Whatever happened to the language Jesus spoke?

When you start learning a bit about the Bible, you soon discover that most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. But, you also learn early on that Jesus spoke Aramaic. In fact, Aramaic was the most common language in the Middle East in those days. Hebrew and Greek are still spoken by many people today, albeit in dialects that have evolved over the centuries. Whatever happened to Aramaic?

Actually, several dialects of Aramaic are still spoken in parts of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey by tiny communities that are in danger of extinction. Why do some languages survive and flourish, and others end up in the dustbin of history? I just ran across this brief but fascinating article from a few years ago recounting how a language can go from widespread to the verge of dying out — “Where Do Languages Go to Die?”

If a Middle Eastern man from 2,500 years ago found himself on his home territory in 2015, he would be shocked by the modern innovations, and not just electricity, airplanes, and iPhones. Arabic as an official language in over two dozen countries would also seem as counterintuitive to him as if people had suddenly started keeping aardvarks as pets.

In our time-traveler’s era, after all, Arabic was an also-ran tongue spoken by obscure nomads. The probability that he even spoke it would be low. There were countless other languages in the Middle East in his time that he’d be more likely to know. His idea of a “proper” language would have been Aramaic, which ruled what he knew as the world and served, between 600 and 200 B.C.E., as the lingua franca from Greece and Egypt, across Mesopotamia and Persia, all the way through to India. Yet today the language of Jesus Christ is hardly spoken anywhere, and indeed is likely to be extinct within the next century. Young people learn it ever less. Only about half a million people now speak Aramaic—compared to, for example, the five and a half million people who speak Albanian. — Read more…

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

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