Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?


Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani

Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachthani? by Ann Kim. Oil Stick on canvas, 1998, 50″ x 70″.

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:

Mark 15.34:

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;

Matthew 27.46:

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

Neither Greek version is a transliteration of this Hebrew, but appear more like the Aramaic, as witnessed by the targums and the Syriac Peshitta:

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 ’elîyā, or shortened to אליה ’ēlî, 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].

Author: Gareth Hughes

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

2 thoughts on “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

  1. You are 100% correct in your analysis of the Aramaic, in that the form quoted in Greek (eli eli lama shabaqtani) is Aramaic and not Hebrew. It is a very common verb in Aramaic. There are lots of other examples in the New Testament where the words HAVE to be Aramaic, not Hebrew, such as hakel dama (Field of Blood). Field in Hebrew is sadeh.

    • Well, maybe only 80% right! The words in the two gospels lie somewhere in between the Masoretic Text and the targums, but the use of the verb σαβαχθανι, which seems to be from שבק, and ελωι, in some manuscripts, tends to point more towards Aramaic. However, we are aware that Jewish Aramaics have always been heavily influenced by Hebrew, and Hebrew, like that of the Mishnah, borrows Aramaic vocabulary. In this atmosphere, neither one is definitively one or the other, especially when we’re only considering a short phrase.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s