The Mystery of Miltha
Andrew Gabriel Roth
Peshitta.org Translation Team
It has often been said that the hardest aspect of any serious biblical study is the balancing of two very important agendas. On the one hand, the sincere seeker wishes to enter the mind, language and culture of the writer, to immerse himself in seeing things as they were when written. On the other hand, there is also an attempt to extract the infinite wisdom of Scripture from its original temporal and cultural vessel and export the gist of it straight into our own modern understanding. We call these two aspects exegesis and hermeneutics, respectively.
Both disciplines are necessary and valuable, and both are also made possible of course with the advent of newer and more accurate translations. Obviously though, we here at peshitta.org have a strikingly different view about the proper methodology to accomplish this task, which is difficult at best and almost never fully completed. However, that does not mean that certain reliable principles of translation do not exist. This essay then is an attempt to explore just one of these cardinal rules that ends up being showcased so beautifully in just the first four words of the Gospel of Yochanan:
BRESHIT AYTOHI HWA MILTHA
"In the Beginning was the MILTHA."
Beyond the fact that MILTHA is very hard to translate (possibilities like "Word", "Emanation" or "Manifestation" are common), that’s a fairly straightforward statement. And yet, if the Peshitta version of Yochanan is God-breathed Scripture in its original revelatory language, it must exist in infinite levels of understanding.
Or, to put it another way, if there are two languages that claim to be the original vessel of Scripture, then by definition one must be the original and the other a translation. The former, because it came from God, must be perfect and the latter, the product of human understanding of the divine, can never be. Such is the case now in the field of New Testament studies where Aramaic and Greek face off in the arena that we call scriptural primacy. Only one can be the first. As for the ultimate rendering of MILTHA, all I will say on the subject is that the meaning starts with that of "THE WORD", but it does not end there. It is as infinite in its spiritual depth as the Source from which it sprang. But we may, through a little diligence and careful attention, get a deeply satisfying taste of that depth by looking at the WORDS around THE WORD.
Idioms in Translation
However, before explaining these four words in Yochanan more fully, an example from Isaiah should prove very useful to this discussion.
In the 19th century, many missionary organizations in Great Britain and the United States raised a tremendous amount of money to bring bible translations to almost every nation on the planet. Missionaries stayed in some remote areas for decades, learning the local culture and language in an attempt to render the Scriptures into a form that anyone could understand. However, the quest for clarity of ideas frequently left otherwise well meaning principles of word for word accuracy on the cutting room floor, such as in this verse from Isaiah 1:18:
"Come let us reason together, says the LORD. Though your sins be as scarlet, THEY SHALL BE WHITE AS SNOW."
Only one problem: What if you were translating into Swahili, and the people you were trying to explain this to lived in a region of Africa where it NEVER SNOWED? Now what do you do? Do you simply go word for word, or will you look for a CULTURAL EQUIVALENT that the Africans will be able to relate their sins to being as white as? As history shows, the latter approach was far more preferable and was done with great success.
Although, as illustrative as that situation was, it pales in complexity to Yochanan, which is replete with the most intense Semitic symbolism and spiritual depth of any book in the New Testament. The idioms there are in fact so deep that they almost cannot be brought to the surface in English at all but are more of a flash of intuitiveness that lights upon the mind of the native Aramaic reader. Again the best way to show this is with MILTHA itself, which even Paul Younan said should simply be left intact without an English equivalent.
Therefore, the point of all this is simply to show that idioms-especially those of either deep poetic or spiritual intent-cannot be rendered word for word into a receiving language with all the force of the original. In fact, to even make a reasonable attempt to approximate it requires that one of two things happens.
The first technique is to render the idiom into neutral language in the original and then export that into the receiving language. For example, let’s say I wanted to translate the phrase, "Let’s blow this joint" into Japanese. I can’t do that word for word-because if I do it will sound like I take illegal drugs! Instead, what I will do is take that original phrase and change it to "Let’s leave this place", and put THAT into Japanese.
Failing that approach, I could take the second option, which is to find an EQUIVALENT IDIOM in the receiving language that meets as much of the original idiom’s depth and similarity of meaning as possible. Such a technique is harder, but sometimes is the only way if a word for word approach creates the wrong idea. Here’s a classic case in point: In 1979, Coca Cola came up with the slogan "Coke ADDS LIFE". Obviously, we understand that the INTENT is to say, "Coke adds refreshment" or "Coke’s taste makes you feel better (i.e. ‘more lively’)." However, when it was translated into Chinese, the ADDS LIFE equivalent characters also could be read as, "Coke brings your ancestors back from the dead"! Obviously it would have been better to give an example of complete refreshment that the Chinese could really understand.
