Aramaic spelling of ‘my God’, while the latter follows the Masoretic Text and is the ancient Semitic name for the supreme deity (Akkadian ilu, Ugaritic ’il).
The Peshitta uses ܐܠܗܝ ’alāh[î] in its rendering of Psalm 22, but renders both gospel passages by ܐܝܠ ’êl. This is used in Syriac as a proper name to render the various ‘El’ names of the Old Testament, and it displays the Peshitta’s tendancy to harmonize variant gospel parallels (a diatessaronic effect?).
The various manuscripts of the gospel passages in question show numerous attempts to get this important phrase ‘right’. Codex Bezae, in all its oddity, attempts to recreate the Hebrew with ηλι ηλι λαμα ζαφθανι for both passages. Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus have Matthew’s version as ελωι instead of ηλι to harmonize with Mark’s. Other variations exist, such as spelling λεμα as λαμα or λιμα, or σαβαχθανι as σαβακτανι or σαβακτανει, demonstrating the difficulty of transliterating the Aramaic faithfully in Greek.
In both gospels, bystanders respond by saying that Jesus is calling Elijah. In Hebrew Elijah’s name is אליהו ’elîyāhû, or shortened to אליה ’ēlîyâ, which sounds like the first part of Jesus’ call. Also, Elijah has a prominent role in Passover traditions. A cup is filled for Elijah and the door is opened for him in a belief that he will return to herald the coming of the Messiah. This connects with the timing of the crucifixion, but might also be understood as a cynical statement by the bystanders about messianic claims made about Jesus: ‘If you are the Messiah, where is your Elijah to rescue you in a chariot of fire?’.
Greek is not very good for capturing the sounds of Aramaic, so I prefer to use an Aramaic pronunciation rather than anglicization of the graecization of the Aramaic! In IPA, the pronunciation is [ˈeːliː ˈeːliː] or [eˈlɔhiː eˈlɔhiː] then [ləˈmɑː ʃəˈvaqtaniː], or approximately, if you don’t read IPA, [EYlee EYlee] or [eLOhee eLOhee] then [luMAH SHVOKtanee].