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Was Saint Peter a Buddhist monk?

Dunhuang Caves

Dunhuang Caves

I apologize for the click bait headline: no, he was not! I was, however, revisiting some fascinating work done by the syriacist Hidemi Takahashi on proper names in the Christian documents and inscriptions of Tang dynasty China (here, here and here). Three Chinese characters in one document seem to refer to Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter as ‘Solid-Peak Monk’.

Christianity first came to China during or just before the Tang era. The first Christians in China were most likely traders who came overland along the famous Silk Road to the Tang capital city of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an). They were adherents of the Church of the East, who prayed in Syriac but mostly spoke Iranian and Turkic languages.

In the great hoard of manuscripts discovered at the Dunhuang caves complex are those belonging to this first Chinese church. One of these is the eighth-century Zūnjīng (尊經 ‘The Book of Honour’), which is a rather grand name for what is essentially two lists of names. The first list in Zūnjīng is of biblical characters and saints, while the second is list of Christian books, including some other documents found at Dunhuang. It seems that the purpose of Zūnjīng was to provide a crib sheet for those translating Christian texts into Chinese to show which characters should be used for certain names.

The entry for ‘Solid-Peak Monk’ appears in Zūnjīng‘s list of names. The entry simply reads Cénwěn Sēng (岑穩僧 literally ‘solid peak monk’). From other uses, it is clear that the name Cénwěn should be understood as ‘Simon’. In the Middle Chinese pronunciation of the Tang era, it would likely have been pronounced /d͡ʒiɪm ʔuənX/ or /tʂɦəm ʔun’/ (different sources reconstruct it differently). The Japanese reading of the characters as shimu’on (しむおん) upholds this kind of pronunciation, and Japanese readings often give a good insight into the pronunciation of Middle Chinese. Seeing as the liturgical language of the first Chinese Christians was Syriac, this fits with the Syriac for ‘Simon’, which is Shem‘ōn (ܫܡܥܘܢ, exactly following the Hebrew Shim‘ôn שמעון, ‘he has heard’). If the Simon in question is the Simon Peter whose nickname means ‘rock’ (from the Greek Petros Πέτρος, given by Jesus in the punning dialogue of Matthew 16.13–20), then the literal meaning of the characters 岑穩 as ‘solid peak’ also makes sense. All of this is rather linguistically satisfying.

The name ‘Peter’ sounds like just that, a name, to most us, and we forget that it is a rocky nickname. The New Testament gives us an alternative version of the name, often written Cephas in English Bibles. This represents Kēphas (Κηφᾶς) in the Greek text. This is the Aramaic word for ‘rock’: Kêfâ (כיפא ܟܐܦܐ). He gets a final sigma in Greek to make it sound more manly, as an alpha ending is womanly (Jesus’ name got its final ‘s’ for the same gendered reason). As Syriac is a variety of Aramaic, Simon Peter is more usually called Shem‘ōn Kēfā (ܫܡܥܘܢ ܟܐܦܐ). It would be natural for Christians who prayed in Syriac to have carried Peter’s name to China not as the Greek Petros, but the Syriac Kēfā, but that is not what the scribe of Zūnjīng gave us.

The Chinese sēng () is used for Buddhist monks. Thus we literally have ‘Simon the Buddhist monk’. The Chinese word comes from the Buddhist Pali term saṅgha (सङ्घ), referring to a Buddhist monastery, which is sēngjiā (僧伽) in Chinese. For want of a better term in Chinese, Christian monks are regularly given the title sēng in Tang era texts too, so our Simon does not have to be a Buddhist monk.

The key to the puzzle rests in learning the extinct Sogdian language, which was well represented among traders from the West in Chang’an. Sogdian was an Iranian language spoken in Samarkand and throughout a region covering today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It became a Silk Road lingua franca. In Sogdian, the word for ‘rock’ is sang, and this seems to be the origin of the Chinese sēng being used to translate the Petros/Kēfā part of Simon Peter’s name. Thus, Sogdian-speaking merchants and their clergy brought Christianity to China, naming Jesus’ disciple Shem‘ōn Sang, with that literal rocky translation of Kēfā. The scribe of Zūnjīng decided to choose Chinese characters that represented this Sogdian name phonetically. Yet the phonetic transcription is only half the story. The good scribe chose characters that had a meaning that was in harmony with who Simon Peter was.  Oddly, the rockiness of ‘Peter’ was transferred to the characters that phonetically represent ‘Simon’, as ‘solid peak’. Twice oddly, a Chinese character for a Buddhist monk that is phonetically derived from the Indian languages Pali and Sanskrit was used to represent the Sogdian word for ‘rock’. I imagine our good scribe thought the character suitable for a holy man, a saint.

