Sometime in the mid-50s A.D., the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth. He concluded this epistle in the following way:
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 16:21-24).
This passage this reads smoothly in English. But if you were to read the original Greek, you’d stumble upon a mystery. What you’d find is this:
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Marana tha. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus
No matter how well you knew Greek, you would not be able to understand the words, marana tha because, though they appear in Greek letters, they aren’t Greek words.
In fact, marana tha are Aramaic words. They mean “Our Lord, come!” or possibly, “Our Lord is coming”. The use of the prayer “Our Lord, come!” in Revelation 22:20 (in Greek) and in the Didache 10:6 (in Aramaic) points to the prayerful use of the Aramaic phrase in 1 Corinthians 16:20. Aramaic was the language spoken commonly in the eastern Roman Empire, in lands such as Judea and Syria. But it was not the language of Corinth. In fact very few of the Corinthian Christians would have known what marana tha meant, unless Paul had taught them this meaning in an earlier visit to Corinth. The fact that he employs it in his letter suggests that this was in fact the case. The Corinthians knew this Aramaic phrase because Paul had taught it to them during his first visit to Corinth, which took place around A.D. 52. (Photo: Maranatha Baptist Bible College, in Bangalore, India.)
So, you may be thinking, that’s all well and good. I now know something about the origin of “Our Lord, come!” in 1 Corinthians 16. But why does this matter? Whatever does this tell us about the earliest Christian belief about Jesus and his divinity? Let me explain.
First of all, the fact that marana tha are Aramaic words suggests that they came at first, not from the quill of the Apostle Paul, but rather from the life and liturgy of the Aramaic speaking church. This means that their origin can be dated, not to the mid-50’s A.D., but earlier. Marana tha comes from the 40s or 30s. In other words, this phrase preserves one of the earliest Christian prayers we have.
Second, the fact that Paul actually taught these Aramaic words in a letter to the Greek-speaking Corinthians suggests that they weren’t some incidental phrase Paul picked up somewhere in his early days as a Christian. Rather, they were important enough and used enough in the earliest church that Paul actually passed them on in their original tongue. This situation would be somewhat like that of the Hebrew words amen and hallelujah, which we know in the original language because they have played such a crucial part in Christian worship.
So, the phrase marana tha is both very old and very important. But what does it show us about the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus?
First, it’s quite clear from the context in 1 Corinthians 16 (and elsewhere), that the “Lord” being addressed as “Our Lord” (marana) is Jesus in particular, not God (the Father). Jesus is the one the early Christians are asking to come.
Second, consider the fact that the earliest Christians, most of whom were Jews, were calling out to Jesus as if in prayer. Not only did they believe that he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, but they also believed that he could hear their requests. So, as they worshiped the one true God, they also prayed to Jesus. This is quite a surprising development when you consider that it happened within a monotheistic Jewish context.
Third, the word “Lord” in Aramaic (mar) had a variety of meanings. It could be used as a term of respect for a human being. But it was also the word used by Aramaic-speaking Jews when they spoke to the LORD God. During his earthly life, Jesus was sometimes addressed as “lord” by people who meant simply to show respect to him as an honorable human being (for example, Matthew 8:6). But, after Jesus’ resurrection, the Christian use of “Lord” began to change. We see this illustrated powerfully in the story of “doubting Thomas.” When he finally realizes that Jesus is truly risen, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). While Thomas is not espousing Trinitarian theology here, his language suggests an association between Jesus and God that is striking.
So when the earliest Christians, who still maintained their Jewish identity and central belief in one God, spoke in prayer to Jesus, calling him “Lord,” this indicates that they thought of Jesus in most exalted terms. Though it would be going beyond the evidence to conclude that the earliest, Aramaic-speaking, Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was somehow “fully God,” in the language of the fourth-century Nicene Creed, they were clearly moving in that direction. (In fact, it may well be that some of those who prayed to Jesus with marana tha did indeed think of him as God, while others did not. Early Christianity showed considerable theological diversity, which is one reason I entitled this series Was Jesus Divine? Early Christian Perspectives, not The Early Christian Perspective.)
We have seen that two small words in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians turn out to reveal quite a bit about the earliest Christian belief in Jesus. They show that some of the first Christians prayed to Jesus, as if to God, and referred to him with a title they used for God. These words also show us that the phrase “Our Lord, come!” was important enough and used so commonly among some of the earliest Christians that Paul taught the Corinthians both the Aramaic words and their meaning. Clearly, therefore, many of the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as far more than simply an inspired, human teacher of wisdom. He was someone to whom they prayed as if they were praying to God.
In my next post in this series I’ll consider another piece of early Christian evidence that confirms and develops what we have seen in this post.