Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
ελωι ελωι λαμμα σαβαχθανι
The familiar phrases ηλι ηλι λαμα σαβαχθανι (eli, eli, lama sabachthani) from the gospel of Matthew (27:46), and ελωι ελωι λαμμα σαβαχθανι (eloi, eloi, lamma sabachthani) from the gospel of Mark (15:34), are not simply Hebrew (Matthew) and Aramaic (Mark) equivalents. In fact, these lines pose such a mystery, and feature in such an important and Christianity-defining scene, that many an editor has set out to "redact" them to the point where it's no longer clear what the original(s) may have been.
What is still clear, however, is that this phrase obviously refers to the title (i.e. the opening line) of Psalm 22, which tells of the ultimate victory that will certainly follow any period of distress. In other words: to anyone who knew their Scriptures, Jesus cried out: "We're winning, boys, we're winning!"
With the reaction of the audience, who suggested that Jesus might be calling for Elijah and proceeded to taunt him for it, the authors indicated that even in his dying moment, Jesus was surrounded by buffoons who didn't know their Scriptures and also didn't know why the coming of Elijah was not a thing to cheerfully provoke (Malachi 4:5).
Much to the shock of modern traditionalists, over the last century or so, the gospels have been found to meditate on a historic and political arena that far exceeds the scope of the surface narrative, and commentators can no longer in good conscience maintain that the four Biblical gospels are mere biographies, or even enriched or magnified biographies, of an implied historical Jesus of Nazareth.
Regardless of the implied reality of the actual life of the actual Jesus, the gospels are not about individual people but about collective and social entities and identities. The gospels are not four independent and thus slightly differing eye-witness reports of events that unfolded outside the control of both the authors and of Jesus himself, but a tightly interconnected network of four independent but wholly synthetic narratives whose differences contain as much information as their similarities.
The gospel genre arose after the Pauline period, and the two are separated by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the Holocaust that followed. Paul spoke of Jesus as the embodiment of the formalization of the Word of God (1 Corinthians 1:24, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3), and formalization is the process that turns gut feelings and private visions (which can't be intellectually traded, taught, explored or expanded) into an array of generally accepted symbols (which can be intellectually traded, taught, explored or expanded), so that folks without gut feelings could nevertheless partake in the search for human unity (Exodus 19:6).
Although the Word of God has always existed (John 1:1, Matthew 24:35) and has always come to prophets and visionaries (starting with Abraham in Genesis 15:1), the Word had begun to be formalized in the Greek era (see our article on παρθενος, parthenos, virgin) but became specifically applied to the global resistance against the paragon of Fascism that was the Roman Empire — and literally everybody fought the Roman horror: the Gaul, the Iberians, the Britons, the Phoenicians. And all paid dearly. The Romans are credited with the invention of wholesale genocide, in which armies were terminated along with their civilian populations, their ancient cultures and their timeless legacies. Often this took months. The depth of Roman barbarism can hardly be imagined, but imagine what would have happened if Hitler had won the war and his policies had shaped the world for many centuries instead of a mere few years.
In 44 BC, a whopping sixty Roman senators who called themselves Liberators (namely the world from tyranny) conspired against the mad dictator Julius Caesar and killed him (see our article on Pilate). In 9 AD the Germanians under Arminius and the Illyrians under Bato made one last attempt to rid the world of the Romans, and although Arminius stopped the Romans locally he couldn't stop them globally, and Bato and the Illyrians were utterly eradicated and their people massacred.
The Jewish branch of this formal resistance, which is the only one that was ultimately effective, began to arise in the decade between the death of Herod the Great (in 4 BC; see Matthew 2:1) and the ascension of Quirinius as governor over Syria (in 6 AD, see Luke 2:2). Paul had the disastrous Illyrian Revolt fresh in mind (Romans 15:19) and obviously still tried very hard to avoid an armed Jewish revolt (Romans 13:1-4, Titus 3:1). He was also painfully aware of the dangers he and his people were in, which caused him to resort to writing in a kind of clever code, which is not really a code but rather a towering literary mastery combined with highly advanced information technology (see our article on the name Onesimus for more on Paul's cunning encryption).
