What Jesus Really Said: Fixing The Mistranslations That Have Shaped Christianity
Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the Bible has been translated from Greek. Many mistaken translations of the Gospels have skewed the development of Christianity — and the course of history. It's time to let the Bible be retranslated to let its true message be known.
BERLIN — Jesus spoke Aramaic. It was his mother tongue and 2,000 years ago it was the main language throughout the Middle East. The New Testament, however, is translated from Greek into all the languages of the world. Aramaic expert and theologian Günther Schwarz (who died in 2009) was dissatisfied with the classical translation and studied Aramaic every day for 50 years in order to better understand Jesus in his native language. In doing so, he came to the realization that about half of all Jesus' words in the gospels were mistranslated or even deliberately falsified.
His shocking conclusion: “What Christians believe, Jesus did not teach! And what Jesus taught — the Christians do not know.” The theologian has written 20 books and around 100 scientific articles about Jesus and Aramaic. He sent his findings to all German-speaking bishops. Response: zero.
So, as a journalist, I want to use my Jesus books to educate people about Günther Schwarz's findings.
When I read a book by Günther Schwarz for the first time in 2010, I too was skeptical. But in the end, the subject gripped me so much that in two years, I read everything that the world-renowned Aramaic expert wrote about the original Jesus. And I found a new, fascinating and very contemporary image of Jesus. Nothing is as hard as letting go of a lifetime of practiced beliefs.
Flight from the church
Are the Gospels really full of fake news? Does the best-seller of all best-sellers, the Bible, have to be rewritten? True enough, if the words are wrong, the entire message is wrong. Is this perhaps the real cause of the current dramatic wave of departures from the two major churches? There have been declining numbers of adherents to Catholicism and Protestantism over the last few decades, and the Federal Statistical Office has calculated that this will continue for both denominations.
Even Cardinal Reinhard Marx, when offering his resignation to the Pope, says his Catholic Church has reached a “dead end”. The real reason for fleeing the Church is spiritual and religious. Church and society have become more and more alienated. I wonder why? In fact, the churches that actually exist have dried up spiritually.
If the words are wrong, the entire message is wrong.
Exemplary of flight from the church is a statement given by the cabaret artist Carolin Kebekus, who has since left her church. She was asked, "Do you also know something funny in the Bible?" Her answer: "Yes, a virgin who gave birth to several children."
This riddle is easy to solve with the help of Aramaic. In Jesus' native language there is no word for "biological virgin" at all. In Aramaic, it simply means "young woman". Sounds simple, but it immediately becomes a problem when you consider that one of the leading and most popular Catholic theologians, Eugen Drewermann, had his teaching license revoked because he would not believe in the virginity of Jesus' mother. Similarly, Hans Küng was disbarred because he could not believe in the "infallibility" of the Pope.
A pacifist, not a warmonger
The translation problem becomes more difficult in other passages in the Bible. In Matthew 10:34, one finds the terrible sentence, which is said to have come from Jesus: "For I came not to bring peace, but a sword." Is that what the pacifist of the Sermon on the Mount is supposed to have said? Jesus – a warmonger, really?
Translated from Aramaic, this line by Jesus means, "I have not come to spread harmony, but to settle disputes." This is much more fitting for the belligerent pacifist from Nazareth, but it is the opposite of what is written in Bibles around the world and with which church leaders have justified "Holy Wars" or "Just Wars" and blessed bombs – even the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Jesus, however, blessed the peacemakers and never the warmongers and sword ideologues.
Or the Lord's Prayer request "...and lead us not into temptation." Is the God of Jesus, the Father who loves us, a cynic and sadist who wants to lead us into temptation? In his native language, Jesus prayed like this: “And lead us in temptation." This is something quite different. In 2016, in a book on the Lord's Prayer, Pope Francis also suggested to all bishops that they change the traditional Lord's Prayer in favor of the Aramaic text. He could not believe in a God who wants to lead us into temptation, Pope Francis said.
