Friday, 16 March 2012

Leper or Jar maker? Which was Simon?

There are lots of odd and difficult passages in the Gospels. Many of them can be understood from the Jewish culture of the first century, some from a poor and inaccurate translation from the Aramaic Gospels into Greek, and some from reference to explanatory passages in the Tanach (Old Testament).

To begin with, let us look at Simon the Leper:
Matthew 26:6-7 & Mark 14.3-4: Leper or Jar maker? Which was Simon?

Matthew 26:6-7:
While Jesus was in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume.
Mark 14:3-4:
Being in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, ‘Why was this fragrant oil wasted?

One detail should leap out at even the casual Bible student from these parallel passages. We have a leper living in a suburb of Jerusalem in the midst of the population. Such a situation is clearly impossible, because the person who has such an infectious disease must:
  • Wear torn clothes
  • Let his hair be unkempt
  • Cover the lower part of his face, and
  • Cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ because as long as he has the infection he remains unclean.
  • He must live alone;
  • He must live ‘outside the camp.’
As Leviticus 13:45-46 stipulates:
The leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his beard, and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
In addition, Lepers cannot:
  • Own property.
  • Live in or near Jerusalem, except in a leper colony.
  • Employ servants.
  • Have feasts that Jews will legally be able to attend.
Lepers are never called ‘lepers’ again once they are healed. They are always pronounced ‘clean’ by the priests and re-enter society upon recovery:
The priest who makes him clean shall present the man who is to be made clean, and those things, before the LORD, at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Leviticus14:11.

Consider the ramifications to this man’s personal life if he did as some scholars suggest. To keep being referred to as Simon the Leper would:
  • Drive away business from him
  • Create confusion when other Israelites from outside of his town came to visit, and
  • It would be considered a legal slander to refer to one so cleansed as still possessing that impurity.
The answer to the problem of Matthew 26.6 and Mark 14.3 is that the Aramaic for both ‘jar maker’ and ‘leper’ is written grba. However, when they are spoken, the two words have different inflections that reveal their different meanings. garba means ‘leper’, and with an extra a, garaba means ‘jar maker’. It seems probable that the Greek translating scribe looked at the Aramaic and made the wrong choice.

The correct translation of Matthew 26:6 and Mark 14.3 is: Simon the Jar maker.

There is a possible irony in these verses. Perhaps 'Simon the Jar maker' had made the ‘alabaster jar’ that the woman broke and poured the oil of spikenard on His head.
If so, was Simon also one of those ‘who were indignant’ at her action?
Would he have been so ‘indignant’ if he had known that the ‘alabaster jar’ that he had made was used to anoint the King of Kings?
Perhaps not!

1 comment:

  1. I remember you teaching us this one when you came to take our training day. Many thanks for this blog. It helps me to keep focus. Keep up the good work.