Immersion in Aramaic

October 1, 2004

 

Aramaic, an ancient language thrust into the public ear this year by Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, was what one scholar calls "the English of the ancient world." But researchers now worry that aspects of Judaism and Christianity are being overlooked by academics proficient only in other ancient languages.

"Aramaic in Post Biblical Judaism and Early Christianity," a summer seminar taught at Duke, brought together fifteen fellows--professors and researchers from around the country--for six weeks of intensive language training and a chance to conduct short research projects under the guidance of leading Aramaic scholars.

The summer seminar was taught by Duke professor Eric Meyers, director of the Graduate Program in Religion; University of Wyoming professor Paul Flesher, president of the International Organization of Targumic Study; and Duke professor Lucas Van Rompay, director of Duke's Center for Late Ancient Studies. It was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Aramaic was widely used in the Middle East and Southwest Asia from approximately 700 B.C. to 700 A.D. It was the official language of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires before breaking into local dialects in Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Today, it is spoken by an estimated half-million people in the Middle East and Semitic diaspora.

"One of the major debates over the last ten years has been the extent to which Jesus was familiar with Greek language, Greek culture, and Greek philosophy," says Meyers. He sees Jesus as a typical Jew of his time, primarily speaking in Aramaic and learning in Hebrew. "The language issue is at the very core of this."

Aramaic is also important in biblical archaeology, says Meyers, who has worked on such digs for more than three decades. He estimates that more than a third of all inscribed artifacts discovered from the era of Roman rule of Palestine, in which Jesus lived, are in Aramaic. As an example, he cites a recent controversy over the ossuary purported to have held the bones of Jesus' brother James. Its authenticity is doubted, in part, he says, because the Aramaic inscribed on it is typical of a period much later than Jesus'.

Various ancient texts important to the history of Christianity or Judaism were originally written in dialects of Aramaic, including some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a portion of the Jewish Midrash commentaries, and biblical translations and commentaries by the early church in Syria.

The seminar touched on a more modern issue: the use of Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ. In a session "What language did Jesus speak?" the three co-instructors agreed that archaeological evidence, surviving manuscripts, and Jesus' eighteen Aramaic words recorded in the New Testament indicate that Jesus, indeed, spoke Aramaic. But they took issue with the particular dialect of Aramaic chosen for Gibson's movie, Syriac, because it likely emerged in Christian communities in Syria after the time of Christ.

Flesher, who had previously interviewed the movie's language consultant, explains that Hebrew or Arabic words were occasionally used to approximate Syriac Aramaic ones. Van Rompay is unimpressed. "None of these actors," he says, "not even Jesus himself [in the movie], would have passed my Aramaic exam."