The Italian, French, Portuguese and Brazilian bishops have changed their Lord's Prayer according to the Pope's proposal, but not the German bishops of both denominations. In the newspaper Bild am Sonntag, former bishop Margot Käßmann said, "We don't want to change tradition! If tradition is more important than Jesus in such a central question as the image of God in the Lord's Prayer, then the faithful rightly run away from the churches. Then the churches are really beyond saving."
Christ never condemned
As a young theology student, I often heard the phrase: "Ecclesia semper reformanda" — the church must always be renewed. But woe betide anyone who tries to do that.
Hundreds of people who read the “new” translation from Aramaic in my Jesus books write to me that “lifelong” burdens that priests or religious teachers had placed on them fell away. A 75-year-old Catholic clergyman informed me that he was on his way to becoming an atheist. But through the Aramaic Jesus, he could believe again.
Two more serious examples of fatal mistranslations. In Matthew 5:22, we read someone who says to his brother, "Godless fool, let him fall into the fires of hell." Just recently, a priest complained to me that he was "afraid of hell" because of such passages in the Bible and had not been able to sleep at night for a long time. Instead of proclaiming the good news of Jesus, the fear of hell is threatened.
So too is Mark 16:16. Here the official Bible says, "Whoever does not believe will be condemned." Jesus never condemned anyone. This is a church example of blackmail to baptism and the Christian faith. The tolerant, and freedom and love preaching Jesus said no such thing.
Checking the Gospel
Why Judas was branded a traitor
A particularly catastrophic example of corrupt translation concerns Judas. For centuries, theologians and church leaders have branded him a "traitor". What's more, they equated Judas with "the Jews" and " the murderers of God". Günther Schwarz has proven that anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism can be traced historically to this misconception.
The real story between Jesus and Judas, as it has come down to us in Aramaic: Judas was the only one of the twelve apostles who knew Jerusalem. So, Jesus sent him to the chief priests. In the German translation, the word for "betray" is based on the Greek word "paradidomai". But it can also be translated as "handed over". It is noticeable that in all passages where this word is associated with Judas in the four gospels (that is, 32 times) the German translation is "betray". But in many other places in the Bible (a total of 17 times), it is translated as "handed over".
Thus, Judas was deliberately branded a traitor. The "traitor" was the projection figure of all anti-Semites for 2,000 years — up to the Nazis, the Holocaust and Auschwitz. It is high time to retell this story. For the popular Israeli writer Amos Oz, who died in 2018, the story of Judas as the betrayer of Jesus is “the Chernobyl of anti-Semitism.”
Judas was equated with "the Jews" and " the murderers of God".
For 2,000 years, Judas has been slung with mud by Christians, just as Jesus the Jew was slung with mud by Jewish theologians 2,000 years ago. The "traitor" was in fact Jesus' best friend, whom he asked for a final friendly service. The real traitor was not Judas, but Peter, who denied Jesus "before the cock crowed three times" (Mark 14:72). Only today, with a correct and honest translation, does Judas get the recognition he deserves. Judas did not betray Jesus, although this is still so terribly wrong in all four Gospels. He handed him over in consultation with Jesus.
Walter Jens writes in his last novel: “Without Judas there is no cross. Without a cross there is no fulfillment of the plan of salvation. Without Judas there is no church. No narration without this narrator.” The Judas kiss was a friendship kiss. Without Judas there would be no Good Friday and probably no Easter either. And probably no Christianity.
The Bible in its original language
The difference between Greek and Aramaic 2,000 years ago was similar to the difference between Arabic and German today.
If a Japanese Germanist wants to understand Goethe, he probably does not read his texts in Chinese, but in German. Therefore, my request to the Pope and the bishops is: let the Gospel finally be retranslated into the mother tongue of Jesus and officially rehabilitate Judas at the next council. And do the same for Mary Magdalene, who was not a whore, as it says in the Gospels, but Jesus' closest confidant and companion, as it says in other sources. Today's world needs a Jesus renaissance. Günther Schwarz has already done good and important preliminary work for this.
The church is not in good health. But Jesus is alive.
The author is a journalist and best-selling author. Most recently he published "The Most Extraordinary Love Ever — The True Story of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Judas."
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