P.S. In modern Mandarin Chinese, Simon Peter is Xīmén Bǐde (西门·彼得). The Catholic Church in China uses either Bǎiduōlù (伯多禄) or Bǎiduó (伯铎) for ‘Peter’, and the Orthodox Church uses Péitèrè (裴特若). ‘Simon’ is also often written as Xīméng (西蒙) All are rather phonetic and based on European languages. It is a pity the link with the Syriac/Sogdian of the first to bring Christianity to China has been lost.

P.P.S. Simon Peter was obviously not a monk. Christian monasticism did not really get going until St Anthony in the third century. The fact that Peter was married can be ascertained by the reference to his sick mother-in-law in the gospels (Matthew 8.14, Mark 1.30, Luke 4.38).

P.P.P.S. Speaking of the Sogdian word for ‘rock’, the Sogdian Rock was a fortress in Sogdiana that was besieged by Alexander the Great in 327 BC. Arrian’s Anabasis tells us that the defenders thought the Rock to be impregnable but Alexander employed rock climbers to scale it with flax ropes and tent pegs. Alexander’s prize was to marry the princess Roxana. The Greeks thought her to be the second most lovely woman in all of Asia, which must have given her the hump. She was a Bactrian princess.


What is Aramaic and Syriac?

11th-century West Syriac Melkite music book from Mount Sinai.

Robert Fisk recently wrote an article about Ma‘loula (معلولا) for the Independent. It is a good article, and I was glad to read it. However, there are a couple of small errors about the Aramaic spoken in Ma‘loula and its neighbouring villages of Bakh‘a (بخعة) and Jubb‘adin (جبّعدين) in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains of Syria. As someone who works in Aramaic, I tend to read many articles written by journalists touching on the language, and many make the same mistakes. So, I offer this article as a little corrective.

