Saving Aramaic, the Language Jesus Spoke

One native speaker’s quest to preserve an ancient language

yona-sabar-rabbi

In this photo from the 1960s, author Yona Sabar (right) interviews a Neo-Aramaic-speaking Kurdish rabbi. Neo-Aramaic is the modern descendent of ancient Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Photo by Stephanie Sabar.

There are only a few people in the world who could claim that they could understand Jesus in his mother tongue if he were alive today. One such person is Yona Sabar, Professor Emeritus of the University of California, Los Angeles. A native Aramaic speaker and a scholar of Aramaic, Sabar has made it his life’s mission to preserve the language Jesus spoke. Sabar details his efforts in his article “Saving the Aramaic of Jesus and the Jews,” published in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Aramaic, a Semitic language, became the lingua franca of much of the ancient Near East in the seventh century B.C.E. Aramaic appears in such Jewish texts as the Talmud and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Further, the New Testament is riddled with Aramaic phrases (including “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from Matthew 27:46) as well as Aramaic place names (e.g., Golgotha, Bethsaida, and Bethesda).

Other than Israel, no country has as many Biblical sites and associations as Jordan: Mount Nebo, from where Moses gazed at the Promised Land; Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John baptized Jesus; Lot’s Cave, where Lot and his daughters sought refuge after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and many more. Travel with us on our journey into the past in our free eBook Exploring Jordan.

zakho-mapThree millennia after it emerged, Aramaic survives today in a form referred to by scholars as Neo-Aramaic, which encompasses different dialects shaped by region and religion. The language, however, is in danger of becoming extinct, as native speakers along the borders of northern Iraq, Turkey, and Syria began migrating to Israel, Europe, the Americas, and Australia beginning in the 1920s. Sabar’s hometown of Zakho in Kurdish Iraq, in particular, was populated by Jews and Christians who spoke Neo-Aramaic until they migrated out of the region. Sabar observed how this mass migration affected the language he grew up speaking:

After our Aliya (immigration to Israel), I watched my community begin to lose our mother tongue and gradually shift to speaking Modern Hebrew, the official language of the State of Israel. First, words that were typical to life in Kurdistan disappeared or acquired new meanings typical to life in modern Israel.

Sabar gradually made efforts to preserve Neo-Aramaic writing and language, first by recording words he remembered here and there, and eventually by devoting his professional life as a scholar to studying, translating, and teaching Neo-Aramaic.

aramaic-new-testament-chart

Click on the image to enlarge the chart. Credit: Steve Caruso/Aramaic New Testament; Design By Auras.

Follow Yona Sabar’s life-long journey to safeguard the language Jesus spoke for future generations by reading his article “Saving the Aramaic of Jesus and the Jews,” published in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Other than Israel, no country has as many Biblical sites and associations as Jordan: Mount Nebo, from where Moses gazed at the Promised Land; Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John baptized Jesus; Lot’s Cave, where Lot and his daughters sought refuge after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and many more. Travel with us on our journey into the past in our free eBook Exploring Jordan.

Posted in The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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  • Chiara says

    Chaldeans speak Aramaic, the language is far from dead.

  • Carol says

    Years ago, I had a foster daughter who emigrated from Ethiopia. Her languages were Aramaic and French. You don’t list Ethiopia in the article, but it’s alive there. I question your statement that this person is one of the last speakers.

    • Michael says

      That’s Amharic, unrelated to Aramaic, which isn’t spoken in Ethiopia.

  • richard says

    I get my hair cut by a group of Middleastern women who speak Syriac, which I thought sounded vaguely like Arabic. It turns out that although Syriac isn’t the lingua Franca of biblical times, it is considered middle Aramaic!
    The language isn’t dead yet.

    • John says

      Classical Syriac *is* a form of middle Aramaic, but strictly the spoken languages are not Middle Aramaic but Neo-Aramaic (Classical Syriac is now a learned language, used as a written language but not as a mother tongue, though I once did take a course in spoken Syriac in Jerusalem and some people do use it to communicate). It’s a definitional thing – Middle and Neo-/New in the name of any language refers to specific periods in the life of that language. The Neo-Aramaic spoken languages descended from or related to Classical Syriac have names like Asiri (‘Assyrian’) in Iraq, Turoyo in Turkey and the Ma’lula Aramaic in near Damascus, and your ladies are almost certainly using one of these. I’ve met Turoyo speakers in Berlin, while I know a couple of speakers of – I think – Turoyo in Oxford and met a Assiri (and Classical Syriac) poet in London on Friday!


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