Jesus and Aramaic


Jesus spoke Aramaic, at a time when the language was widespread; Hebrew was used mainly as ‘family’ language in the home. This was because Aramaic was the lingua franca of the semitic world. In the Roman world, koine Greek was commonplace throughout the empire, and was also the language of the New Testament. It was not a classical form of Greek, but workaday Greek of the streets. At the same time Latin was used by Roman soldiers amongst themselves.

The Aramaic of Jesus’ time was one single language, divided into many dialects and types, from classical to everyday. In Jesus’ time, for example, there were at least seven dialects of Western Aramaic spoken. The Old Judean type was prominent in the region of Jerusalem and Judaea. Each was recognisable in other regions, though there were regional distinctives. The modern Welsh language is an example of regional distinctives - North and South - with a common foundation; both types recognise the other, but there are still differences , sometimes not understood by the speakers of each region.

Jesus would have spoken the ‘general’ Aramaic known to most people. We know this because of the way different regions accepted His presence and flocked to hear Him. But, He also spoke the Galilean Aramaic of his immediate district. The differences were much like modern UK differences between, say, broad Newcastle or Glaswegian, and Kentish. Frankly, I cannot understand much of the northern dialects, catching only a few phrases and words! Yet, if I listen very carefully I can often deduce what is being said.

Hebrew words began to influence Aramaic in Jesus’ day, and this is why both languages appear briefly in the New Testament texts. Hebrew itself arose from ancient Aramaic, as a Canaanite language. The koine Greek of the New Testament sometimes uses transliterations of Aramaic.

In earlier days there was Archaemenid Imperial Aramaic as part of Late Old Eastern Aramaic, and many of these dialects differed sharply from Late Ancient Aramaic. They started to be written down in about the 2nd century BC. In many instances regional dialects became official languages.

The Late Old Western Aramaic dialects were very different from the others in the East and the Imperial dialects, and though sharing a similar family, they were essentially different languages as far as practical understanding was concerned.

This Late Western form was used extensively by Jews and is often called ‘Jewish Old Palestine’. As a form it lived alongside Canaanite forms, and between them they replaced the older Phoenician language by the 1st century BC; it replaced Hebrew by about the 4th century AD. The oldest form of Jewish Old Palestine is ‘Old East Jordanian’. There is far more to this growth in Aramaic, but you have the gist!

As a language Aramaic is semitic, of the Afroasiatic family. The name came from where it arose – Aram, in ancient central Syria. On a modern map, it is where Aleppo (or, Halab) now stands, the largest city in Syria. According to various sources, including the Ugarit manuscripts (still being researched by archaeologists), the Aramaeans have existed since about the 12th century BC. Jesus, then, used the language at its mainstream height.

Hebrew and Arabic are themselves Cannanite languages, which is not surprising as Abraham came from Ur, in the eastern Middle East. Indeed, Hebrew was flexibly used by several distinct racial groups, from about the 10th century BC. Though Hebrew was used for about three centuries as the official language of the Jews, the book of Daniel is written almost exclusively in old Aramaic.

Jesus spoke Aramaic. Given the political, military and religious ethos of His day, He also spoke Hebrew, and, likely, Greek, as both were current and used at the time. Aramaic was the ordinary language of His region, and Greek was used in commercial centres. Jesus, even at age 12, was known to debate scripture in the temple, so we may gather that He had a good understanding of Hebrew. (Of course, as God, He understood every language on earth!).

Jesus would have spoken Galilaean Aramaic, and this is why we see reference to His birthplace in the texts (for example, asking how any good could come out of the Galilaean region)… people of Jerusalem recognised the dialect, probably thinking of it as ‘rough’ and rural, not polished.

Because most, or all, of the Apostles spoke Aramaic, their message was swiftly adopted by Aramaic-speaking Jews, even as far away as India. Jesus was also familiar with a language form known as Rabbinical Hebrew, known mainly in rural areas. The older ‘Biblical Hebrew’ mingled well with Aramaic in the Hebrew Bible. Many Jews were familiar with the Targums – Aramaic translations of the Hebrew text, after the death of Christ, as use of Hebrew started to diminish.

In the Greek New Testament, both Aramaic and Hebrew words are used at times, and, in some cases difficult to separate as they are both from the same stock, especially as Hebrew at the time of Jesus tended to be Mishnaic Hebrew, which was greatly influenced by Aramaic. Jesus, then, did not just speak Aramaic – He was a polyglot!

© August 2011

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