Introducing Aramaic: the Language Jesus Spoke

Introducing Aramaic: the Language Jesus Spoke

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 some parts of Eretz Israel, Hebrew was still spoken in a late dialect which would survive until approximately the end of the 2nd century CE. However, the language that was spoken by most of the population was a dialect of Aramaic known as Western Aramaic.

From what we know, in Galilee towards the end of the Second Temple Period, the only language spoken by the Jews was Aramaic, with Hebrew being preserved at the time only in the southern area of Judea. Thus, it safe to assume that the language of Jesus was 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.

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.

Pilgrims to Israel can become better acquainted with this ancient language by visiting masses celebrated by the the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church and the Maronites.

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