Have you ever noticed how every now and then, New Testament authors will throw in an Aramaic phrase?
Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” (Mark 5:41 ESV)
And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” (Mark 7:34 ESV)
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV)
In these three verses, the Aramaic is complicated, so Mark follows Jesus’ quotes with translations. Consider the word, ephphatha. This would not have been a common saying. I mean, how many times have you told something, “be opened!” The readers probably didn’t know the word, ephphatha, so it makes sense that Mark notes that ephphatha means “be opened.” The same goes with sabachthani (literally, “you have forsaken me”). The average Greek-speaking Christian in the first century wouldn’t know these words, so Mark translates them.
But there are some occasions where New Testament authors use Aramaic words and just assume that the audience knows what they mean. For example, the word, pascha, occurs 29 times in the New Testament but the authors always seem to assume that the audience knows that pascha means Passover. There is never a direct translation. (It’s also a clue that the readers were somewhat familiar with Jewish customs, but that’s a topic for another day).
Compare these two occurrences of the word, rabboni:
Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. (John 20:16 KJV)
And Jesus answered him, and said, What wilt thou that I should do unto thee? And the blind man said unto him, Rabboni, that I may receive my sight. (Mark 10:51 ASV)
Notice that in both passages, the text has the Aramaic word, rabboni, but John translates it and Mark does not. John translates more than Matthew and Mark, which means that his audience probably knew less Aramaic than theirs. Luke doesn’t use any Aramaic (except for the word pascha), so his audience may have known even less.
So….. Matthew and Mark.
Matthew and Mark only translate the hard stuff. They leave the well-known Aramaic phrases in Aramaic: “You can’t serve God and mammon (lit. ‘money’)” (Matt 6:24); “Blessed are you Simon bar (lit. ‘son of’) Jonah” (Matt 16:17). With this in mind, let’s consider a controversial passage from Matthew:
But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matt 16:23 ESV)
Likewise, Mark writes:
But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33)
Many people say that Jesus calls Peter, “Satan,” because Peter is speaking a Satanic idea (specifically, that Jesus should not die on the cross Matt 16:21-22; Mark 8:31-32). However, I’d like to share with you a different interpretation that I heard from a Greek scholar whom I deeply respect. I’ve also seen this in some 19th century Bible commentaries, so this scholar is certainly not the first to think this way. Here it goes:
Just as the readers knew Aramaic words like, mammon and rabboni, they probably also knew the Aramaic word, satana, which means “adversary.” So when Jesus said, “Get behind me, satana,” He didn’t mean “Get behind me, Satan,” but rather “Get behind me, adversary.”
“Get behind Me” isn’t just an idiom for “shut up,” but rather a call to get aligned with Christ’s purpose. In other words, Peter was opposing Christ. He had become Christ’s adversary. So now, Christ is telling him to stop going against Him, but rather to get behind Him and work with Him. “Get behind me, adversary.”
It makes sense.