Thursday, October 27, 2011

Christ’s Language: Spiritual Insight from Aramaic


Wisdom from the Language of Jesus


"To where shall we go? It is you that has the words of life!" (John 6:68)


As I was ascending the slope of the mountain, I slipped and fell into the snow. This wasn't everyone's popular conception of the Middle East. I had wisely prepared. I was wearing my leather jacket and my combat boots from my days in the military. My head was wrapped up in a shemagh or keffiyah, the Arabic head covering (also called a ghutra) and I was also wearing gloves. Having lived in Egypt, I knew that the Middle East can get very cold. The snow was falling heavily and the biting cold wind pushed hard against me. Eventually, I made it to the Church of Saint Sergius and Bacchus, one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. I met and old acquaintance there, Evelyn. She is an Aramaic Christian who lives in the village of Maloula. Maloula is an important ancient Aramaic Christian community. Here in Maloula long ago, Saint Paul's disciple Tekla sought refuge among its people while fleeing persecution from the Romans. While I was speaking to Evelyn in this chapel, suddenly a group of Iraqi Christians also arrived. They, like the famous Saint Tekla, also had come here to find sanctuary from persecution. Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, attacks against Iraq's native Christian population has escalated so much so that tens of thousands have fled for their lives. I met with these kind people, these Assyrian refugees, and we discussed the things of the Lord and worshiped in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, together. The Aramaic people of Maloula speak Western Aramaic, which belongs to the same dialect of Aramaic Jesus spoke. The Assyrians and Chaldeans still speak Eastern Aramaic. This form of Aramaic is also closely related to the Aramaic Jesus spoke. In their religious services the Christians of Mesopotamia use a form of Aramaic that is called Syriac. This form of Aramaic is very ancient. Syriac Aramaic is no longer spoken. It is only used in scriptural readings and in worship services. It is very close to the Aramaic Jesus spoke.

Many people around the world are searching for a new spirituality. I've heard several people say that they are "spiritual" but not religious. Even Christians are spiritually hungry and are searching for a more pure and authentic Christianity. Many are looking to understand Jesus within the context of the Jewish culture to which he had belonged. Jesus was a Rabbi, a Jewish religious leader. In Aramaic the word is Rabi, and it means 'teacher." A school-teacher, a professor or a learned man is addressed as 'Rabi' by the Assyrian Aramaic Christians. Another word for teacher in Aramaic is 'Malpana." The Apostles, or messengers (shlikha in Aramaic), of Jesus went and preached to the Assyrians, Chaldeans, the Babylonians and all the people of Mesopotamia. The Assyrians received this ancient wisdom and often refer to those holy men who brought it to them, who were Thomas the Israelite philosopher and also Thaddeus, who brought his "malphanatha" or doctrine. This wisdom they brought was imparted to them by Jesus the Great Sage who brings true enlightenment. Jesus was part of the tradition of wise men of the east. In ancient times wise men from Egypt, Babylonia and from among the Arabs composed many proverbs and maxims. King Solomon, the son of David, was considered the greatest of these sages. Jesus was the heir to this tradition, as he was to the throne of Solomon and David. Jesus, as the Messiah, brought the highest wisdom of almighty God. Jesus reminded his listeners of the Queen of Sheba who sought out the wisdom of Solomon. Jesus said, "she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, a greater than Solomon is here" (Matthew 12:42, KJV). The wisdom taught by Jesus goes beyond what you think, belief or say, it effects how you live out your daily life. Jesus said, "wisdom is justified of her children" (Matthew11:19). The life of Jesus is the most important life ever lived. The words of Jesus are the most important words ever spoken. As this is so, these words should be carefully studied, as they were originally spoken in the Aramaic language. I believe it is vital we go back to the source, the words of Jesus in the original Aramaic. Through the Aramaic I believe we discover the Word of Power and the original and authentic message of Jesus the Messiah. The spoken word was very important in ancient Semitic cultures. In the Bible it is through the spoken word that the Lord created the Universe (Genesis 1:3). One of the titles for Jesus is the Word of God (John 1:1-18, Revelations19:11-16). The words of Jesus, and indeed the rest of the scriptures as well, began as a spoken word. It is necessary to understand the oral culture in which the words of Jesus originated in order to understand the words of Jesus completely. The spoken word was an important theme in the teachings of Jesus and of his apostles. Jesus taught that it is not what goes into the mouth (what you eat), but instead what comes out of it, (what you say) that renders a man unclean (Matthew 15:1). Jesus instructed his followers that "by your words you shall be justified and by your words you shall be condemned" (Matthew 12:37). James the brother of Jesus also reminds us the importance of the words we speak, both for good and ill (James 3:1-12). God's word is eternal. The Bible says, "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of God shall stand forever" (Isaiah 40:8, 1 Peter 1:25). While "tongues will cease" (I Corinthians 13:8) Jesus taught that "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away" (Matthew 24:35). In this book I have two aims, first to introduce the Aramaic language and its importance in a way that is easy to understand and also to show how the Aramaic words of Jesus are not only relevant for today's Christian, but also important in this modern age. My second aim to introduce the modern Aramaic people, their history, their heritage and their current desperate plight.

Speaking of the ancient people of Aram (Aram means Syria) who were the original Aramaic people, William C. Martin in The Layman's Bible Encyclopedia: A Non-Denominational, Biblically Centered, Scholarly in Presentation, Written for the High and Holy Purpose of Encouraging Laymen to Read, Study and Understand the Scriptures says,


Perhaps the greatest contribution left by the Arameans was their language, which we call Aramaic. From the 9th century BC until New Testaments times, Aramaic was used as the common language of international commerce and diplomacy. It is referred to in 2 Kings 18:26. Jesus himself doubtlessly spoke Aramaic. In fact, New Testament references to the Hebrew language probably refer not to Hebrew as we know it, but to the closely related Aramaic.


What exactly is the Aramaic language? Aramaic is closely related to the Hebrew language. It is not Hebrew, nor is it a dialect of Hebrew. While Aramaic and Hebrew are very similar and share a great amount of vocabulary and have many cognates, they are nevertheless different languages. Aramaic is not Arabic. Aramaic is not Armenian. Aramaic is not yet an extinct or dead language. It is still spoken in certain circles, especially by the Assyrians and Chaldeans of Iraq, Iran and Syria. The Assyrians are the oldest Christian people and maintain a very primitive form of Christianity. Among the Assyrians, Aramaic, the ancient language of Abraham and Jesus, is maintained as a living language. If it were possible to travel back in time to the Holy Land of long ago and actually hear Jesus speaking in his own native Aramaic language, what would we learn? Perhaps the closest that we could come to doing this would be to travel to a rural Aramaic speaking village, to listen carefully to the people speak, and observe their customs and habits and carefully study the words of Jesus in this setting. This I have done. We can also investigate the Aramaic version of the New Testament and other scriptures that have come down to us in manuscripts written in Aramaic-the original tongue of Jesus and his followers. Aramaic has been overlooked by almost all of the worlds Christians, except for a handful of scholars and the small groups of Aramaic speaking Christians. I have been studying the Aramaic language and the Aramaic Christian heritage since 1991. I have been teaching Aramaic and lecturing on the topic since 2001. I have studied Aramaic from native speakers, especially when I was serving in the Iraq war as a soldier during 2003 and 2004 and as a military chaplain in 2009-2010. I have visited many Aramaic speaking villages, mostly during my several journeys to Syria. Let us now look at the Language of the Kingdom, the Aramaic language, the language used by Jesus to proclaim his Good News.



The Cry from the Cross:

Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabachtani


The name of God in Aramaic is usually Alaha, a word related to the Hebrew 'Elohiem' and the Arabic 'Allah'. (Although Arabic and Maltese Christians refer to God as 'Allah' the Islamic conception of God is not the same as the God revealed through the Bible or through the teachings of Jesus the Messiah. Islam teaches that "Allah has no Son" and that it is improper to address Allah as Father, but the Fatherhood of God is a central tenet in the philosophy of Jesus. For those interested in the Islamic religion I recommend the books Sword of the Prophet; Islam: History, Theology, Impact on the World by Serge Trifkovic.) Jesus calls on his heavenly Father on the cross as 'Alahi', meaning "My God". In Aramaic God is also called Mar Yah, meaning Lord. The form of God in Aramaic that Jesus used is also used in Daniel in the Old Testament and it is Al-aw or Alaha. So in Aramaic God is called Alaha, meaning 'God' and Maryah, meaning Lord, referring to Yahwah or to the name Yahweh or Jehovah (pronounced in Aramaic as Yehuwah).

In the Bible, in the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus Christ on the cross of Golgotha suffering for the sins of all the world. "And at the ninth hour (three o'clock) Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachtani?" Which, translated (from the Aramaic), is, "My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) (If Jesus had been speaking Hebrew he would have said, "Eli, Eli, lama azabtani." Jesus was not speaking Hebrew but Aramaic, the sister language of Hebrew.) Jesus spoke these words shortly before he died. Many have been confused at the meaning of these words. Some people believe that Jesus cried these words in despair as he neared death and realized that his messianic hope was false. Many Christians understand this to mean that God the Father looked away from Christ because, "he who knew no sin became sin on our behalf"- (2 Corinthians 5:21). (God "turned his face" from His Son as Jesus took upon Himself the sins of all mankind.) Jesus was quoting Psalm 22 from the cross. The word's, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?," are found in Psalm 22:1. This prophetic Psalm was written nearly 1,000 years before the birth of our Lord. It perfectly describes everything Christ endured on our behalf upon the cross.


When comparing Psalm 22 with the story of Jesus' crucifixion amazing parallels appear:    


Jesus is mocked for his trust in God

Psalm 22:6-8 and Mark 15:29-32

Jesus suffers thirst

Psalm 22:15 and John 19:28-29

Roman soldiers took Christ's clothes, divided them up and gambled for them

Psalm 22:18 and Matthew 27:35

Jesus' hands and feet are pierced

Psalm 22:16 and Luke 23:33


(In this passage we must also note John 19:37 and Zechariah 12:10. In Zechariah God says, "They shall look upon Me Whom they have pierced." John says that these words applied to Jesus when he was pierced by the Roman spear while he was crucified.) There was a controversy concerning Psalm 22:16. The Hebrew Masoretic text reads "Like a lion are my hands and my feet". Jews accused Christians of altering the text. In Christian versions the verse reads "They have pierced my hands and feet" but Jewish versions of this verse instead had "Like a lion, my hands and feet". This reading really doesn't make any sense. Christians and Jews debated this passage for over a thousand years. Who changed it, did the Christians or did the Jews, and what did the original actually say? Since the original manuscripts of the Bible have disappeared it was difficult to know for certain. Finally, in 1948 a version of the Bible was discovered that predated both Christianity and Judaism. (The religion we know as Judaism was founded after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.) The true culprits who altered the text were exposed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here the original reading of "They have pierced my hands and my feet" has been preserved and confirmed. See Martin Abegg Jr, Peter Finch & Eugene Ulrich The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: the Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English (Harper, San Francisco, 1999) p. 518-519. So it was the Christians preserved the original reading of this passage of scripture. The alternate reading of "they have pierced my hands and my feet' was found in certain Jewish accounts besides the Dead Sea Scrolls as well.) This illustrates the prophetic significance of Psalm 22 and shows us why Jesus was quoting this verse in Aramaic from the cross.


Many people wonder why it was necessary for Jesus to die. The answer to this question is found in a prophecy written hundreds of years before the time of Christ. Isaiah wrote about Jesus in Isaiah 53:3-12.

"He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our

iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by

his stripes we are healed."


Jesus took the punishment for our sins that we deserve upon himself when he died on the cross. He made a way for everyone to be saved by trusting in him. This atonement is further explained in the Book of Hebrews, "But we see Jesus,…for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that he, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone…Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He himself likewise shared in the same, that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Hebrews 2:9, 14-15). He proved that he accomplished this by his resurrection from the dead on the third day after his suffering. Jesus quoted this Psalm from the cross. Some scholars believe that he quoted it in its entirety from the cross.


What does "Why hast thou forsaken me?" mean? Did God forsake Jesus?


George Lamsa reread it and retranslated it as "My God, My God! For this I was spared!"

Lamsa denied that this Psalm was quoted by Jesus at his crucifixion and denied that this Psalm had any prophetic significance. Lamsa obviously denies that Jesus said anything about God forsaking him at all. According to Lamsa, Psalm 22 is a Song of Complaint or a Song of Distress in which King David is crying out to God in sorrow and thus has nothing at all to do with Jesus. Is Lamsa right? Is Psalm 22 a prophetic psalm or not? Two important things show that Lamsa is wrong. First, he has no manuscript authority for his claim. Second, the authors of the New Testament contradict his claim. His translation of "My God, My God for this I was kept" or "for this I was spared" doesn't even make sense. Lamsa's retranslation is in error and the traditional reading is correct and accurately translates the Aramaic. (Originally Aramaic didn't have written vowels. Aramaic vowels are extra marks dots and dashes added above and below the letters. Lamsa changes the word by altering the vowels.) Lamsa also is in disagreement with how the sacred authors of the New Testament interpret this passage. According to Saint John the Beloved Disciple, Evangelist and Follower of Jesus Christ, Psalm 22 is a Messianic prophecy. When the Romans were casting lots over the garments of Jesus, John 19:23-24 says this happened in fulfillment of Psalm 22:18. In Matthew 27: 35, Saint Matthew says the same thing. Two apostles of Jesus say that Psalm 22 is a messianic prophecy. I think we should defer to the interpretation of these holy apostles who knew Jesus and were chosen by him and reject this new rewording by George Lamsa. The prophecies state that the enemies of God's servant would "shake their heads" and say "he trusted in God, let God deliver him". The prophecy is found in Psalm 22:7-8 and its fulfillment is noted in Matthew 27: 30-43. The here in this passage of Scripture is the fulfillment of prophecy. It is important that Jesus felt these human feelings. This shows us how Jesus identified with us as human beings. Jesus felt the sadness and despair we all experience. Jesus fully identified with the human experience when he became incarnate as a man.



