Fraternal charity

Being no expert or authority on anything, I am loathe to pronounce ex cathedra judgements, even from the Chair of the High Doganate. Perhaps I am excessively shy: I stick only to self-evident propositions, condemn only the most obvious frauds, and shower my moronic enemies with only the most affectionate abuse. I never say anything controversial.

The meaning of raca in today’s (Vetus Ordo) Gospel, and therefore its most suitable translation into the vernacular of the moment, is subject to some dispute among scholars. There is a little university game going on, in which it is argued that the term carried the flavour of “fairy” or “faggot,” and that by condemning its use Jesus was making a statement against “homophobia,” and thus marching with the rainbow coalition. There is, as usual with such perfessers, no evidence whatever for this fanciful notion, which would make a hash of the whole passage in the Sermon on the Mount within which it appears (Matthew 5, verses 20 through 24). So forget this whole paragraph.

That raca is a husky, strong Aramaic word, embedded in melodious Greek, would be heard immediately, as rough within smooth. It would come from further back in the throat, commanding a slight pause. This in itself would put some emphasis upon it.

Aramaic, “cognate” (nearly meaningless term) with Hebrew; as also with Canaanite and Phoenician and other ancient Semitic tongues — ancestor to Arabic; spoken as lingua franca in neo-Assyria and neo-Babylon; as still today among certain persecuted Christians, more than three thousand years after it formed — was probably street language in New Testament times. It could also be elevated and rabbinical: a specialized form becoming the language of the Talmud. But it would not be so spoken in the village or the marketplace.

The lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire was Greek, however: the language of town and of the open road, with centuries of Hellenistic use behind it. I daresay Jesus was fluent both in Greek and Aramaic. And had perhaps even a smattering of Latin; as well as being comfortable with biblical Hebrew texts (apparently by the age of twelve). And that He put Greek words into Aramaic sentences (the way they drop English into Hindi at Delhi), and vice versa (in a different spirit).

It does not follow from the fact that the Evangelists feel the need to explain Aramaic words, that they spoke Greek (and wrote or dictated it, with considerable facility), but their Master only Aramaic. For Jesus was not a man of slow wit; we should not assume he was as linguistically challenged as the typical North American. I would think He spoke Greek, almost exclusively in the towns, where he would drop in the odd Aramaic term, for colour. Ancient Palestine was, as today, not a large place. You can still walk across it; I have. So I further doubt that Greek was confined to the towns.

Conversely, I rather think the sleepy, conventional view, that Jesus was unilingual in Aramaic, depends not on evidence but upon a populist, romantic fallacy. To this day, we want to cast Him as a “prole,” surrounded by sophisticates of the chattering classes.

But these are not useful categories in the context. We can see in the Gospels that Jesus is speaking to men of all classes — to the rabbis and to the Romans, not only to the crowds; and to members of quite various sects. He walks, as it were, through cultural and linguistic walls; does not offer any Marxist class theory, nor preach on the evils of “colonialism.” Like the wanton mistranslation of raca, this is all self-regarding, post-modern phantasy.

Indeed, His subject matter — human salvation — is different in kind from the subject of politics, and necessarily precludes political tact and stratagems. He did not take sides, He wiggled out of labels. He spoke to be understood, and in His time and place, I should think He would have had to speak both Greek and Aramaic. His disciples, I should think, likewise: I would make the comparison to northern New Brunswick where, in small towns and rural locations, men such as fishermen have for generations spoken both English and French, toggling back and forth without thinking, and sometimes mulching them together. But when Christ’s disciples are speaking “to the world,” they stick to Greek, and explain the Aramaic. The Greek goes into Latin, as it travels west, but the Aramaic floats over unchanged, as a cell within it.

Qui autem dixerit fratri suo, raca: reus erit concilio. Qui autem dixerit, fatue: reus erit gehennae ignis.

“Whosoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca!’ will be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”

One might over-parse, but it seems to me that an important point is conveyed by the switch of language, and that it wouldn’t have been noted and preserved if the auditors did not understand the purport. It even seems to me that a distinction is made by Jesus, more meaningful than the one the scholars have tussled, earlier in the same verse, over whether the words “without a cause” were original, or a scribal interpolation to exempt “justifiable” anger from the anathema on murderous Wrath. A scribe might well be legalistic; Our Lord did not split hairs that way. He forgave imperfections; He did not slice and dice to accommodate them.

Raca meant, so far as anyone currently alive can reconstruct, “empty-headed” in the Aramaic colloquial of twenty centuries ago. The Greek moros (Latin fatue), “fool,” is then presented in parallel — not in this case by an Apostolic interpreter, but within the quotation of Christ Himself. The flip is designed to bring out a subtlety, of real spiritual import. For the Greek word goes beyond the Aramaic, carrying with it a connotation of atheism, and thus the implication, “entirely beyond the reach of God.”

The “council” might punish you for calling your brother citizen an airhead, in defiance of good form; the Speaker of the House might nail you for that frightful use of such a rude term. But we get beyond the council, and down into burning Gehenna (“Hell”), when, from the depths of our being, we call him an unsalvageable airhead.

Therefore, we should not do that. For when we do, we murder him in our soul.