After the Jewish Revolt, however, both Jews and the followers of Christ were systematically slaughtered, and any correspondence that reeked of any kind of resistance or opposition, even a peaceful and intellectual one, had to resort to the tried Pauline code, and that resulted in the pseudo-biography of some locutionary craftsman who lived a good forty years earlier, who had failed to stop the Romans but died on a cross together with hundreds of thousands of others, and whose specific information nobody prior to 70 AD had bothered to pen down.
Who killed Christ?
As Jesus himself continuously noted, he was destined from the beginning of creation to be condemned to death and to be executed (Matthew 16:21-28, 17:22-23, 20:17-19). That means that the life, the death and the resurrection of the formalization of the Word of God is contained within the Word of God. Or in Jesus' own words: "I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again" (John 10:17-18)
And sure enough, Jesus had died within a few hours from the crucifixion, to the consternation of those who knew that it would take a normal man a few days to die on a cross (Matthew 27:54, Mark 15:44, John 19:33). So yes, the Jewish intellectuals had delivered Christ to the Roman military, and yes, the Romans had executed him, but neither the Jews nor the Romans had actually killed Christ. The Word killed Christ, and resurrected him again, because in order for the Word to be eternal, the Christ had to be mortal.
The solution to this mystery takes some getting to, but it's never been out of reach, and begins by understanding that the gospels are carefully crafted compositions in which every letter was deliberately placed by authors who wielded a literary mastery that the world has not seen since. In the balance hung the very soul of mankind and the fate of the human world. If the authors were to succeed, humanity might survive Roman bestiality, but if they weren't, the very fabric of the word would unravel and humanity would plunge back to the animal realm from which it had arisen (Psalm 73:22, Ecclesiastes 3:18, 2 Peter 2:12, Jude 1:10).
The mixture of languages that is present in our phrase is therefore not accidental. Here at Abarim Publications we also don't know what the authors meant to convey with it, but it certainly demonstrates the broad and international compass of the gospel, which was achieved in John's gospel by the Titulus Crucis (and see our article on the name Mary for more on this), and in the Lucan account by the international audience of the outpour of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:5-11).
Eli / Eloi
The Greek word ηλι (eli) is a transliteration of the Hebrew compound אלי ('ely), and ηλωι (eloi) of the Aramaic אלהי ('elahy), which is the name El, or God, suffixed with the possessive י (yod), meaning "of me". In names, the element אל ('el) indeed usually refers to אלהים ('elohim), that is Elohim, or God, also known as אלה ('eloah). But where in English, the words 'God' and 'god' exclusively refer to the deity, in Hebrew the words אל ('l) and אלה ('lh) are far more common and may express approach and negation, acts of wailing and pointing, and may even mean oak or terebinth.
Likewise the familiar Greek word for God, θεος (theos), relates to the common verb τιθημι (tithemi), to set or put, from which also come θησαυρος (thesauros), treasure, and θεσις (thesis), theme. It also relates to the verb θαομαι (theaomai), meaning to wonder, and its derived nouns θεατρον (theatron), theatre, and θεωρια (theoria), a sight or "theory".
The name Elijah in Hebrew is spelled אליה, which combines the theonyms Elohim and YHWH. In Greek this name is spelled Ηλιας (Elias). This name's genitive form (which expresses possession: of Elijah) is Ηλιου, which is identical to the genitive form of the name Ηλιος (Helios), meaning Sun. Hence in Greek the term "of the Sun" is the same as "of Elohim YHWH", which is significant because on the day that Jesus was crucified, the land was darkened (the sun had "abandoned" it), for three hours starting from noon (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44-45).