Jesus in Light of His Language, His Culture and Times


I had arrived in Galilee to participate in the archeological excavation of the city of Bethsaida. Bethsaida means in Aramaic "the Fisherman's House." It was the city of Phillip the Apostle. The excavation was dirty work but highly rewarding. I had been to Israel before. I had made a brief excursion to Jerusalem when I was in Egypt visiting with the Coptic Christians who live there. During my visits to the Holy Land I was able to fellowship with Palestinian Christians. The archeological expedition brought me to Galilee for the first time. I found Galilee to be a tranquil and a spiritual place. It was a very fitting place to preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God. While in Galilee, I hiked the "Jesus Trail." I was able to walk the path of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus' name in Aramaic). The climb up Mount Arbel, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee was arduous but rewarding. (The "Sea of Galilee" is actually a lake. It is eight miles across at the widest. You can see across to the other side of the lake from Tiberius and Magdala.) Visiting the Holy Land gives a unique perspective upon the Bible. In my opinion, a pilgrimage to Israel is as helpful to expanding Biblical knowledge and understanding as studying the original languages is. Being in Israel gives you a unique perspective that you can't get from reading and make the Bible story more real than merely learning facts can. I was also able to visit Nazareth Village and the Qatzrin Talmudic village where ancient Jewish life was recreated. Jesus was a Galilean Jew. To understand Jesus it is fundamental to understand that Jesus was Jewish. However, we must be careful not to impose Talmudic, Medieval or Modern Judaism upon the life and times of Jesus the Messiah. (Certain historical mistakes can be seen in movies on the life of Christ. The Franco Zeffirelli movie "Jesus of Nazareth" is a great film and made a sincere effort to stress the Jewish identity of Jesus. However, the practice of growing curls of hair in front of the ears as shown in the movie is a Jewish practice of Medieval origin. I have seen no evidence that Jews used prayer shawls in the first century. The Law of Moses required the wearing of tassels at the corner of your garment. But, the prayer shawls Jews use today originated when the style of dress changed. Jews needed the "Tallit" in order to maintain the commandment of Moses to wear the tassels that had been a part of their normal attire. Also, the synagogues shown in the film are incorrect. A well preserved synagogue from the time of Christ has been discovered at Gamla in the Golan Heights. A historically accurate first century synagogue has been reconstructed at Nazareth village. So, these are anachronisms in the movie. I was impressed with the historical research that went into the animated film "The Miracle Maker" starring Ralph Fiennes. While the Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson did a great job of portraying the horrors of crucifixion and was in Aramaic (which was awesome), the Temple is portrayed correctly and we have a good idea of what the Temple looked like because of archeological discoveries. The movie "The Nativity Story" starring Keisha Castle-Hughes also did a decent job at attempting at historical authenticity.) Judaism of the first century was highly diverse. There were many different forms of Judaism, that of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the recently discovered ancient sect that called themselves the "Yahad." We must also bear in mind the historical context of the time of Jesus the Messiah. The Jewish people lived under Roman Occupation. Jesus lived in an oral culture. Less than twenty percent of men could read. Some scholars believe that literacy rate among the Jews in the Holy Land was far lower than 20%. Among the Greeks and Roman literacy rates were less than 10% of the male population. This is why Jesus says "You have heard it said…" referring to the Jews familiarity with Scripture in Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38 and 43. They had "heard it said" of the Bible-because most people couldn't read. In Acts 15:21, James, the Brother of Jesus, mentions how that the Books of Moses were read in the Synagogues. Since most people couldn't read, they would go to the synagogue to listen to the Bible being read or recited orally. Since Aramaic was the native language of the Jewish people, most people were familiar with the Bible through an Aramaic oral version called the Aramaic Targum, which I shall discuss at length. Many people idealize the past and imagine that Jews of the First Century had universal literacy. But this isn't the historical reality. Most of the Jews were subsistence farmers who struggled to survive. They didn't have the resources to achieve universal literacy. They did teach their children Bible stories and their religious beliefs but the majority was illiterate. (While the majority was illiterate, written texts in the Aramaic language from the time of Jesus have survived and come down to us.) The Aramaic language displaced Hebrew as the common spoken language of the Jewish people during the exile to Babylon and the return from exile. Most common Jewish people could speak only Aramaic. In certain isolated villages, Hebrew may have survived but it was a language spoken only by the elite. Aramaic was the common language. The Holy Land at the time of Jesus was tri-lingual. Aramaic was the common language, Hebrew was also spoken. The third common language spoken in the Holy Land was Greek, which was mostly the language of Greeks who had come to settle in the land of Israel.


Recommended Resources:


I recommend my book "Christ the Man" about the first year of Christ's ministry and his relation with John the Baptist.

Anna Dintaman and David Landis Hiking the Jesus Trail and Other Biblical Walks in the Galilee (Village to Village Press, 2010)

Jacob Firsel Go to Galilee: A Travel Guide for Christian Pilgrims (Village to Village Press, 2011)


About Palestinian Christians:


Charles M. Sennot The Body and the Blood: The Middle East's Vanishing Christians and the Possibility for Peace (PublicAffairs, December 24, 2002)



How Do We Know That Jesus Spoke Aramaic?


It is an established historical fact that Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic as his mother tongue and taught in that language. I present the evidence for this in my book "Aramaic: The Language of Jesus of Nazareth" and in "The Language of Jesus: Introducing Aramaic." For more detail please refer to these books. I do want to present here a few of the many reasons why we know that Jesus spoke Aramaic and preached his Gospel of the Kingdom in that language. There are people who deny that Jesus spoke Aramaic and claim that Jesus spoke only Hebrew. (A smaller group claims that Jesus spoke only Greek.) We have many Aramaic words spread throughout the Greek text of the New Testament. Why would the writers of the New Testament use the Aramaic words if it was some other language than the language that Jesus spoke? The words of Jesus from the cross, "Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachthani!" are definately Aramaic. Why would Jesus speak a language that was foreign to Him when he cried out in agony during his crucifixion? Paul quotes the short prayer "Maranatha" in the close to his First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:22). Why would he include an Aramaic prayer in a letter to a Greek city between Athens and Sparta unless it was significant in that it was in the language of Jesus and the Christian Jews in Jerusalem? There is more evidence.


At the time of Jesus, the homily preached at the synagogue was concluded with an Aramaic prayer called the Kaddish. Jewish practices have changed and now this ancient Aramaic prayer in recited during times of mourning. Here it is in Aramaic and English.


    Yitgadal, v'yitkadash, sh'may rabbah.

    B'almah di-v'ra chirutay, v'yamlick malchutay,

    B'chayaychon uv'yomaychon, u'v. chayay d'chol

    Bayt Yisrael, ba-agalah uvixman kareev

    V'imru, Amen.



Exalted and hallowed be his great name

    In the world which he created according to his will.

    May he let his kingdom rule

    In your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime

    Of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon.

    And to this, say: Amen.


Notice that there are similarities between the Kaddish and the Lord's Prayer. It begins with hallowing the name of God and praying that His Kingdom would come. It also speaks of God's will being done. Here is the Lord's Prayer in the "Classical Syriac" form of Aramaic, which is very similar to the way Jesus originally prayed the Lord's Prayer.



Abun d-ba-shmayya


Our Father who is in Heaven

S. nethqaddash shmakh

E: May your name be sanctified

S: Tethe Malkuthakh

E: May Your Kingdom come

S: Neweh sebyanakh

E: May your will be done

S: Aykana d'ba'shmayya

E: As in Heaven

S: aph 'al ar'a

E: Also on earth

S: Hab lan lahma

E: Our bread for this day

S: d-sunqanan yawmana

E: Give us this day

S: wa-shboq lan hawbayn

E: And forgive us our debts

S: aykana d-aph hnan

E: As we too

S: shbaqnan l-hayyabayn    

E: Have forgiven our debtors

S: w-la ta'lan l-nesyona

E: and do not let us enter temptation

S: ella passan men bisha

E: But deliver us from the evil one.


There is another indication that Aramaic was the original language of the Lord's Prayer found in the wording of the Lord's Prayer. First, it began with "Abba," the Aramaic word for intimate father. The Fatherhood of God has a special emphasis in the teachings of Jesus. Another evidence for the Aramaic origin of the Lord's Prayer is the use of uniquely Aramaic phraseology in the Lord's Prayer. Sebastian Brock in his book The Hidden Pearl describes the evidence.


"A further important pointer to Aramaic is provided by the two different versions of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:9-15 and Luke 11:2-4: while Matthew has 'and forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtor' (verse 12), Luke has 'and forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone who is indebted to us' (verse 4). In Aramaic, but not in Hebrew of this period, the words for 'debt', 'debtor,' are frequently used in the sense of 'sin', 'sinner'; in Matthew we have a literal translation of the underlying Aramaic words, while in Luke, in the first half of the verse, there is a more idiomatic rendering.


Contemporaries of the Apostles as well as the early Church Fathers speak of the Apostles and the Jews of Christ's day as being primarily Aramaic speakers. Josephus lived from 37 to circa 100 AD. He was a contemporary of St. Paul. He wrote about John the Baptist, Jesus, James the brother of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem. Josephus was a priest and related to the Hasmoneans, a royal family. In his preface to The War of the Jews he mentions that he originally wrote this book in Aramaic because he felt he was deficient in Greek and he also wrote it in Aramaic for the "barbarians" in Mesopotamia! (Josephus wanted non-Jewish Aramaic-speakers who lived in Babylonia and Assyria to be able to read his books. He specifically states this was part of the reason he originally composed his works in Aramaic before translating and re-writing them in Greek.) In Antiquities III 10.6 he mentions that the Hebrew used Aramaic:


When a week of weeks has passed over after this sacrifice, (which weeks contain forty and nine days,) on the fiftieth day, which is Pentecost, but is called by the Hebrews Asartha, which signifies Pentecost, they bring to God a loaf, made of wheat flour, of two tenth deals, with leaven; and for sacrifices they bring two lambs.


(Asartha is an Aramaic word and isn't Hebrew.) In War of the Jews Book IV Chapter 1 Section 5 Josephus mentions a Roman soldier that was an Aramaic speaker from Syria, but not a Jew, sneaking into Jewish household and listening to the Jewish rebels discussing their war-plans. They were, of course, speaking in Aramaic. Josephus specifically notes that this soldier was sent on this mission, because, as he was an Aramaic speaker, he spoke the same language that the Jews did. (Josephus was often used by the Romans to speak to the masses of the Jewish people on their behalf and it is obvious that when he describes himself as doing so, he was speaking to them in Aramaic.) In his book Demonstration of the Gospel Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275-339) describes the Twelve Apostles as "quite common men, and barbarians [non-Greeks] to boot, with no knowledge of any tongue but Syrian." After Jesus gives the Disciples the Great Commission and to preach his message to all the world, Eusebius has them ask, "But how…can we do it? How, pray, can we preach to the Romans? We are men bred up to use the Syrian tongue only, what language can we speak to the Greeks?" (As is noted above, the "Syrian tongue" is Aramaic, as Aram means "Syrian." See Eusbius Pamphylis Demonstration of the Gospel, in the English translation, DE Book III, chapters 5 and 7, cited Dem. Ev. III. 4.44; 7.10.) This helps us to understand that Eusebius means that Matthew wrote his Gospel originally in Aramaic when he states, "For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue..." (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book III). Eusebius makes it very clear that the apostles spoke Aramaic only so obviously he refers to Matthew's "native tongue" he means Aramaic and not the language we now know as Hebrew. Eusebius-who is the source of our quote of Papias- was convinced that Jesus and the Apostles spoke only Aramaic! He had information available to him that we no longer possess today! This shows first, that the Greek word "Hebraidi" can indeed mean "Aramaic" and secondly, that the most ancient sources state unequivocally that the apostles spoke only Aramaic.



Biblical Languages


"Though I speak the languages of men and angels-if I have no love, then I am a clanging gong or tinkling cymbal." 1 Chronicles 13:1


    In conversations with certain Messianics with whom I disagree, I usually get an interesting statement in reply to disagreements with them. The disagreements usually stem from the question whether or not Jesus spoke Aramaic or if the Hebraic way of thinking involved "cyclical thinking" or other supposed modes of thought that people who do not speak Hebrew are unable to engage it. (I believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic and that the Hebrews did not use so-called "cyclical thinking.) These Messianics are certain that the "Hebrew mindset" is preferable to our so-called "Western Greco-Roman Mindset"(which is somehow defective) and that only by "thinking Hebraically" can one be pleasing to God. What exactly is a "Greco-Roman Mindset"? I read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and other historical works to find out. These studies were more beneficial and enlightening than many of the lectures I have heard from certain "Messianic" experts. What is a "Hebraic Mindset"? Usually, it is left undefined. Apparently, it means being "Torah observant" or applying rabbinical exegesis, which, ironically are usually based on ideas from Plato (of course they neglect to attribute them to him). When I challenge some of the contentions of certain Messianics, the come-back I get is usually, "You need to learn Hebrew." I have learned Hebrew and have studied it at the graduate level. But this really represents, a level of misunderstanding of Hebrew, biblical languages and linguistics on the part of the Messianic "experts." How biblical languages work is the same way that human language works in general. The question is, "Does learning a language make you more spiritual?" To find an answer to this question let us consider the ancient Israelites and the modern Israelis. Many modern Israelis are secular. In Israel there are criminals in jail who think and speak in Hebrew. Many ancient Israelites worshiped idols and were constantly rebuked by the prophets. Their Hebrew speaking didn't give them any spiritual perspective or made the Israelites more acceptable to God. Nicodemas was a leader of the Jews that knew Hebrew and Aramaic, the Scriptures and Rabbinic lore. But he didn't know God. So we see, language in and of itself, does not make one pleasing to God or a spiritual person.

