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 them 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 ...

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