Prayers of the Cosmos

Every once in a while, I find myself going through a phase where I become intensely interested in matters of theology and spirituality. To call it “a phase” is maybe not taking it seriously enough, but my point is that this feeling cycles in and out, and I appear to be entering another high-interest time. I’ve had a number of great conversations with a friend who has a similar religious background to mine, more great conversations with another friend who is studying to be a yoga teacher, and other great conversations with acquaintances who have an interest in the subject. This is happening at a time when I’ve been practicing yoga more regularly and loving the spiritual lessons that it has to offer and have also been reading more on the subject. As you may know if you have read this blog for a while, I grew up a serious Christian of the evangelical sort, but as an adult have become … I’m not sure what. I’ve become someone who is interested in “spirituality,” the sort of person I used to scoff at when I was much younger. It’s wonderful when life turns you into the sort of person you used to scoff at, isn’t it?

Anyway, I recently finished Neil Douglas-Klotz’s book Prayers of the Cosmos, which offers alternate translations of some of Jesus’s words: the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and some other famous sayings. I’m not entirely sure of the merits of the argument Douglas-Klotz opens with, which is that we should look to Aramaic versions of the New Testament to understand what Jesus said, instead of Greek versions. But I’m not really concerned about arguments over which Biblical manuscripts are the earliest or most reliable. What interests me is that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and that Aramaic is a language where, according to Douglas-Klotz, words can have a range of meanings in a way they don’t in English. This means that the words Jesus spoke can be translated in a variety of ways, and each translation is there in the original words:

Furthermore, like its sister languages Hebrew and Arabic, Aramaic can express many layers of meaning. Words are organized and defined based on a poetic root-and-pattern system, so that each word may have several meanings, at first seemingly unrelated, but upon contemplation revealing an inner connection. The same word may be translated, for instance, as “name,” “light,” “sound,” or “experience.” Confronted with such variety, one needs to look at each word or phrase from several different points of view … Jesus showed a mastery of this use of transformative language, which survives even through inadequate translations.

What the book does is give a line that Jesus spoke and then analyze the Aramaic words and the possible translations of those words. So for example, the first line of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father which art in heaven,” could also be translated “Oh Birther, Father-Mother of the Cosmos,” because the roots of the Aramaic word “abwoon” point to a “divine parent” and also to a “cosmic birthing process.” The line “hallowed be thy name” becomes “focus your light within us,” and the line “Thy kingdom come” becomes “create your reign of unity now.” Douglas-Klotz’s translations point to a Jesus that is much more mystical and feminist than the one we are generally familiar with.

This book isn’t entirely scholarly, though; it could also be used as a devotional or a guide to meditation. Douglas-Klotz includes poetic responses to each of the lines he analyzes and also what he calls “body prayers,” which are ideas for how to meditate on each of the lines and how to use the prayers to help deal with life’s problems.

It’s a very short book, only about 90 pages, without a lot of text on each page, but it’s the kind of book you might want to read very slowly, since there is a lot to absorb and it seems appropriate to take the time to really soak up the language.

I liked this book because while I’m not all that invested in arguments about the reliability of manuscripts and how Jesus’s words got recorded, I do think the issue of translation is fascinating, and I like the idea that the version of Jesus I learned about in childhood isn’t necessarily the only version of him out there.

17 Comments

Filed under Books, Life, Nonfiction

17 responses to “Prayers of the Cosmos

  1. I’m stunned by the beauty of the Aramaic translations. Had I grown up learning those, I might have had a little more interest in the Bible.

  2. Very interesting. I’m actually working on a masters in theology, and for a time I was very interested in translation issues. One thing I learned was that even looking back at the Greek could bring a richness and ambiguity that isn’t present in the English. I haven’t ever heard it suggested that we should look to Aramaic for a better sense of the meaning, since most scholars agree that the texts were originally written in Greek. However, because Jesus did speak Aramaic and some of the gospels might have used Aramaic sources, I can see some value in considering what Jesus’s words might have been in Aramaic. Certainly something to think about.

    • I think it’s very sad, and a bit worrying actually, that you can get as far as a Masters in Theology, and been REQUIRED to study the Aramic translations. They are crucial to understanding the figure of Jesus as a middle eastern mystic and Jew. Neil Douglas-Klotz’s work is highly respected, and yet the ‘establishment’ chooses to ignore his work. I wonder why?