    Hebrew is a Semitic language. Let us look at Semitic languages. Hebrew is part of a language family-the Semitic language family. Semitic languages are often thought of as "spiritual" languages. Hebrew is the language of the Old Testament. Aramaic was the language of Jesus Christ. Arabic was the language of the so-called "prophet" Mohammad and his so-called "holy" Koran. But let's look at the big picture. There are laws of languages. One law is that all living human languages, including Hebrew and Arabic evolve. All language speakers are agents of change. An example is Arabic. There are many Arabic dialects and they are not mutually intelligible.(Actually, it is more accurate to say that there are many Arabic languages.) An Arab from Morocco cannot understand the Arabic of an Arab from Kuwait. However, to bridge the gap between Koranic Arabic and Modern Arabic dialects, an artificial language was created that is called Modern Standard Arabic (fus-ha in Arabic). Arabs across the Arabic world study this form of Arabic as a foreign language in their schools. Since the Arabs view their language as sacred, as it is the language of the Koran, they view their modern Arabic languages as "slang" and value Koranic Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic as the ideal. Modern Aramaic speakers have trouble understanding the Classical Syriac (Ecclesiastical Aramaic) used in their Church services. Hebrew died out and was revived in the late 1800s. Nonetheless, Modern Israeli Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew are two different languages. Modern Israeli Hebrew is an evolving language. The evolution of Biblical Hebrew can be seen throughout the text of the scriptures. The victorious "Song of the Sea" sang by the Israelites after the crossing of the Red Sea doesn't use the definite article because it is a very primitive form of Hebrew. So, what is "spiritual" about Hebrew? Is it the definite article (which was not present in primitive Hebrew)? It is the conjugation system? Is it Hebrew's prefixes and suffixes? Perhaps it is its vocabulary. Maybe the Hebrew alphabet is "spiritual." But, our alphabet has the same origin as the Hebrew alphabet, and actually bears a closer resemblance to the original paleo-Hebrew alphabet than the modern Square Hebrew Script does. If our alphabet has the same origins as Hebrew, and it does, what make their letters "holier" than ours? Are the shapes of letters supernatural of spiritual? We should remember that "Hebrew" is not called "Hebrew" in the Bible. It is called Canaanite and Judean. Hebrew is Canaanite. It is the same language that was spoken by the Phoenicians, by Hannibal and by the Carthaginians. (Punic is a form of Hebrew.) With the King Mesha monument discovery it was discovered that the Moabite language was the same as Hebrew. So, ancient Israel's pagan neighbors spoke Hebrew. So we see, speaking Hebrew in and of itself does not impart special knowledge of or favor with God. Hebrew evolved out of a pre-Historic language that the linguists who have reconstructed this language have named "Proto-Semitic." Proto-Semitic evolved out of an earlier language called "Afro-Asiatic." Hebrew, through the Afro-Asiatic language family that it is a part of, is distantly related to ancient Egyptian and Berber. Semitic languages such as Aramaic and Arabic are considered by some to be "spiritual languages." But they are not the only Semitic language still spoken. Maltese (spoken on the Island of Malta and considered a part of Europe), Soqotri (spoken on the Isle of Socotra off the east coast of Africa), the non-Arabic Arabian language called Mehri spoken in the southern Arabian penninsula, and Amharic and the other Semitic languages of Ethiopia are all Semitic languages and yet do not possess the spiritual prestige that their kindred tongues of Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic enjoy.

    Different dialects of Hebrew were spoken in the Bible. The Bible describes this. During the period of the Judges, the Israelites were engaged in savage internecine warfare. Judges 12:5-6 describes the incident, "And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand." The Hebrew word "shibbóleth" literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain or, in different contexts, "stream or torrent." Recorded in the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim, the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river's fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test: in the Ephramite dialect of Hebrew they said "Sibboleth" while the Gileadites pronounced this Hebrew word as Shibboleth. The Gileadites exposed the Ephramite identity of these Hebrews by forcing them to speak in the particular Ephraimite dialect of Hebrew and executed them on the spot. In Christ's day, Galileans also spoke a distinctive dialect of Aramaic. Jews from Galilee were known to speak with a peculiar accent to their Aramaic that was immediately recognizable to the Aramaic speakers of Jerusalem and Judea. Peter's speaking with this particular Aramaic accent is noted in Matthew 26:73. This Galilean form of Aramaic is also described and ridiculed in the Talmud. Galileans had a distinctive accent to their Aramaic. (They dropped their gutturals. This is probably why the name Jesus was pronounced "Yeshua" in Judea but "Yeshu" in Galilean Aramaic.) Matthew 26:73 Peter is told, "Why, you must be a Galilean, your accent gives you away!" The deep country accent of Galilean Aramaic was often mocked by the sophisticated city-slickers of Jerusalem. In Jesus: The Evidence by Ian Wilson it is noted that


It is known that the Galileans caused great amusement to the snobbish southerners by their characteristic sloppiness in pronouncing Aramaic. The Talmud describes the ridiculing of a Galilean in the Jerusalem market place for trying to buy what he called "amar". He was chided, "You stupid Galilean, do you want something to ride on? [hamar: a donkey] Or something to drink? [hammar: wine] Or some clothing? [amar: wool] Or something for a sacrifice? [immar: a lamb]


Languages must convey information. If they do not do that, they are not functional languages. It is the message the language conveys and not the language itself that is divine. The Holy Word is the teaching of Jesus, and not the sounds or words of Hebrew and/or Aramaic. (Nor the letters. Literate people have trouble understanding that an alphabet and a language are distinct things.) And this is the danger of these people who falsely claim that Jesus spoke only Hebrew. Did Jesus speak only Hebrew? We know that Jesus spoke Aramaic. Our goal should be to discover the truth and to advance knowledge. These "Hebrew Only" Messianics are not helping us understand Jesus clearer and better. What they are doing is putting out false information that deceives and confuses people. It is a historical fact that Jesus spoke Aramaic. Those who deny this fact are creating a new false Christ who is not the Christ of history. Language resources should be a tool that helps us gain additional insights into the teachings of Jesus. But the "Hebrew Only" people are trying to use Hebrew language and culture to create a barrier between man and God. James the Just, the Brother of Jesus, said, "Pure religion and undefiled is…" Was it speaking Hebrew? Observing the Law of Moses? No, "to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world." (James 1:27). Jesus came to redeem mankind and not to teach people to observe holidays, keep a diet, wear distinctive clothing or to have a particular haircut. Jesus' theme is for his followers to know God as Father, to be spiritually renewed (being "Born Again") and to have peace with God by trusting in Jesus, God's Messiah. Biblical Holidays were observed by Jesus and are good but we are brought into right standing with God by trusting in His grace not by observing Jewish customs or speaking any specific language, be it Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. Christ's Jewish culture is important. Christ's Aramaic language is important. But the Message preached by Jesus is simple. We must approach God with the humility and simplicity of a child. (Paul warns us "knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And Jesus said that unless we approach God with the simplicity and humility of a child, we will never enter into the Kingdom of God.) I am concerned with how that Islamic fanatics are persecuting Assyrian Christians and Coptic people. Without protection or divine intervention, very soon radical Muslims will exterminate Middle Eastern Christianity and Aramaic, which is one of the oldest continuously spoken languages in the world, will disappear as a spoken language. I believe that if that happens that it will be tragic and sad. As much as I think Aramaic is important, the Good News of Jesus is simple and universal and Biblical Language is an important resource but must not be allowed to become a barrier between God and man. Jesus did away with cultural and language barriers when he died on the cross for all mankind. Biblical languages are important but must be seen in their proper role.


For those interested in Biblical languages a great resource for beginning your investigations is "How Biblical Languages Work: A Students Guide to Learning Hebrew and Greek" by Peter James Silzer and Thomas John Finley. (Notice how Aramaic is overlooked-as it often is.) This book does an excellent job of clearing up popular misconceptions about Biblical languages and languages in general.



Aramaic: An Original Language of the Old Testament


In Deuteronomy 26:5 the Israelites were commanded during the Feast of First Fruits to recite the statement, "A wandering Aramean was my father" (or "A Syrian ready to perish was my father" in the KJV). They did this to remind themselves of their Aramaic origins. Aramaic means the language of the people of Aram – Aram means Syria. (Aram and Asshur the forefathers of Syria and Assyrian, were the sons of Shem, the son of Noah Gen. 10:22) Aramaic has also been called the Syrian language or Syriac as it is in Daniel 2:4 in the King James Version. The word Syriac however is now used for a specific Aramaic dialect used by Christians. Aramaic has also been called Chaldean, especially in old concordances. (Aramaic is even called "Hebrew" in certain ancient sources since it was the language the Hebrews spoke.) Abraham is called an Aramean, meaning an Aramaic speaker. Abraham was an Iraqi, native of Ur of the Chaldeans. The importance of Aramaic is also seen in that it is blessed in the Talmud.

The Rabbinic Blessing of Aramaic


    "Let not Aramaic be lightly esteemed by thee, seeing that

     the Holy One (Blessed Be He) hath given it honor in the

     Law, the Prophets and the Writings"

     Palestinian: Tractate Sata 7:2


This means that all three sections of the Hebrew divisions of the Old Testament contain a portion in Aramaic. (Some Jewish groups called the Old Testament the Tenakh, which is an acronym formed from Torah, the Law, Nebiiem, the Prophets, and Kethuvim, the Writings.)

Aramaic in the Tanakh (The Old Testament)


The Law            Genesis 31:47

The Writings            Daniel 2:4-7:28

                Ezra 4:6-8 and 7:12-26

The Prophets            Jeremiah 10:11

                (2 Kings 18:17)


The first use of Aramaic is in Genesis 31:46 when Laban and Jacob made the covenant "May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from another". The place where this covenant was made was called Jegar Sahadutha (Heap of Witness in Aramaic) by Laban and Galeed (Heap of Witness in Hebrew) by Jacob. Laban the Syrian (or Aramean) speaks in Aramaic and Jacob the Israelite speaks in Hebrew (or Canaanite). The language we call Hebrew is called 'the Jews language' (Judean) and 'the lip of Canaan' (Canaanite) in the Bible (Isaiah 36:11, Isaiah 19:18). The New Testament calls both Aramaic and Hebrew 'Hebrew'. Modern linguists classify Hebrew as Canaanite. It is closely related to Phonecian and Ugarit. In the Gospel of John Aramaic is often called 'Hebrew.'

The hand of God wrote upon the wall of Balshazzar's palace in the Aramaic language. (I was able to stand in the court of King Balshazzar during my second deployment to Iraq and view the place in the ruins of Babylon where this famous miracle occurred.) This well-known Aramaic expression – like many in the New Testament left un-translated in our Bibles –"mene mene tekel upharsin" (Daniel 5:25). Daniel interpreted these Aramaic words, written by the finger of God, to mean the fall of the Babylonian Empire and the rise of that of the Persians.


F.F. Bruce states

Some well-known words in the Aramaic of Daniel are reserved un-translated in our English version. These are the words that appear on the wall at Belshazzar's feast: MENE, MENE TEQEL UPHARSIN We are not to suppose that these words were illegible. Or even that, taken as separate words, they were unintelligible. They are common Aramaic words, indicating various weights…meaning "numbered, weighed and divided".


Daniel interpreted the prophetic meanings of these words for the wicked king. The single Aramaic verse in the Book of Jeremiah (10:11) is a brief denunciation of doom against false gods, addressed to Gentile nations, and inserted in the midst of an address to Israel. It runs; "Thus shall ye say unto them (i.e. to the nations mentioned in verse 10): the gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, these shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens. It will conveniently illustrate the similarity of Aramaic to Hebrew if we give parallel transliterations of the Aramaic text of this verse and of a Hebrew translation, together with the English rendering word for word:



Jeremiah 10:11




Lehom/lahem/    to-them






Abadu/    abedu/have-made



u-min-techoth/    u-mit-tachath/and-from-under




(From F.F. Bruce's "The Books and the Parchments: Some Chapters on the Transmission of the Bible.")

If you would like to learn Biblical Aramaic there are excellent resources available. See. Frederick E. Greenspahn "An Introduction to Aramaic," Alger F. Johns "A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic," and Miles V. Van Pelt "Basics of Biblical Aramaic."



Aramaic as a Jewish Language


I have received the most angry and bitter hostility about the mere existence of the Aramaic language and people from self-professed experts on Judaism. (These people apparently consider Aramaic "lishana ha-satan," meaning the language of Satan.) I simply cannot understand this because even a person with a rudimentary knowledge of Judaism knows that Aramaic is an important Jewish language. The most complete Aramaic dictionary is the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon and it has been assembled by the Hebrew Union College of the Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. An example of how pervasive Aramaic is in Judaism is the fact that the Jewish Rite of Passage is called in Aramaic the Bar Mitzvah. (If it was in Hebrew it would be "Ben Berith" or "B'nai Mitzvah" or "Mitzoat.")


