What happened to the language Jesus spoke?

9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

11 Give us this day our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

When these words were first spoken it was not in Hebrew, Greek, Latin or any of the languages usually associated with antiquity. Jesus spoke Aramaic. In this blog we explore the origins and current status of this “obscure” language in which some of the world’s most ubiquitous ideas were first formulated.

Origins and Development

Aramaic was first spoken by Aramean tribes who lived between the northern Levant and the northern Euphrates valley. By 1000 BC these Semites ruled over various kingdoms in what is today known as western Syria. Under the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC) the footprint of this language grew considerably, eventually covering modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, certain parts of Palestine, Kuwait, Eastern Arabia, Northern Arabia, and areas in Turkey and Iran. Thanks to the prolific Neo-Assyrian scribes, Aramaic was the official language of the subsequent Neo-Babylonian Empire (605-539 BC) and the Ahaemenid Empire (539-323 BC). By the time Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, this originally tribal language had been the lingua franca of the Middle East for centuries.

Aramaic Today

Modern Aramaic is classified into Eastern, Central, and Western Aramaic, and various dialects are found in each subcategory. There is a significant difference between the Jewish, Christian, and Mandaean variants of Modern Eastern Aramaic. In many instances different dialects are not mutually intelligible. This is the case in Urmia, for example, where the variants of Modern Eastern Aramaic spoken by the Assyrian Christians and Jews differ so much that they do not understand each other despite living in the same geographical location.

Of the three varieties of Modern Aramaic the Eastern variant remains the most resilient. The Turoyo variant of Central Aramaic is mostly spoken by members of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Mlahsô variant recently became extinct. What’s left of Western Aramaic is found in villages scattered across Southern Syria and in expat communities of larger cities in the Levant. As a liturgical language, however, Aramaic seems to be as steadfast as ever.

Featured image: Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Byzantine style, from the Cefalù Cathedral, Sicily, c. 1130