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Ethopian Spice

By Jim Engle

Ethiopian Amharic adds spice to New Testament study. One might expect to find connections, and there are many, between Old Testament Hebrew and the Amharic language of modern Ethiopia. Both Hebrew and Amharic belong to the Semitic language family. Other Semitic languages include Arabic and biblical Aramaic. These languages have many words in common.

The New Testament, by contrast, was written in Greek, a very different language. But since Jesus and many of the earliest Christian converts came from a Semitic background, likely speaking Aramaic or Hebrew, it is not surprising to find some Semitic expressions in the New Testament. Mark seems especially fond of using an occasional Aramaic expression, as though recalling the very words that Jesus used.

When Jesus prays, "Abba" (Mk. 14:36) an Amharic speaking person understands immediately, since "abba," "ababba" means "father," "daddy" in Amharic. When Jesus raises Jarius' daughter he says, "Talitha cum." "Little girl, get up." (Mk. 5:41). In Amharic "qome" means "to stand up, to stand, to halt." It may appear on a traffic sign along with the English word "stop." To tell a female to "rise" in Amharic you could say "cumi," the precise feminine singular form preserved by the Greek text used by the King James Version.

Jesus is critical of those who claim that they cannot use "corban" money to support their aging parents. In Amharic "qerebe," "to approach, be near," can also have the sense of "to bring near, to present," so the idea of something "presented" fits the explanation in Mk. 7:11 of "something offered/presented" to God.

On the cross (Mk. 15:34) Jesus cried, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" "Lama" in Aramaic is "why?," literally "to what" "for what (reason)." It parallels the Amharic "leman" "why?" or literally "to what" "for what (reason)." Judas was buried in a field purchased with the blood money from Jesus' betrayal. Acts 1:19 calls that place Akeldama; "akel" is "inheritance, field" and "dama" is "blood." "Dem" is still commonly used for "blood" in Ethiopia today.

Many N.T. place names reflect their Semitic world. In Hebrew "bet" or "beth" means "house," as in the O.T. place name Beth-el, which means "House of El," that is "House of God." In Amharic the proliferation of uses for "bet" (sounds like "bait") helps one to understand why it was so widely used in biblical place names. In Ethiopia "bet" can be an ordinary "house." Beyond that, a "megib bet" is a "food house/restaurant;" an "ika bet:" is a "junk house/storage room;" a "shint bet" is a "urine house/toilet;" a "kake bet" is "cake house/pastry shop." So N.T. place names, such as, Bethlehem, Bethsaida, Bethphage, and Bethany, are "House of Bread," "House of Food," and the like.

An intriguing application of the Semitic background of the New Testament shows up in Jesus' criticism of legalistic Pharisees who strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel (Mt 23:24). Essential to the point that Jesus is making is that the gnat is tiny (therefore insignificant) and the camel is large (therefore important), but beyond that contrast in size, Jesus was probably playing with sound-alike words, homonyms. In Amharic "qimal" means "louse" and "gimel" means camel. In all likelihood the Aramaic which Jesus used had the same, or very similar terms, which gave his striking criticism the extra zing of a pun. When Jesus' Aramaic statement was put into New Testament Greek, the force of the pun was lost; and probably the "louse/little bug" became a "little bug/gnat." Unfortunately even the Amharic New Testament, no doubt following the Greek words, also fails to show the pun.