The Hebrew word for sun is שמש (shemesh), hence the name Samson, or Sun-Man. Samson found bees (דברה, deborah; feminine) in the lion (ארי, 'ari; masculine), whereas the Word (דבר, dabar; masculine) was found in the manger (אריה, 'urya; feminine). This same gender-reversal trick was deployed to change the body of Jacob (male) to the nation of Israel (female), which was repeated when the Body of Christ went from male (Jesus) to female (εκκλεσια, ekklesia, or Church).
When the Philistines returned the Ark of the Covenant to Israel, the cows that pulled the cart had never been yoked, but nevertheless headed straight for the border and stopped at Beth-shemesh, or House of the Sun (1 Samuel 6:9). The Greek word for City of the Sun is Heliopolis, which was where Joseph ended up, where he married the daughter of the high priest (of the sun), who bore Ephraim and Manasseh, the patriarchs of two Israeli tribes.
Joseph's salvation had been his ability to explain dreams (Genesis 37:9, 41:14-15), which would also mean the salvation of Joseph, the legal father of Jesus (Matthew 1:20, 2:13, 2:19, 2:22), who escaped the wrath of Herod and saved young Jesus' life by fleeing to Egypt. Joseph's own father, Jesus' legal paternal grandfather, was named Ηλι (Heli or Eli; Luke 3:23). Emperor Constantine, who created so-called imperial Christianity by grafting the gospel's key words upon Roman Imperial Theology, was a lifelong devotee of Sol Invictus, or the Invincible Sun.
Of course, the Bible writers weren't simply sun-worshippers, and their use of the sun as metaphor rests on a larger symbolic system; see our article on the noun πλανη (plane) for more.
Lama / Lamma
The compound למה (lama) is spelled identical in Hebrew and Aramaic, and means "for what?" And that's a mighty word. Neither intelligence nor speaking, but rather the asking of questions is what differentiates the human mind from that of the animals. In order for a question to arise in one's mind, one has to have both a sense of self and a sense of (and respect for) other, as well as so-called Theory of Mind, which is the mental ability to comprehend that there is a difference between the reality we ourselves experience and that which someone else experiences.
Hence Psalm 2:8 reads "Ask of Me and I will surely give you the nations as your inheritance" (which works better than bowing down to satan; Matthew 4:8-9). Hence too the queen of Sheba came to Solomon to ask him questions (1 Kings 10:1). Hence too the young Jesus came to the teachers to ask questions (Luke 2:46). And probably hence too, the first words God spoke to Adam after the fall came in the form of a question (Genesis 3:9).
The first element of our compound למה (lama) is the prefix ל (le), which governs a relationship or motion toward or onto. Its name, namely למד (lamed), comes from the verb למד (lamad), which means to exercise or learn. Its derivative מלמד (malmad), is the word for oxgoad, which is a thing with which bovines are handled (Psalm 22:12). It's also the thing against which Saul was kicking (Acts 26:14).
The second element of our compound is the interrogative pronoun מה (ma), which asks "what?" Its personal counterpart, namely מי (mi), asks "who?" and forms the first part of the familiar name Michael, which means Who Is Like God? Or perhaps better: What Is God Like? And that question, in turn, is the captain of the heavenly host (Daniel 10:21), even capable of battling satan without passing judgement (Jude 1:9) and ultimately throwing him out of heaven (Revelation 12:7-8). Another common particle of interrogation is מן (man), which also asks "what?" This interrogative pronoun gave its name to Manna, the miraculous bread from heaven (John 6:51) that sustained the Israelites on their trek from Egypt to Canaan (Exodus 16:15).