Kaddish: The Kaddish is an ancient Jewish prayer that was prayed at the close of synagogue services at the time of Jesus. Jesus apparently loved this pray because it is similar to His "Our Father" prayer. The Kaddish is an Aramaic prayer. During the Middle Ages, Rabbis began the tradition of praying the Kaddish, a prayer praising and extolling the Lord, in times of sadness, grief and death. It is now prayed at funerals and after funerals and is now known as the "mourners Kaddish."


Talmud: Two long commentaries on the Torah were written, one in Babylonia and the other in the Holy Land. The Babylonian Talmud became authoritative for modern Rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud written in the Holy Land was called the Palestinian Talmud but is now known as the Jerusalem Talmud. (This is actually incorrect because the Jerusalem Targum was composed in Galilee.) About one hundred years ago, certain Christian Bible scholars would use the Aramaic of the Jerusalem Talmud to attempt to reconstruct the words of Jesus in Aramaic. (The Jews who rejected the authority of the Talmud were called Karaite Jews. They were Sadducees and many of them lived in Egypt. Jesus was not a Karaite Jew.)The Talmud consists of the Mishna, a codification of the oral Law written in Hebrew and the Gemara, which is a running commentary and discussion on the Mishna. Gemara is an Aramaic word that means "completion" or "study." While the Mishna is written in Hebrew, most of the Gemara is written in Aramaic. Here is a partial listing of Aramaic vocabulary found in the Talmud.


Tannaim "teachers" from the Aramaic word tena meaning to repeat

Baraitot from an Aramaic word that means "standing outside"

Amoraim "expounders" or "spokesmen" from the Aramaic word "amar" which literally means "to say."

Saboraim "reasoners" from the Aramaic, sebar, "to reason."

Sipra, Aramaic for "the book"

Melikta, Aramaic for "measure" or "form"

Sirata, Aramaic for "the Song"

Kaspa, Aramaic for "the money."


(For more information see Craig A. Evans Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts 1992)


Portions of the Tosefta: The Tosefta is a supplement to the Talmud. Most of the Tosefta is written in Hebrew but certain parts are in Aramaic.

The Targums: The Targums are Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament. Jewish tradition and modern scholarly opinion hold that Ezra began the tradition of rendering the Old Testament into Aramaic. This was an oral tradition.


The Kaballah (or more specifically the Zohar) The Kaballah is the Jewish occult tradition. The Kaballah is now popular among New Agers. The Kabalah includes magic, astrology, reincarnation and sexual ritualism.


The Scribal notes to the Masoretic text of the Old Testament: Aramaic terminology is still used in the learning of Hebrew. The Masorites, Middle Eastern rabbinic scribes who produced the "definitive" version of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) text of the Old Testament. The two important Aramaic terms used by the Masorites is Qere, Aramaic for "to be read" and Kithib, Aramaic for "what is written." There are other important Aramaic terms such as Milra, an Aramaic word meaning "from below" meaning "below the last syllable" and Milel an Aramaic word meaning "from above" that is next to the last syllable. These two phrases denote the placement of vowel symbols.

(We don't really know how Hebrew was originally pronounced. A group of scribes called the Massorites invented some vowel symbols to make pronunciation of the text easier. They did this about 600 years after the time of Jesus. These vowel symbols are not divinely inspired. The Masorites may have made mistakes. Scholars now believe that the Masorites were speaking Aramaic as their native tongue. Actually we know that the Massorites were Aramaic speakers because the scribal notes to the Masoretic text are in Aramaic. Scholars now believe that the Masorites' Aramaic influenced the way they pronounced Hebrew. Thus, the Masoretic text is not necessarily completely authoritative. People need to realize that Modern Hebrew is a distinct language from biblical or even 'rabbinic' Hebrew. Modern Hebrew has been strongly influenced by English, French and Russian, and even to an extent by Arabic. There is a society in Israel that tries to establish what is 'proper' Hebrew. But today, as it was in Bible times, it is the masses of the people and how they speak it that actually defines the rules. This is why, in the Scriptures, Hebrew doesn't follow its own rules. The evolution of the language, or how it was being spoken on the streets, was impacting how it was being written.)

The Masorites were fallible human beings. What they wrote is not necessarily authoritative. For this reason, modern Bible translators now consult the Septuagint, the Targums, the Syriac Peshitta, the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Latin Vulgate, all of which were translated from Hebrew texts much more ancient than the Masoritic text. The Hexapla was probably a very important version of the Old Testament scriptures but it only exists now in a Syriac Aramaic translation. (The Hexapla had six columns. The first column was the Hebrew text in Hebrew script. The second column was the Hebrew text written in Greek letters. Column three was the translation of Aquila and column four was made by the Jewish Christian Symmachus. The fifth and sixth columns were translations of the Old Testament used by the early church, the Septuagint and the Theodotion versions (see


Chad Gadyo: Is a popular Passover song for children. It is sung in Aramaic. Apparently, Aramaic was the spoken language of Jews in Europe until the development of such Jewish languages as Yiddish (a Germanic language) and Ladino (a Romance language). Jews still consider Aramaic a "Jewish language." Sometimes Jews today occasionally call Aramaic "Hebrew" although it is a distinct language from Hebrew. Aramaic is a language that developed independently of Hebrew. Aramaic is not a form of Hebrew and Hebrew is not derived from Aramaic.


In Israel, to this day, Jewish people from Iraq and Iran still speak Aramaic in Israel. Many Jewish people discuss the Talmud or the Targums in Aramaic. Aramaic is offered in public schools in Israel and used to be a required course.



The best research on the languages spoken in the Holy Land at the time of the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah includes Maurice Casey's Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel (see especially page 73-90and Gustav Dalman's Words of Jesus. See also volume one of "A Marginal Jew" by John P. Meier.



The Aramaic Bible


Phillip Yancey wrote a book entitled The Bible Jesus Read. When I saw it I thought that it was about the Targums or the Dead Sea Scrolls. Instead it was about the Old Testament in general. I was surprised with the low view in which the Old Testament is held. Yancey seems to be apologizing for the Old Testament as if he is saying, "Read the Old Testament, it isn't all that bad." The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus and the Early Church.


"You have heard it said…" Oral Tradition and the Scriptures at the Time of Christ


It needs to be understood from the outset that the scriptures began as an oral tradition. The Bible, for the most part, was intended to be spoken and listen to rather than read in silence. The Bible is still powerfully exclaimed orally. This has been illustrated by the efforts of Lawrence Olivier, Charlton Heston and James Earl Jones in orally proclaiming the scripture. For centuries the scriptures were known by the common Jew through the oral Aramaic tradition. Apparently many of the common Jews at the time of Jesus were illiterate. This explains Jesus' statement in the Sermon on the Mount, "You have heard it said…But I say unto you…"(Matthew 5:21). Bruce Chilton, a scholar of the Targums, believed that Jesus himself was illiterate and his knowledge of the scripture was derived from the Aramaic oral tradition of the Targums. I believe that Jesus was literate but that he was also familiar with the Targumic tradition. This is also seen in his teachings were Jesus quotes from the Targumic Tradition.


Ezra, the Feast of Tabernacles and Birth of the Targums

In Nehemiah 8:8 Nehemiah describes the beginning of the Aramaic Targums. During the season of the Feast of Tabernacles Ezra stands behind a pulpit and reads the scriptures to those who have returned from exile. First he reads the Hebrew text, and then he translated it into Aramaic. These translations or paraphrases are called Targums. The entire Old Testament, with the exception of Ezra-Nehemiah and Daniel (which are largely Aramaic already) were translated into Aramaic as the Targums. In this passage, the Israelites weep as they hear to words of the Law of Moses in their language (Aramaic) for the first time. It causes them to weep. Then Ezra speaks and reminds them, "The Joy of the Lord is your strength!"


The Meturgeman and the Targums in Synagogue Worship


    The Aramaic Targums are important because they originated from the time of Christ, and some of their interpretations reflect understandings of the text current with his era. Bible translators often refer to the Targums to clarify where it seems obscure in the original texts.

    A meturgeman was someone who renders the Bible orally into Aramaic. Jesus acted as a meturgeman on the cross. Certain scholars surmise that Jesus may have recited Psalm 22 in Aramaic in its entirety from the cross.

    But how did Jews worship in their synagogues at the time of Christ? First, they opened in Hebrew with the Shema. This is the statement, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord, your God, the Lord is One Lord." This was followed by Berokoth, or 'Blessings'. This was followed by what is called the Tephillah which is also known as the Eighteen Benedictions or as the Shemoneh Esreh. After this prayer came the reading of Scriptures, first in Hebrew then followed by the Aramaic explanation which is the Targum. Then a sermon was given in Aramaic and the homily was closed with the ancient Aramaic prayer known as the Kaddish. This is the form of synagogue worship with which Jesus was familiar. This is how synagogue worship is described in Rabbinic sources such as the Talmud and has been carefully researched by recognized authorities such as Joachim Jeremias and Martin McNamara.


The Use of Targums in the New Testament


    It isn't just speculation that the Targums may have some bearing in New Testament interpretation. The New Testament actually quotes from the Targums. Jesus himself and even Paul quote from Targumic renderings. In Mark 4:12 Jesus quotes the Targum of Isaiah 6:9-10. The reading is


    'they may indeed look,

    but not perceive,

    and may indeed listen,

    but not understand;

    so that they may not turn again

    and be forgiven.'


F.F. Bruce notes in The Books and the Parchments "The closing words of the quotation in Mark ('and it should be forgiven them') appear neither the Masoretic Hebrew nor in the Greek Septuagint, but they are exactly the words used in the Targum of Jonathon...the Targums of Onqelos and Jonathan contain material much earlier than the dates at which they were published." Bruce Chilton notes in A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible, "In some cases, the agreement is so close, and so unlike the rendering of other ancient versions of the Old Testament, that it is best explained as the influence of Targumic tradition at some stage in the development of the New Testament. McNamara cites Luke 6: 36, "Become merciful just as you Father is merciful," and describes its relationship to the rendering of Leviticus 22:28 in Pseudo-Jonathon,


"My people, children of Israel, as our Father is merciful in heaven, so shall you be merciful on earth."


The most logical explanation of this is that Jesus was familiar with this Targumic rendering and quoted it. Later this Aramaic traditional understanding was written down in the Pseudo-Jonathon Targum. In another passage, quoted below, Jesus also quotes a Targum reading about the Gehenna of fire or hell. Also, St. Paul quotes from the Targum. New Testament quotations of Old Testament passages usually are from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Some quotations match the Hebrew text, others the Aramaic Targums. In Romans 10:7 St. Paul quotes from a Targum Reading found in Targum Neofiti being a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:13.


But the righteousness that comes from faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down) or 'Who will descend into the Abyss (that is to bring Christ up from the dead)." But what does it say? "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips "Jesus is Lord" and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.


(The Hebrew says 'sea' and the Aramaic Targums have 'Abyss'). The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version notes


Abyss agrees with an Aramaic paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:13 (see Targum Neofiti 1) and suggests Christ's resurrection from the subterranean realm of the dead. Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) texts of Deuteronomy instead refer to crossing the sea.


(The Harper Collins Study Bible (Society of Biblical Literature, San Francisco 1993) p. 2130.) Paul also quotes the Aramaic Targum of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8.


But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, "When he ascended on high, he made captivity captive; he gave gifts to his people". When it says "He ascended" What does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.


Paul's quote does not match the Hebrew or the Greek Septuagint Old Testament. It does follow the Aramaic Targum and the Aramaic Peshitta (which is a type of Targum). (In this verse in the Hebrew the gifts are given to God. The Aramaic has the gifts given by God). John the Revelator often refers to Targums of Deuteronomy 31-32 especially in the Song of Moses (Rev. 15: 1-5) which follows Targum Onkelos. (Hugh J. Schonfield The Original New Testament (Element Books, Doreset UK 1998) Other references in Revelations follow the Palestinian Targum. P. 553-580.) Of particular interest is the Targum Neofiti, a Targum written in the dialect of Aramaic of Palestine during the first century. In the Gospel of John 1:14 the evangelist may be referring Targumic used of Word (memra), Abiding Presence (shekina), and Glory (yeqara). So, "it looks as if John is insisting that all forms or expressions of divine manifestation-Word, Abiding Presence and Glory-are summed up and fulfilled in Jesus. F.F. Bruce explains the relationship here with the Targums and the first chapter of John.


