One argument we hear of way too often in the Aramaic/Greek primacy debate is this one, already touched upon many times on this forum:
"If Paul was writing to the Galatians/Romans/Corinthians/.., wouldn't he have written in Greek? Those were Greek-speaking cities, were they not?
On the surface, this argument seems strong. It really makes sense.
When you dwell on it further, however, questions begin to arise.
Why does geography hold greater value than ethnic make-up of the particular congregation? We know, for instance, that all of the early churches were initially started in the Synagogue (whether in Corinth, Ephesus, Rome or Babylon.)
I mean, think about it. I live in Chicago. I attend a parish which is mostly non-Assyrian (probably only 30% Assyrian). 99% of the people in my particular church can understand no more than 10 Aramaic words, let alone speak it.
Yet, every year, we look forward to Mar Dinkha's "Easter" Epistle. It is read out loud by our Qasha (elder/priest). Sometimes, he will 'Targum' (paraphrase) in English after a few sentences. Other times, it is translated by the diocese into English.
I understand the same thing happens in India, where the ethnic make-up of the churches means that only the clergy understand Aramaic, and only in a liturgical setting.
Anyway, back to the original intention of this post.
This post is about a little-known town called Scythopolis. It was known in earlier times by the Hebrew name Beth-Shean ("place of rest", mentioned in the OT in several places.) It was destroyed, but rebuilt by the Greek invaders of the Holy Land in the 3rd century B.C., and named 'Scythopolis' because of the large number of Scythians in the city. Today it is known by it's Arabic name, 'Beisan.'
On with the story, however. During Mshikha's lifetime, Scythopolis was an important city....it was the capital of the famous Decapolis (Greek for 'Ten Cities') of the New Testament. A large population of Greeks resided in Decapolis, and in it's main center - Scythopolis.
It became a major center of Christianity during Roman times. It was first a bishopric, and later a metropolitan see within the Byzantine church.
I say all that to say this:
In the writing of Eusebius (H.E., IV 22), we read of a certain man named Hegesippus who lived between 130-188 A.D.
This man was born in Jerusalem and was martyred at Scythopolis.
Prior to his martyrdom, Eusebius tells us that Hegesippus served three important functions in the Church there, according to Passio Sancti Procopii Martyris (annexed by Valesius to the Hist. Eccles. of Eusebius, lib. viii. c. 1, ed. Amsterdam, 1695. Annotatt, p. 154). These functions were:
- unum in legendi officio
- alterum in Syri interpretatione sermonis
- et tertium adversus daemones manus impositione consummans
The important one here is the second point - "alterum in Syri interpretatione sermonis" means that he was an "Interpreter" or public-translator, of Syriac (Aramaic.)
What does this mean? Obviously, he was not translating Roman creeds from Aramaic into Greek. I couldn't imagine the Emperors declarations needing translation from Aramaic into Greek. Tax records....I think not.
Undoubtedly, what is meant here is the scriptures. Firstly, because it was part of his function in the Church. Secondly, because we may be assured there were Greeks in the church of Scythopolis, for whose benefit the Scripture lessons were translated as they were read.
We would have a formal name, in Aramaic, for such a profession. Hegesippus would be called a 'Mtur-gey-man-a' ('One who Targums/Paraphrases'.)
They were quite popular in olden days, as things like scripture, royal decrees, PAUL'S LETTERS needed to be "interpreted" for the crowds. Much like today, we have translators employed in various governmental agencies.
The practice actually started in the Synagogue, when the vernacular of the people switched from Hebrew to Aramaic. Hence, we have "Targums" which were eventually committed to writing after the oral stage.
So I reflect on these occasions, when we receive an Epistle from our Patriarch in Aramaic. I think back on the richness of this tradition. As a young man, before I understood this tradition, I felt disgusted that such a practice, which seemed to ignore the non-Aramaic speakers of the Church, existed.
I now know better.
Had this steadfast, iron-fisted clench on tradition and language not been enforced, we would have no Aramaic language today.
In times like these, while I reflect on the wording of the "Easter Epistle" that I heard read in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A - Western Hemisphere, thousands of miles from my homeland in Mesopotamia.........
I can't help but to think that I live in a modern Scythopolis (or, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus....)
I remember Hegessipus during these times.....and I can't help but to think of the argument presented at the beginning of this post - and I smile.