Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Satan-an Aramaic perspective

But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Matthew 16:23

As readers of the Bible, one of our main challenges and difficulties is that we take everything we read in Scripture so literally. Let us consider a saying recorded in John’s gospel. The traditional translation reads: “Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil (John 6:70)?” The Eastern Aramaic text reads: “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and yet among you one is a Satan (John 6:20, Aramaic Peshitta text, Errico translation)?”

Satana, “Satan,” derives from the Aramaic root sata, and means “to slip,” “to slide,” “to deceive,” “to miss the mark,” and “to cause one to be misled or go astray.” In Aramaic, calling an individual a “satan” means that the person is going astray or misleads. “Satan” is a Chaldean-Aramaic term. The first five books of the Bible rarely used it. Israel’s prophets also hardly ever employed the expression “Satan.” It gradually crept into Jewish literature during the exile and post-exilic period of Israel’s history.

On another occasion Peter rebuked Jesus. The apostle tried to persuade his master not to speak about his coming crucifixion and death. Jesus, in turn, rebuked Peter. He responded by calling his disciple a “satan.” “Get behind me, satan; you are an offense to me because you are not thinking the things of God but things of people (Matt. 16:23, Aramaic Peshitta text, Errico translation).”

“Satan” here refers to Peter’s misguided intention. Peter attempted to redirect Jesus’ course. He didn’t want his master to talk about the cross and dying. Peter’s admonition was misleading to Jesus and would deter him from his destiny. Although Peter had honorable intentions, his rebuke to his master carried implications of which he was unaware. Nonetheless, the apostle thought, spoke, and believed like the masses concerning a conquering Messiah.

Everyone expected a powerful, worldly-wise, militant, Messiah-King. The messiah would live forever and save them from Roman domination and oppression. All the apostles believed in a political Messiah and kingdom (see Matt. 20:20-21), even after the resurrection (see Acts 1:6). Jesus returned Peter’s rebuke and called him “satan.”

Now in this passage of John’s gospel (6:20) mentioned above, Jesus knew that among the twelve one was a “satan.” Judas, of course, was the one to whom Jesus referred. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Judas was a believer in his master. But when he realized that the prophet from Nazareth was not the militant, political leader whom he and the people had anticipated, Judas attempted to dissociate himself from his teacher. Feeling disillusioned, Judas deserted the ranks of the apostles and betrayed his lord and leader.

However, when Jesus referred to Judas as “satan” in this passage, he meant simply that Judas would behave deceptively and insincerely. Such statements are common in Aramaic.

(Errico, Rocco A. Let There Be Light, Noohra Foundation, Santa Fe, New Mexico: 1994, pgs 192-193

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