One marked feature of the targums is their avoidance of the anthropomorphisms which characterize some references to God in the Hebrew text. One frequent device is the use of the phrase 'the word of God' instead of simply 'God'. Thus in Gen 3:8 instead of 'they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden', the Targums of Onqelos and Pseudo-Jonathan have 'they heard the voice of the word of the Lord God walking in the Garden'. Where the Hebrew text says of Ishmael, 'God was with the lad' (Gen. 21:20), the Targumic equivalent is: 'the word of God was in aide of the lad'. [In The Life an Times of Jesus the Messiah Jewish Christian scholar Alfred] Edersheim counted 179 occurrences of this Targumic idiom in Onquelo…he considered the term 'word' bore 'undoubted application to the Divine Personality as revealing himself'…the Targums provide a remarkable verbal background… to the statement of John 1:14 that 'the word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory'. For in that statement we have three terms, and not only one, which are used in the targums as substitutes for the bare name of God. One is the term 'Word' (Gk. Logos), corresponding verbally at any rate to memra. Then when the Word is said to have 'dwelt among us', the expression used (Gk. Eskenosen) is closely connected with the though of the divine presence which was manifested in the tabernacle in the wilderness-the shekina (from a Semitic root meaning 'to dwell', 'to abide'). And thirdly we have the word 'glory' (GK. Doxa), corresponding to Aramaic yeqara. As Memra, Shekhina and Yeqara are all used in the Targum in connections with divine activity, it looks as if John is insisting that all the forms or expressions of divine manifestations in Old Testaments times-Word, Abiding Presence, Glory – are all summed up and fulfilled in Jesus. (Bruce 137)


The word Memra in modern Aramaic is used for 'the Word' delivered when the preacher preaches his Sermon. It basically means 'sermon'. In the Aramaic New Testament Jesus is the Milta, an active word like a verb. In Greek this scripture could be translated "the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us'. This reminds us of the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles. Also, the first chapter of John's Gospel may represent the hymn that early Christians sang antiphonetically as mentioned in ancient Roman sources.


John, the Word and the Aramaic Background of the Fourth Gospel


    Charles Burney, the Aramaic expert who gave us the valuable Poetry of Our Lord, in which he translated the words of Jesus back into Aramaic and proved them to be Semitic poetry also wrote The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel. In this work he illustrated his belief that the Gospel of John had an Aramaic background. Many scholars have seen John's Gospel as a very Greek book with a Pagan or Hellenistic intellectual background rather than a Hebrew or Semitic background. These assumptions have been challenged by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in which several documents used concepts and patterns of thought very similar to those which are found in the Gospel of John. Johns Gospel begins by referring to Jesus as 'the Word'. The Greek word used here is Logos. Scholars have assumed that John is referring to the pagan philosophical construct of the Logos but the Targums offer us an alternate explanation. Martin McNamara in Targum and Testament: Aramaic Paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible: A Light on the New Testament examines the Aramaic use of the word Memra, which means 'the word' as a reference to God.


In Genesis chapter one of Targum Neofiti we find


The first night when the Lord was revealed above the earth to create it. The earth was void and empty and darkness was spread over the face of the abyss. And the Word (Memra) of the Lord was the light and it shone; and he called it the first night.


McNamara notes, "This is precisely what John in his Prologue says of the Logos. 'In the beginning was the word.. and the Word was God. In him was light and the light shines in darkness' (Jon 1:1-3). And like the targumist, John is speaking of the activity of the Logos at creation. He was then light and this light still shines in Christ. In view of the close connection of the Prologue with Pal. Targ. Ex 12:42, and considering the manifold relations of Johannine literature to Jewish liturgy, it is legitimate to assume that John is very much under the influence of the targums in the formulation of his doctrine of the Logos." A. Diez Macho thinks the entire Prologue is equally so. In his Memra, Glory and Shekina (presence, dwelling) to express the incarnation and mystery of Christ. He renders Jn. 1:14 into Palestinian Aramaic as follows:


    U-MEMRA bisra it'abed,

    Wa-asre SIKINTEH benan,

    Wa haminanyat-YEQAREH,

    Yeqara hekema yehida min abba

    Mele hesad u qeshut


    And the Word was made flesh,

    And placed his Dwelling among us,

    And we saw his Glory,

The glory of the only Son from the Father,

Full of grace and truth.


This is not the only place where we find a reference or clarification by reference to the Targums. McNamara explains,


The biblical text does not tell us why the angels ascended and descended [in Genesis 28:12 story of Jacob's ladder]. The targumic paraphrase supplies a reason. The ascended and descended to see Jacob. They had desired to see him until then, knowing only his heavenly image. 1 Peter 1:12 tells us how the angels long to bend down in order to examine closely (parakypsai) the salvation brought by Christ. Nathaniel was a just man, a true son of Jacob, and Israelite in who there was no guile (Jn 1:47). But the true Jacob was the Son of Man, ascending and descending (Jn 1:51). Here again, Christ apparently availed himself of Jewish tradition to explain the mystery of his person.


John the Revelators use of the Targum of the Song of Moses


The Song of Moses runs through the entire book of Revelation. Hugh Schonfield notes in The Original New Testament that the version of the Song of Moses found in Revelation is that of the Aramaic Targum in which the Song of Moses is interpreted in an eschatological manner.


Revelation 1:4 (Deuteronomy 32:39) He who is, who was and who is to come, the almighty


Revelation 2:11 (Deuteronomy 33:6) believers shall not be hurt by the second death after the resurrection of judgment Chilton and McNamara also notes that the "enigmatic phrase, "the second death," which appears in Revelation 20:6, 4 is paralleled in Onqelos (Deuteronomy 33:6) and Jonathan (Isaiah 65:15ff…). (See Bruce Chilton's Book about Jesus and the Targums entitled "A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible.")


Revelation 6:10 (Deuteronomy 32:43) God is the avenger to the adversaries of his people


Revelation 8:6, Revelation 9:7 (Deuteronomy 32: 23-27) "For these things they sound alarm in every place for blasting, mildew, locusts, evil beasts and the sword" All four beasts of Daniel 7 are combined in the sufferings of the Jews in the End of Days.


The Song of Moses Revelation 15:3-5 (Deuteronomy 32, Exodus 15:1-18, Exodus 15:11, Psalm 86: 8-10, Psalm 90) Targum Onkelos Deuteronomy 32:4 "Ascribe ye greatness unto our God, the mighty one whose ways are perfect, for all his ways are justice…just and true is he'. This is very clear in the text of the "Song of Moses" found in the Book of Revelation:


And they sang the Song of Moses, the servant of God and the Song of the Lamb, saying,

"Great and marvelous are Thy Works,

Lord God Almighty!

Just and true are thy ways,

Thou King of the Saint!

Who will not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy Name?

For thou are holy,

For all nations shall come and worship before thee,

For thy judgments are made manifest."


Revelation 19:2 (Palestinian Targum Deuteronomy 32:41) "Rejoice ye nations, and ye people of the house of Israel; for he hath avenged the blood of his servants which was shed"


The Targum of Zechariah and the Passion of the Christ


And there shall no longer be merchants [or 'traders'] in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.

Zechariah 14:21


This is from the Aramaic Targum. The Hebrew says there shall not be a Canaanite in the House of the Lord. This is a scriptural background for Jesus' purifying the temple and it is also significant that it is found in Deutero-Zechariah. Joachim Jeremias notes in his New Testament Theology that Jesus was operating in his understanding of the prophecy of Zechariah from the Targums when he cleansed the Temple. The fulfillment of this prophecy is found in Mark 11:15-18 and John 2:13-22. Deutero-Zechariah, or the second part of Zechariah, which is Zechariah 9-14, contains many prophecies of the Passion of Christ. Bruce Chilton in Rabbi Jesus and Robert Graves in King Jesus use the prophecies of the second part of Zechariah to understand the Passion. Their interpretations may be slightly in error but Jesus and the writers of the Gospels had the prophecies of Zechariah on mind during the events of the Passion.



The Kingdom of God and the Fatherhood of God in the Targums


    In the Targums the Kingdom of God is usually referred to as the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Targums represented the peoples religion rather than that of the Rabbis so much is made of the hope of the coming of the Messiah and his establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. Interestingly, the idea of the Fatherhood of God is found emphasized in the Targums. However, while Jesus referred to God with the Aramaic form, Abba, or Daddy, this use is deliberately avoided in the Targums. Abba is used for the Heavenly Father, as noted by Joachim Jeremias, only three times.


Gehenna in the Targums


    Jesus in his teachings often warned of Gehenna fire. Gehenna is an Aramaic word that came from the Hebrew place-name 'Gey Hennom' that became a Euphemism for the eternal fires of hell. Jesus agrees with the Targumic interpretation and identifies Isaiah's prophecy as a description of hell. In Mark 9:44 and 48 Jesus refers to Isaiah 66:24 as referring to Gehenna. In this instance Jesus is quoting from the Aramaic Targum. Since the common people spoke Hebrew and not Aramaic, it was necessary to have versions of the Bible in the vernacular so the people could understand it. Jesus here quotes from the Targum of Isaiah and states that Isaiah is referring to hell. Ancient Jewish literature, such as the Book of Enoch, describe hell as do some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jesus describes a burning hell, Gehenna fire, and Jacob his brother refers to the "fire of Gehenna". Isaiah's prophecy states,


And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against me, for their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be abhorrence to all flesh.


Targums contained interpretations that were inserted into the text. Later when the Targums were written down these expansions were included in them. This is very important because it tells us how the scriptures were understood or interpreted during the time of Jesus. In the Targum of Genesis 3:24, we have a description of the common understanding of Gehenna from the time of Christ. This is found both in Targum Neophyti and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan.


He established the garden of Eden for the righteous, that they might take delight in the fruit of the tree, for having during their lives cherished the instruction of the Law in this word and fulfilled the precepts. For the wicked he established Gehenna, which is like a sharp two-edged sword. Within it he established sparks of fire and burning coals with which to judge the wicked, who during their lives rebelled against the instruction of the Law.



The Messiah in the Targums


    In Y'shua: The Jewish Way to Say Jesus Moishe Rosen looked at Biblical prophecies of the coming of the Messiah. Rosen is the founder of the Jews for Jesus organization. Rosen consulted the Targums in this work and he defined the Targums in the following manner.


Targum. An ancient Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible. It became customary in synagogues to follow the reading of the Torah with an Aramaic interpretation, Aramaic being the daily language. Originally the Targumim were oral. Of the many surviving Targumim, Targum Onkelos (on the Torah), Targum Jonathon (Prophets) and Targum Pseudo-Jonathon (Torah) are the best known, Onkelos adhering the closest to the original text.


The controversy arises in the interpretation of scripture. Certain passages of scripture that are seen as Messianic by Christians are not interpreted as Messianic in the modern Jewish understanding. Rosen consulted the Targums to see an older Jewish understanding of these prophecies. Many of the earlier Jewish interpretations of scriptures do concur with Christian understanding that they are indeed Messianic. A helpful tool in researching Messianic prophecies is The
Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation: The Messianic Exegesis of the Targum by Samson H. Levey of Hebrew Union College.

In Isaiah 52 and 53 there are prophecies of the 'Suffering Servant'. It is should be noted that in their annual readings of Scriptures Jews skipped over Isaiah 53. The New Testament interprets the Suffering Servant as the Messiah while Jews not interpret the Suffering Servant as the nation of Israel. Interesting Targum Jeremiah of Targum 52:13 reads,


Behold, My servant the Messiah shall prosper; he shall be exalted and great and very powerful.


Another interesting passage of scripture is the Targumic reading of Genesis 3:15 which has also traditionally read as a Messianic prophecy by Christians but not by Jews. This reading is from the Fragment Targum.


And it shall be that when the sons of women study the Torah diligently and obey its injunctions, they will direct themselves to smite you on the head and slay you, but when the sons of the woman forsake the commandments of the Torah and do not obey its injunctions, you will direct yourself to bit then on the heel and afflict them. However, there will be a remedy for the sons of the woman, but for you, serpent, there will be no remedy. They shall make peace with one another in the end, in the very end of days, in the days of King Messiah.


In this passage there is a messianic understanding but it is not the same as the traditional understanding of Christians. The serpent represents the Devil, his head is crushed by Jesus but he bruises the heel of Jesus in the crucifixion.


The Versions of the Targum that Have Come Down to Us


Qumran Targums: Among the Dead Sea Scrolls was found a Targum to the Book of Job and also fragments of a Targum to the Book of Leviticus.

The Genesis Apocryphon: This book is a type of Targum and is an expanded retelling of the Book of Genesis.

Targum Jonathan Ben Uzziel: this is also known as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and Palestinian Targum I. This is a composite work

Targum Onkelos: This is a very literal translation of the entire Pentateuch. This version is most often used and is in the Chamush. Onkelos is a Hebrew form of the reputed translator a Greek named Aquilas. This is the Babylonian Targum to the Torah.

The Fragment Targum: Also known as Palestinian Targum II.

Cairo Genizeh Targums: Also fragmentary and found in Cairo. They are of a Palestinian Targum.

Tosefta Targum: Tosefta is Aramaic for Additions. These are Babylonian Targums. Not all 'Tosefta' are Targums.

Targum Neofit: This is a complete Targum of the Books of Moses in Jerusalem Aramaic. Many ancient readings are found in this Targum

The Samaritan Targum: The Samaritans have preserved a Targum of the Torah that they translated from the Hebrew into the Aramaic. They needed a Targum for the same reason the Jews did.

Targum Jonathan, Targum of the Prophets: This is a Babylonian Targum to the books of the history and the Prophets of the Old Testament.

There are also individual Targums of Job, Psalms, Proverbs and all other books with the exception of Ezra-Nehemiah and Daniel.

