‘Tis the season when various broadcast networks and cable channels will start showing Bible films even if they don’t offer religious programming the rest of the year. Look for The Passion of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth and, for reasons I never understood, The Ten Commandments on a t.v. near you. If you have never seen The Passion of the Christ (2004, directed by Mel Gibson) be prepared for subtitles. The dialogue of the entire film is spoken in Aramaic.
Generally speaking (no pun intended) the Old Testament books of the Bible were written in Hebrew and the New Testament ones written in Greek. Alexander the Great spread Hellenistic culture across the empire he built all the way to the border of China. During Roman rule, at the peak of its power during the first century, there was a Latin speaking half to the west and a Greek speaking half to the east. But even though the New Testament books, including the Gospels, were written in Greek the predominant language spoken by Jesus and his disciples was Aramaic. So what exactly is Aramaic?
The Latin and Greek languages spread to vast reaches among people of various ancestry because of the empires built by military conquest. Aramaic came to the Hebrew people the same way. Long before Julius Caesar and Alexander, Israel fell to the ancient Babylonian empire. Jerusalem was sacked and the inhabitants led into captivity. Their captors spoke Old Aramaic and during the period of exile, before Cyrus of Persia sent the remnant of Jews back to rebuild their temple, Hebrew gave way to Aramaic as the common spoken language. Both languages are Semitic so they are related and share many features.
Hebrew continued to be the liturgical language used by scholarly rabbis and priests in worship. Jesus would have read the scrolls, such as from Isaiah in Luke 4, in Hebrew. His use of “I am” to describe himself in John 8 is nothing less than a play on Hebrew words, lost on the modern reader because of the language difference. It is debatable whether or not Jesus spoke Greek. It is probably but not provable, and I will leave it at that.
Translation is always an issue for modern readers of scripture. Part of the problem is that the Hebrew language is archaic and sometimes the exact translation of a word is impossible. Part of the problem, between you and me, is that English is a terrible medium in which to express one’s self but we must do the best we can with what we’ve got. Translation is not a new problem, however. The Gospel writers translated the words of Jesus from Aramaic to Greek, sometimes transliterating Aramaic or Hebrew words in the process. Some scholars debate whether Matthew was originally written in Aramaic and later translated to Greek but that argument in only about 400 years old. Catholic Answers dismisses the debate as pointless.
Here’s food for thought. When you read an Old Testament passage in English, some of those words were written in Hebrew, translated to Greek (the Septuagint), later still translated to Latin (the Vulgate) and finally translated to English. Here’s a more encouraging thought: we have God’s Word because he cared enough to speak to us in the first place.
*For extra credit, click on the image of the Aramaic scroll at the top of this post. CODEX SINATICUS ZOSIMI RESCRIPTUS is the earliest extant text in Christian Palestinian-Aramaic, dating from the 6 Century AD.