Why Did Jews at the Cross Think that Jesus was Calling Out for Elijah? Answer: Mark Probably Didn’t Speak Hebrew or Aramaic!

Image result for image of jews mocking jesus on the cross

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land[h] until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[i] 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah. 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”

–Mark 15: 33-36

Gary:  What?  Why would Jews standing near the cross think that Jesus was calling out for “Elijah” when he had cried out, “My God, my God…”???

Mainstream NT scholar Raymond Brown in The Death of the Messiah:

In all probability, however, Mark was writing for readers who did not know Semitic.  After all, he regularly translated Aramaic words for them and in 7:3-4 felt compelled to explain some elementary Jewish customs.  If one remains on the level of the Greek, readers would have had little problem understanding Mark’s scene.  Having heard in exotic Aramaic Jesus’ word “Eloi…” and having been told that this was misunderstood by hostile Jewish bystanders as an appeal to Elias (Greek transcription for “Elijah”), they would have assumed that the Semitic underlying the Greek form of the prophet’s name was close to the transliterated Aramaic Eloi that Jesus used.  That is what hearers of Mark’s Gospel who know no Aramaic have been doing ever since.

Whether Mark himself knew that the Semitic form of the prophet’s name was not like Jesus’ Aramaic for “My God” we do not know, for it is not clear that Mark could read or understand either Aramaic or Hebrew.  Therefore Mark may not have realized that to any reader who knew Semitic his Eloi transliteration could not be confused with Elias, the name of the prophet Elijah.  Matthew, who seemingly did know the Semitic languages, probably saw the problem and that is why he changed the name of the divinity to (transliterated) Hebrew Eli, which could more easily have been confused.


Gary:  Interesting.  If we accept that Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew plagiarized large sections of Mark’s Gospel into his own, we arrive at the conclusion that this scene is most probably a fictitious invention.  There is no way that first century Jews would have confused the Semitic “Eloi” with the Semitic “Elijah”.

For a liberal Christian, the strong possibility that this scene is a fictional invention is not disturbing.  It doesn’t change the fact that Jesus was crucified.  But for a conservative Christian, this is more devastating evidence that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses.  Eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels is a necessary requirement for conservative Christian apologists’ oft repeated claim that Christianity possesses verifiable eyewitness testimony to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, from multiple independent sources, of such outstanding quality, as to convincingly prevail in any modern court of law!

I don’t think so.

The evidence above demonstrates that at least for the Gospel of Mark, such is not the case.  If the Gospel of Mark had been written by John Mark, carefully recording the memoirs of the Apostle Peter, as conservative Christians claim, how is it possible that Aramaic-speaking Peter could come up with a story about fellow Aramaic-speaking Jews confusing “Eloi” with “Elijah” while standing at the cross???


[Emphasis in quotes, Gary’s]




10 thoughts on “Why Did Jews at the Cross Think that Jesus was Calling Out for Elijah? Answer: Mark Probably Didn’t Speak Hebrew or Aramaic!

  1. re: “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.”

    The presumption made both by Brown, and apparently by you (Gary) is that the *bystanders themselves* – the one’s being *referred* to as “SOME of the bystanders” – necessarily spoke either Hebrew or Aramaic.

    But, this is not, by any means, necessarily the case. At all. This was the Passover. By reasonable efforts, Jerusalem was surrounded by 350,000 visitors from all over the place. They could have been from *any* of the Hellenist cultures, and not knowing a word of Aramaic (although, they might be familiar with the Hebrew word for Elijah, simply because at that time, formal studies of scripture, like at a Synagogue, were still very often done only in Hebrew).

    I personally think Brown totally drops the ball on this one, being way overly presumptive.


    1. And I suggest that you are going way out of your way to avoid the obvious! To think that Jews who could afford to make the trip to (Aramaic-speaking) Jerusalem would not know the Aramaic (Semitic) words for “God” and “Elijah” is just too far fetched to take seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. why on earth is that far fetched? Aramaic may have been used in Semetic cultures in the middle east, but, Greek was the language of Syria, Mesopotamia, Turkey, Egypt and many other nearby countries (starting back in the days of Alexander the Great). So, it’s *entirely* likely that there were Greek-speaking Jews there that had no knowledge of Aramaic whatsoever.

    Besides, you can’t have it both ways, saying (as Ehrman does) that Paul probably didn’t speak either Hebrew or Aramaic – or, in this case, that the writer of the gospel of Mark didn’t – and then turn around and have any kind of realistic expectation that OTHER people from the Hellenist societies would know anything about Aramaic, either.

    So, no, it’s not far fetched at all. Not in the slightest.


    1. I will bet that they knew enough Aramaic to know the difference between “God” and “Elijah” just as I will bet that as a (presumed, as you live in Australia) non-Spanish speaker you would still recognize the difference between “Dios” and “Diego”.

      Out of curiosity: Are there a lot of LDS in Australia?


  3. apparently not. The Hebrew pronuciation of Elijah is Eliyahu, and a common shortened version of this name, and names like Elisha, Eliezer and Elimelech is simply “Eli”. If that’s not close to “Eloi”, I don’t know what is.


  4. re: “Out of curiosity: Are there a lot of LDS in Australia?”

    Interesting question, and actually, I got no idea. Never been there myself, and I don’t keep up with the LDS…


  5. re: “He was speaking Aramaic not Hebrew.”

    Gary. I realize that. And, *that* is the reason for part of the confusion. They didn’t even *KNOW* the word “Eloi”. So, some of the people – some of the very, very many people that would be in town for the Passover, having come from Hellenized locales – that heard him thought he was calling out to Eli-yah, not Elio. Why? *Because*, they were Hellenized Jews from other places that *didn’t speak Aramaic*, and (a) knew the scriptures in Hebrew (which was hardly uncommon) in which the Hebrew pronunciation of Elijah was Eli-yah (el-EE), or (b) they knew the Greek pronunciation, which is Eli-as (eh-LEE-as).

    Either way, a commonly-accepted short form of the name is simply Eli. (eh-LEE).

    And, this is remarkably like Eloi – (el-o-EE)

    Brown dropped the ball big-time on this one.


  6. well, when Brown totally ignores the *fact* that there were hundreds of thousands of people from *outside* Judea, in Jerusalem, for the Passover, then yeh, I’d have to think that maybe you’re right. Maybe I *do* know more than Brown, in this instance, at any rate. Because we’re talking about potentially hundreds of thousands of Jews that were Greek speaking, not Aramaic speaking. So, yeh, I just maybe I’ve seen something that Brown overlooked.

    Unless you think Brown is a god of some kind. Which, maybe you do.


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