      • “Neil Douglas-Klotz’s work is highly respected, and yet the ‘establishment’ chooses to ignore his work.” — No the established Aramaicists have not ignored his work, but have rightly labeled his ‘translations’ as spurious: Which they are. :-)

        See my “broccoli” comment below.

        Peace,

        Steve Caruso
        Translator, Aramaic Designs
        Author, The Aramaic Blog

  3. Some years ago I went to an Evangelical Baptist Church and then became very disillusioned with the whole church scene. Now I’m also “someone who is interested in ‘spirituality'”. I found your post most interesting – I used to practise (and teach) yoga (may have said that before) and these days I have a much broader approach to “religion”, so I’m going to look out for Neil Douglas-Klotz’s book. The translation issue can be very confusing and how anyone can be dogmatic about what the Bible says and its interpretation is a great mystery to me.

  4. Unfortunately, many of Klotz’ “alternate” translations have no basis in the Aramaic language (“abba” as “divine parent” or “cosmic birthing process” has no precedent; it would be like saying that “broccoli” can also mean “out of body experience”).

    Klotz is not a scholar, he is a mystic, and although his meditations on the Lord’s Prayer are beautiful, they are by no means translations. :-)

    I’ve outlined a number of these “odd” translations that tend to pop up here and there on the Internet will full word-by-word analysis of the Peshitta text that they claim to translate on my blog here if you are interested:

    http://aramaicdesigns.blogspot.com/2007/06/o-father-mother-birther-of-cosmos.html

    Peace,

    Steve Caruso
    Author, The Aramaic Blog

    • Steve,

      You seem to imply that a person can *either* be a scholar, *or* a mystic – but that isn’t the case here. Neil Douglas-Klotz is an independent Biblical scholar who is *also* a mystic, which helps to make his work even more meaningful.

      Janet

      • Janet,

        Of course it is not a matter of either-or; however, where personal and academic contexts are not mutually exclusive, one should not equate them beyond their means.

        One must judge the merit of someone’s work independently, and as such, Klotz’s “translations” simply do not hold up. They are not translations.

        As a result, they are not “meaningful” to the field of Linguistics, they are not “meaningful” to the field of Aramaic Studies, and they are not “meaningful” to much of Academia (hence my declaration of “not a scholar,” within its intended context).

        However, with all of that said, I believe that it is clear that you have a high level of personal investment in his work as you found deeper meaning in his explanations, and that meaning is in a much more delicate context. In your own words:

        “For me, [Klotz's book, 'The Hidden Gospel'] has cleared up many a ‘meaningless’ phrase from the Bible. I suspect many people have struggled to find meaning in the Bible, due to poor/misleading translations. This book can help to explain those phrases in new, poetic ways.” — Connections
        May/June 2009

        If his work gives you the tools you need to answer the tougher questions you face about the Bible on a daily basis and help you in your personal quest to get closer to the divine, then by all means follow that path. My only request is that you are aware of what others who read and write in language on a daily basis understand such claims to be: Unmerited.

        Peace,

        Steve Caruso
        Translator, Aramaic Designs
        Author, The Aramaic Blog

  5. Well, I sort of like the idea of having to chant “Oh Birther, Father-Mother of the Cosmos”. That would make an interesting change, wouldn’t it? I do think the concept of translation is interesting, particularly in relation to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The thought of having a number of different options for gospels is most intriguing.

  6. Charlotte — yes, the translations are beautiful, and what a different kind of Bible they present! I’m loving learning about different forms of Christianity as an adult that I never knew about as a kid (or that I scoffed at as a kid).

    Teresa — one thing I really liked about this book is the author’s willingness to entertain multiple meanings for words; in fact, his whole argument rests on that. Reading that way requires a whole lot of time and effort, but it also felt very meditative as I was doing it, and I think it’s too bad that people can get so invested in one translation, when clearly one translation isn’t good enough. How interesting that you’re working on a degree in Theology!

    BooksPlease — I didn’t know about your yoga background — interesting! I love to hear about how people move in and out of churches and beliefs; I think people’s spiritual journeys are fascinating. And yes, surely translation requires flexibility of mind, right?

