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Christian History Home > News > 2004 > Rediscovering the Language Jesus Spoke

Rediscovering the Language Jesus Spoke
Millions of Americans have spent two hours listening to the characters in Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ speaking in an exotic, unfamiliar tongue. Yet not all find Aramaic so alien.
Steven Gertz | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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Few movies filmed in foreign languages ever become American blockbusters. Not only has The Passion of The Christ done so, it has rocketed to the top of the charts, grossing over $200 million in its first 12 days—a record rivaling Peter Jackson's Return of the King. Not bad for a movie filmed almost entirely in a language considered long dead.

Or is it? I personally know one Christian in the Chicago area who understands enough Aramaic to listen to the movie without depending solely on the subtitles—and he's not an Ivy League scholar. Originally from Iraq, he describes himself as an "Assyrian" whose mother tongue is Aramaic. According to one official website, 460,000 Assyrians now live in the U.S., 100, 000 of these residing in Chicago alone. And some Assyrian Christians have set up websites offering instruction in Aramaic for those so inclined. It's even possible to read the entire New Testament in Aramaic.

But what exactly is Aramaic, and where did it come from? How has it survived 20 centuries of turmoil and change? And what can we surmise about its future, thanks to The Passion?

Eclipsing Hebrew?

As The Passion's website notes (see "About the Production"), Aramaic was the dominant Semitic language of Jesus' time. Emerging around 1000 B.C. in several Aramean kingdoms (biblical Damascus, for example), Aramaic spread through the conquests of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires to encompass the entire Middle East, stretching from Egypt to Pakistan. In the Holy Land, Aramaic supplanted Hebrew as the language of the people sometime between 721 BC, the year Israel's capital Samaria fell to Assyrian invaders, and 500 BC, following the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon.

The return of Jews to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple did not undermine Aramaic's newfound status in Hebrew culture. Aramaic appears at times in the Old Testament, and recent evidence gathered from the Dead Sea scrolls suggests that the apocryphal book of Tobit was written entirely in Aramaic. The Gospel of Mark quotes Jesus in Aramaic several times; the best known of these may be his words on the cross—"Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" or "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Judging from its renderings in Matthew and Luke, some scholars think Jesus composed the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic.

And how did the language fare after Jesus? In 1933, archaeologists discovered Aramaic inscriptions in a Jewish synagogue built around 245 AD in the Roman outpost of Dura Europos, located on the Euphrates River in modern Syria. They have since uncovered Aramaic writing in more than 20 synagogues across the Holy Land. Clearly, Jews continued to speak the language. And they did so in such numbers that Hebrew scholars felt the pressure of Aramaic competition: third-century Rabbi Yohanan insisted Jews should speak only Hebrew, as "the angels do not know Aramaic."

Not Greek or Hebrew but Aramaic

Had it been only the Jews who spoke Aramaic, it might well have passed out of common usage. Aramaic was the language of the Middle East at the time, among Jews and Gentiles alike. Inscriptions in churches across the Holy Land attest to this—scholars have even found early Aramaic copies of the Bible translated from the Greek Septuagint. Following Constantine's conversion, the church in the Holy Land used Greek more than any other language, but some of the sayings of the Desert Fathers have been discovered in Aramaic, including Athanasius's homily on the Life of Anthony.

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