Going a step further, these idioms are also most likely to happen in poetic forms of writing in the original language, such as Hebrew poetry in the Psalms and Job. No serious scholar looking at the atypical structures there would ever dream of saying that those were written in anything other than Hebrew. The patterns are too distinct and deep. Furthermore, no one would take some prose from a language like Greek, and translate it into Aramaic in a way that breaks basic Semitic grammatical convention. Even if the Greek were the best poetry in the world-like say the works of Homer-it will always come out as prose in any language that receives it. That’s not the same thing as saying though that some poetic intent will not be apparent in the new language, since we clearly can think that a phrase "and the mountains clapped with joy" probably is not to be taken literally. Rather, what I am establishing is that THE WAY THOSE WORDS APPEAR IN THE RECEIVING LANGUAGE WILL STILL FOLLOW GOOD GRAMMAR IN THAT LANGUAGE.
As a final example, let me use something even more basic. In the 1970s, a folk singer named Gordon Lightfoot had a hit song called "If You Could Read My Mind". One of the lines was from it though was very odd in that it said:
In a CASTLE DARK or a FORTRESS STRONG with chains upon my feet…
So, Gordon has switched the word order of noun and adjective ON PURPOSE. Why? Because it sounds better with the melody for one thing, and because he is also as much of a poet as he is a songwriter. Now imagine this. If Gordon was a native Japanese speaker and translated his song into English, what do you think the odds are of him doing the same thing with the noun-verb order again? From a scholarly perspective, I believe the answer is zero.
We Want Gender Equality NOW!
So now we can finally get back to Yochanan. As most of you probably now, there is no neuter (it, one) in Aramaic. Every word must be designated as either MASCULINE or FEMININE. However, Aramaic goes a step further by insisting that the states, number AND GENDER of nouns and verbs must agree. That is not to say however that there are not irregular cases of masculine nouns having normally feminine endings, since even the Aramaic word for FATHERS proves otherwise. Rather, what I am saying is that, independent of whatever irregularities may exist by the way a word appears, that once a noun is designated as masculine or feminine, its accompanying verb must match that gender.
With that in mind, let’s look at some Scripture:
…AYT HWT TAMIN ANTATHA DAYAT HWT LEH ROKHA D’KORHHANA
(There WAS a WOMAN who was there who had a spirit of infirmity)
This is proper Aramaic grammar, with the female noun of WOMAN (ANTATHA) being joined with a female verb for "was" (HWT).
The same holds true for the masculine:
…HWA YOCHANAN B’MADBARA MAIMAD W’MKRAZ…
(WAS Yochanan in the wilderness baptizing and preaching)
Again, the nouns and verbs match up, with the MALE noun (YOCHANAN) matched up to a MALE verb form of WAS (HWA).
However, it then gets very strange that the phrase we have been looking at all along then reads, once again:
BRESHIT AYTOHI HWA MILTHA
The problem is MILTHA is a FEMININE noun, and it is matched, not with HWT as would be proper but instead with the MASCULINE form-- HWA. Since everyone agrees Yochanan is a native Aramaic speaker, how in the world does this mistake get past him IN THE FIRST FOUR LINES OF HIS GOSPEL?
As I hope to be able to show, the answer to that lies in spiritual poetry --in its original language-- whose inherent needs of truth have often been known to overturn normal rules of grammar.
The Beauty of ECHAD
"Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become BESAR ECHAD (one flesh)."
In Hebrew, there are two words to express the concept of ONENESS. The first is YACHID which is a total singularity in all its uses. The second is ECHAD, which also means singularity (YOM ECHAD, day one) but contains within it the concept of that singularity having been formed from two or more separate things. In the verse above, a separate man and woman become ONE FLESH. Other examples, like YOM ECHAD, have two things called day and night, become part of an umbrella structure called "day". A great example of that concept is also in Exodus 12 where it is clear that the Israelites are leaving Egypt at night, and yet they are told that "this very day" is to commemorated.
Of course however the most famous use of ECHAD is in Deuteronomy 6:4:
"Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is ECHAD."