The Syriac Peshitta: This is a complete Targum made from the Hebrew into Aramaic by a group of Jewish Christians. Targumic interpretations are found in this Bible such as Psalm 68:18


The Use of the Targumim in Modern Biblical Translation


Modern Bible Translations often reference the Targums and even translate from them at times. When the Hebrew seems obscure, Bible translators often turn to the Targums for clarification. The reading of the Targum is followed especially if it agrees with the Syriac Peshitta and the Greek Septuagint. For instance Zephaniah 2:14 in the Aramaic Targum reads, "every wild animal" which fits the context of the scripture. The Masoretic Hebrew texts reads "every wild nation". The Masorites were scribes and may have made a mistake. Here, as in other places, the Aramaic Targum has preserved the original reading. So, we see with the Targums that paraphrases are an ancient tradition. So, we see that paraphrases, such as "The Message" and the "Living Bible" are actually a part of an ancient tradition. However, a clear distinction was made between the paraphrase and the literal reading of Scripture. So, there is nothing wrong with using a paraphrase, if you understand what it is and what its role is. However, it seems that accurate translations of the Bible are now few and far between. Today, very few English translations are literal and Bible versions that are paraphrases don't state that they are but try to pass themselves off as translations. They describe themselves as "dynamic equivalence" translations and many of them take liberties with the text. I believe accuracy in translation should be a primary goal and that we should let the ancients speak for themselves. But now their words are filtered through modern political ideologies as we see with the "Gender Neutral" translations. In these versions, Jesus is the Child of God and not the Son of God and the Israelites have ancestors and not fathers and God is our Parent and not our Father. These politically correct speech codes are impoverishing the English language. So these new translations are imposing an extremist leftist politically correct anti-Christ ideology upon the Sacred Scriptures. So this politically correct system and Orwellian newspeak that is foreign to the way of thought and alien to the beliefs of the prophets and indeed opposed to God's Holy Spirit is incorporated into modern translations of the Bible. I believe this is immoral. We should let the prophets speak for themselves.


The Syriac Peshitta


    M. P. Witzman demonstrated the Jewish origin of the official version of the Old Testament among the Aramaic Church. This is the Syriac Peshitta. Weitzman wrote The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: An Introduction. A connection of this Aramaic Bible to first century Judea is also demonstrated in the fact that it contained lost psalms, Psalm 151-155. These lost Syriac Psalms were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Peshitta is considered an important witness to the Hebrew text and is also consulted by modern translators of the Bible. There is evidence that Aramaic people in Assyria and Babylonia began coming to faith in the one God. Josephus mentions the royal family of the Assyrian Kingdom of Adiabene converting to faith in the God of Abraham. Helen, the Queen of Assyria, became so devout that she had her tomb in Jerusalem, where it has been discovered and excavated by archeologists. According to Aramaic Church tradition, documented by Eusebius and in the ancient text of the "Doctrine of Addai", the apostles and relatives of Jesus established Christianity among the Assyrians. Jacob of Edessa writing in 700 AD wrote, "Addai [Thaddeus] the Apostle and Abgar the believing king sent a man to Jerusalem, and to the region of Palestine, and they translated from the Hebrew language to the Syriac [Aramaic] language." So here we see the Jewish origins of Syriac Christianity verified by Syriac authors. Weisman's conclusions was that the Peshitta was translated by Jews who became Messianic or Christian Jews. He dates the translation from 130-200 AD and believes that the Peshitta reached its completion in 200 AD.


The Targums


The Aramaic Bible: The Targums A multi-volume set of the Aramaic Old Testament Bible available from Liturgical Press. Michael Glazier Inc. The Aramaic Bible Series. Bilmington Delaware 1987


Alexander Sperber The Bible in Aramaic Based on Old Manuscript and Printed Texts (Brill, Leiden, 1992) Note: This is the Aramaic text in Hebrew or Square Aramaic script. This is for people who are able to read Aramaic.


Moishe Rosen Y'shua: The Jewish Way to Say Jesus (Moody Press, Chicago 1982)


Samson H. Levey
The Messiah: And Aramaic Interpretation, The Messianic Exegisis of the Targums (Hebrew Union college, Cincinnati 1974)


Martin McNamara Targum and Testament: Aramaic Paraphrases of the Holy Bible: A Light on the New Testament (Irish University Press) and Targum and Testament Revisited: Aramaic Paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010)


John Ronning The Jewish Targums and John's Logos Theology (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 2010)


F.F. Bruce The Books and the Parchments: Some Chapters on the Transmission of the Bible (Pickering and Inglis, London, 1978)


Bruce Chilton Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (Doubleday, New York, 2000)


Bruce D. Chilton A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible: Jesus' Use of the Interpreted Scripture of His Time (Michael Glazier, Inc. Wilmingon, Delaware 1984)


M.P. Weitzman The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 1999)


D.R.G. Beattie and M.J. McNamara The Aramaic Bible: Targums in their Historical Context (Sheffield Academic Press, 1994)







The Aramaic New Testament


Papias, an early church father, claimed that Matthew wrote his Gospel in "Hebrew" (probably meaning Aramaic) and that others translated it as best as they could. Others among the Church Fathers were familiar with the "Hebrew" Matthew, which they describe as being in the Aramaic language but written in the "Square Hebrew" alphabet. Unfortunately, this Hebrew Matthew is lost. However, we do have descriptions of it and fragments of it have survived, but translated fragments that are not in the original Aramaic language of the text. So, while the original Aramaic Gospel (or Gospels) are lost, we do have several versions of the Gospels and the New Testament written in Aramaic that have been preserved.


The Diatesseron of Tatian the Assyrian


The first harmony of the Four Gospels was composed by Tatian the Assyrian the disciple of Justin Martyr circa 150, composed in Syriac and Greek. The Syriac original was deliberately destroyed by the Jacobite sect of the Syriac Church. Now it only exists in translation. The Arabic edition is the most important but it is preserved in other languages as well. Portions in the original Aramaic are preserved in commentary by St. Ephraim. The Diatesseron was used instead of the 4 Gospels by Aramaic Christians for centuries.


The Old Syriac has rare alternate readings. It was discovered by Cureton and later another manuscript by Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson in 1892. The Syriac Church does not use this version. The Old Syriac is preserved in the Cureton & Sinai (or Siniaticus Syriacus) Manuscripts. Cureton stated on the discovery of the Syriac manuscript that bears his name, "This Syriac text of the Gospel of St. Matthew which I now publish has, to a great extent, retained the identical terms and expression which the Apostle himself employed." It has been determined that the Old Syriac text discovered by Lewis showed traces of the Palestinian Aramaic dialect and shows Jewish Christian influence. (A book telling the story of the discovery of this Old Syriac Gospel is entitled "The Sisters of Sinai" and is about Lewis and Gibson.)


The Peshitta New Testament Peshitta means "simple" or "common." It is a smooth, scholarly, accurate version, free and idiomatic, without being loose. The Syriac Peshitta is the Standard Version of all the Syriac Churches predates division of Syriac Church in 435.


The Philoxerian & Harkleian Syriac attempts to bring Syriac texts closer to the Greek Originally translated in 508 by Philoxenus, Bishop of Mabbug then revised in 616 A.D. by Polycarp, with notes by Thomas of Harkel, also Bishop of Mabbug.


The Palestinian Syriac Version The Aramaic of the Palestinian Syriac Version is closer to that of the Targums. Exists in fragments, but we have most of the New Testament. It was brought into close conformity with the Greek text. Aramaic is probably closer to that which Christ himself spoke. In Mark 7:34 here the Palestinian Syriac…renders the entire text: "And he said to him, "Be thou opened", which is, "Be thou opened". (Although it is called "Palestinian Syriac," it is more accurate to call it "Aramaic." Syriac is usually used to refer to a specific dialect of Aramaic used by the Church of the East and the Syrian Orthodox Church as "Ecclesiastical" or "Classical Syriac."


Aramaic Versions of the New Testament in the English Language Translations


There are several English translations of the New Testament from the Aramaic version, most notably the translation by John Wesley Etheridge. Gorgias Press has the translation from the Syriac by James Murdock available. James Murdock, trans. The New Testament Translated from the Peshitto Version (Gorgias Press, New Jersey 2001). Gorgias Press has many books on the Syriac Christian heritage available. They also have a video available entitled The Last Assyrians.


Joseph Paskha has translated The Aramaic Gospel and Acts and has written a key to aide in the pronunciation of the Aramaic. An Interlinear Aramaic New Testament is freely available at George Mamishishu Lamsa, Vic Alexander and Jan Magiera have all translated the New Testament from Aramaic into English and their translations are available.



The Aramaic Followers of Jesus


In the Bible, many of the followers of Jesus have uniquely Aramaic names. Not only that, but Jesus gives certain of his disciples Aramaic nick-names. This would have been a very odd practice, if Jesus didn't speak Aramaic, as those who say that Jesus spoke only Hebrew claim. One indication of Aramaic verses Hebrew, is that in Hebrew "son of," is "ben" while in Aramaic the word for "son of" is "bar." Jesus has followers with this form in their name such as Bartholomew and Barnabas.


Thaddeus the Heart


The Gospel of Matthew declares that the fame of Christ spread throughout all of Syria—meaning Aramaic speaking areas—during his ministry (Matthew 4:24). Two apostles carried the Gospel to the East, Thaddeus and Thomas. (Paul may also have preached to Aramaic speaking people first. It is possible that when Paul went to Arabia that he went to the Nabatean Kingdom of Petra in Jordan and preached to the Aramaic- speaking Arabs under King Aretas. King Aretas was probably trying to arrest Paul for his efforts at converting his fellow Aramaic-speakers to faith in Jesus. See Galatians 1:17 and 1 Corinthians 11: 32-3. When Paul says he is a "Hebrew of the Hebrews" in Philippians 3:5 he means that he was raised an Aramaic-speaking religious Jew. Both Tarsus and Damascus were Aramaic-speaking cities.) One of the reasons we know that Aramaic was the language of Jesus is because he gave his disciples Aramaic names, or they had Aramaic names already. Simon the Son of Jonah was given the Aramaic nick-name Cephas, meaning 'Stone'. James and John were nick-named Boanerges, Aramaic for "Sons of Thunder". Judah was given the Aramaic nick-name Thomas, meaning 'Twin' because of his close physical resemblance to Jesus. The other Simon was called Simon the Terrorist. In Aramaic it is Canaanean and is usually translated as Simon the Zealot. Zealots used violent means to oppose Roman occupation. Jesus was willing to accept people with shameful pasts if they were willing to repent and to follow him. Judas Thaddeus has a very interesting name. Simon, as a Zealot, was a man who had been a man of anger and prone to violence. But Judas's Aramaic name shows him to be a very tender and loving man. In Aramaic Thaddeus means "breast". In Aramaic there is also a connection to the word for nipple. This Judas, not Iscariot, also had another name besides that of Thaddeus. (Jude, Judas and Judah are all different forms of the same name.) His other name was Lebbaeus. This is the Aramaic word for "Heart". Thaddeus Lebbaeus means "breast" and "heart". Thaddeus was obviously "all heart". The 'breast' or 'bosom' is depicted as a special place of love and comfort in the New Testament. Lazarus the Poor Man is depicted as being comforted in the Bosom of Father Abraham in an important parable of Jesus (Luke 16:22-24). John the Priest, as the Beloved Disciple, or "whom Jesus loved" is depicted as leaning on the bosom of Jesus (John 13:23). Thus in the Aramaic culture in which Christ lived the bosom was the symbol of love, friendship and compassion. Thaddeus was a tender and sensitive man who loved people. It was this meek and loving man who converted the Assyrian Kingdom to faith in Jesus. This man of love is the father of the Assyrian Aramaic church. In Modern Aramaic Thaddeus is called Addai.

Eusebius Pamphylius, the father of church history, wrote of the Conversion of Abgar the king of the Aramaic peoples. According to Eusebius, Abgar, who was ailing, heard of the miraculous power of Jesus and sent a letter to him requesting that he visit and heal him. Jesus responded that after his glorification he would send a disciple to minister unto him. After Pentecost, Saint Thomas sent Thaddeus and the disciple Mari to preach to King Abgar. Thaddeus prayed for Abgar and Abgar was immediately miraculously healed. Thaddeus baptized King Abgar into the church. After seeing the miracles and listening to the gentle wisdom of a kind and caring man that Thaddeus was, many of the Aramaic speakers and the Assyrians also were converted. Eusebius, called the "Father of Church History", writing in 325 AD, says he found the records of the Apostolic ministry to the Assyrians, written in Aramaic, among the official records of the city of Edessa. Eusebius translated these documents in the archives from the original Aramaic. This letter reads as follows:


Abgarus, King of Edessa, to Jesus the good Savior, who appears at Jerusalem, greeting. I have been informed concerning you and your cures, which are performed without the use of medicines and herbs. For it is reported, that you cause the blind to see, the lame to walk, do both cleanse lepers, and cast out unclean spirits and devils and restore to health who have been long diseased, and raiseth up the dead; all which I heard, I was persuaded one of these two: wither that you are God himself descended form heaven, who do these things, or the son of God. On this account therefore I have wrote unto you, earnestly to desire that you would take the trouble of a journey hither, and cure a disease which I am under. For I hear the Judeans ridicule you, and intend you mischief. My city is indeed small, but neat, and large enough for us both.


Jesus verbally responded,


Abgarus, you are happy, for as much as you have believed on me, whom ye have not seen. For it is written concerning me, that those who have seen me should not believe on me, that they who have not seen might believe and live. As to that part of your letter, which relates to my giving you a visit, I must inform you, that I must fulfill all the ends of my mission in this country, and after that be received up again to him who sent me. But after my ascension I will send one of my disciples, who will cure your disease, and give life to you, and all that are with you.


