Problem: Jesus exclaimed in Hebrew or Aramaic
Verses: Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34; Status: Minor

At one point, as his death drew near, Jesus cried out. Unusually, Matthew and Mark both transliterate his words, instead of simply translating into Greek (the language of the New Testament). Yet they give different transliterations. Firstly, here's Matthew 27:46:

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (ESV)

And here's Mark 15:34:

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?" (ESV)

Matthew's version is a curious mix of Hebrew ("Eli, Eli") and Aramaic ("sabachthani"), while Mark's is pure Aramaic. "Lema" means the same in both languages, but "sabachthani" is not a normal Hebrew word - though it may have been used in some dialects. Jesus appears to be quoting Psalm 22:1, though "sabachthani" is not used there.

Why the discrepancy? Out of the four gospel writers, Matthew was the most concerned with appealing to the Jewish people. Hebrew is, of course, the language of Judaism, and it makes sense that Matthew would prefer to present Jesus as calling out to God in Hebrew rather than anything else. But since Jesus spoke Aramaic, Mark's version seems more likely to be correct.

Is this really a contradiction, though? I find it hard to take seriously, since the difference is so slight. Matthew gives a slightly different wording which he finds more acceptable, but it's hard to claim that his version is actually deceptive or in error.

Minor points

101 Clear Contradictions Refuted says that Matthew's version must be what Jesus said, since the people nearby thought Jesus was calling for Elijah. But clearly, people could mistake "Eloi" as a cry for Elijah almost as easily as "Eli".

The 1984 New International Version avoids the problem by translating Matthew 27:46 differently from every other Bible version (but the 2010 revision no longer does this).

Updated: 2010-12-24

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