In Mk 3:17 Jesus gives two disciples the nickname “Boanerges”; the text explains that the meaning of “Boanerges” is “Sons of Thunder.” The problem is that “Boanerges” is not good Aramaic. As Wikipedia says, “Given the Greek translation that comes with it (‘Sons of Thunder’), it seems that the first element of the name is bnē, ‘sons of’ (the plural of ‘bar’), Aramaic (בני).” “The remainder of the name could be rḡaš (‘tumult’) Aramaic (רגיש), or rḡaz (‘anger’) Aramaic (רגז)…(or) thunder, r‘am.”
However, many scholars admit that this is not satisfactory. As a summary of traditional views, the Roman Catholic priest and scholar John P. Meier writes, “our study of the three passages that are often cited to explain the term has a largely negative result. Contrary to claims commonly made, it is doubtful that the name is best explained psychologically as referring to the impetuous religious zeal of the sons of Zebedee. The best supports for such a view of the two brothers, Mark 9:39-39 and Luke 9:52-56, are of doubtful historicity. The one passage with a good claim to historicity, Mark 10:35-40, witnesses not to the brothers’ fiery religious zeal but to their blind ambition. In the end, one must wonder whether Mark or the early church knew the original reason why Jesus conferred the name Boanērges on the brothers. After all, Mark, while translating the term, makes no attempt to explain it, and Matthew and Luke both drop it.” (p. 221).
Meier adds as an “intriguing alternative” the possibility that “Jesus called the brothers ‘sons of thunder’ because he realized or wished to foster their potential as thundering witnesses for his proclamation of the kingdom….But are we to suppose that James and John were so superior to the rest of the Twelve in their powerful proclamation that Jesus singled them out with this name? In the last analysis, we must admit that we are left with mere conjecture.” (pp. 221-222).
Here, I offer a new explanation for the term. I assume as baseline the scenario that I presented in my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text: Mark wrote a play that was performed, privately. The play was produced by the congregation’s patron/benefactor, Flavia Domitilla, in 90-95 CE. The attendees included Flavia (a niece of the current emperor, Domitian) and her family, and Mark’s congregation. As was usual at the time, the play was performed only once. But Mark preserved the performance in a separately written narrative, which is the (original of the) Gospel of Mark we have now. This narrative was written in the literary style of the Septuagint. The narrative remained in the congregation’s library as evidence of Flavia’s patronage, but was lightly used, if at all, until Luke (I think first) or Matthew made their own version of it.
A para-Aramaic meaning of Boanerges is plausible, because Mark creates at least one other para-Aramaic name: Arimathea.
As Meier points out, the name doesn’t make sense within Mark’s story. I add that it also doesn’t make sense within a performed play. James and John are not pretentious or angry or thunderous; they barely speak dialogue, and even when they dispute who is the greatest (9:34) it is among themselves, i.e., silently; the audience learn what they have been ‘disputing’ about from Jesus’s speech (9:35) “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all.”
I suspect that “Boanerges” was a topical reference in Mark’s world that he expected his readers to recognize. In support of topicality, I note that Matthew and Luke both omit it.
Now to my proposal. Recall the scenario I propose: Mark writes, directs and (I think) stars in a play for the emperor’s niece, the mother of future emperors. Mark is working for the aristocracy. He would use the best actors available. Famous actors would add to the luster of the occasion.
In my book, I speculate that Mark does use a well-known comic actor to play the demoniac of Gerasa. (See the book for my justification.) If this is true, Mark used other well-known actors for other roles in the play. The roles of James and John are relatively large—they are onstage for most of the play (they exit during the arrest scene). So even though it looks like these actors have very little dialogue, that may be incorrect. (Mark’s narrative sometimes summarizes dialogue that was spoken onstage.) I can say that the James and John actors react to Jesus throughout the play. Their physical acting is important: they characterize Jesus through their reactions, and they keep the audience interested.
If the roles of James and John are played by well-known actors, maybe the term “Boanerges” was a distortion of their stage name (a duo act?), or their typical stage roles. “Sons of thunder” makes sense as a description of a mime role similar to that of the comedy role of the miles gloriosus, the braggart soldier.
If these actors were well-known mime actors, then the audience recognized them when they saw them onstage. There was no need for the Jesus actor to speak aloud a nickname that had no significance or implications in the world of the play. In fact, the name “Boanerges” would cause those audience members who knew some Aramaic to laugh, but would perplex those audience members who spoke only Greek and Latin. So I think that the name “Boanerges” was not spoken in the play. It was used only in Mark’s narrative text. He expected the readers of his text, who at first would be only in Rome, to understand the meaning of “Boanerges,” at least in the short term.
Did Mark write the term “Boanerges,” and explain it, or was it added by an editor? I don’t see any reason for an editor to add it. It doesn’t have any religious significance. It isn’t necessary to make James and John look inferior; they already don’t understand Jesus (they are not foolish but underinformed—see my book). Whereas, as I said above, Mark wrote at least one other para-Aramaic character name. And Mark had good reason to preserve a pointer to the famous actors who had acted in his play. And the topical nature of the term explains why Matthew and Luke don’t use it.
Yes, this is all extremely speculative. But if you accept my scenario, it’s only one step away.
original version July 22, 2021