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?
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.
What really ensured Aramaic's survival, though, was its usage in Edessa, Syria (modern-day Urfa, Turkey), where it had flourished for centuries. According to the historian Eusebius, an ailing king of Edessa wrote a letter to Jesus asking him to exercise his healing powers on the king's behalf. And following Christ's ascension, the apostle Thomas reputedly sent a disciple name Addai to Edessa. While there is little historical evidence to support either of these stories, it is clear that missionaries established a Christian community in Edessa within the first couple centuries A.D. Naturally, the church there assumed Aramaic as its mother tongue.
By the fourth century, Edessa was known throughout Christendom for its school of biblical studies, its showpiece church that resembled Constantinople's glorious Hagia Sophia, and its many monasteries and ascetic communities. In 489, the school moved into Persian territory, or the city of Nisibis. These "Syriac" Christians distanced themselves from their Roman (or Byzantine) brothers over the Nestorian controversy, which gave them favor in the eyes of Persian rulers then fighting Rome. Consequently, Syriac Christians were able to send a large number of missionaries throughout the Persian Empire, some traveling as far away as India and China. While European Christians spoke Latin and Greek, Christians in the East conversed in Aramaic.
So why do we hear so little about Aramaic today? To put it simply, the rise of Islam and the spread of Arabic radically changed the face of the Middle East. By the ninth century, Aramaic had virtually disappeared in the Holy Land. In Syria and Persia, where Aramaic was stronger to begin with, Christians continued to speak the language in monasteries and churches even as Arabic became the "language of the street." But Islamic persecution, especially in the twentieth century, has significantly reduced the number of Christians speaking Aramaic in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. The language has all but disappeared in the land of its birth.
A Dead Language?
Today, the majority of those who use Aramaic as their mother tongue belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church, which claims between 1 and 2 million people worldwide—many in the West. Most of these use Aramaic only in their homes or churches, and second and third generation Syrian Orthodox believers run the risk of losing the language altogether. Even my Iraqi friend admits his ability to speak and understand Aramaic has deteriorated, and he cannot read or write in it. And like many expatriates, he is married to a North American who has no background in Aramaic at all.
But The Passion of The Christ seems to represent something of a modern Aramaic resurgence. A Texas musical ensemble called SAVAE has recently released a CD called Ancient Echoes, which brings Aramaic to life in sacred music. NPR has featured programs on the history of Aramaic and its use at the time of Christ. Even the UK's Guardian seems to be getting into the spirit of things, coming out with a short glossary of useful sayings in Aramaic.
And what does Gibson have to say about his experience with Aramaic? "To bring a cast from all over the world to one place and have them all learn this one language gave them a sense of common ground, of what they share and of connections that transcend language." Thousands of Aramaic-speaking Christians—scattered all over the world—know just what he's talking about.
*This article draws on Sebastian P. Brock's 3-volume scholarly book series titled The Hidden Pearl (Trans World Film Italia, 2001).
Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator of Christian History. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
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More on The Passion is available in our special section.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:
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Just a Closer Walk … with the Historical Jesus | Mel Gibson's movie raises again the question: How much can we know historically about Jesus' life and times? (Feb. 27,2004)
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One Nation Under Secularism | France's peculiar aversion to public religiosity is rooted in a sordid history of sectarian violence. (Feb. 13,2004)
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When God—or Allah—Is In the Details | What do Islamic "sharia" law and the colonial Massachusetts' Puritan experiment have in common? (Jan. 23, 2004)
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Thanksgiving in the Midst of Fear | Seriously ill in the days of the Black Plague, poet John Donne still celebrated God's goodness. (Nov. 26, 2003)
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Thanks, Da Vinci Code | Tbe book sends us back to Christianity's "founding fathers"—and the Bible we share with them. (Nov. 14, 2003)
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