I have just got back from a great weekend course, at the Othona community near Burton Bradstock in Dorset. It was led by the Aramaic Biblical scholar and Sufi Neil Douglas-Klotz – see his website www.abwoon.com for info on his books, CD’s and other stuff.
The course was based around themes from his book ‘The Hidden Gospel’, and looked at how the Bible’s meaning in English can be ‘unpacked’ in different ways from the usual ones, if you go back to the original Aramaic language (the language that Jesus spoke), and translate this very fluid, multi-levelled language straight into English, rather than the way it has been in the past – via Greek, Latin and German, into English. It was so interesting to hear about well-known but ‘limited’ English phrases taken from the Bible, such as the line from the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’. This would be better explained as ‘Do not let us enter a state of forgetfulness of the Sacred in our lives, and keep us from unripeness.’ (NB There is no word in Aramaic for ‘evil’, by the way.)
As well as the teachings, we did some body prayers, and Dances of Universal Peace, based on the words of Jesus, which were wonderfully uplifting, as the Dances always are for me.
The people we met (my husband and I, that is) on this course were lovely – very interesting people. Othona itself is a gem – a peaceful place to stay for a few days, a short walk from the beach, with comfortable sitting rooms and bedrooms, and great home-cooked food. Does this sound like an advert for it? You bet! Check out the Othona website for more information about the courses they run all year round, on subjects as diverse as birdwatching, the enneagram, and ‘mind/body/spirit detox’.
About a year ago, I wrote a book review of ‘The Hidden Gospel’ for a magazine, so I’ve copied it here to give a flavour of this wonderful book.
Book review of ‘The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the spiritual message of the Aramaic Jesus’, by Neil Douglas-Klotz
Published by Quest Books, 1999. Paperback £11.99. ISBN: 0 8356 0795 Z
I have had this book on my ‘Amazon Wish List’ for over two years, but only got around to buying a copy a few weeks ago – now I wish I’d bought it earlier, as it’s a life-changing read.
Neil Douglas-Klotz has a very readable style, and manages to make what could be a dry subject become something not only interesting, but relevant. He is a practising Sufi, and has lectured and written books on the theme of the basic unifying principles of the Abrahamic faiths for the past twenty years.
His rationale for studying Jesus’ words in the Aramaic language is that this is the language that would have been spoken in Palestine at the time, and that those words have power of their own (both in the original language, and in translation). Aramaic translations emphasise the spirituality of Jesus’ teachings (NDK has little interest in doctrinal issues). This is where the idea of the ‘hidden gospel’ of the title comes from – listening to words from the Bible in this format is like finding a ‘new’ gospel, because the ideas seem so refreshingly different when presented in this way.
This book takes ten main themes, and arranges them into ‘Key Insights’, which are then illustrated with phrases that Jesus is quoted as saying in the Bible. As NDK works straight from the Peshitta (the Aramaic version of the Bible, as used by Christians from the area around Syria), his direct translations are more accurate than the more familiar translations that have come down to us through the ‘traditional’ route in the West – that is, Greek to Latin to German to English. This is the reason why his translations offer so much more – they are able to highlight the many shades of meaning that have been lost over the years through either mistranslation or deliberate alteration. He is a poet and musician, so his translations are beautifully expressed and very meaningful.
For me, this book 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. For instance, the passage from John 3:16, in the KJV, says
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
NDK explains that in Aramaic, ‘begotten’ can also mean single, solitary or united in all aspects of being. ‘Believe’ can mean a sense of confidence or trust. ‘Perish’ can mean decay, fade away or lose. So, another way of expressing the passage could be:
“For Unity so loved Diversity,
all the worlds of form,
that it brought you a child of Unity,
fulfilled in all aspects of self,
so that whoever would have
the same confidence in their own fulfilment,
like the earth underneath supporting all,
would not fade with their form,
but continue, from world to world,
with and in the ever-living Life.”
At the end of each section, he offers a meditation or a body prayer (nineteen altogether), so that the reader can incorporate the deeper meanings into their daily life. He puts great emphasis on the breath – most meditations start with calming the mind and focussing attention on the breath, then an Aramaic word or phrase is either spoken or ‘breathed’, or sometimes intoned on one note, or sung. Then there is an idea to contemplate for a few minutes, such as the idea that all our breaths link us together all over the world as part of Sacred Unity.
As well as this book, there is an accompanying CD/digital download, available from www.soundstrue.com for around 20 US dollars. This audio version is great too, because it is not just a spoken version of the text from the book. It lasts three hours, and has NDK explaining the key insights, sometimes with examples that are different from the book. The best part, though, is that the CD contains many chants and body prayers. These make for compulsive listening.
For those who may be coming from a liberal Christian standpoint, I feel that the ideas contained in this book will not come as such a surprise as they might to ‘mainstream’ Christians. Liberal Christians may be more likely to be open to considering ‘new’ ways of relating to the figure of Jesus and his teachings, and to welcome this different approach. If you are at all interested in meditation and contemplative prayer from a progressive Christian standpoint, you will find this book and CD great additions to your collection.