"A little learning is a dangerous thing..." So said poet Alexander Pope.
This truth comes home to me whenever I try to delve into the subtleties, connotations, and even mistranslations of passages in the Bible.
My "little learning" is in the biblical languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.
To cut to the chase, I am trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he cried out from the cross, "Eli, eli, lema sabachthani" (as Matthew 27:46 records it).
The Matthean text immediately translates this Aramaic expression into Greek, which we recognize as Psalm 22:2, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
I have often found consolation in this expression of anguish --in the Book of Psalms it is the lament of a soul who feels abandoned by God. It borders on despair. In fearful loneliness, someone's broken heart cries, "Why?"
To think that even Jesus had this struggle I can better accept my own moments of confusion and doubt. For a moment even Jesus experienced the agony of being left alone by a hiding God.
On occasion I have referred to this verse as comfort to the grieving or the overwhelmed. This is the dark night of the soul!
More recently, however, I have come to question my using Jesus as a model of near-despair.
My questioning began when I read George Lamsa's research on idioms in the Bible. Lamsa (1892-1975) was an Assyrian author (born in what is now Turkey) whose native language was Aramaic, the language we are pretty sure Jesus spoke.
Lamsa noted that in the Greek version of Matthew's Gospel (Lamsa grew up reading the Aramaic) the evangelist gave the original Aramaic and then he or a later editor translated the Aramaic expression into Greek.
The evangelist and Lamsa note that those standing beneath the cross misunderstood, thinking that Jesus was calling on the prophet Elijah.
Our Greek version of Matthew's Gospel clarified Jesus' Aramaic words by identifying them as Psalm 22:2. Lamsa, however, concluded differently.
He argued that if Jesus were quoting the psalm he would likely have said it in Hebrew. And if he were translating the Hebrew into Aramaic he would have used the word "nashatani" not "shabacktani."
Lamsa explains that "nashatani" means "forsaken me," but "shabacktani" means "kept me."
Thus, in Lamsa's understanding of the Aramaic, Jesus was saying, "My God, my God, for this I was kept," meaning, "this was my destiny --for this I was born."
The academic world with its Aramaic grammar and etymology offers little support for Lamsa's interpretation.
In Lamsa's defense, however, I would be so bold as to suggest that maybe the earliest Christians saw in Psalm 22 a prefiguring of the sufferings of Jesus: "all who see me mock me...like water my life drains away...so wasted are my hands and my feet that I can count all my bones...they divide my garments among them, for my clothing they cast lots."
Maybe these descriptions were applied to Jesus because they thought he was quoting Psalm 22 or maybe these descriptions so fit what happened to Jesus that they put Psalm 22:2 into his mouth.
Lamsa reasoned, "The disciples and women who were from Galilee never for a moment could have thought that Jesus said God had forsaken Him. How could He say that when He had told His disciples that the whole world would forsake Him, even they, but that the Father would be with Him."
All my questioning and research does nothing to the final verdict --Jesus suffered and died for our salvation!
On the other hand, I would like to know what really happened on that Friday on Golgotha, outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Perhaps the evidence has been taped and archived and part of eternity can be spent in reviewing the footage and seeing and hearing what actually happened nearly 2000 years ago.
Once again "a little learning" has forced me back to the books and left me with still more questions than answers.
Pope was right about the dangers and intoxication of "a little learning," but I'm not so sure that drinking largely really would bring sobriety.
Said the poet: "A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again."