Thomas also ministered to the Assyrians and went on to preach in India. The Doctrine of Addai
is an Aramaic work describing the ministry of Thaddeus and other of the apostles to the Aramaic peoples. The Acts of Thomas, also written in Aramaic, describes the ministry of Thomas in India. The Doctrine of Addai not only tells the amazing and fascinating story of Thaddeus and the founding of the Assyrian Church it also introduces the core principles of Christianity. This book is one of the best books written introducing Christian doctrine in a way that is easy to understand for the layman. Thaddeus the Heart loved people and he wanted them to understand the Good News of Jesus in a simple way. This important theological work of Thaddeus has been preserved for us in the original Aramaic by the Assyrian nation. The Diving liturgy used by Assyrian Christians, called "The Hallowing of the Holy Apostles Mar Mari and Mar Addai," is also believed to have been composed by Thaddeus. It has been determined to be the oldest liturgy still in use in the world. This liturgy is still recited in the ancient Aramaic language of Jesus. Ian Wilson believes that St. Thomas, Thaddeus and Mari brought the shroud of Jesus and gave it as a gift to Abgar. This shroud, Ian Wilson has determined, was stolen from the Assyrians by western Christians, and eventually found its way to Turin, Italy.


Judah Thomas the Twin


In Aramaic 'Thomas' means 'Twin'. Literature attributed to Thomas has come down to us, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas. Both of these writings are believed to have originated in Aramaic. (Many scholars are fond of the Gospel of Thomas and hail it as a fifth gospel. While the Gospel of Thomas is unquestionably of great historical importance and while the version discovered in Egypt may be based on an authentic Gospel of Thomas, the manuscript was altered and corrupted and so should be used with caution.) Of course, Thomas is remembered as the 'Doubting Thomas' who refused to believe in the resurrection of Jesus until he put his finger in the nail-scarred hand. Among the Assyrians and the Indians, Thomas is held in great reverence as a founder of their churches. Thomas preached to the Assyrian, Babylonians, Persians and the Indians. There are many sites in India that are set aside as memorials to the missionary activities of Saint Thomas in India. In the state of Kerala in India, one fifth or more of the population are Saint Thomas Christians. Christianity is as old in India as it is in Europe. Thomas suffered martyrdom in India. The ancient Indian church is of the Aramaic tradition. Thomas was also venerated on the isle of Socotra. He was believed to have been shipwrecked on Socotra while he traveled to India. Christianity was exterminated from Socotra by an invasion of Islamic fanatics in the 1800s.


Mary of Magdala: The Forgotten Aramaic Prophetess of Christianity


In the apocryphal First Apocalypse of James the Just it is claimed that Jesus had twelve male disciples and seven female disciples. Of course, Jesus had more disciples than just the twelve and probably had more than seven female disciples, but it is possible that that number did represent a core. (Matthew says "many" women followed him in Matthew 27:55.) Female disciples of Jesus included Mary of Magdala, Salome, Susanna, Joanna, Mary of Bethany, Martha of Bethany, Mary the Mother of Our Lord and Jesus' aunt, who is un-named in the scripture.

Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar and at that time it was unheard of for a man, especially a Rabbi, to speak to a woman. It was unacceptable for a Rabbi to speak to a woman in public much less take women as disciples. In his book, Dan Brown in" The Da Vinci Code" makes it seem that there was friction and animosity between Peter and the male apostles and Mary of Magdala. However, when Mary of Magdala was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied on the day of Pentecost, Peter did not try to silence her. Instead he defended her actions by appealing to Old Testament scripture (Acts 2:14-17, Joel 2:28-32). Women behaving in such a manner at that time would have been considered behaving in an outrageous and undignified manner. It is obvious from the context that Mary Magdalene was present and that she prophesied. The scripture specifically states all the believers were gathered, men and women, and that the Holy Spirit came upon them all. To clear away all doubt Peter refers to both men and women prophesying.

Mary Magdalene is not to be confused with Mary of Bethany. Mary of Bethany of Judea was the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Mary of Magdala was a woman of wealth from Galilee who supported Jesus from her means. This is clearly stated in Matthew 27:55, "And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee ministering unto him: Among these was Mary Magdalene…"Jesus cast seven demons from her. A Catholic tradition says the demons were the "Seven Deadly Sins" (Pride, Avarice, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, Greed, and Wrath) but this is unlikely. Mary was a demoniac. We need to consider the First Century and Biblical understanding of demonic possession. In the Holy Gospels Jesus is presented as an exorcist. Demonic possession was manifested by madness, disease and blasphemy. This was due to the victim being inhabited by an evil personality that was a spiritual being or entity. Jesus warned that the demons could return to the hosts if the host did not repent and do good works (Matthew 12:44-45, John 5:14). Innocent children sometimes suffered from demonic possession. However, the demon is usually attracted by sin and "invited in" by it. Mary of Magdala was under evil spiritual influence. She may have been physically healed by Jesus since one of the demons inhabiting her may have been a spirit of infirmity. Mary, or more accurately Miriam, was a Jew, and not an Egyptian, Ethiopian or Greek. She was named after the Hebrew prophetess Miriam the sister of Moses. She definitely was not a priestess of Isis or any other pagan deity. After Jesus banished the demons that tormented her, Mary of Magdala became a very loyal and devoted disciple of Jesus.

The Aramaic Miriam D' Magdala Nunayya is in English Miriam of Magdala or Mary Magdalene. In Aramaic Magdala means 'tower', "fortress, or "watch-tower". St. Jerome, who was fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, commented on Mary from an Aramaic perspective,


Those unbelievers who read me may perhaps smile to find me lingering over the praises of weak women. But if they recall how holy women attended our Lord and Savior and ministered to him of their own substance, and how the three Marys stood before the cross, and particularly how Mary of Magdala, called "of the tower" because of her earnestness and ardent faith, was privileged to see the rising Christ even before the apostles, they will convict themselves of pride rather than me of folly, who judge virtue not by the sex but by the mind.


Saint Jerome said that the name Magdala, meaning Tower, denoted the steadfastness of her faith. Origen of Alexandria saw in her name the word gadal, meaning 'to be great' in Aramaic, and saw in her name a prophecy of her spiritual greatness as having ministered to her Lord and having been the first witness of the resurrection. In the Eastern Churches she is called Holy Myrrh-Bearer and Equal to the Apostles Mary Magdalene and she is called the Apostle to the Apostles. Magdala is on the banks of the Sea of Galilee between the cities of Capernaum and Tiberias. The Gospels relate that Mary was a constant companion of the Lord and followed Him when he went with the apostles trough the cities and villages of Judea and Galilee preaching about the Kingdom of God. She most likely shared with the Apostles the evangelistic tasks with the other women as well. The Gospel relates that Mary of Magdala was present at Golgotha (Aramaic for 'place of the skull') at the moment of the Lord's crucifixion. While the other disciples of the Savior ran away, she fearlessly remained at the cross together with his mother and the Apostle John. She was faithful to him not only in the days of his glory, but also at the moment of his extreme humiliation and agony. As the Evangelist Matthew relates, she was present at the burial of the Lord. Before her eyes Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemas went to the tomb with his lifeless body. As a torah observant Jew she kept the Sabbath day and returned to the tomb Sunday morning. The form of her name is Aramaic and in the Gospel she is quoted speaking to Jesus in Aramaic saying "Rabboni", meaning "my teacher". She was Jewish and Semitic in her cultural orientation. Many Bible scholars believe Mary of Magdala began following Jesus after the miraculous feeding of the multitudes. This is because Jesus visited Magdala after this miracle and it was probably at this time when Mary began following him (Matthew15:39).

Mary Magdalene enters the Gospel narrative, with certain other women, as "ministering to Jesus of their substance" (Luke 8:2 and see also Matthew 27:55)


Accompanying him were the twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.


Obviously, she was a woman of wealth and social status. She probably was a widow, who inherited her husband's wealth upon his death. The life of ministration brought Magdalene into companionship of the closest nature with Salome, the mother of James and John and also with Mary the mother of the Lord. They stood afar off beholding these things during the closing hours of the agony of the cross.

Church tradition testifies that when the Apostles departed from Jerusalem for preaching to all the ends of the earth, with them also went Mary Magdalene to preach. A daring woman whose heart was full of the memory of the resurrection of our Lord, she went beyond her native borders and set off to preach in pagan Rome. Everywhere she went she proclaimed Christ and his teaching. And when many did not believe that Christ had risen she said what she had said to the disciples that radiant morning, "I have seen the Lord!" She was faithful to Jesus not only in the beginning when surrounded by enthusiastic crowds as they passed through the cities and villages of Palestine, winning for Himself the glory of a miracle-worker, but also when all the disciples in fear deserted him and he, humiliated and crucified, hung in torment upon the cross alone. This is why the Lord, knowing her faithfulness, appeared to her first and esteemed her worthy to be the first to proclaim his resurrection. She was an influential figure, a prominent disciple and a valuable leader of the early Christian movement. Mary Magdalene is always mentioned first when the women are listed with the exception of a passage in John were the mother of Jesus and her sister are mentioned first.

    Jesus, in the Gospel account, traveled through and ministered in the city of Magdala. According to the Talmud Magdala was a prosperous city of exceeding wickedness which was destroyed by God through the Romans. In Matthew 15:39 it is stated that Jesus came to the region of Magdala. Magdala is also associated with the name Dalmanutha as in Mark 8:10. What do we know about the city of Magdala? In Aramaic it is Magdala-Nunnaya, Fish Tower. In Greek it is called Tarichae, place of salted fish. It was a prosperous city. Magdala was an important agricultural, fishing, boat-building and trade center at the junction of the road coming north from Tiberias and the Via Maris coming from lower Galiee into the fertile plain of Gennesaret. It is between Tiberias and Capernaum. The town was a center for processing fish, which was sold in the markets of Jerusalem and exported as far as Rome. The boy who gave his food to Jesus in the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 had fishes that must have been either preserved by being salted or smoked. It is possible that these fish were processed at Magdala. Magdala was also renowned as a center for flax weaving and dyeing, and the robes worn by Jesus at the time of his crucifixion are said to have been made there.

During the Jewish War that ended in 70 AD Magdala was defeated by the Romans. Josephus recounts that the Romans under Titus conquered the city with much blood-shed. Since Magdala was a center of boat building, many of the remaining residents fled to the sea in their vessels and a great sea battle erupted with a total of 6,500 Jews slaughtered in the sea and on land. The Sea of Galilee became red with blood and filled with dead bodies. Titus's father Vespasian declared that the whole city and its inhabitants should not be spared. Even the old and infirm were slaughtered. Those that survived where sold as slaves. According to Jewish tradition, Magdala was destroyed by the Romans due to the moral depravity of its inhabitants.

An important mosaic dated to the first century was discovered in Magdala. It depicted the type of boat that Jesus, Peter and the other disciples would have used on the Sea of Galilee. In 1986 there was a drought in Israel and the shore of the Sea of Galilee at the town of Magdala receded and a boat from the time of Christ that had been submerged for almost 2,000 years was revealed. It is the exact same type of boat that was used by the apostles. It was discovered at Magdala and was miraculously preserved and is now on display in a museum. It is called the Jesus Boat or the Galilee Boat.

After the destruction of the Temple, Magdala Nunayya became the seat of one of the twenty-four priestly divisions and several doctors of the law sprang from the town. Magdala is at the base of Mount Arbel which is mentioned in Hosea 10:13-14. Magdala is called Migdal in Hebrew. It is also mentioned in Joshua 19:38 in the Old Testament.

Interestingly, the first word uttered by the risen Christ was "woman". Both John and Mark specifically state, "he appeared first to Mary Magdalene…" (Mark 16:9). A very detailed account of Mary's encounter with the risen Lord is found in John 20. This account must have come directly from Mary Magdalene. Note that Mary wept and mourned over the body of the Lord. This was a real love. She said, "They have taken the body of MY LORD, and I do not know where they have laid him." Like Thomas, Mary did not believe until she had seen. When she saw the resurrection Jesus she exclaimed in Aramaic, "Rabboni", this means "my teacher" or "my master". This Aramaic word is used only here and in the story of blind Bar Timeaus in Mark's Gospel. Mary wasn't believed by the apostles when she proclaimed the Gospel to them. When she recognized Jesus she reached out to embrace him. He said "Touch me not" or "Don't cling to me" (in Latin Noli Me Tangere, but Jesus said this in Aramaic not Latin). He first had to appear before the Heavenly Father. After this he did allow the disciples to touch and handle him.


Mary of Magdala forces us to confront the question of the role of women in the Early Church. In Galatians 3:28 Paul says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus". It should be remembered that Jesus as an infant was prophesied over and blessed by Annah the Prophetess in Luke 2: 36-38.


Acts 2:1-21 Peter quotes Joel's prophecy that God's Holy Spirit will fall on men and women.

In Acts 9:36 the disciple and minister Tabitha, Aramaic for Gazelle, is mentioned. She is resurrected from the dead by Peter.

Acts 21:9 Phillip the Evangelist's daughters are prophetesses.

Romans 16:1 Phoebe is the minister of the church at Cenchrea.

Romans 16:3 Priscilla (Prisca) is a fellow-worker with Paul. See also Acts 18:24-26.

Romans 16:7 Junia the Apostle is a woman "outstanding among the apostles". Junea may be the same person as Joanna, the Disciple of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels.

Women leaders of house churches in the New Testament are Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11), Mary the mother of John Mark the Evangelist (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:14), Nympha (Col 4:15) and Apphia (Philemon 2).

Euodia and Syntyche are mentioned as co-workers who were active evangelists (Philippians 4:2).


