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What Language Did Jesus Speak?

You’ll see it in the headlines from time to time. It’s usually some variant of “which language did Jesus speak?” or “is ISIS exterminating the language of Jesus?” Scholars – well educated scholars – will make reference to the destruction of Jesus’ native language in modern Near Eastern communities or perhaps examine the relevance of Aramaic phrases that have been left in Scripture. There is certainly nothing wrong with such generalizations, which remain correct on this or that technicality and, more than likely, will not have any real influence on the intellectual or spiritual life of the faithful. However, for those that wish to dive deeper, I present the real and complicated story of Aramaic. We’ll briefly examine this language – well, languages – from their origins in the 9th century B.C. up to the dialects that are spoken and hold liturgical significance today.

Early Aramaic is known to us through a number of inscriptions found throughout the Levant that date back as far as the 9th century BC. By and large, there is no real variation in script or spelling in the record, and the dialectical variations that do exist disappear from the historical record very early on. Those differences that did exist — such as the odd way of forming plural in the Tell Fekherye inscription (850 BC) or the already-antiquated use of certain grammatical features in the Zincirli (800 BC) inscriptions – end up disappearing by the beginning of the 8th century BC. Thus, we can infer by the homogeneity of the inscriptions across economic and juridical records across the Levant that Early Aramaic had stabilized and standardized by this time. This standardization became known as Imperial (Official) Aramaic, which is recognized as having arisen around the 8th century BC, when Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Near East. It became so widespread, in fact, that it would be used in the Achaemenian administration through the end of the 4th century BC. Various attestations of its use can be found as far away as Egypt. Documents in Imperial Aramaic are also quoted in the Book of Ezra.  While this Aramaic dealt with matters of state and record, a close cousin – Standard Literary Aramaic – emerged starting around the 7th century BC and existed in complementarity with the Imperial language. We know of it from many works, including some narratives elements of the Book of Ezra and Daniel, as well as documentation found at Qumran and other fragments.

Now, starting around the 3rd century BC, Aramaic began to fracture into a number of dialects again – together, these are called Middle Aramaic. Among these are Palestinian Aramaic (as seen in the Bar Kokhba letters), Nabatean Aramaic (based on the dialect of those living around Petra, though found as far away as Greece and Egypt), and several other less-attested dialects which show contact with Early Arabic and Mesopotamian elements. Interestingly, although Middle Aramaic began to split into Eastern and Western recension in this time, the two continued to exert influence upon each other. It is also worthy to note that Standard Literary Aramaic continued to be used in an official capacity as far away as Turkmenistan and the Caucuses.

Palestinian Aramaic would, starting in the 3rd century AD, develop into Byzantine-era Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, better known as Galilean Aramaic (the language of Christ!). Widely attested in the historical record, some great examples of Galilean Aramaic include the Palestinian Talmud, Targums, and many midrashim. It was closely related to Samaritan Aramaic and Christian Palestinian Aramaic. This particular dialect, emerging in the 3rd century AD, was widespread until the Mohammedan invasion. It was spoken until the 8th century AD and was used in the Melkite Liturgy until the 13th century AD. At this same time Eastern Aramaic was represented by many literary dialects, including Mandaic (which has been indispensable for its preservation of diacritical marks), Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, and Syriac.

However, it would be a misnomer to characterize Classical Syriac as entirely Eastern. Rather, it occupies a middle position between Eastern and Western Aramaic. The linguistic corpus is largely of a Christian nature and can be found as early as 2nd century AD. Although it was largely phased out as a spoken language by the 800s, it went on to have an important significance in the Near East that rings down to the Church of today. This is the liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Maronite Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, and the Syriac Catholic Church. It is also the language of the Peshitta, an early translation of scripture that helps scholars to access the Semitic mind. It is written in three main styles – Estrangela, Serto, and Nestorian.

Today, there still exist small enclaves and diaspora communities that speak a modern version of Aramaic – three, to be exact. Eastern Neo-Aramaic, known to some as “Modern Syriac” or “Assyrian”, is the progeny of the Eastern Aramaic mentioned above. Curiously, it retains some elements from Eastern Aramaic that disappeared by Classical Syriac. It is still spoken in Kurdistan, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Western Neo-Aramaic is still spoken in a few villages near Damascus. It is closest to Palestinian Aramaic, although substantial changes and shifts have occurred. Lastly, in parallel with Classical Syriac, is an intermediary dialect called Turoyo. It is still spoken in southeastern Turkey and in the diaspora community throughout Europe.

What significance does – or should – this linguist family tree have for us? It is my hope that this brief history lesson makes us aware of nuance to which we’ve previously been blind. I hope it challenges us to dig into the history of Israel and into that of the Early Church. I hope that it helps us to bring the sun and sand of the Near East into vivid, living color as we deepen our relationship with Christ Jesus. I hope that it inspires in us a liturgical curiosity to study not just how the liturgy was said at Rome in ages past, but at Antioch and Alexandria too. I even hope that it transforms our experience as we browse the olivewood carvings that come around to our parishes once a year. I want us to marvel at this tongue – ever ancient, ever new – and all the things that it has seen.   The language of Christ has not been destroyed and it never will be. But, like us, it has had to change to support God’s Will for His People.

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