Dr. Rocco A. Errico
Minister, Aramaic Bible Scholar, Author
Dr. Rocco A. Errico is an ordained minister, Aramaic Bible scholar, and lecturer on the ancient Near Eastern biblical Semitic culture, who has written a dozen commentaries on the Bible. He also continues to work on the project he began with Dr. Lamsa (prior to Lamsa's passing) -- to unlock puzzling and misunderstood passages of Scripture by using Near Eastern Aramaic texts. During our interview, Dr. Errico shared why it is essential to understand the Near Eastern culture in order to understand the Bible; what he's learned about God's purely loving nature as a result of his study; how the Bible is a reflection of people's concepts of God and how Jesus totally revamped that concept; and much more.
How did you get involved in writing commentaries and translations of the Bible from the Aramaic, and what is your purpose?
Since my childhood, I was always a lover of the Bible. Therefore, I went for anything that would help clarify what was written. Studying the Bible from Aramaic brings joy and removes fear of God. (By fear of God, I don't mean reverence; I mean being afraid of God.) There are so many verses in the Bible that people have misunderstood which has caused them to endure unnecessary mental and emotional suffering. My purpose is to enlighten, to clarify. That's why I only deal with the verses that are misunderstood or need clarification.
How can we understand the Bible better?
The Bible has to be understood from its original setting. That's why Dr. Lamsa translated the Bible from his own native tongue -- Aramaic. You must have a good, clear translation. You really have to understand the idioms and the nature of the people. At the root of so many problems is a misunderstanding of this point: The Bible was written to Near Eastern people, so it contains their idiomatic terms of speech, psychology, culture, belief systems, customs, and manners. It wasn't written to us here in the Western world, but the Bible is for us. Unfortunately, we've formed all our dogmas, doctrines, and theologies before understanding Near Eastern religious attitudes and background, and we still do this today.
I'd like to discuss your work with Dr. Lamsa (click to read).
But first, could you share an example of a general misunderstanding? Let's take the killing of the first born in Egypt. Some modern biblical scholars and historians say that Moses never existed, that his story is all legend. To this I usually respond that even if the story of Moses is legend, it's still in the Bible, and people will use it. So, why would a story or a legend say that God killed all the Egyptian first born children and their livestock? Why should the animals suffer, and what did they ever do against God that they should be killed? Is God a partner in human and animal slaughter?
In the ancient Near East, when tribal people were battling, they would completely wipe out their enemy: pregnant women, children, adults, cattle, all livestock. Sometimes they would keep the livestock as booty. The killing of the Egyptian firstborn was warfare between the Egyptians and the Hebrews. Even when we in the West go to war, we go in the name of our government; so in those ancient days, each tribe or nation would fight in the name of its gods and goddesses. For instance, when the Philistines, who were a seafaring people, fought the Hebrews, they fought in the name of their god, Dagon, a merman. (Samson brought down the temple of Dagon.) Therefore, God is credited with the killing of the Egyptian firstborn and livestock.
It was Moses who designed the warfare and the slaughter. He felt God revealed it to him so that he could free his people. He warned Pharaoh over and over again. In the ancient world of the Near East, people attributed all good and evil to their gods. Now the Hebrews wanted to leave Egypt, but Pharaoh didn't want them to leave for economic reasons. Also, Moses was just getting even with Egyptian rulers. As you recall, one of the pharaohs had many of the Hebrew children sent adrift on the Nile and thereby meet death when Moses was a baby. This time it was payback for the Egyptians. It was "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
Why do you think certain terrorists could do 9-11? Because they have a consciousness that God gets even with people who don't follow their understanding of God. But of course this is not God. God doesn't murder and is never a partner in human or any kind of slaughter. God is in the business of helping and saving people.
But in those days, everything was attributed to God: for example, if you couldn't have children, it was believed that God had closed the womb; if you had lots of children, God had blessed the womb. Because the Bible was written by Near Easterners, God's actions were based on Eastern beliefs about God. So God acts like a Near Easterner. And we see their customs, manners, and psychology revealed as we read the Bible. All writing in the Bible portrays the ancient consciousness.
What most people don't grasp is that the Bible is about a transcending consciousness climaxing in Jesus of Nazareth who saw God as a Father. He consistently and constantly referred to God as Father. The term "father" is a term of endearment in the Near East and means "Beloved." Friends will call each other "father." A father when speaking to his son will call him "father," which means "my beloved one." They use this term of affection as we would use "honey, sweetheart, darling, and precious." These terms are not gender specific. So it is with "father." Thus, two sisters will call each other "father."
