Maranatha? Challenging a Textual Error
Roy Blizzard III © 2012
In 1st Corinthians 16:22, there is a curious phrase that has given rise to all manner of theological interpretations, and in my opinion, are all misleading. This two word phrase has come into the American English usage as one word, Maranatha, usually translated as “Our Lord, Come” or “Come, O Lord”. While there has been much conjecture about how this supposed Aramaic phrase was spelled, most scholars reached one of two conclusions based on the Semitic letters:
מרנא תא maranâ' thâ' or מרן אתא maran 'athâ' .
These presumed scholars saw this phrase as an Aramaic phrase and claim that this phrase occurs twice in the New Testament. They base their reasoning, in part, due to the fact that it also appears in an early “Church” document called the Didache, which is part of the Apostolic Fathers' collection and is used by many denominations as a basis for much of what they believe. This collection of writings is thought by some (but not me) to have been authored by those who had close personal contact with the Apostles.
However, this phrase has been transliterated into Greek letters and into English rather than translated. It is not proper to assume that just because the phrase is used once in the New Testament, meaning one thing, that in turn, we should use the same meaning again 100 years later in the Didache, especially since the given meaning in the New Testament is obviously not clear. This is reverse reasoning and it is not trustworthy.
This should lead one to ask the question; “Is there a reason this word has only been transliterated,” but instead, we get comments and conjectures from various commentaries and Bible versions such as the New American Bible like this:
"As understood, here, ("O Lord, come!"), it is a prayer for the early return of Christ. If the Aramaic words are divided differently, (Maran atha, "Our Lord has come") it becomes a creedal declaration. The former interpretation is supported by what appears to be a Greek equivalent of this acclamation in Book of Revelation 22:20, "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"
The only thing that is clear about this is that in Revelation 22, the wording is not the same as in 1 Corinthians and Revelations 22:20 is just simple Greek and the phrase there fits the context - 20 Λέγει ὁ μαρτυρῶν ταῦτα· Ναί· ἔρχομαι ταχύ. Ἀμήν· ἔρχου, κύριε Ἰησοῦ. (20 He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. KJV) Other commentators have stated that this phrase in 1 Corinthians was used as a greeting by early Christians, such as Saul, but they don’t give any evidence for this usage by any early Christians or anyone else for that matter.
What is also clear here in 1 Corinthians is that there is a link between the words that precede the phrase, Maranatha, and the Maranatha phrase itself and this has been ignored by the commentators and scholars. If one looks at the Greek text they will see that the word preceding Maranatha is “Anathema,” with the usual given meaning as a gift or a sacrifice to God. Quite possibly, this could lead to the interpretation that "Anathema Maranatha," in a New Testament context might mean "a gift to God at the coming of our Lord." This, however, makes no sense in context.
Using the translation of Anathema as “cursed”, John Wesley, of Calvinist fame, gave rise to the following by stating in his Notes on the Bible comments that, "It seems to have been customary with the Jews of that age, when they had pronounced any man an Anathema, to add the Syriac expression, Maran - atha, "The Lord cometh," namely, to execute vengeance upon him.” Unfortunately, Syriac wasn’t utilized in the 1st century, but maybe Calvin meant Aramaic.
Following Calvin’s train of thought the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "Anathema signifies, also, to be overwhelmed with maledictions... At an early date, the Church adopted the word anathema to signify the exclusion of a sinner from the society of the faithful, chiefly against heretics."
While there was general understanding that “Anathema” had a negative aspect in late church history, any negative connotation of maranatha began to die out by the late 19th Century. As late as the 70’s, Maranatha was a widely popular phrase, meaning, “Lord Come.” However, to this day, no one has ever come up with any sound reasoning behind the translation of these two words and their links to the previous parts of the phrase. Could it be they have been looking at the wrong words in the wrong languages?
Maybe we should backtrack and be asking ourselves the questions, “Where do these Greek words, “Anathema” and “Maranatha,” come from? And how do they relate to each other?” Is it necessary to be left with a confusion concerning two different meanings of Anathama; one, “cursed,” and the other, “a gift or sacrifice to God?”
I propose, here, that indeed, this phrase has been mistranslated and long misunderstood due to the translator’s inability or unwillingness to work with the Hebrew language and perhaps even due to their own theological prejudices.