  1. Aramaic is a Semitic language — Fisk’s article declares “Did Arabic and Hebrew descend from Aramaic? Scholars – I always find that an odd word – are still undecided.” It is a rather silly statement because scholars, and it is always best to be a little more specific, are totally decided that the question of Arabic and Hebrew descending from Aramaic is rather silly. Aramaic, with Arabic and Hebrew, is part of the Semitic branch of Afro-asiatic languages (spoken throughout the Middle East and north-east Africa). All Semitic languages are descended from a hypothetical Proto-Semitic language, which branched off into the various Semitic languages that have existed throughout history. Thus, Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew do not have parent-child relationships, but more cousinly ones. In fact, Arabic branched off earlier, and so is slightly more distantly related to the other two, with Hebrew and Aramaic having more in common (these both belong to Northwest Semitic group). For example, the greeting of peace in Hebrew is shalom (שלום), in Arabic is salam (سلام), and in Aramaic is shlama (ܫܠܡܐ or שלמא).
  2. Aramaic has a long and diverse history — A major problem with reporting about Aramaic is that it is often treated as a monolithic language. However, no language stands still: we can see how English has changed from Shakespeare to hip-hop, let alone going back as far as Beowulf. Aramaic has a recorded history that is more than twice as long as that of English. Although, I would reckon that Aramaic has resisted change far better than English has, in different times and places people have spoken and written different Aramaics. Geographically, varieties of Aramaic tend to fall into two branches: the more vigorous Eastern Aramaic in Mesopotamia, and the near extinct Western Aramaic in the Levant. The earliest Aramaic inscriptions come from the tenth century BC. During the latter half of the eight century BC, the conquests of the Neo-Assyrian founder Tiglath-Pileser III, Aramaic became the diplomatic language of the region. Around the year 500 BC, Darius decreed Aramaic as the official language of Achaemenid Persian Empire. The standard Aramaic practised by Achaemenid scribes is known as Official Aramaic. After the conquest of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Seleucid Empire, Greek became the language of power and high society in much of the Levant, while Aramaic continued as a rural language, remaining strong in its Mesopotamian heartland. Thus, most post-Achaemenid Aramaic is written in Mesopotamian dialects. The Aramaic of Ma‘loula is the last living remnant of the western varieties of Aramaic. Greek and Aramaic coexisted for over a millennium, until Arabic gradually became the dominant language of the Middle East.
  3. Aramaic is one of the original languages of the Bible — The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) was originally written down in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. However, a few parts of the Old Testament were originally written in Aramaic. The largest portion of Aramaic is Daniel 2.4b–7.28, with the rest of the book written in Hebrew. Daniel 2.4 is odd as the text changes from Hebrew to Aramaic mid-flow: ‘And the Chaldaeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live for ever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will reveal the interpretation”’ (where the narration is in Hebrew, then the quoted speech is in Aramaic, but then the narration and everything else continues in Aramaic). Portions of the Book of Ezra are also in Aramaic, as is one sentence in the Prophet Jeremiah, and one word in Genesis. The variety of Aramaic in Daniel and Ezra is post-Achaemenid with many Greek borrowings.
  4. Jesus spoke Aramaic — This is one of the big selling-points of Aramaic for many, and almost every journalist who mentions Aramaic has to make the connection with Jesus. I would too! However, we obviously have no sound recordings of Jesus speaking Aramaic, nor is he alleged to written anything down, except in the dust (John 8.6–9). Jesus’ speaking Aramaic is based on two bits of evidence. Firstly, we know that Aramaic was widely spoken by Jews and their neighbours, particularly among the lower classes. Hebrew and Greek were also important languages, and Jesus would probably have been able to speak them too. Secondly, the Greek New Testament records quite a few Aramaic words and phrases, names and places in transliteration (with no spoken Hebrew). These little fossilised bits of Aramaic are interesting in themselves — ‘talitha qum’, ‘ephphatha’ (actual Aramaic ‘ethpethach’) and  ‘eli eli’ or ‘eloi eloi lema sabachthani’ (in Mark 5.41, Mark 7.34, Matthew 27.46 and Mark 15.34 respectively). So, we are pretty sure Jesus spoke Aramaic. However, the Aramaic he would have spoken is clearly different from any Aramaic spoken today. We Christians who speak Aramaic like to say that we speak the language of Jesus, but in practice we all speak slightly different varieties of Aramaic to that spoken by Jesus. It is just not quite so glamourous to admit that we speak a language that is as close as you can get to that spoken by Jesus.
  5. 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.
  6. People of different religions speak Aramaic — Religion is a big deal, and Aramaic is the language of worship and theology for Christians, Jews and Mandeans. Christians make up the largest religious group among fluent Aramaic speakers. Aramaic as a learned language is used in prayer and study by many more Christians, Jews and Mandeans who do not speak it fluently. As well as liturgical texts in Aramaic for all three religions, a little less than a fifth of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Aramaic, and the base language of the Talmud is also Aramaic.