    Steve — thanks for the comment. I’m certainly interested in learning more, and will check out your blog. Thanks for the link!

    Litlove — it would make an interesting change, for sure! I love the fact that there are so many possibilities for translations — yes, it’s complicated, but better that than feeling like the language is dead and lifeless.

  7. I grew up Catholic–even went to Catholic school almost all the way through–and it was just a given that you accepted what you were taught–basically that there is just one right way, but I do like the idea of the various translations and having more than one way to think about things. Now I suppose I’m agnostic, as I’m not sure what to believe. I’d like to read more on spirituality and religions in general, though it’s so hard to know where to start. This sounds like an interesting book!

  8. I don’t know enough about translations to comment on that topic, but I do think that we tend to put Jesus in a much smaller box than he ever intended to fit. One of my favorite authors/spiritual mentors often says and writes, “We see little because we believe so little.” That challenges me every time.

  9. I’ve been fascinated by different translations of the Bible ever since I started comparing the different English translations that are available and reading about how difficult it is to translate the ancient Hebrew, because the vowels were left out of the words. I became even more fascinated while attending seminary vicariously through Bob. Students in his Hebrew and Greek classes had to take passages from the Bible and do their own translations, and it’s just amazing how they all differed (none being “wrong”). Naturally, I tended to like Bob’s best (he leans toward a nice mix of accuracy whenever possible and poetry whenever ambiguity pops up). How anyone can think the Bible is literally the word of God mystifies me. And I’m definitely in the “Jesus was more mystical and more of a feminist” than most Christian leaders of the past 2000 years would have us believe (but who can blame them? It’s only been recently that we’ve had many female leaders in the Christian religion, and, of course, many denominations still don’t).

  10. I find stuff like this interesting and go through phases like you do too. I was raised Evangelical Lutheran and now consider myself agnostic on the cafeteria plan–a little of this from here and oh, that sounds good, oh and what about some of that? I think Jesus was a lot more radical than he is given credit for and as Debby mentioned, we’ve put him in a little box, only allowing him to be a certain way because really, he is still quite radical if you think about it. Even if the author doesn’t get everything right, it still brings up ideas and thoughts worth considering.

  11. Danielle — even though I grew up Protestant, it sounds like we have similar backgrounds. I certainly wasn’t given a lot of options about what to believe! So it’s been fun to learn about all the different kinds of Christianity I never knew about before, not to mention learning about other religions. I think Karen Armstrong’s memoirs are great places to start reading on the subject — her book The Spiral Staircase is really good.

    Debby — that’s a great way to put it. It’s very arrogant to assume we have Jesus or God all figured out, and it makes sense to keep an open mind about the possibilities of what the meaning of Jesus’s life really is.

    Emily — I’d love to read some of Bob’s translations! I’ll bet he does a very good job. I’ve certainly appreciated, as you know, your insights on this subject, as well as Bob’s — I think both of you would have enjoyed being in on some of the conversations I’ve had lately. And amen to the Bible not being the literal word of God. I’m having a great time learning more about the feminist and mystical side of Jesus that I never knew about before.

    Stefanie — agnostic on the cafeteria plan! I love that. That’s totally me, too. It’s a good way to be, I think, as I believe all religions have some spark of truth to them. And yes, even if this author isn’t right in all the details, I think the larger ideas about translation are really good.

  12. verbivore

    Translation in general is my passion and this type of book looks extremely interesting…but I can also see myself getting frustrated at not being able to assess the Aramaic on my own :-)

  13. Cam

    I agree with the comments above about putting God in a pre-defined box. That is why I think that reading works like this one is a good thing in that it can stretch your limits. My belief is that we are all on a spirtual journey & it is the journey, the seeking of understanding that is key, not whether someone translated another translation correctly or not. When we are too familiar with something, we take it for granted. How can one worship and praise something that one takes for granted? I know that this idea frightens a few , angers some, dissuades others, but I believe that the divine doesn’t change; we change in our knowledge of the divine. Recently I’ve taken to reflecting on some of the various names for God in the bible. “Ancient of Days” is one that I am particularly stuck on right now, in part because it doesn’t strike me as having a gender bias. I like the earthiness of it & the sense of the divine as an everlasting character, far older and wiser than us all. How could one capture such a concept in a few specific words and assume that it was all-encompassing?

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