Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”
Several times the Aramaic words of Jesus are recorded in the Gospel of Mark. “Abba” [“Father”]; “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabbachthani” [“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”]; “Talitha, cumi,” [“Little girl, I say to you, arise.”]; and here in our Gospel for this week, “Ephphatha,” which means “be opened.” It’s a Mark thing; no other Gospel records Jesus’ Aramaic voice.
Mark is the action-packed thriller of the Gospels, less focused on Jesus’ preaching than the others, while having more vivid details the others don’t have. He, for instance, will record that the grass was green at the feeding of the five thousand. Or in the above cases, Mark records what Jesus said in the original Aramaic. Mark’s Gospel more than the others takes us back in time to the historical Jesus, connecting us intimately with Him.
Note also that the moments recorded in Aramaic have an intimacy to them. In both the healing of the deaf man and the little girl, He separates the one He will heal from the others. We’re in a private setting. Or, you can’t get much more intimate than being with Jesus when He was praying that the cup be removed from Him.
We should contemplate for a few moments on the fact that Aramaic, while being the language Jesus would have used in a daily context, is not the language the Gospels are recorded in. We get a Greek-speaking Savior in the Gospels. That’s not historically accurate, but it’s cosmically as well as theologically accurate – Jesus is a living Savior speaking the universal language.
We need to remember the Gospels, while rooted in Christ’s historical words and deeds, are not historical text books or newspaper articles. They are Gospels, written not by evangelists long after the fact trying to remember what happened or what Jesus said, but written by evangelists saturated by the Holy Spirit, commissioned by a Christ Who is very much alive and very much active at the time they were writing them.
A modern way to look at the situation is to say, “See, now, how can we trust these evangelists? They were reflecting on things thirty to forty years old, writing in a language Jesus didn’t speak in, and reacting to political events occurring far later. Of course they’d get some things wrong.” Would any court trust a witness trying to remember thirty years back?
So, then, the apologists’ task is to prove that, no, the Gospels are accurate, and we can trust them. They took notes. They had multiple witnesses who cross-checked each other. And so on and so forth.
No, no, no. This all accepts the premise of the modernists. And it ignores that Jesus was still alive and active, operating by the Holy Spirit, when they sat down to pen the Gospels.
What is this to say? It’s to say all sorts of things. It’s to say that Jesus spoke Greek, maybe not in His original setting, but in His second go at it, which mirrored the first. It’s to say that there’s not some major conflict when in recording Jesus’ words to the Pharisees about His casting out demons, in one account Jesus uses the expression “the finger of God” and in another “the Spirit of God.” The modernists says, “So which is it? Which evangelist is lying?” It’s not lying if Jesus, by the Holy Spirit through Luke in 65 AD says “finger of God” but through Matthew in 60 AD says “Spirit of God.” To be somewhat profane, but in a heuristic sense, Jesus can edit His own words if He in His authoritative position at God’s right hand deems Luke’s account should have subtleties different than that of Matthew!
This isn’t to say that the Gospels are not historical accounts and rooted in Jesus historical acts and deeds. It’s simply to remind us that they primarily are Gospel proclamations. There are four of them to convey four different messages, all making up a beautiful whole. The Gospels are divine, meaning there is a human element rooted in history, but also a divine element rooted in the eternal.
This somewhat takes us back to a point in the Gospel for this week itself. If Jesus is fulfilling the Jeremiah 31 prophecy about writing a new covenant on hearts and minds – using God’s finger to do so, from engraving on stone to writing on hearts and minds – then the message of the Gospel is not ultimately about letters and languages. I say “ultimately” because it most certainly is about letters and languages insofar as the message of the Gospel is a fully human message grounded in a human Lord living in human history. But “ultimately,” the flesh profits nothing and the spirit gives life.
Which is to say, again, there is a divinity going on in the Gospel that introduces eternal elements into the human words and language. Today, millions of people are filled by the Holy Spirit through the English language, without a whit of knowledge about Aramaic, Greek, or ancient customs. And that English, as a “mere” translation, isn’t deficient in the least. Why? Because the Gospel is a ministry of the Spirit written on hearts and minds, not a ministry of the letter, requiring knowledge solely of those letters.
Consider, there are three languages proposed in this week’s Gospel with the phrase “be opened” that Jesus spoke over the deaf man. There’s the Aramaic “ephphatha.” There’s Greek “dianoichtheti.” And there’s the English “be opened.” Each one is imbued with divinity, even if one is the historically accurate rendering. It’s the modernist attempt to divorce the latter from the former that leads to all sorts of problems.
One solution to the seeming incongruity between the historical setting and current application include hunting for transcendent archetypes or allegorizing. This was the approach of the ancient fathers, as well as that of those with a more literary or psychological bent, like Jordan Peterson. The idea is to lift the mundane details out of history and seek those transcendent truths hovering above and beyond the text.
Another solution is the scholarly approach, so often the temptation even by conservative Christians, who believe you can only get a true understanding of the text when you understand it in its cultural milieu, or when you pore of the original text – praying you’re using the right manuscript! – and mine all the little subtleties you can get by analyzing the word in the context of how Homer used it. This methodology necessitates that everything we have today is deficient, because it’s in English and fundamentally anachronistic. It also suggests that true knowledge of the Gospel can only be claimed not by receivers of the creedal and sacramental tradition, but by certain elite scholars who have a specialized understanding of what was really going on behind the text.
This cuts out the divinity and the reality of Christ’s living authority in the Church today. It also makes us partially deaf. Isn’t that what it is? Because we don’t know Greek, because we don’t fully understand the original cultural context, we by necessity have only a partial and insufficient hearing of the text.
And this is just wrong. The Holy Spirit is as powerful working today through English as He was when Jesus spoke “ephphatha” over the man’s ears. That’s the divinity at work, opening our ears to hear what “the spirit says to the churches.” It’s written on hearts and minds, by the finger of God, not in words engraved in stone and frozen in time.
Jesus spoke a word in Aramaic as conveyed to us in a Greek text and taught or preached to us in English, or any number of other languages. Jesus opens the ears of mutually exclusive cultures to hear the same word. It’s truly the divinity at work.