Let’s go back to the English and take a look at the passage. When one reads this passage in the King James, it makes no sense; “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha,” or “let him be accursed, let the Lord come.” This translation makes no sense.
The Greek reads basically the same and is as meaningless as is the Aramaic. Aramaic doesn’t help here because this phrase, Aramaically, can only mean, “Lord Come.”
There is a rare usage found in the Hebrew Kiddush where it is common to say an Aramaic Phrase “Saveri Maranan veRabanan veRabotai" סברי מרנן ורבנן ורבותי meaning “Attention, teachers and wise men, my rabbis” which is said before saying the beracha or blessing over wine during the Kiddush or sanctification of holy days. While the phrase Saveri Maranan is used in the Kiddush at the beginning, it unfortunately bears no resemblance to Anathema Maranatha said at the end of the questioned verse in either position or meaning.
However, during the Havdalah this phrase Saveri Maranan was also used but differently. Havdalah comes from the Hebrew word “l'havdil,” meaning “to separate.” The Mitzvah of Havdalah is performed at the conclusion of Shabbat, and it involves making a verbal separation between the Sabbath and the rest of the week. The Shaliach Tsibur or the cantor, when he has a cup of Kiddush or Havdala in his hand and he says Savri Maranan or have the gentlemen formed an opinion, the congregation says Lechayim - to life, as to say that the cup will be to life." So in the Havdalah service we see a clearly idiomatic meaning since Savri Maranan should mean attention teachers.
In the first century the Havdalah of the believers was traditionally done with as much ceremony as Kiddush - the group gathers around in the synagogue to participate in the ceremonial festive meal of the renewed blood covenant - the cup, the bread, the candle and prayer for all the members, but it indeed is a celebration of the separation of the Spiritual and Earthly.
So where do we search from here? We’ve seen that there is really no parallel anywhere in any familiar texts and usages. Let’s investigate the Hebrew text again and see if we can glean any meaning from it!
If we look at the Hebrew words in this passage it becomes apparent that no scholar or translator ever bothered to investigate whether the Jews, who wrote the text and were capable of thinking and writing in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin all at the same time and maybe used Hebrew concepts, phrases and words in the New Testament, not just Greek or Aramaic. In the Hebrew text we can clearly see that the word transliterated into the Greek, “anathema,” actually, is the Hebrew word, Yacharam - יחרם .We know this due to the fact that Hebrew and Greek were codified to each other in approximately 285 BC when the Greek version of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint was published. Now this word in Hebrew means, “put under a ban,” as in Exodus 22:20, where we see it used in reference to ban from worship.
So, if this word means to ban from worship, why would Saul then say, “Let the Lord Come,” or Maranatha in reference to a ban from worship??? Saul didn’t! Some early transcriber of the New Testament into Greek failed to discern the contextual meaning of the Hebrew and its punctuation and it was carried down into the Aramaic, English, etc, etc versions. It is my belief that this wording, right here, is one of the proofs that establishes an early original Hebrew background of Corinthians that was still full of colloquial Hebraisms that didn’t lend themselves easily to translators. In my opinion, the translator wasn’t able to make out the sense of the Hebrew words, and used what was familiar to him, i.e. Greek and Aramaic, though it made little sense.
In the study of Linguistics, transmission of meaning is of utmost importance when translating from one language to another. The words following Yacharam should somehow modify, or further explain what is meant by “put under a ban.” Unfortunately, if we try to translate Maranatha as “Our Lord Comes” from the Aramaic or Greek, it does nothing but confuse us, as this phrase doesn’t modify or add any meaning to the context. If we try to utilize the longstanding linguistic rule and look for some transference of understanding, we can see that for the last 2,000 years no understanding was ever transmitted to us from those who professed themselves as “translators”.
If we simply look at the following phrase, Maranatha, in Hebrew instead of Greek or Aramaic, we can begin to understand what Saul was trying to tell us for the last 2,000 years.
In Hebrew, this phrase Maranatha is rendered, מרן אתא Knowing that there are often scribal errors when the ancients copied texts, all one has to do is regard the Hebrew text. By doing this, we see what could have been a problem that prevented such understanding from being transmitted to us. Also, knowing that the phrase, “banned from worship,” needs to be modified linguistically, we need to figure out how the modification would be accomplished with the Hebrew letters given.
