Aramaic Language: The Language of Christ

The Aramaic language is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. Originally the language of the Aramaeans (Aram, which is the Hebrew word for ancient Syria), it was used, in many dialectical forms, in Mesopotamia and Syria before 1000 B.C., and later became the lingua franca of the Middle East. Aramaic survived the fall of Nineveh (612 B.C.) and Babylon (539 B.C.) and remained the official language of the Persian Empire (539-337 B.C.). Ancient inscriptions in Aramaic have been found over a vast area extending from Egypt to China. Before the Christian era, Aramaic had become the language of the Jews in Palestine. Jesus preached in Aramaic, and parts of the Old Testament and much of the rabbinical literature were written in that language. Christian Aramaic, usually called Syriac, also developed an extensive literature, especially from the 4th to 7th centuries. The influence and diffusion of Aramaic began to decline in favor of Arabic at the time of the Arab conquest in the 7th century AD . Aramaic survives today in Eastern and Western dialects, mostly as the language of Christians living in a few scattered communities in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.

 

THE HISTORY OF THE ARAMAIC LANGUAGE

Aramaic was the language of Semitic peoples throughout the ancient Near East. It was the language of the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Hebrews and Syrians. Aram and Israel had a common ancestry and the Hebrew patriarchs who were of Aramaic origin maintained ties of marriage with the tribes of Aram. The Hebrew patriarchs preserved their Aramaic names and spoke in Aramaic.

The term Aramaic is derived from Aram, the fifth son of Shem, the firstborn of Noah. See Gen. 10:22. The descendants of Aram dwelt in the fertile valley, Padan-aram also known as Beth Nahreen.

The Aramaic language in Padan-aram remained pure, and in the course the common language (lingua franca), of all the Semitic clans. By the 8th century B.C. it was the major language from Egypt to Asia Minor to Pakistan. It was employed by the great Semitic empires, Assyria and Babylon. The Persian (Iranian) government also used Aramaic in their Western provinces.

The language of the people of Palestine shifted from Hebrew to Aramaic sometime between 721-500 B.C. Therefore, we know that Jesus, his disciples and contemporaries spoke and wrote in Aramaic. The message of Christianity spread throughout Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia in this Semitic tongue.

Present-day scholars claim that the Aramaic language itself passed through many stages of development:

Old Aramaic 975-700 B.C.
Standard Aramaic 700-200 B.C.
Middle Aramaic 200 B.C.-200 A.D.
Late Aramaic 200-700 A.D.

which includes:
a. Western Aramaic- The dialect of the Jews (Jerusalem, the Talmud and the Targums) and the Syro-Palestine dialect.
b. Eastern Aramaic-  The dialect of Syriac form, Assyrian Chaldean form, Babylon, Talmudic Aramaic and Mundaie.

Use of the Aramaic language had become common by the period of the Chaldean Empire (626-539 B.C.). It became the official language of the Imperial government in Mesopotamia and enjoyed general use until the spread of Greek (331 B.C.). Although Greek had spread throughout these Eastern lands, Aramaic remained dominant and the linqua franca of the Semitic peoples. This continued to be so until Aramaic was superseded by a sister Semitic tongue, Arabic, about the 13th century A.D. to the 14th century A.D., when Arabic supplanted Aramaic after the Arab conquest in the 7th Century. However, the Christians of Mesopotamia (Iraq), Iran, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon kept the Aramaic language alive domestically,
scholastically and liturgically. In spite of the pressure of the ruling Arabs to speak Arabic, Aramaic is still spoken today in its many dialects, especially among the Chaldeans and Assyrians.

Before concluding, one more vital aspect of the Aramaic language needs to be mentioned and that is its use as the major Semitic tongue for the birth and spread of spiritual and intellectual ideas in and all over the Near East. According to the research and opinion of an outstanding Aramaic and Arabic scholar, Professor Franz Rosenthal, who in the Journal of Near Eastern studies, states: "in my view, the history of Aramaic represents the purest triumph of the human spirit as embodied in language (which is the mind's most direct form of physical expression) over the crude display of material power. . . Great empires were conquered by the Aramaic language, and when they disappeared and were submerged in the flow of history, that language persisted and continued to live a life of its own ... The language continued to be powerfully active in the promulgation of spiritual matters. It was the main instrument for the formulation of religious ideas in the Near East, which then spread in all directions all over the world ... The monotheistic groups continue to live on today with a religious heritage, much of which found first expression in Aramaic."

Lord's Prayer in Aramaic written by Deacon Yoaresh Beth Qashisha Mattai
Mar Gewargis Church, Chicago