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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.


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Liturgy bits: the Lord be with you

The phrase ‘The Lord be with you’, in various languages and in its Latin Dominus vobiscum, has been the greeting that gathers Christians together in worship for over a millennium. I might say that it is the church’s Hello, and I quite like that jolly interpretation. Nevertheless, it is important not to dumb it down: this phrase has power.

‘The Lord be with you’ is a presidential greeting, which is most often encountered at the beginning of the a liturgy and and the beginning of the eucharistic prayer. It is also found before the reading of the Gospel, before a blessing, before blessing baptismal water, in the middle of Exsultet, and before praying a collect.

The biblical references of Ruth 2.4, II Chronicles 15.2 and Matthew 28.20 are given in support of this phrase. It can be clearly dated back to the 6th century (Council of Braga and, later, Gelasian Sacramentary), but can be inferred from the Apostolic Tradition and other early texts.

Grammatically, of course, the Latin original has no verb: Dominus vobiscum means, more literally, ‘Lord with you’. English needs the verb ‘to be’ to act as a copula. An obvious choice would have been to translate the phrase with ‘The Lord is with you’ (this is in the indicative mood). Instead, our English reformers chose ‘The Lord be with you’, in the subjunctive mood. Unlike much spoken English, and indeed written English, the subjunctive mood is on quite frequent duty in the Book of Common Prayer. The subjunctive is often used in blessing formulas, and this shows an important interpretation of this phrase: it is not about stating a fact — the Lord’s presence — but is the blessing of the Lord’s presence. A major feature of a lot of liturgical language is that it is performative: it does something. This particular phrase is the greeting — the benediction — that constitutes the Christian assembly for worship.

The Eastern churches have ‘Peace to all’ / ‘And with thy spirit’, but its use is different.

And with thy spirit

The Latin response to Dominus vobiscum is Et cum spiritu tuo. The traditional English translation of this is ‘And with thy spirit’, and the agreed ecumenical translation into contemporary English is ‘And also with you’. The modern translation is clearly more of a paraphrase than a direct translation of the Latin. This paraphrase understands the use of the word ‘spirit’ as metonymy for the minister’s person or self.

The Epistles use this phrase at Galatians 6.18, Philippians 4.23, Philemon 25 and II Timothy 4.22.

The new Catholic translation of the missal has taken us back closer to the original by using ‘And with your spirit’. A friend who is a Catholic priest commented to me that he finds the former translation — ‘And also with you’ — more affirming of his whole person than the new translation.

Et cum spiritu tuo is clearly not a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit does not belong to the minister. At its simplest, ‘your spirit’ is metonymy for ‘you’, and avoids the short, ungainly Et tecum, ‘And with you’ (even ‘And also with you’ uses extra syllables). Other commentators have described the phrase as an acknowledgement of the spiritual grace given the ordained minister by the Holy Spirit. It is similar to the Eastern affirmation of a priest’s ordination by the acclamation of the people: axios, ‘worthy’.

Praxis

It is important to speak about how we do, and should do, Dominus vobiscum. This is where I believe that the choice of the subjunctive in English is informative. The greeting is not a statement that Jesus is here so let’s get on with it. It is a benediction that recognises the icon of Christ in the assembly of the baptized, and draws out this image, verbally constituting the ekklesia. At the commencement, and at other high points of liturgy, the minister thus constitutes the church, and the people, in response, declare the human being before them to be their minister by grace.

Some principles

  1. It is important: do not rush it or belittle it.
  2. It is the greeting that constitutes the liturgical assembly.
  3. It should not be preceded or followed by more colloquial stock phrases of greeting, like ‘hello’, ‘good morning’, etc.
  4. The only thing that should preface the opening greeting is the Trinitarian invocation.
  5. Giving notices, and even announcing a hymn, before the greeting takes away from its impact.
  6. It is easy to remember, so it should not be read from a book.
  7. It can lead into words of welcome and introduction (the ‘intention’).
  8. It should be accompanied by the appropriate gesture: arms open in a welcoming embrace.
  9. The gesture should not be either poky or overlarge.
  10. The gesture should not be stiff or vague.
  11. Traditionally, a deacon makes no gesture with these words.
  12. The priest or deacon should be attentive to the people’s response, and drink in their affirmation before proceeding.

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Passion Carols by Hertford College Chapel Choir

Here at Hertford College, Oxford, we sing Passion Carols on the last Sunday of term before the Easter vacation (Sunday of 8th Week of Hilary term, in Oxford-speak). We call them ‘Passion Carols’ because we insist that ‘carols’ are more than ‘Christmas carols’, and that Lent and Passiontide have elicited much popular devotional music on the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Below, you can listen to the five choral pieces sung at that service. During the last piece — the African-American Spiritual Were you there? — the clergy remove their white robes and strip the altar and sanctuary of all furnishings and decoration.


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House blessings for Epiphany

A doorway blessed in 2012.

This coming Sunday is the feast of the Epiphany (6 January). The Western Christian tradition focuses on the visit of the magi to the child Jesus, told in Matthew’s Gospel. The Eastern tradition of focusing on the baptism of Christ and the ‘first sign’ at the wedding at Cana (John’s Gospel) has become more common in our observance, leading to a concept of the three things of Epiphany. These three things — the three gifts of the Magi, the water of baptism, and the water become wine — are symbolic unfoldings to us of the nature of who our Messiah is, as our understanding of him grows up from the mystery of incarnation into his good news for the whole world.

