Hi Friends -
George Lamsa was a WWI refugee from war-torn areas that we are so familiar with today: Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Kurdistan and Iran. How is it that he wound up being a Bible teacher for Unity in the 1960s? As I say further down, we just may be a denomination which is uniquely free and unlimited—free of culture and unlimited in our capacity to experience the rich inner life of a Semitic rabbi and healer who lived 2,000 years ago.
This post introduces George Lamsa to those who don’t know of him or his work, explains how his work gives us a glimpse into the semitic world of Jesus and provides several resources for us to learn more about Dr. Lamsa and his work.
To understand his story, we have to start with the early Christian expansion out of Jerusalem to Antioch, a city north of Israel. From the letters of Paul and the Book of Acts we have all learned that the church then spread westward into modern day Turkey and then to Greece. What we haven’t learned is what happened to the the missionaries who went eastward, to the cities and regions of George Lamsa’s homeland, that are so much in today’s news.
Two things happened to what became known as “The Church of the East,” the church of George Lamsa. First, eastward expansion placed them outside or nearly outside of the boundary of the Roman empire, making them free from suppression. Second, eastward expansion kept them in a Semitic culture, unlike the western churches which found themselves in a Greek culture.
Being in a Semitic culture, the Church of the East had no need to adapt its teachings and theology to accommodate the Greek mind. They were able to practice the teachings of Jesus from the perspective of Jesus’ own culture. Second, being free from Roman suppression, they were a hospitable home for early Christians, one of whom was, according to tradition, Thaddeus of Edessa, one of the seventy disciples.
That is what George Lamsa wants us to know. It explains why he totally devoted his life to recovering ancient documents from his homeland and publicizing them in America, his new homeland. And it may explain why he found himself speaking primarily in Unity and Religious Science churches for nearly 30 years after coming to America. Here is why an Assyrian Semite would find a home in Unity.
First, the church from which George Lamsa came, The Church of the East, has been called the “Nestorian church” because it broke from orthodoxy over the doctrines put forth in the 3rd Ecumenical council, held in 431 CE, which condemned Nestorius. You can read the history on your own, but know that Nestorians struggled with those who diminished the human nature of Jesus.
New Thought people also struggle with those who place Jesus in a category that is super-human and unapproachable. And New Thought people, like Nestorians, are not orthodox, meaning we and Nestorians do not adhere to the strict dogmas promulgated by the Ecumenical councils. Our beliefs do differ, and they differ greatly, but we share a willingness to declare ourselves Christian while much of Christianity rejects our fellowship.
But, perhaps most important, it may be that George Lamsa felt welcome in New Thought and Unity because we, as a denomination, have never been bound by culture, ethnicity, race or gender. We are, as Janet Bowser Manning said, free and unlimited—free from the limits of culture and unlimited in our capacity to experience the consciousness of Jesus—a Semite.
Timothy Ware has written “Christianity, while universal in its mission, has tended in practice to be associated with three cultures: the Semitic, the Greek, and the Latin.”1 When Paul turned west from Antioch, he entered into Greek culture, which became the predominant culture of the Orthodox church. As the church expanded west to Rome and north from Rome through Europe, Christianity entered into Latin culture, which became the predominant culture of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.
George Lamsa was a Semite, an Assyrian Semite, whose native language was a close dialect of the language of Jesus. He devoted his life to conveying that the spiritual teachings of Jesus were idiomatic. And Lamsa believed that the only way to truly understand those idioms is through the lens of a Semitic eye. Nearly all of orthodoxy—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant—laughed at him. But the metaphysical churches of New Thought have always been open to the consciousness of others, and the consciousness of Spirit conveyed through others, regardless of the culture and the language they use.
Culture is experience, and I think that George Lamsa found a home in Unity because of our willingness to lay aside our beliefs about Jesus so that we may enter into the experience of Jesus. George Lamsa wanted nothing more than for us to enter into the experience of Jesus. I believe that made George Lamsa, like it does for you and I, feel welcome.
Regardless of why, we do know that George Lamsa greatly influenced New Thought and that his students continue to do so. What I give below is a collection of resources about the work of Dr. Lamsa.
Sunday, October 18, 2020
- Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church (Penguin, 2015) 4. Web extract: http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/history_timothy_ware_1.htm
George M. Lamsa
The Life of George M. Lamsa
In 1961, Dr. Lamsa dictated is life story to Tom Alyea, a reporter from Dallas, Texas who later became famous as the first to enter the Texas Book Depository when President Kennedy was assassinated. Fortunately, the copyright was not renewed and so it is now in the public domain. Click on the image to the left to open a PDF from which you can download or print the booklet.
We read at the end of this 24 page booklet that “A complete autobiography by GEORGE M. LAMSA will be published soon.” It is likely that Tom Alyea was to develop this booklet into a full book but the project was derailed by his reporting of the Kennedy assisination.
This is a heart-warming story. I was touched while reading it and by the time I had finished I became attached to the man and his people. I will never see a news story about the tragic events in Iraq and Syria again in the same way and I now have a whole new perspective on the migration of war-torn immigrants into Europe. If you want to understand George Lamsa, this is the place to start.
