The Abbé Jean Carmignac was a learned translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls. When he translated the Gospel of Mark from Greek into Qumran Hebrew, Carmignac noticed that the translation was “extremely easy.” He also noticed many Semitisms—linguistic features of the Greek that seemed to have been translated from a Semitic language—in the gospels of Mark and Matthew. Eventually he published a short book, The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983). In this book he argues that Mark and Matthew wrote their gospels first in a Semitic language.
Carmignac’s proposal challenges my scenario that Mark wrote a play and a narrative in Greek, in Rome. However, I have been able to reconcile them as follows: Mark drafted his narrative in Greek, then had it translated into Hebrew, then had it translated back into Greek. This was the way that Hellenistic writers, I believe, emulated the style of the Septuagint.
A second valuable contribution to scholarship by Carmignac is his observation that some words and phrases in the Gospel of Matthew are explained by a copyist’s misreading of Qumran Hebrew letter forms. Carmignac thus links texts at Qumran (sectarian? Jerusalem Temple library?) and Matthew’s proto-Christian congregation.
On the first day in 1963 that the Abbé Jean Carmignac translated the Gospel of Mark from Greek into Qumran Hebrew, he found the translation “extremely easy.” The translator “had even preserved in Greek the order of the words preferred by Hebrew grammar.” Carmignac was convinced that “the Greek text of Mark could not have been redacted directly in Greek…it was in reality only the Greek translation of an original Hebrew.” (p. 1) So, the Gospel of Mark we know derived from a Hebrew version.
The Gospel of Matthew and most of the Gospel of Luke had the same Semitic qualities as GMark. GMatthew also had had a Semitic version,* and Luke had worked with texts in a Semitic language. Carmignac consequently dated the synoptic gospels to the 40s and 50s.
The project of presenting these theories required a huge scholarly effort. (Carmignac worked in the 1960s and 70s, prior to desktop computers). Because of his age, Carmignac was persuaded by his friends to publish a short summary. He did so. His short book gives examples of nine types of Semitisms he found in the synoptic gospels, and also bibliographies of previous Hebrew translations of the gospels and of modern authors who thought a synoptic gospel had been originally in a Semitic language. The book was published first in French, then in English as The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983). My discussion is based on the English version. (Note: the book is rare, expensive, and not available in electronic format.)
* Note: Carmignac uses the term “Hebrew” as a default, acknowledging that some translations might have been from Aramaic. I think it is most likely that GMark had a Hebrew version, and GMatthew had an Aramaic version. I use these terms more specifically than Carmignac does.
Critical reaction to Carmignac’s theory
Carmignac did not live to complete his project. Still, his book succinctly presents his approach, his sources, a selection of Semitisms, and his own explanation of the Synoptic Problem, based on Hebrew GMark. From my mythicist point of view, the book is sufficient for me to render judgment on its value.
Brief reviews in Catholic journals (English, French) and reviews of Pierre Grelot’s book that disagreed with Carmignac about dating (French, German, Spanish) were published within 3 years. For my purposes they offer nothing new. The reviewers disagreed with Carmignac’s early dating of the gospels and did not engage with the specific Semitisms he proposes.
I took seriously Carmignac’s insight that GMark was literally translated from Hebrew/Aramaic. The insight was independent of his religious beliefs. He had beginner’s mind and he was thinking as a translator. So I had to explain his insight.
I read his book thoroughly and engaged with each of the Semitisms he listed that involved the text of GMark. To make a very long story short, after review I concluded that all of the Semitisms in GMark could be explained by one of two situations. First, in a few cases Mark directly translated Hebrew source texts such as the Sayings of Jesus (or used Greek literal translations of these source texts). These Semitisms are exclusively in parables and sayings. Second, all the other Semitisms could be explained by Mark’s emulation of the literary style of the LXX.
That conclusion seemed definitive, but I decided to walk through that emulation. Who was in the room and what did they do? I read Paul and First-Century Letter Writing. This book made me think about the process of dictation. Mark could not have dictated the first version of his narrative. He was juggling too many elements: the text of the play (that is, the dialogue), the written and implicit stage directions, quotations from Scripture, his notes on tablets or parchment. He must have written it out, through several drafts. Only then did he have the material to “LXX-ize.”
How would that work? I am sure that Mark did not know enough of a Semitic language to do the translation himself. He needed a translator. I don’t know if he dictated his final narrative to the translator, or if the translator worked from a written text. In any case, the translator produced a Hebrew version. Another person then translated that text, literally, into Greek, and Mark corrected it.
In this scenario, all of the Semitic features of GMark can be explained by Mark’s emulation of the LXX. To be specific, by the intermediate Hebrew text that a translator created for Mark, as part of the emulation process.
So, Hebrew GMark was not what Carmignac thought it was. It was not Mark’s translation into Greek of Peter’s stories about Jesus of Nazareth. And it was not the source of Semitic GMatthew.
My scenario for Mark as a Flavian playwright in Rome remains intact.