Blessings are a particularly important feature of Epiphany. The arrival of the magi at the house (as it is in Matthew’s Gospel) in Bethlehem has lead the church to celebrate the Epiphany as a day for the blessing of the homes of the faithful. Sometimes the blessing is achieved by the clergy visiting the houses of the parish and blessing them with holy water. However, more often water is blessed in church and taken home by members of the congregation for this purpose.

The Sunday of the octave of Epiphany is the feast of the Baptism of Christ (always a Sunday between 7 and 13 January). As an aside, it is moved to the following Monday (8 or 9 January) if Epiphany itself is moved to Sunday 7 or 8 January for pastoral reasons, i.e. no one will come on another day of the week (Epiphany is never moved to a Sunday later than 8 January). Back to blessings, the Baptism of Christ is a great time to bless holy water and use it to bless churches, congregations and anything else within splashing distance. A popular tradition is for the congregation to proceed to the nearest body of water — river, lake or sea — and bless it, often with much splashing.

Other blessed substances have been salt — to remind us to be the ‘salt of the earth’ — and incense, taken to homes to bless them.

A peculiar and most distinctive tradition from central Europe is the blessing of chalk on the feast of Epiphany. The chalk is blessed in church and taken home to inscribe the lintels of the front doors of homes: for the year 2013, the inscription would be “20 + C + M + B + 13”, with the year intervened by the the letters “CMB”, which either stand for the traditional names of the magi — Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar — or for the Latin Christus mansionem benedicat, ‘May Christ bless the house’. The prayer for the blessing of the chalk is

℣ Our help is the name of the Lord
℟ who made heaven and earth.

℣ The Lord be with you
℟ and also with you.

℣ Let us pray.

Loving God,
+ bless this chalk which you have created,
that it may be helpful to your people;
and grant that through the invocation of your most Holy Name
all those who with it write the names of your saints,
Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar,
may receive health of body and protection of soul
for all who dwell in the homes where this chalk is used,
we make this prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord.
℟ Amen.

When the chalk is brought home, the inscription can be written on the lintel using these words (symbols in blue are what is written to create 20 + C + M + B + 13)

The three Wise Men,
C Caspar,
M Melchior,
B and Balthasar,
followed the star of God’s Son who became human
20 two thousand
13 and thirteen years ago.
+ + May Christ bless our home
+ + and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.

Other great Epiphany traditions include the King Cake, a cake, for which there are many different regional recipes, in which a bean, trinket or coin is placed, the finder of which is king for the day. In my native Westcountry, the tradition of blessing the cider orchards in the wassail ceremony is associated with Old Twelfth Night, which is now stuck on 17 January. During the reading of the Gospel for Epiphany, there is a custom of all in the congregation briefly kneeling at the words “and they knelt down and paid him homage” (Matthew 2.11).

After Twelfth Night and Epiphany, as well as the churchly feast of the Baptism of Christ, various other means of marking the beginning of the working year came about, including Plough Sunday (on the Sunday after Epiphany, clashing horribly with the aforesaid) where the plough was brought into church and blessed to begin the agricultural year, and Distaff Day (or Rock Day) a playful marking the beginning of women’s work (and in some places revived as a day to celebrate handicrafts). The first Monday in January was sometimes kept as Handsel Monday, a day for the giving of small gifts, perhaps to neighbours and workmates.

Have a happy and blessed New Year and Epiphanytide.


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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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Transgender and the church

Christina Beardsley

Christina Beardsley

This week has been declared Transgender Faith Action Week by the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality, a fact to which I was drawn by Becky Garrison‘s article for Cif Belief. This comes after the wonderful 4thought.tv (which airs short personal statements on controversial subjects after the evening news on Channel 4) spent a week discussing “Is it wrong to change gender?

The week began with a video by Christina Beardsley, a Church of England priest, hospital chaplain and vice-chair of Changing Attitude. Beardsley transitioned a decade ago, after 23 years of ordained ministry, and gave a succinct and compelling 105 seconds on the church and transgender. After introducing herself, she loses no time in making the point: “There is no theological objection to someone changing gender”. No ifs, no buts, no cautious relative clauses, and it is a quote she takes from George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and one who in no way could be labelled as a liberal. If that were not shocking enough for many people ­Christian and non-Christian alike — she continues by lauding the Bible for being transgender friendly. I really enjoyed seeing her hard-hitting approach, made all the more necessary due to the inherent prejudice against transgender, despite strong theological arguments to the contrary.

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Spit, more spit and streaking

EphphathaIn the last article, I discussed the strange swearword ‘raca’ that turned up, or got edited out of, last Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew. In this morning’s Mass, the Daily Eucharistic Lectionary gave us Mark 8.22-26 for our Gospel. There’s not really much of a link between the two, apart from the spit.

Today’s Gospel is the pericope of Jesushealing of a blind man by putting his spit in his eyes. The healing takes two goes — first, the man sees people but they look like trees walking around. Characteristically for Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells him not to tell. The spit, the walking trees and the messianic secret all add up to make a rather odd incident.

The oddness of this incident is one of the pieces of evidence that Mark’s is the earliest gospel. The three synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — share a lot of passages in common, some even verbatim, and often order this material in a similar way. Mark, being the shortest gospel, has parallel texts of almost every passage in either or both Matthew and Luke, so it seems that Matthew and Luke are based on Mark. Markan priority — the hypothesis that Mark’s Gospel was written first — is strengthened by the few scraps of Mark that do not appear in the other two. One of them is the spit-and-trees pericope above.

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