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Aramaic, The Language Jesus Spoke
By Associated Press

At a small Jerusalem church, Aramaic, the ancient language that Jesus spoke, is little more than an echo these days. An elder from the Syrian Orthodox congregation laments that he's got few people to speak to in Aramaic besides the monks. Parts of the liturgy have to be done in Arabic. And a nun who sings the Lord's Prayer says the words are just about the only ones she's able to recite in Aramaic.

Some say spoken Aramaic may vanish in just a few decades.
Linguists hope for a boost from Mel Gibson's new film "The Passion of the Christ," performed entirely in Aramaic and Latin.

Just a half million people, most of them Christians living in pockets of the Middle East, Europe and the United States, still converse at home in Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the Middle East and parts of Asia.

"Undoubtedly, Aramaic is in danger of disappearing," said Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Academy of Hebrew Language in Jerusalem.

Aramaic is one of the few languages that has been spoken continuously for thousands of years. It first appeared in written records around the 10th century B.C. though it was likely already being spoken earlier.

Aramaic is a Semitic language and has similarities with Hebrew and Arabic. Water is "moyeh" in Aramaic, "maim" in Hebrew and "miye" in Arabic. Carpenter is "nagouro" in Aramaic, "nagar" in Hebrew and "najar" in Arabic.

The most popular theory on its origin says the language was first spoken by nomads called Arameans, who migrated from the barren Arabian peninsula to the lush farmlands of Mesopotamia and finally settled around Damascus, modern Syria's capital, in the 13th century B.C.

Aramaic became a common language for much of the Middle East and parts of Asia, reaching its widest influence when it was adopted by the Persian empire around 500 B.C. It was a relatively simple language, with just 22 letters, and a community of scribes and intellectuals helped spread it in a largely illiterate world, said Bar-Asher.

Texts in Aramaic have been found in places as distant from each other as in India and Egypt. Jews returning from exile in Babylon around 500 B.C. helped spread the language to the eastern Mediterranean, where it largely supplanted Hebrew.

Scholars think Jesus might have known Hebrew - which by that time was reserved mainly for use in synagogues and spoken by upper classes - and some Greek, but Aramaic was the language of his native Galilee.

The New Testament records Jesus' last words on the cross in Aramaic: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" St. Mark, most likely writing in Greek, adds, "... which means, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"' (Mark 15:34).

Michael Sokoloff, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said it is believed that parts of the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic, but that only Greek writings have ever been found.

Aramaic was largely replaced by Arabic during the Arab and Islamic conquest of the 7th century.

Today, Aramaic is spoken at home by about 500,000 people - mainly Syrian Orthodox and other Christians - in parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, India, Europe, Australia and a few cities in the United States, including Chicago.

In Syria, once the core of indigenous Christian Aramaic speakers, the language is still heard in three villages perched on cliff sides north of Damascus in the Qalamoun Mountains.

About 10,000 people in those villages speak the language, said George Rizkallah, a 63-year-old retired Syrian teacher. But the numbers are dwindling fast. Church services are in Arabic, elderly Aramaic speakers are dying and young people are moving away in search of jobs.

Rizkallah has appealed to the Syrian government and international organizations to help preserve and spread the language.

A few thousand Israelis who immigrated from other parts of the Middle East still speak Aramaic, but are largely not passing it on to their children. Most Jews who learn the language study it only to read the Talmud, a book of Jewish law, and other religious texts written in Aramaic.

Part of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, is recited in Aramaic, and marriage and divorce contracts in Israel are until today often written in the language.

Sokoloff, the professor of Semitic languages, is helping write a comprehensive Aramaic dictionary. He said it will take years because of the large amounts of literature to comb through. He noted that a similar project for another ancient language, Akkadian, has been ongoing since the 1920s.

Source: Haaretz Daily: 23/02/2004; Submitted by: Shaji Varghese, New Jersey

See Also:

The Passion of the Christ: Review of the Movie - From a Christian Perspective
In my opinion, the move is exceptionally good in depicting the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ. It truthfully depicts what is in the Gospels; a few artistic liberties were taken, however, without affecting what is portrayed in the bible. And these are kept absolutely to a minimum.

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