The Language of the Returning Exiles; Following Jesus

1.  In Rabbinic Essays, Jacob Lauterbach argues on pages 214-215 that the exiles who returned from Babylon spoke Hebrew, not Aramaic.  He appeals to Nehemiah 13:24, in which Nehemiah is upset that some of the Israelite children could not speak the Jews’ language, which Lauterbach interprets to be Hebrew.  Lauterbach notes that, according to Emil Schurer, “the Aramaic spoken in Palestine was the Western Aramaic and not the Eastern Aramaic spoken in Babylon”, meaning that the Jews returning from exile in Babylon did not bring the Aramaic of that nation with them. 

Lauterbach contends that Aramaic became the language of Palestine in the second century B.C.E., if not later.  The medieval Jewish philosopher Saadiah Gaon affirms that it was “about three years before the rule of Alexander in Palestine” that “the Jews began to neglect Hebrew and adapted the language of the other nations of the land (i.e., Aramaic).

But this is not the view that I heard in one of my classes.  In Nehemiah 8:1-8, Ezra reads the law to the Israelites, and the Levites help them to understand the reading.  According to my professor, this was because the Israelites could not understand the Torah: they spoke Aramaic, whereas the Torah was in Hebrew.

I wonder who’s correct.

2.  I actually attended three masses this morning.  The best one was probably the very first that I attended, the one at 11:00.  (The homily at the second mass may have been better, but I wouldn’t know, since I couldn’t hear it with the horrible acoustics of the building, plus the priest had a thick accent.)  At this 11:00 mass, the priest was talking about Luke 9:51-52.  One of the events in this passage is that a man offers to follow Jesus, but requests permission to bury his father first.  Jesus tells him to let the dead bury their dead, but he is to proclaim the kingdom God.  Another man asks for permission to bid farewell to his family before following Jesus, and Jesus responds that one who sets his hands to the plough and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.

Regarding the first man, the priest said that this guy wanted to wait for his father to die so that he could receive his inheritance; then, he would follow Jesus.  I’ve heard this argument before.  I read once that, if the man’s father had actually died, he wouldn’t be in public, talking with Jesus.  The implication is that the man’s father was still alive, and this guy desired to receive his inheritance before following Jesus.

Regarding the second man, the priest said that the lesson was that the man’s family could pull him back into his old lifestyle, making him forget about following Jesus.  According to the priest, we should leave our old lifestyles behind when we follow Jesus.

I doubt that the priest means that we should leave our families behind.  He’s probably talking about our old selfish lifestyles.  But I wonder: Why couldn’t the first man receive his inheritance before following Jesus?  What would have been the big deal?  Abraham was rich and followed God.  Mary Magdalene had money and used it to minister to Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:2-3).  A person can have money and be a follower of God.

And what would have been the harm of the second man doing his family the courtesy of saying “good bye” to them?  Elijah allowed Elisha to do that before Elisha followed him, in I Kings 19:19-21.  And, incidentally, that was another reading in Catholic mass this morning.  The priest I’m discussing acted as if Elisha were making a radical departure from his old life, the sort that Jesus advocated in the Gospel reading: after all, Elisha burned his plough and sacrificed the oxen that had dragged it.  That’s pretty dramatic!  Another priest said that there are different commands for different times: God allowed Elisha to say “good bye” to his parents, but not the guy in the Gospel who wanted to do so.  Perhaps God realized that Elisha was willing to follow him, whereas the guy in the Gospel was not.

What does it mean to follow Jesus?  The priests I listened to this morning defined it as doing good.  But why’s that have to entail forsaking one’s inheritance, or leaving behind one’s family without saying “good bye”?  I like this one sermon by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, called Going Home—A Christmas Sermon.  Spurgeon preaches on Mark 5:19, in which a demoniac whom Jesus heals asks to follow Jesus, but Jesus tells him to go home to his family, and testify about the things that God has done for him.  Spurgeon said that true Christianity is not about us leaving our families, but rather us becoming better sons, daughters, parents, brothers, and sisters.  I especially appreciated this sermon the first time that I read it, for that was when my first Christmas vacation from DePauw University was about to occur, and I was soon to go home.

Some biblical scholars argue that the urgency of Jesus’ message entailed a higher degree of commitment among those who wanted to follow him.  For these scholars, Jesus was preaching the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, in which God would soon intervene in earth’s history and break the rod of the Gentile powers that were oppressing Israel.  But God would also chastise Israel.  And so the Israelites needed to repent to escape God’s wrath and enter God’s kingdom.  And, because the kingdom was near, those who desired to follow Jesus couldn’t dilly-dally by waiting for their inheritance, or saying “good bye” to their familes, or greeting people on the way.  They needed to be single-minded, for God was about to intervene and thresh the inhabitants of the earth.

But that didn’t exactly happen.  Granted, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and the New Testament presents that as God’s wrath.  But there was no literal kingdom of God after that—not of the sort that some scholars believe that Jesus was expecting.

I like something that Brian McLaren says in Generous Orthodoxy, though: that the simple act of standing up for good can bring about division and persecution on those who do so.  The reason is that those who do evil do not like to be challenged or exposed.  In that sense, doing good would require a great deal of commitment, perhaps of the sort that Jesus demanded of his followers in the synoptic Gospels.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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