The Old Testament authors mainly present a view of God as jealous and vengeful, whereas Jesus presents a totally different view of God as a loving Father.
Precisely! When Jesus began his ministry, he taught God as a loving, caring father. Jesus constantly demonstrated God in his life. That is why he said, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). What he means is that any time people saw him heal, take care of people, feed people, multiply loaves, they were seeing God -- not his body and flesh, but the good acts that Jesus did. Once you've seen him in action, you've seen God. That's what it means in John -- "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (14:6 NIV) -- because Jesus revealed the Father in all he did and said. Jesus represented God. The term Bar dalaha, "Son of God" in Aramaic, means God-like, one who is constantly demonstrating the ways of God in daily living -- that is, kindness, meekness, forgiveness, and so forth.
Some religious people in his day were calling all the good works that Jesus did the works of the devil and evil spirits. That's when Jesus responded with "every city or house divided against itself shall not stand" (Matt 12:25 KJV). Jesus' gospel of God's kingdom was inclusive and not exclusive. He wasn't trying to exclude people. People exclude themselves. Look at how he was bringing in people whom the religious society was excluding: what we call marginal people such as harlots, sinners, tax collectors.
Jesus demonstrated God; that's why people loved him. They could feel God's Spirit coming through his healing and teaching. Nevertheless, Jesus was a human being. Lots of people don't want to accept that; at times, he did get peeved and irritated -- when he was in the temple where illegal money tenders and sellers were present, shouting, and carrying on where worshipers were supposed to be praying. He became irritated with the whole affair and drove them out.
What's the significance or value in translating the Bible from the Aramaic when scholars believe the OT was written in Hebrew and the NT in Greek?
As far as the OT is concerned, Hebrew was a dialect that grew out of the Aramaic. Abraham was an Aramean. In the NT, there are over 44 Aramaic words still left in all the Greek manuscripts, which implies that the Greek texts were being translated from an Aramaic original. A large majority of scholars here in the West are 100% sure that Greek came first and Aramaic second. But if Aramaic is a copy or derivative of the Greek, why doesn't it agree with it? There are a great many differences between the Greek and Aramaic manuscripts.
For example, I have a Greek New Testament where a Greek word and English word are next to each other in Matthew's gospel when Jesus rides into Jerusalem, sitting on both the little donkey and its mother. How is that possible -- riding on two donkeys, especially when one is a colt? The Aramaic doesn't have this conflict. It has him riding on the colt. Now Mark and Luke have him only on one donkey. The mistake is in the Greek text of Matthew.
Another point: every place in Paul's letters to the Corinthians where he says, "To the Jew first and then to the Greek," the Aramaic says, "To the Jew first and then to the Arameans." Arameans means Syrians. Syria in Hebrew and Aramaic is called Aram.
Aramaic clarifies a great deal of misunderstanding. I usually tell people, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." In the Near East, during the time of Jesus, Aramaic was the lingua franca of the day, just as Arabic is the lingua franca of the Near Eastern world today. The gospel according to Jesus spread throughout the Near East in the Aramaic tongue.
The translation of the idioms from Aramaic makes a lot of sense, too.
All the idioms are Aramaic in the New Testament. When people understand this, the Bible becomes much clearer. Take, for example, the saying from Jesus, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25 KJV). The word camel has three meanings in Aramaic -- "rope," "beam," and "camel." A panel of ministers with rabbis and Greek orthodox priests confirmed this, saying that the word camelos in Greek meant a mooring rope for ships. So the meaning makes much more sense: "It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle…."
When Paul says, "Let's turn them over to Satan" (Aramaic "Satana;" "Saten" in Hebrew), he doesn't mean that literally. Turning someone over to Satan means letting them stew in their own juices. It's idiomatic. We have many expressions. "Oh the devil with you!" is just one. We don't literally mean that. We also read that Jesus originated the term "hell fire" in the gospels. But hell fire in Aramaic means "regret, mental torment," and it has nothing to do with a place where God tortures people for their sins or a place in an afterlife.
What have you learned as a result of your close reading of the Scriptures?
We're all children of God. If we turn and surrender to God -- that is, to love, peace, joy, harmony, our inner sense -- we will all prosper, spirit, soul, and body. That's what God is -- joy, peace, love. When we put God first, we put peace, love, and harmony first. But people don't. They put their own agenda first. And some people don't want to know God as peace, love, joy because they want their own agenda going; they want to continue their hatred, their disharmony.
What are you working on now?