I realize that a Hebrew Gospel of Mark is a new idea. We have to get rid of the assumption that Mark was inspired by God to tell a life-changing story in one fell swoop. Or that Mark was lost in the mists of time, like David and Solomon. (Certainly tradition encourages us to do so. As does anonymity.) “Mark” was a writer like other writers. He was educated in the skills of his time. He chose his literary style deliberately and it required an intermediate Semitic-language text. Mark was as real a historic person as Plato, Josephus, and his patron, Flavia Domitilla.
Emulation: a first-century skill
Here are some observations about Mark and emulation:
- We can assume that as emulation was a basic part of pagan education, it was also a basic part of the education of Hellenized Judeans like Mark.
- We can assume that a skilled playwright had had enough education that he had learned to emulate.
- We can assume that Hellenized Judeans studied the LXX. We can’t assume they were taught to emulate its style on school-assigned subjects—maybe that was considered sacrilegious. But we can assume that some students tried out that emulation anyway, whether permitted or not.
- I suggest that Hellenized Judean students—and teachers—of Mark’s world knew that if they wanted a work to sound like the LXX, they had to write it in Greek, translate it idiomatically into Hebrew, and have someone else translate it, literally, back into Greek.
- We can assume that Mark was not the first person to write a Greek text in the style of the LXX. It had been in use for 350+ years! It was the Judeans’ equivalent of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were the standard texts for emulation in pagan schools. Of course other Judeans had emulated the LXX! They probably continued to do so in Mark’s time, in Hellenized locations like Egypt and Greece.
- I note that the language of the Gospel of Mark is concrete, even the sayings. Concrete language is easier to translate than philosophical and theological ideas.
- The fact that Carmignac found that GMark translated seamlessly (he identifies no glitches) shows that the post-Markan editors of GMark knew what Mark had done. And they did it too. They knew how to emulate the LXX in the same way Mark did. The need to imitate Mark’s style did not discourage them. This is a point in favor of widespread knowledge of how to emulate the LXX.
Mark’s writing process
- I think that Mark wrote a play first. He then wrote a narrative in Greek, using some of the dialogue from the play. He used wording that directed the reader of the narrative to verses in other texts. Only when this was finished did he have it translated.
- The translation was likely to Hebrew rather than to Aramaic, as more authentically emulating the LXX.
- Did Mark himself do the translation? No. It is extremely unlikely that he knew enough Hebrew.
- I think the translation to Hebrew was idiomatic, that is, it preserved the meaning of Mark’s Greek. Then the translation from Hebrew to Greek was literal. (“The Graeco-Roman ideal of translation was primarily interested in form and the impact this had on the reader. In total contrast, the Jewish and Christian ideal was solely concerned with the content of the original.” Sebastian Brock, “Aspects of Translation Technique in Antiquity,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 20/1 (1979), p. 78.)
- The reader may have observed a potential problem: Mark’s narrative contains allusions to the (Greek) words of the LXX and other religious texts. These allusions might have disappeared from his first draft, during the translation process. I think that Mark had to review the post-Hebrew version of his narrative, and revise it if necessary to make his references salient again. This was all quite time-consuming, but…
- Mark’s patron, Flavia Domitilla, and her husband Titus Flavius Clemens were alive when Mark wrote. He expected their sons to become emperors. Mark was writing for the imperial family. He knew he had to produce a work worthy of their patronage.
- Because of this patronage, Mark had adequate funds for his assistants.
- The aesthetic standard of the time was unsurpassed: The architecture and art of the Domus Aurea, the design and engineering of the Coliseum and its spectacles, the design of the Column of Trajan, the cutting of the great first-century cameos. In that context, Mark’s enormous expenditure of labor is plausible.
The Hebrew translation of GMark was ephemeral
What happened to Hebrew GMark? I think it was ephemeral.
- Mark had no reason to keep the Hebrew translation.
- It was an intermediary, working text. The Greek text based on it was the final version.
- Any effort Mark made toward a free-standing Hebrew GMark (based on that final Greek text) was an insult to his patrons—they weren’t paying him to create an evangelical text for some unknown people in the East. Such an effort implied that he wasn’t focused entirely on pleasing his patrons.
- Mark had no readers for a Hebrew GMark in Rome. There is no church tradition of a Hebrew/Aramaic GMark. We don’t know of any Hebrew/Aramaic-speaking sister congregations at that time who Mark would have written for. (If there was a Jerusalem Church of any kind—if any Jerusalem proto-Christians had survived the war—it would have had no interest in a translated play written for the Flavian family!)
- Church tradition of Mark’s life has him in Rome, and later in Alexandria, founding churches for the local Judeans. The local languages in Rome and Alexandria were Latin, Greek, and Egyptian, not Hebrew and Aramaic.
- Let us assume as a thought experiment that Mark ‘touched up’ the Hebrew translation to match his final Greek version, and the Roman congregation kept the Hebrew version. The later pre-Matthean editors of the Greek version would have had to revise the Hebrew version as well. What if they were not competent to do so? They would not bother, but then the Hebrew version would not be ‘official’ any more. They could not afford to keep it around. They had to discard it. So in any case, a Hebrew GMark was ephemeral.
In Part II I engage with the Semitisms that Carmignac identifies in the gospels of Mark and Matthew.
version September 11, 2021, rev. February 19, 2022