So, while there is one God, He is a UNITY OF ASPECTS, which is why there are various SPIRITS that come from God, such as counsel, strength, wisdom and understanding (Isaiah 11:1-2). Some of these "spirits" are rendered MALE and others FEMALE, and yet they all REST UPON the Messiah.
But now Yochanan has a big problem.
In many previous discussions, I have come across the false idea that Messiah cannot truly be divine. To refute this, I have always pointed to 1 Corinthians 12:3 which says MARYAH HAW ESHOA, or "YHWH (Lord YAH) is Y’shua". Once confronted with the force of the Aramaic, my opponents have had to either retreat back to Greek texts-not desirable since KURIOS and THEOS were terms also applied to Zeus, or to acknowledge the plain meaning of the Aramaic text and decide they disagree with it. In the latter case, that particular line from the apostle Paul in Aramaic is precisely the reason why the Evyonim (Ebionites)-a first century Jewish sect that accepts Y’shua as Messiah but denies his divinity-threw out all of Paul’s letters from their canon and only accepted the Gospel of Matthew as Scripture. They also threw out Yochanan for reasons that will soon be clear. However, the modern Evyonim have taken an even more extreme position than their ancient counterparts did. They contend that NONE OF THE GOSPELS CONTAIN ASSERTIONS OF MESSIAH’S DIVINITY. However, as we are also about to see, their spiritual ancestors knew better.
Other than the sacred words of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), no other words in the Hebrew Tenakh are more moving to any Jew as Exodus 3:14. There, God gives Moshe His Real Name, and He says: EHYEH ASHER EYHEH, which can be translated as I AM THAT I AM or, I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. The fact is, both Hebrew tenses of past and future are inherent in the phrase, leading many sages to refer to God simply as The Eternal, or the Pre-Existent One. Continuing then, the next line then has God say, "You shall tell the Egyptians that I AM has sent you to them." As a result I AM (EHYEH) became a sacred title, and the actual name became revealed as YHWH, which is derived from EHYEH (is) and HWA (was).
Now in Aramaic, the word "I" is rendered as ENA, and 99.9% of the time the equivalent phrase of AM (NA) is implied. However, it is also correct to say ENA-NA, but most would not dare to utter that phrase. The reason for their reticence is because ENA-NA is the Aramaic equivalent of EHYEH. Or, to put it another way, humans can be ENA, but to say ENA-NA is to refer solely to the eternal aspect and existence of YHWH. But, when Y’shua speaks of himself, guess what? He says ENA-NA. Therefore, it was not just because Y’shua claimed to have been before Abraham that caused his opponents to pick up stones against him. No, Y’shua went a step further. By saying ENA-NA, Y’shua was saying that he is eternal and PRE-CREATION, which brings us straight back to Yochanan 1 ("In the beginning there was the MILTHA and the MILTHA was with God and the MILTHA was God…THROUGH HIM (MILTHA) ALL THINGS WERE MADE…).
Notice that language again.
THROUGH HIM (male) all things were made…
AND THE MILTHA (female) BECAME FLESH…
Again why? Perhaps the apostle Paul gives us a clue here:
"He is the IMAGE of the INVISIBLE GOD, and the first born of every creature. And through him were created all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether imperial thrones, or lordships or angelic orders or dominions; all things were in his hand and created by him. FOR IT PLEASED GOD TO COMPLETE ALL THINGS IN HIM."
Colossians 1:15-17, 19
ALL THINGS, and therefore ALL ASPECTS, male and female. Remember where we started in Genesis, where it says that IN THE IMAGE OF GOD BOTH MALE AND FEMALE WERE CREATED. So that is Messiah as MILTHA (The Word). But if Yochanan had used MEMRA or DAVAR (male for "word" in various dialects), the female attributes (IMAGE) would have been left out, as if Messiah as Miltha could only create in one gender.
Therefore, putting it all together, what happens when the MILTHA becomes flesh AND DWELLS AMONG US? So, in the end, here is the answer to the mystery. There is no neuter in Aramaic, and so there is no way for a mystic like Yochanan bar Zawdee to express this melding of attributes and genders in proper Aramaic grammar. He wants to include ALL APSECTS of the MILTHA becoming flesh, and to keep a male noun with a male verb is inevitably leaving out part of the truth. So, the only option left to him from both a poetic and spiritual standpoint was to show the female noun MERGED with the male verb and, as a result, we are all enriched by that effort two millennia later.