  7. There are a few million Aramaic-speakers today — It is often stated that Aramaic is an extinct language, or that some small group is the last few speakers of Aramaic in the world. However, there are thriving communities of Christian Aramaic-speakers in Chicago and Södertälje, near Stockholm, produced by different waves of refugees. However, the various modern Aramaics are endangered. Chronic turmoil in Aramaic-speaking homelands is a major factor. Also, Aramaic is less useful for everyday life if everyone around you is speaking Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Swedish, German or English. The erosion of Jewish modern Aramaics is the most acute — each variety spoken by a small cluster of families from a Mesopotamian village, they have low intelligibility with each other, and most speakers are now in Israel and are giving way to Hebrew. Mandaic in both its classical and modern varieties is severely threatened, as is the Mandean way of life in Iraq and Iran. Mlahso, a Christian Aramaic from southeast Turkey, became extinct upon the death of Ibrahim Hanna in 1998. Turmoil and diaspora has created a koine, or amalgam, language of the previously diverse spectrum of Christian Aramaic tribal dialects spoken from the mountains of southeast Turkey to the plains of northern Iraq. On the more hopeful side, young people are using music (Aramaic hip-hop is pretty good!) and the Internet to keep their language alive, yet still there is major language erosion going on all around Aramaic.
  8. Aramaic is written in a number of different scripts — It is not straightforward to answer the question which script Aramaic is written in. The earliest inscriptions use a modified Phoenician script, which was used by many Northwest Semitic languages. Official Aramaic developed a formal, chancery script that was adopted by Jews for writing both Aramaic and Hebrew. What we think of today as Hebrew script (אבגד) is the descendent of Official Aramaic script. In Daniel 2.4, when the language changes from Hebrew to Aramaic, there is no change of script. In the first century BC, the cursive Aramaic script of the city of Edessa began its development, which was taken up by Christian Aramaic-speakers, and is known as Syriac script (ܐܒܓܕ). Other cursive Aramaic scripts were developed for Mandaic, Nabatean and Palmyrene. Cursive Nabatean and Syriac were influential in the development of Arabic script (ابجد). When Robert Fisk asks about Aramaic being the forerunner of Hebrew and Arabic, he is clearly confusing the history of development of writing systems with the languages themselves, which, to be fair, is not an uncommon mistake. Syriac script has been found on Turkic gravestones in Central Asia as well as on a Tang Dynasty inscription in China.
  9. How do Syriac, Chaldean and Assyrian fit in with Aramaic? — Different varieties of Aramaic have their own names, and names of the varieties often bear a relation to the speakers’ ethnic and religious identity. The  Syriac identity is almost synonymous with Christian speakers of Aramaic. As Christianity was adopted by many Aramaic speakers the name ‘Aramean’ came to be associated with their pagan past (armaya means ‘pagan’ in Classical Syriac), and so the Greek translation of ‘Aram’, which is ‘Syria’, was adopted. Many Christian Aramaic-speakers now refer to themselves as Assyrian in reference to Northern Mesopotamia, which long remained known as Assyria after the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (interestingly they often spell it ‘As-‘ after the Greek spelling or ‘Ash-‘ after the Akkadian spelling, rather than ‘Ath-‘ the historical Aramaic spelling). Modern Christian Aramaic varieties called Assyrian should not be confused with the ancient variety of Akkadian known as Assyrian, which is a very different Semitic language. The term Chaldean or Chaldee is quite confusing, it belonged to the Semitic people of the Southern Mesopotamian marshes who founded the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 620 BC. Seeing as the Book of Daniel is set during the final years of this empire, St Jerome chose to use the word ‘Chaldee’ to describe Biblical Aramaic (I have an old Aramaic dictionary that is charmingly titled A Chaldee Lexicon). After the fall of this empire, the term came to refer to the scribal class of Achaemenid Babylon, which led ‘Chaldean’ to becoming a byword for ‘magician’. The term received renewed use when a split in the Church of the East led to one bishop Yuhannan Sulaqa being consecrated as ‘Patriarch of the Chaldeans’ by the Pope in Rome in 1553, based on Jerome’s use of the term for the Aramaic language. This identity continues to be used by East Syriac-rite Catholics, and is occasionally used to refer to their dialects of Aramaic.
  10. Any other questions? — Leave a comment below.

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Thoughts on the Second Sunday of Easter

There is something especially visceral about that Locked Room at the moment. The first and second Christian Sundays, were evenings where the nascent congregation gathered in fear, they were terrified, as depicted in the Gospel for Easter 2 — John 20.19–31. A small yet prominent section of the Church of England have picked up on and imported the persecution complex of the US Religious Right, compounded with manufactured cases of religious discrimination towards Christians. The disciples were fearful of a very real persecution beyond that Locked Room, we just have to look at the companion reading from Acts, and the other arrests, imprisonments, beatings and executions bear witness to this. Yet this meeting with the risen Jesus transforms hidden cowards into brave martyrs who throw back the bolts, step into the street and proclaim that ‘You may kill me, but this life in me and this message of life cannot die!’

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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.

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