In Matthew 27:46 (Mark 15:34), Jesus says "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani (σαβαχθανί)", which is translated "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?".

Why is this supposedly Aramaic word transliterated into Greek as σαβαχθανί, with a Chi (χ), rather than as σαβακθανι with a Kappa (κ)?

The Aramaic word is said to be "שְׁבַק" ("to leave, depart; abandon; permit" - Daniel 4:23, Ezra 6:7). Is there any other example of the Hebrew letter Qoph (ק) being transliterated into Greek which could support this convention?

When I read it, it suggests the Hebrew "שיבח \ שִׁבֵּחַ" ("to praise"), with a Heth, (presumably?) cognate with Arabic سَبَحَ "to swim, to float; to praise, to glorify". About the Tasbih it is said "The phrase often has the connotation of praising God for his total perfection". So Jesus could be asking why he was praised, glorified, or perfected. Not that this makes sense, because in the aforementioned New Testament verses it is later translated as the Greek εγκατέλιπές, meaning "abandoned"; obviously the listeners in the crowd heard it as a different word. I guess I'm just curious about the choice of transliteration.

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    I've never looked up the Aramaic root and had always supposed (from the English transliteration of the Greek) that it ended in כ. I'm very surprised to find that it is ק. – Colin Fine Oct 17 '18 at 11:41

The Aramaic word שבקתני would probably have been pronounced /ʃabaqtani/. Usually, as you note, the /q/ of Aramaic is transliterated as κ, so σαβακθανι /sabaktʰani/ would be expected. However, in Greek, the cluster χθ was pronounced /ktʰ/, so the spelling σαβαχθανι is only an orthographic convention for the same pronunciation /sabaktʰani/ by putting two aspirated letters next to each other.

Your connection to the Arabic word سَبَحَ is problematic, because χ is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew ח only when it was pronounced /x/, not /ħ/. The Arabic cognate sound is written خ /x/, not ح /ħ/. Furthermore, the root שבח in Aramaic is used in the pa''el form, so we should expect gemination. The proper Greek transliteration of שבחתני would probably be something like σαββαθανι.

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  • Interesting. According to Wikipedia, though, chi was already a fricative in Koine. I wonder if that should be updated. – Luke Sawczak Jan 13 '19 at 3:15
  • @LukeSawczak Not necessarily according to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – b a Jan 13 '19 at 9:32

Like everything in the Bible, this is the subject of an enormous mass of scholarly and non-scholarly literature. The question at issue here is whether Jesus is supposed to be speaking Hebrew or Aramaic, and if the latter, what sort of Aramaic. In Middle Aramaic (e.g. Syriac) one would expect šβaqtān (as it is in the Pshitta of Matt. 27:46: ܫܒ݂ܰܩܬ݁ܳܢܝ), but this is obviously not what underlies σαβαχθανί. Klaus Beyer argues that final unstressed long vowels were lost in all forms of Aramaic around 100 BCE. σαβαχθανί looks rather like a Hebraising spelling of šβaqtān. The writing with χθ suggests a form with the assimilation of -qt- to -qṭ-. (In the oldest stratum of Semitic loan words in Greek ϑ and χ are used for the emphatic stops ṭ and q, while in later borrowings they are used for aspirated non-emphatic t and k respectively.)

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  • The consonantal text of Syriac as well as the Aramaic of Targumim seem to indicate a final vowel. The vowels of Syriac were invented in the seventh century. The vowelization of Aramaic in the Hebrew script (which is also admittedly of a late date) has a final vowel. Could you give more information on Klaus Beyer? – b a Oct 19 '18 at 8:47
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    Also, why would the Greek aspirated letters stand for the emphatic stops in the New Testament, as in the earliest stratum of loan words, if they stand for non-emphatic consonants already in the Septuagint (and elsewhere in the NT)? – b a Oct 19 '18 at 8:49
  • @ba. The final -i is silent already in Old Syriac. You can see this from the meter in Ephraim's poetry. – fdb Oct 19 '18 at 9:46
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    @ba. Your objection concerning χθ is valid. On reconsideration I think this is simply the reflex of Greek orthographic convention. κθ is not normally permitted in Greek. – fdb Oct 19 '18 at 10:31

The answer is simple, what Jesús was saying: Enough, enough, the death taking away the son. The words and the text are purely in Armenian: Էլի, էլի, զմահ զավակ տանի "Eli, eli, zmah zavak tani". Here Էլի "Eli" (enough or God, most probably); զմահ "zmah" (to + death մահ "mah"), զավակ "zavak" (child); տանի "tani" (taking away, a form of the verb տանել "tanel").

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    Why would Jesus be speaking Armenian, and why would zmah be transliterated λαμα/λιμα? Both Matthew and Mark give a translation into Ancient Greek that corresponds nicely with the Aramaic: Matthew for example translates it as "Θεέ μου θεέ μου, ἵνα τίμε ἐγκατέλιπες;" which means "My god, my god, for what [reason] have you abandoned me?" The word sabachthani in particular corresponds very cleanly with Aramaic shabhaqtanii "you have forsaken me"; Hebrew uses the root ng-z-b instead of sh-b-q for that. (Forgive my transliterations, I don't have a great keyboard here.) – Draconis Jan 10 '19 at 20:36
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    That's an interesting connection, can you add the Armenian script for the words you are transliterating? E.g. I was able to track down զավակ • (zavak) "child, offspring" but I am having trouble with some of the others. – Metamorphic Jan 11 '19 at 1:02
  • Էլի,էլի,զմահ զավակ տանի, "mah" is the death, the "Z" means "to the.., the direction" in old Armenian, (Grabar), "tani" is the form of the verb "tanel". – Karen Manucharyan Jan 11 '19 at 16:08
  • @Metamorphic And now, does this look plausible (ignoring the question why Jesus should utter a sentence in Armenian and why it can be recorded correctly by people who are not knowing Armenian)? – jk - Reinstate Monica Jan 14 '19 at 15:36
  • @jknappen: Sorry I didn't get notified about Karen's comment until this morning with the "@Metamorphic". Thank you for the Armenian script versions, that is much easier to look up on Wiktionary. It's an interesting connection, slightly less plausible, as something that Jesus would have said, than my own Hebrew interpretation, but still I think too good to dismiss as "making random connections". Maybe people will keep downvoting your answer, but if you can suffer that then maybe we can also improve it a little by adding the script versions and some links in the body. – Metamorphic Jan 15 '19 at 17:05

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