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Aramaic, Language of Jesus, Fights Likely Extinction

For Eastern Churches it remains important as a language of prayer

BY GABRIEL MEYER

June 14-20, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/14/98 at 1:00 PM

 

LOS ANGELES—Abu nahti bishmo ishkata sheshma. These may be the very words Jesus used 2,000 years ago when, speaking Aramaic, he taught his disciples to pray: “Our Father who art in heaven.”

Most Catholics could tell you that Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and much of Christianity's first generation conducted their daily business in this ancient Semitic tongue. What few would guess is that forms of Aramaic still survive as a vernacular in today's Middle East—still less that the language of Jesus, high on any list of endangered linguistic species, is even enjoying something of a modest revival these days.

A modest revival, that is, for a tongue that 2,000 years ago was the most widely spoken language in Asia Minor—much more so than its linguistic relatives, Hebrew and Arabic. Today one finds small Aramaic-speaking pockets in western Syria, and, further east, tiny groups of Christians, Muslims, and Jews still use the ancient language in places as far away as India and in Kurdish areas of Iraq, in Turkey and Iran, and in Azerbaijan on the borders of Armenia.

According to Moshe Ben-Asher, president of the Academy of Hebrew Language in Jerusalem, about 500,000 to 800,000 people, mainly in the

Middle East, still speak Aramaic today.

Easily the most significant of these Aramaic centers is located in Maalula, a Syrian village of 2,000, mostly Christians, perched on the slopes of the Kalamun Mountains about 40 miles north of Damascus.

Once isolated and under decades of pressure from the Syrian government to abandon the native tongue in favor of Arabic, today's Maalula, its Aramaic heritage threatened but still intact, has become a mecca for scholars in the growing field of Aramaic studies, as well as for adventurous tourists. The town even has its own Web site.

Other signs of a modest rise in Aramaic's fortunes? Try Aramaic CDs.

According to a recent Associated Press report, an Israeli band called Nash Didan, Aramaic for “Our People,” has to date recorded two albums of songs written in the language by the group's leader, Arik Mordechai, and is working on a third. Mordechai and his parents are part of a 14,000-member Jewish association, Nash Didan, who trace their roots back to Urmia in northern Iran where an isolated mountainous terrain enabled them to preserve an Aramaic-based culture into modern times.

Last year, the Kronos Quartet, an innovative American string ensemble, released an album entitled The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, featuring selections in Aramaic.

Despite these signs of renewed interest, most scholars think it's unlikely that Aramaic will come off the endangered language list any time soon. In fact, most experts are pessimistic about its chances for survival as a living language into the next century.

“An Aramaic CD or two is not going to make much difference when it comes to the language's survival,” said Dr. Yona Sabar, professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and an Aramaic speaker himself.

Sabar, who hails from the town of Zakho in northern Iraq, said, “It's a matter of being realistic.”

Emigration is part of the problem, he told the Register. Aramaic-speaking Christians are leaving the isolated villages where they've been able to preserve their language and moving to cities like Baghdad, Mosul, or Teheran where they necessarily assimilate into the majority culture. In Turkey, large numbers of Aramaic speakers have emigrated to Europe in the past 30 years, particularly to Sweden. Much of the Jewish Aramaic-speaking community has emigrated to Israel. Add television, military conscription, and compulsory education to the picture, and it's difficult to see how a minority language such as Aramaic can survive in the modern world.

“The exception to all this is Syria,” he said, “but Maalula has the feeling of a museum, of something frozen in time.”

Doubtless, he said, the Syrian government has realized the tourist potential of the place, and it's good public relations now to encourage the Maalulans to preserve their language.

“I hope there are children in Maalula who are learning Aramaic in the home,” he stressed, “but that alone doesn't put an end to my doubts about the language's future. I suspect it's not got much more than another generation left as a living tongue.”

If modern vernacular Aramaic does die out in the 21st century, it will be the “whimper” at the end of a glorious and remarkable history.

Originally spoken by Arameans in northern Syria and Mesopotamia, today's Iraq, Aramaic gradually became the lingua franca of the ancient Near East from India to Egypt and to Persia—a preeminence it maintained for a thousand years. Arabic eventually superseded Aramaic as the vulgate of the Near East when Islam arrived on the scene in the seventh century.

Divided into three main periods—Old (c. 925-700 BC), Middle (the Aramaic of Jesus, 300 BC-200 AD) and Late (200 AD-700 AD), Aramaic appears in the Hebrew Scriptures (particularly in the Books of Ezra and Daniel); Aramaic words appear in the New Testament (e.g., Jesus' talitha qoum [cf. Mk 5:4[, and Paul's maranatha [cf. 1 Co 16:22]); and the late form of the language plays a significant role in rabbinical writings such as the Targums and in portions of the Talmud.

What made Aramaic such a popular means of communication?

