The Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic:
Aramaic (fl. -700 to +600), also called Chaldean, Syrian, Syriac or Assyrian, is the language that Jesus spoke. And Nebuchadrezzar. And most people from Babylon to Jerusalem between about -500 and +600. It was the old imperial tongue of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires. Most of the alphabets of Asia, like those of Arabic, Armenian and Bengali, go back to the Aramaic alphabet.
- Speakers: 400,000 in 2015, mainly Assyrian and Chaldean Christians.
- Countries: mostly Syria and Iraq, with some in Jordan, Turkey and the US.
- Script: Aramaic alphabet.
- Language family: Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family.
In the -900s, Aramaic was the language of Damascus and its part of Syria. It was a close cousin to Hebrew and Phoenician, written in a form of the Phoenician alphabet.
By -700, it had become a lingua franca of the Assyrian Empire. It remained a lingua franca of the two empires that followed: the Babylonian Empire (-626 to -539) and the Persian Empire (-539 to -323).
The postal service of the Persian Empire stretched from Egypt to what is now Afghanistan. That was made possible in part by Aramaic. If you wanted to send a letter to someone who spoke a different language, you would give it to a sepiru, a scribe-interpreter. He would translate it into Aramaic and send it. When it arrived at its destination, a sepiru at the other end would translate it from Aramaic into the language of the addressee.
It is a good thing that Aramaic extended to Egypt – because it is dry enough for paper to last thousands of years. Most of the ancient writings we have in Aramaic come from Egypt.
By -586, when Jews returned from the Babylonian Captivity, Hebrew was dead. By the rivers of Babylon, Aramaic had become their native language instead. Hebrew would remain a dead language till the 1800s.
Parts of the Bible are written Aramaic:
- Genesis 31:47
- Jeremiah 10:11
- Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26
- Daniel 2:4b–7:28
So are parts of the Talmud.
When Jesus says something in his own language, like when he says, “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” on the cross, he is speaking in Aramaic. He spoke it with a country accent. We know that because Peter’s Galilean accent gave him away in Jerusalem. Some of Jesus’s sayings rhyme in Aramaic. You can hear Aramaic in the Mel Gibson film, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004).
After +600, with the rise of the Arab Empire, Aramaic was slowly replaced by Arabic. It lived on only among Christians. Because they sent missionaries along the Silk Road, Aramaic writing was seen as far away as northern China by 781. This stage of the language is called Syriac.
By the late 1980s, there were 1.4 million Aramaic speakers, mostly Chaldean (Catholic) and Assyrian (Nestorian) Christians in northern Mesopotamia in Iraq and Syria.
By 2015, there were only 400,000 Aramaic speakers left! Muslim extremists, like ISIS, are driving them out of their homelands. That is bad news for Aramaic: when people move to another country, their language is often not passed on to their children or grandchildren. That is how Hebrew became a dead language during the Babylonian Captivity.
– Abagond, 2015.
Sources: The Christian Post (2015), “Empires of the Word” (2005) by Nicholas Ostler.