The mem at the beginning of the word, Maran, is the first candidate. Usually, in Hebrew, it is a preposition, “Meen” מן meaning, “separation from”. The rest of the two words appears to be from the word, “Renan” רנן, “Joy” and “otah,” אתא a Mishnaic variant of “atah” אתה meaning “to join with, or to come to”. Since the prepositional phrase Meen” מן, “separation from,” does seem to fit the modification of “banned from worship” and Saul had been discussing the Havdalah worship on the first day of the week in 1 Corinthians 16, and we have the meanings “joy” and “joining”, so let’s try to retranslate this verse into something that makes sense while utilizing all the contextual meaning.
My translation from Hebrew would be: “Whoever doesn’t love the Lord Yeshua (Jesus) the Mashiach, (the anointed one, Messiah) let him be prohibited from worshipping with the congregation, as well as the joy of the unification (probably the Havdalah coming together for the celebratory communion after the Shabbat service on the first day of the week which was viewed as a unification act with the Messiah). In other words, Saul is simply warning those Corinthians about being unequally yoked to a non-believer.
My translation from the Hebrew is not arbitrary, confusing or based upon any denominational viewpoint. Its meaning now rests on the previous text of 1st Corinthians for support, as well as the Old and New Testaments, which it does nicely with proper understanding of the Hebrew concept of Love and unification as taught by Jesus and Saul. This shows that we don’t have to try to support illogical translations or try to force a meaning on words to make it fit our denominational beliefs, as it has been the case for generations. Again, Saul just restates normative Judaism of his day.
If anything, this errant usage should help to prove that the Didache is not a 1st century work of the Jewish believers, but is, in fact, a latter Greek work written when the 1st century meaning of the Hebrew usage had already been forgotten and the real followers of Jesus knew nothing of the theology of the Didache.
But really, after knowing that this passage has been mistranslated, one may ask, “What difference does it make to me as an average believer in God? Well, let me tell you. There have been mistranslations that have led to the deaths of millions of people. Maybe not this one, per se, but there is a definite pattern in the religious realm of mistranslating passages to maintain power over the people, like sheep which are to be shorn. Yet, just here alone, theology that is wrong has been taught and promulgated to people for generations. We are now left with people who can’t understand why things don’t work for them as ecclesiastical leaderships have so confidently asserted. Should we be praying for the Lord to come and execute vengeance, as Wesley proposed, or should we be excluding sinners, and cursing the heretics as the Catholics proposed? Either one would give us reason to hate others, as well as do ill towards them, and neither was what Paul or Jesus desired.
Saul was espousing the concept of unification with like minded believers into God and warning of the dangers of those who aren’t believers causing dissension, the loss of Joy and Peace and ultimately Purpose in Jesus’ Kingdom. And for Saul, as Jesus, it is all about Purpose.
FMJohnson on April 27, 2013:
"John Wesley, of Calvinist fame"
You lost me there...
Brenda Barnes from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on September 15, 2012:
With modern translation tools, usage and historical insight your idea may be correct. I do not know the ancient languages but have much common sense. Other words and phrases have been better translated in recent years so you just may be right. I shall study and research this subject some more. It is fascinating and every word of the Bible is important. Thank you for a most interesting read.
Michael Arra on April 18, 2012:
An excellent read. Knowledge is sure gaining in these last days. It is wise not to worship with unbelievers because they will one turn us in. Better to keep them at arms length. Know those who labor among us.
royblizzard (author) from Austin / Leander, Texas on April 18, 2012:
Dwight Pryor, my old friend, did think that the word if looked at only in Aramaic could mean both has come and will come as both are possible renderings from the Aramaic/Greek if that is only what you look at. This was the point of the article, that what we've long thought about this phrase was wrong as it just made no sense in context.
Tikvah on April 18, 2012:
Nice! Dr. Pryor did a teaching on this word also. If I remember correctly his conclusion was that it can mean both, "has come" and "will come". Don't quote me on that!
Slaven Cvijetic from Switzerland, Zurich on April 18, 2012:
Interesting hub you wrote! It is just a bit too long. Maybe you could put in some pictures or make another things, so it does not get too exhausting to read? Anyway, very well-written!
Shared Up and Interesting!