I'm continuing to finalize and publish the work that Dr. Lamsa and I drafted together before his passing. I am in the fourth volume of the OT. I've completed Aramaic Light on Genesis and Exodus - Deuteronomy. Joshua - 2 Chronicles will be available April 1. In this new volume, I explain Near Eastern mysticism. Most people don't realize that prophets like Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha were the chemists, physicists, and naturalists of the ancient world. They knew when rain would come. That's how Elijah knew a drought was coming. They studied and knew the secrets of nature.
So do you see God's hand in the prophets' work?
Of course God's hand is in it. God is behind it all. All inspiration, all enlightenment comes from God. Science and the Bible do agree. What they don't agree on is the way people interpret the Bible. Let's take the Genesis creation story. That's a Semitic prose poem. How could there be a morning and evening before the sun and moon and stars? At the time it was written, there was a morning and an evening. So the authors took poetic license. But when reading it, people take it literally. The interpretation of the biblical creation story causes conflict, not the actual writing. Besides, who was there to see God create?
What else is important to understand about Near Easterners?
They're very mystical. So many people had visions. Moses was very likely in a vision state when he saw the bush on fire that doesn't get "consumed"; then an angel appears (Ex 3:2). Joseph was a great dream interpreter; he learned it from his father, Israel, whose name was changed from Jacob because he had a dream. In fact, I'm getting ready to write on dreams and visions in the book of Job, where God speaks once in a dream, "in a vision of the night" (33:14, 15 AMP). Mohammad saw visions. He saw Gabriel, an angel of the Jewish people who also appeared to Mary, announcing the birth of Jesus to her.
How does God speak to us?
In many ways, visions, dreams. Sometimes we hear an inner voice; we have a feeling and we know when something is right.
How has your life changed?
I've gained a greater appreciation and love of God and of all human beings, including those who don't believe in God. I don't compartmentalize people anymore. Atheism is just a belief system. It doesn't bother God. It just bothers believers.
How do you see God?
God is spirit, who may manifest as male or female. God created humans in "our image and likeness" (Gen 1:26). It's our spiritual natures that matter.
Rocco, how did you come to work with Lamsa?
I was a co-pastor in San Antonio Texas for about 22 years. I started giving lessons in people's homes on the Bible during the time in the early '60s when denominational barriers were being broken down. Lt. Col. Marvin Lucas (who had survived the Bataan Death March of World War 2) and his wife asked me to teach the book of Revelation after I finished teaching Genesis. I told them, "It's the only book I won't teach. Besides, it would take a person from the Near East to unlock the symbols."
They asked me to stay after to talk with them. They took down two books -- Lamsa's New Testament Commentary (from the '40s) and Gospel Light (from the '30s). They told me I could take them home and keep them if I liked them; otherwise, I was to return them. I took them home and never went to sleep that night. Those book were what I had been waiting for. People were always asking me questions on the Bible, and I taught them what I had learned in Bible school. But, Dr. Lamsa's work, with its Semitic background, opened the Bible. You know there's the apparent conflict in the Bible: How could God be angry and jealous when God is a loving God? The Aramaic doesn't say that God is jealous but zealous. So translation and understanding of the Near East is what opens the Bible.
I started teaching the Bible from an Aramaic and Near Eastern perspective to the Sunday school teachers in our church. Soon, the congregation wanted to come in and listen. Then the Monday night class, which was previously about twenty-five people, started running about 100 people. So I had to move it to Sunday afternoon, which drew people in from other denominations. I invited Dr. Lamsa to one of these classes, and that was the beginning of our work together -- from 1965-1975.
Aramaic was his native tongue. He spoke eight languages. While English was his second best, he still thought in Aramaic. Lamsa taught me the Aramaic, and I helped him write More Light on the Gospels. Then he became ill and went to live with his niece. We worked together drafting commentaries on the NT and many on the OT. We needed to go back over his old books, revamp them, and straighten up sentences. There was still a lot we hadn't covered on the NT when he passed away on my birthday on September 22, 1975.
Despite his passing, you've been publishing works by the two of you.
I had all this material, which I never touched until I got full permission from his niece, who was in charge of his estate. I finished them the way he wanted me to do in separate volumes. So the commentaries have both our names on them, although I've written several books of my own. We have seven volumes on the NT, and I am in the fourth volume of the OT. I've completed Aramaic Light on Genesis and Exodus -Deuteronomy. Joshua-2 Chronicles will be available April 1.
Learn more about Rocco and Lamsa on Rocco's website – noohra.com, which means "light."