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In Bach's Matthew Passion, Jesus cries "Eli Eli Lama Asabthani". The text I'm most familiar with says "sabachthani" instead. Where does this difference come from?

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  • I’m voting to close this question because, although interesting, it’s ultimately about language rather than music. Apr 11, 2022 at 10:53
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    @AndyBonner questions of this nature are fundamental to the study and analysis of vocal music.
    – phoog
    Apr 11, 2022 at 10:56
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    Full text can be found here
    – guidot
    Apr 11, 2022 at 13:22

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Bach's passion is a liturgical piece. The liturgy prescribes the reading of a passage from the gospel according to Matthew as translated by Martin Luther. The words of the gospel are taken from this translation verbatim.

You can see that Luther used the word asabthani in the 1545 edition. I have not been able to find an authoritative discussion of the reasons behind the difference, but I have found several sources showing that the Greek text uses σαβαχθανί, which may be transliterated as sabachthani. The (not terribly authoritative) secondary sources that I have found agree that asabthani is Hebrew and sabachthani Aramaic. One suggests that Luther was influenced by psalm 22, the source of the phrase, which seems plausible, but I have not found anything other than speculation to explain why this might have been the case. Other explanations are possible.

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    Supplement: Picander /Henrici was a poet, who had studied law (so knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek can be taken as granted), not theology and can't reasonably be expected to perform substantial research covering Hebrew or Aramaic, so he had to use the available sources.
    – guidot
    Apr 11, 2022 at 14:24
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    @guidot be that as it may, the assignment of the passion librettist is "add some texts to this well defined excerpt from Luther's translation of the bible." Picander had nothing to do with the choice between "asabthani" and "sabachthani"; that is entirely due to Luther (perhaps with influence from other sources; I wouldn't know).
    – phoog
    Apr 11, 2022 at 16:56
  • I can't recognize, that there was no alternative to take the ready-made translation from Luther, especially since transliterations of languages with other alphabets are far from stable; the libretto of Brockes Passion e.g. has Asaphtani, see here. The 2004 edition of the Luther translation still has the same text as in Matthew's Passion.
    – guidot
    Apr 15, 2022 at 21:08
  • @guidot I'm not sure why Brockes spelled the word like that, but I would note that the occurrence of asaphtani in Brockes' libretto is not a literal quotation of the biblical text but rather a versified paraphrase of it.
    – phoog
    Apr 20, 2022 at 22:17

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