Bible Manuscripts in the Ancient Estrangeli Alphabet
Start here to understand Dr. Lamsa’s central argument: Christian scriptures, particularly the gospels, but also including the letters of Paul, were originally written in Aramaic using an alphabet called Estrangeli, not, as scholars claim, in Greek. This original version is known as “the Peshitta” (peh-Sheeta).
Dr. Lamsa acknowledges that there is an Aramaic version of the Bible which is a translation from the Greek. But, according to Dr. Lamsa, it was a late translation using a later alphabet and is called “the Peshitto.”
Click on the image to the right to open a PDF from which you can read, download or print the article.
Scholarly Reviews of Lamsa Translations
Here are five scholarly reviews of Dr. Lamsa’s translation. All are from mainstream Christian Theological School professors. All are highly critical of Dr. Lamsa’s work.
I’ve read the criticisms and they still leave me questioning why Christianity is the only world religion whose scriptures are not preserved in the original language of its founder. The scholars have made many excellent points but they haven’t really addressed what you and I want to know: What were the words of Jesus?
Lamsa has at least an answer: the actual words of Jesus are Aramaic and the Peshitta kept by the Church of the East is an original text of the New Testament writings from which the Greek New Testament is a translation. His critics assert the opposite, that the original text of New Testament writings are in Greek and that the words of Jesus recorded in Lamsa’s Peshitta is a translation from Greek back into Aramaic.
Keep this in mind as you read these scholarly criticisms. Most take issue with Lamsa’s translation of the Peshitta into English. They don’t really address Lamsa’s central claim that his Peshitta is an original text.
Regardless, these criticisms of Dr. Lamsa’s work are difficult for laypeople to read. Probably the best perspective we can apply here is what Earnest Wilson has written below in the section “Ernest Wilson’s Reflection on the Life and Work of George Lamsa.”
Dr. Lamsa raised many questions, provided many new insights and leaves us with an enriched experience of the life and teachings of Jesus. For a small denomination like Unity, where the bottom line for Truth is experience, not orthodox belief, that is a notable achievement. That he produced his life work as a lone individual with limited resources is a testimony to the power of God’s provision and Lamsa’s deeply held faith.
My life has been deeply enriched by his commentaries of the Bible, particularly The Gospel Light, published by Harper in 1936, and The Kingdom on Earth, published by Unity in 1966. Lamsa was not equipped nor trained to produce a full translation of the Bible. He did his best and it was helpful to many, but his great contribution was his life testimony (see above, The Life of George M. Lamsa) and his commentaries.
Click on the image to the right to open a PDF from which you can read, download or print the reviews.
Ernest Wilson’s Reflection on the Life and Work of George Lamsa
Here are two pages from Ernest Wilson's book If You Want to Enough (pp.268-9). His reflection likely provides an insight into how Lamsa was perceived by Unity leadership. He writes:
Doctor Lamsa was a controversial figure, a kind of "voice crying in the wilderness." Some of his translations, derived from the Aramaic version of the Bible, were so revealing that they won ready acceptance from students; others provoked question and argument; but all of them made us think. They deepened rather than lessened our interest in Scripture. His visit—and subsequent ones—did a lot for us.
Dr. Wilson’s comments also portray the loneliness that Lamsa felt when his ideas were criticized by the theological authorities. It is important to understand that Unity and New Thought has never accepted theological authority as mainline Christianity has done.
Click on the image to the right to open a PDF from which you can read, download or print the pages from Dr Wilson's book.
Unity Internal Review of Lamsa Writings by Mary Elizabeth Turner
In 1950 and 1951 two internal documents were written by Mary Elizabeth Turner that compared George Lamsa’s writings to the Unity teachings. The 1950 document was addressed to Virginia Shipley and the 1951 document was addressed to Lowell Fillmore. As you read the documents, make note that approximately 15 years later Dr. Lamsa was employed as the Bible instructor for Unity’s ministerial program.
Click on the image to the right to open a PDF from which you can read, download or print the documents.
1975 Contact Magazine Articles on Lamsa and Errico
Contact Magazine was published and distributed internally to Unity ministers and churches. Articles or short clips about Lamsa are found in the July/August, September and November issues. They include a short obituary of Dr. Lamsa, a lengthy article about talks given by Dr. Rocco Errico, and notices that Dr. Lamsa's books that Unity had published or distributed were out of print or no longer available.
I have no evidence, but it appears that upon Dr. Lamsa's passing (September 22, 1975) there was a reason why Unity would need to stop publication of his books.
Click on the image to the right to open a PDF from which you can read, download or print these pages.
Newspaper Articles on George Lamsa
Dr. Lamsa was a prolific public speaker and there are hundreds of newspaper articles and advertisements about his public speaking events. Here is a selection of about 30 of his appearances, beginning in the early 1920s when he spoke at the YMCA in Washington DC up until his passing in 1975.
Click on the image to the right to open a PDF from which you can read, download or print the articles.
To provide a sense of what one heard when they went to hear Dr. Lamsa, here is a two-part audio recording of “An Evening With George Lamsa.” The audio quality is not good, but it is generally comprehensible. But most important, it provides a sense of Dr. Lamsa’s humor and enthusiasm.