The word σαβαχθανι (sabachtani) is a transliteration of the second person singular perfect form of the Aramaic verb שבק (shabaq), suffixed with the first person object pronoun: you have shabaqed me. This verb שבק (shabaq) indeed means to leave, abandon or forsake. It's the equivalent of the Hebrew verb עזב (azab), which means the same and which occurs in all known Hebrew versions of Psalm 22:1. Both Matthew and Mark translate the Aramaic verb with the Greek verb εγκαταλειπω (egkataleipo), which is formed from the verb λειπω (leipo), to leave or abandon, by prefixing it with the prepositions κατα (kata), meaning down or downward, and εν (en), meaning in or at.
There are no two ways about it: Jesus, like David before him, asked God why He had forsaken him. And this has thrown generations of theologians into conniptions, because God is everywhere and can't abandon anything, let alone someone He's One with (John 10:30). And how can He be One with someone if He is One and not Two (Deuteronomy 6:4)? And, come to think of it, since in Christ anyone is a New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), how could God have produced the Old Creation in the first place if He had always been One and was All That Existed? Did He move out of the way? Did He become a donut?
As noted above, here at Abarim Publications we don't know either, but we have trouble enough to fathom the ways of the coffee lady in the lunchroom downstairs, let alone a Being whose nature and character are mirrored by the oneness of the entirety of creation, including all atomic movement, all living desires and all human thought, including but not limited to the baffling contemplations of the coffee lady downstairs (Romans 1:20).
But to us it seems that the relativistic nature of spacetime dictates that light is the edge of the universe. This admittedly means that the edge of the universe exists at every point of the universe but that's not so confusing when we realize that the third dimension of a cube indeed emanates from every point of a square. Furthermore, it seems to us that "mind" is a thing like "spacetime", except that it exists on the other side of the edge of the universe, where there is no space and time goes backward. And furthermore that the "substance" of the Creator is not a substance but "mind", and that the Oneness of God relates to the oneness of every person's mind, whereas the quantified nature of the material universe relates to the quantified nature of a human body, upon which the mind is seated (Exodus 25:22, Isaiah 37:16, Psalm 22:3). In fact, we suspect that the united mind of man equals the "body" of God, whose own mind is of an even exceeding oneness, with which he governs his body, in the same way that everybody's mind governs their own bodies.
But all of this is of course rather vain theory since it can't be tested (and is thus "not even wrong") and is only fun to pursue as entertaining exercise. More useful, probably, is the consequential implication that what the ancients called the Word of God is what we moderns call Natural Law, and what the ancients called [Jesus] Christ we moderns call Science, which is the formalization of natural law — which in turn begins where symbolic representation begins; with the first scratched scribbles and the first intentionally converging vocal utterances (read our article on ονομα, onoma, meaning name or noun).
The crucial difference between science and Christ is that Christ begins with the Theory of Everything and then explores its consequences (Matthew 6:33), like a tree that grows out of one complete and whole seed (Matthew 13:31-32), whereas science first bakes a few axiomatic bricks and then tries to build a tower whose crown reaches into the heavens (Genesis 11:3). And although the intents are the same, neither the difference is subtle, nor the results comparable.
Since the formalization of the Word is contained within the Word, it's inevitable. And it's also inevitable that the first sensitive trials of any front-running innovator must be met by the brute and equalizing force of the Empire of Stupid, which will inevitably wane to make way for the new. Whatever emerges due to natural law, must be persecuted by the old, but must always resurrect with the same force of generation that drove its initial emergence.
When God asked Adam where he was, God knew where Adam was, but Adam didn't but needed to. When Jesus asked Saul why he persecuted him, Jesus knew, but Saul didn't and needed to. And when Jesus asked why God had forsaken him, Jesus knew, but the audience didn't and needed to.
Recent psychology research (Desirable difficulty, Bjork and Bjork) has revealed that the ability to learn is firmly tied into the ability to forget, and that being reminded of a forgotten thing leads to much stronger memories than any period of frantic cramming. Jesus of Nazareth embodies mankind's collective formal understanding of natural law, and had to die and be resurrected in order to be forever remembered. It's why we have words and art and science. And of course bottomless literary masterpieces such as the gospels and the Pauline epistles.