“In contrast to many earlier regional languages,” said Sabar, “Aramaic had a simple alphabet, and it was easily taught.”

Add to that the fact that the Arameans were traders, and through commerce, were able to spread their language far and wide.

Unlike Hebrew and, later, Arabic, Sabar pointed out, Aramaic was not the language of a particular religion—a truth borne out by the fact that, even today, the language is spoken by communities of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Modern, or neo-Aramaic, the language of today's Aramaic speakers, is divided into western (Syrian) and eastern dialects—both of which have been significantly shaped by exposure to surrounding languages like Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, and Persian. (Modern Aramaic speakers themselves largely refer to their language by the name of the particular community — say, Assyrian or Chaldean.)

Just how different is modern Aramaic from the language of Jesus?

“All the current dialects diverge from the earlier forms. There have been great changes over the centuries.” said Michael Fishbein, a lecturer in UCLA's Department of Near East Languages and Cultures. “That's why it's important not to romanticize this whole thing.”

The western, or Mallulan dialect, is “a descendant of something close to the language of Jesus,” observed the scholar, “but the differences are not minor. They're like comparing Chaucer's English to the way we speak English now.”

Dr. Sabar provided an illustration. “Probably the single most well-known Aramaic sentence,” said Sabar, “is the one Jesus spoke when he prayed, ‘Eli, eli, lama sabachtani,’ [My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?].”

The way the sentence appears in the New Testament, Sabar said, has been influenced by Greek. “A reconstruction of the actual words in ancient Aramaic would look something like this: ‘Elahi, elahi, lema shabachtani.’”

What does that same sentence look like in today's Aramaic? Elahi, elahi, tama qam shaoch itti.

“It's quite different,” he said. Beyond the dwindling pockets of Middle Easterners for whom Aramaic still functions as the language of home and marketplace, however, there is a far wider community for which Aramaic remains the language of prayer.

These include the Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, of the Antiochene tradition—those ancient communities that trace their origins to Antioch in Syria, a see founded by St. Peter and the launching pad for the missions of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles. By the early second century, the Aramaic-speaking “Church of Syria” (as St. Ignatius of Antioch called it) had overseen the spread of Christianity to Edessa and into Mesopotamia and across Asia Minor.

These Churches retained, and retain, a deeply Semitic character and resisted the Hellenizing influence of the powerful See of Constantinople—a fact that, at least in part, led some Syriac communities to reject the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.

The Churches of the Antiochene tradition include the Maronites, the Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholics, the Chaldean-Assyrian Church and the large body of Chaldean-Assyrian Catholics, the Malabar, or so-called “St. Thomas Christians” of southwest India, and the Malankar Church.

“Alot of people focus on the Aramaic language,” said Maronite Chorbishop Father Gregory Mansour, chancellor of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon in Los Angeles, “and forget about the spiritual communities that still use it in a living way in the liturgy.”

Developments since Vatican II have occasioned more use of vernacular Arabic or English in the Maronite liturgy, he said, but Aramaic has been retained for some of the ancient prayers at the foot of the altar, the Trisagion prayer, for a variety of hymns during the liturgy, and for the Words of Institution and the epiclesis in the eucharistic prayer.

Seasonal hymns and services, such as Holy Week and Christmas, also feature significant Aramaic elements in today's Maronite usage.

But what's important about Syriac Christianity far transcends an ancient language linked to Jesus, Father Mansour stressed.

“Too many people,” he said, “persist in thinking of Christianity as either Rome or Constantinople, a matter either of the West or Byzantium, forgetting all the while that Syriac spirituality, with its unique poetic sensibility, is there.”

The literary heritage of Syriac Christianity is uncommonly rich—its character, perhaps, best symbolized by the Aramaic language's greatest poet, St. Ephrem the Syrian, theologian, exegete, poet, and doctor of the Church (306?-373 AD), who developed a remarkable presentation of the Christian Faith in verse.

“Every doctrine of faith that the Church teaches is found in the Syriac fathers,” said Father Mansour, but expressed in a unique poetic way.

For example, when St. Ephrem writes about the doctrine of the sinless conception of Mary, he says that “the Virgin was shielded from Satan's gaze.”

Father Mansour was quick to add that, in underlining the virtues of Syriac theology, he had no wish “to use it as some kind of wedge against the virtues of Latin theological thinking, with its clear philosophical articulation and its emphasis on discipline and order.”

“We need clear articulation of doctrine,” he said, “but we also need this deep clothing with beauty, this sensitivity, typical of Syriac Christianity, to life, poetry, and music.”

Through contact with Syriac Christianity, said the priest, we may be able to open new doors to Asian cultures, deepen the dialogue with Judaism, and build bridges to Islam.

“That's a lot more important than worrying about whether somebody can still buy his or her groceries in Aramaic,” he said.

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.