One native speaker’s quest to preserve an ancient language
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).
Three 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.
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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