1 Timothy 3:11 in the Greek refers to a deaconess. Paul says that Timothy's mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois, had a godly influence on him. According to Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity most early Christians were women. He says that, "Christianity promoted liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family, giving women more status than they enjoyed in Roman society, where they remained the property of men. Moreover, from the very beginning Christianity opposed infanticide and abortion, gruesome procedures that produced a pagan population that was disproportionately male. Women also benefited from the church's sanctification of marriage and opposition to divorce. Roman men held marriage in low estate, and even when they did marry produced few children."

In the Old Testament there are many important female figures, Sarah, Rachel and Leah, Miriam the Prophetess, Rahab, Deborah the Prophetess and Judge, Ruth, Hannah, Huldah the Prophetess, Esther, the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs, the "Good Wife" of Proverbs, and the wise woman of Abel. The daughters of Zelophehad requested equal inheritance rights for women from Moses and he granted it to them at God's command (Numbers 27:1-11). Jesus ministered to several women during his ministry including the Syrian-Phoenician woman, Peter's mother in law, Mary the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), the woman healed of the issue of blood, the Samaritan woman, the widow of Nain, among others. In the Apocrypha there are also several important female characters which include, Asenath the wife of the Patriarch Joseph, Judith, and Sarah wife of Tobias (who is in the Book of Tobit, which was originally written in Aramaic and was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.)


John "The Son of Thunder"


In Aramaic John's name was Yohanna. That was a common name and means "Gift from Yahweh." Jesus gave John and his brother Jacob (called in English "James") a nick-name. This was "Boanerges" which is Aramaic for "Sons of Thunder." (This is probably, literally in Aramaic, Benai Reges-which means "Sons of Anger." But sometimes we in our English language are inclined to say that storm clouds are "threatening" or perhaps even "angry.") In our Bibles we have the "Johannine Corpus," that is, a body of books written by (or attributed to) John. John's Gospel, also called the "Fourth Gospel" is different from the other three Gospels. The other three Gospels are called the "Synoptics" due to their similarities. The Johannine Corpus is the Gospel of John, the First, Second, and Third Epistles of John and the Revelation (or Apocalypse) of John. Paul describes John, along with Peter (Cephas) and James, the Lord's brother, as one of the tree "pillars" of the church. Now, there are some interesting theories about John. Some scholars believe that there were different people named John (it was a common name) who became conflated in tradition and merged to become our "John the Apostle." This idea was discussed as early as 325 in Eusebius's "Ecclesiastical History." Eusebius believes that "John the Elder" who wrote the Epistles and Revelation was a different person from John the Apostle. Eusebius claimed to have discovered two graves of John and used this to back up his theory.

The Christian writers of the second and third centuries testify to us as a tradition universally recognized and doubted by no one that the Apostle and Evangelist John lived in Asia Minor in the last decades of the first century and from Ephesus had guided the Churches of that province. In his "Dialogue with Tryphon" (Chapter 81) St. Justin Martyr refers to "John, one of the Apostles of Christ" as a witness who had lived "with us", that is, at Ephesus. St. Irenæus speaks in very many places of the Apostle John and his residence in Asia and expressly declares that he wrote his Gospel at Ephesus (Against Heresies III.1.1), and that he had lived there until the reign of Trajan (loc. cit., II, xxii, 5). With Eusebius (Church History III.13.1) and others we are obliged to place the Apostle's banishment to Patmos in the reign of the Emperor Domitian (81-96). Previous to this, according to Tertullian's testimony (De praescript., xxxvi), John had been thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil before the Porta Latina at Rome without suffering injury. After Domitian's death the Apostle returned to Ephesus during the reign of Trajan, and at Ephesus he died about A.D. 100 at a great age. Tradition reports many beautiful traits of the last years of his life: that he refused to remain under the same roof with the heretic Cerinthus (Irenaeus "Ad. haer.", III, iii, 4); his touching anxiety about a youth who had become a robber (Clemens Alex., "Quis dives salvetur", xiii.) There is a church tradition, which says, that when John was evidently an old man in Ephesus, he had to be carried to the church in the arms of his disciples. At these meetings, he was accustomed to say no more than, "Little children, love one another!" After a time, the disciples wearied at always hearing the same words, asked, "Master, why do you always say this?" "It is the Lord's command," was his reply. "And if this alone be done, it is enough!" (Jerome, "Comm. in ep. ad. Gal.", vi, 10). Another interesting theory was that John the "Beloved Disciple" was "John the Priest," a Levite. In John's Gospel it says that "the Beloved Disciple" (how the author of the Fourth Gospel identifies himself) was "known to the high priest." That is odd if he was merely a common fisherman.



Joseph Barnabas "The Son of Encouragement"


Questions about Barnabas:

Who was Barnabas?

With whom was he most closely associated?

Who was his near relative?

Of what place is he associated with?



An early apostle.


Mark the Evangelist

The Isle of Cyprus. Barnabas was a Cypriot.



Barnabas was a facilitator or an enabler. Church tradition, and certain scholars, believe him to have been on of the 70 disciples mentioned in Luke chapter 10. (In "Rabbi Jesus" Bruce Chilton, an Aramaic scholar, argues that Joseph Barnabas was the host of the "Last Supper.") In the Bible he is described as a "good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith" (Acts 11:24). He is introduced in Acts 4:36 as a Levite, which is a Jewish priest. In Acts 6:7 it is recorded that "many priests came to the faith." In Acts 4:36 the Aramaic name "Barnabas" is translated as "Son of Encouragement." It is described as an Aramaic nick-name given to him by the apostles. The word "Nabi" in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic means "prophet." In 1 Corinthians 14:3, Paul (Saul Paulus of Tarsus) says, "he who prophecies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men." Barnabas was a wealthy benefactor of the church. After Barnabas gave a generous offering, later Annanias and Saphira attempted to copy his example but to lie and to claim that they gave more that they actually had. God smote Ananias and Saphira dead for this sin.)

After Saul/Paul's history of persecuting Christians, the Twelve Apostles didn't trust him. However, Barnabas sought him out and introduced him to the apostles (Acts 9:26-30). However, Paul was exiled back to his home city of Tarsus for several years. Barnabas was instrumental in the first conversions of gentiles to Christianity (Acts 11:20 and 22). After success among the Gentiles, Barnabas sought out Paul and brought him to Antioch in Syria to help out with the new Gentile (non-Jewish) church (Acts 11:25). Later, Barnabas and Saul were sent to collect money for starving people in Israel. (Notice, often Barnabas's name is listed first. In Acts 13:2 it is recorded that Barnabas and Saul were sent by the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel in foreign lands. They started in Cyprus, because Barnabas was a Cypriot. (Today, Moslems have invaded taken over and now rule half of the Island of Cyprus. Of course, the world tolerates this act of Islamic aggression.) After great successes Barnabas and Saul had a falling out over John Mark and "certain men from James" (Acts 15:36-41 and Galatians 2:11-13). In Colossians 4:10, it is mentioned that Mark was the nephew of Barnabas. What had happened was that Mark had abandoned Barnabas and Paul in the middle of the first missionary tour. This proved to Paul that Mark was unfit for the work of a missionary and evangelist. However, near the end of Paul's life, Paul instructs Timothy, "Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry" (2 Timothy 4:11).

So, how was Barnabas an important "enabler"? Well, first his generous financial contributions helped sustain the church and help get it off of the ground. Secondly, he personally initiated evangelism to the non-Jews. Without his help, no one would have even heard of Paul the Apostle. He introduced Paul to the Apostles and later searched out and found Paul and put him to work in evangelizing non-Jews. Despite their later falling out, Barnabas made Paul's ministry possible. Barnabas was wise not to give up on John Mark. Due to Barnabas's influence, Mark continued to work in Christian ministry and wrote the first Gospel-the Gospel of Mark. (This is the first Gospel written in Greek. Matthew wrote in Aramaic and his writings may have focused more on the teachings rather than the life of Jesus. Many of the deeds of Jesus were later incorporated into the Gospel of Matthew from the Gospel of Mark.) Barnabas returned to Cyprus, where he is still highly regarded and is the "Patron Saint" of Cyprus. Of course, the Moslems have been allowed to vandalize and destroy places in Cyprus associated with Barnabas. Barnabas's greatest success was in the inspiration and support he gave to other people-his work as "the son of encouragement." Barnabas didn't seek glory or greatness for himself-he worked to inspire it in others. He wasn't interested in self-promotion, but in promoting the work of Christ. There is an important ancient writing called "The Epistle of Barnabas," while it is very ancient, it most likely wasn't written by the Joseph Barnabas of the New Testament.


There are many other apostles and other followers of Jesus with Aramaic names in the New Testament. In the Gospel of John and in Corinthians and Galatians, Peter is called "Cephas" or Kepa, which means "stone" in Aramaic and even in Modern Assyrian Aramaic. As this book is intended to serve as an introduction to Aramaic studies, I encourage the reader to explore more about Aramaic and the apostles.




The Aramaic Church Fathers



We often hear about the Latin and Greek fathers of the church but the theologians of the Aramaic tradition are often ignored. I have decided to list the most important Aramaic church fathers and the most important Aramaic books that have come down to us. Unfortunately, Roman Catholics destroyed vast Aramaic libraries, both in Mesopotamia and in India. (Roman Catholics in India burned libraries and in Mesopotamia they would empty libraries out into the River.) Because of this most of the contributions of Aramaic Christians have been lost forever.

Pre-Schism (The schism occurred when the Syrian Orthodox and the Assyrian Church of the East split over the so-called "Nestorian" controversy in the fifth century. The "Nestorians" affirmed that Jesus had two natures, a human nature and a divine nature. Questions about what this mean cause divisions within the church.)

Tatian the Assyrian: Tatian studied under the famous philosopher Saint Justin Martyr (c. 100-165). Years after Martyr's martyrdom Tatian returned to his homeland in Assyria (around 172 AD), and wrote "Oration Against the Greeks" and compiled the Diatesseron in both an Aramaic and in a Greek edition. The Diatesseron is the first harmony of the four Gospels. Tatian founded an ascetic community called the "Encarites."

Bar Daisan the Aramaic Philosopher Also known as Bardesances, he lived from 154-222 AD. He was associated with the court of King Abgar VIII at Edessa. He wrote a book entitled "Dialogue Concerning Fate" in which he argued against determinism and astrology. He argued against the heresy of Marcion but while Bar Daisan was a great thinker his theology wasn't orthodox either.

Aphrahat the Persian Sage Between 337 and 345 he wrote his book "The Demonstrations" in which he described the Christian faith. He books give us profound insight into the text of the New Testament and Christianity in the East.

Ephraim the Syrian He lived from around 306 AD until 373 AD.
He wrote 500 hymns in the Aramaic language which has survived. He wrote on Dogma and against heresies. The Roman Catholic Church has bequeathed upon him the title "Doctor of the Church."

Post-Schism (In my view, Cyril of Alexandria and his followers adopted a theology that denied the reality of the human nature of Jesus the Messiah. In the Aramaic realm, those who affirmed that Jesus was fully God and fully man were labeled "Nestorian" and those who affirmed that Jesus had only one nature were called the Jacobites. This schism occurred in the fifth century. My opinion is that Cyril of Alexandria, and not Nestorius, sowed division and error within the church.)


The Orthodox Church of the East

Hiba Hiba is also known as Ibas. He was the Bishop of Edessa from 435-439 and 451-457. He tried to bring mediation between the dualistic teaching of Nestorius and the monophysite teaching associated with Cyril of Alexandria. He was deposed by the heretical "Robber Council" (or Latrocinium) of Ephesus in 449. The heretical decisions made at the Robber Council were reversed at the Council of Chalcedon and Hiba was restored. Unfortunately, most of his writings were destroyed when the Byzantine Emperor ordered his works destroyed in order to placate heretics in Egypt. (This was the "Three Chapters" controversy.")

Bar Sauma, also known as Barsumas, he died before the year 496. He founded the famous theological school of Nisibis. He championed sound biblical scholarship and the teachings of the exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia, who taught that the Scriptures ought to be interpreted literally. He also pushed for reform in the church and defended the right of priests and bishops to be married.

Narsia the Harp of the Holy Spirit is also known as Narses. He died around the year 503. He was the head of the school of Edessa, but because of his sound biblical scholarship he was persecuted and forced to flee to Nisibis. He founded the seminary there with Bar Sauma and presided over it. A large number of his writings and hymns have survived.

St. Isaac of Nineveh died around the year 700 AD. He belonged to the Nestorian Church of the East but is famous in the Russian, Greek, Syrian and Egyptian Eastern Orthodox Churches. He was made Bishop of Nineveh in about 676 but he chose to live in solitude and meditation in Khurzistan.

Babai the Great (c. 551-628) was the unofficial head of the Church of the East and led a revival of the church. He developed a systematic theology.

Abraham of Kashkar (492-586) led a renewal movement in monasteries.

Thomas of Marga He lived in the 800s AD. He was an Assyrian Bishop of the Church of the East in Marga in Iraq. He was later the "Metropolitan" of Beth-Garmai. He wrote "Book of the Governors" which is an important history of monasticism in the Church of the East.

Timothy the Great (727-832) Assyrian Patriarch (Timothy I) and scholar. He confounded the Moslems in a debate between Islam and Christianity before the Islamic Caliph.

Adam Ching-Ching was an Assyrian Church leader in China who wrote and translated various Christian writings in Chinese.

Mar Abdishu Bar Barikha author of the easy to read theological classic entitled "The Pearl" from 1298.

The Jacobite Sect

Jacob Baradai or Jacob Baradaeus (circa 500-578). He was sent to ordain a bishop for the Ghassanid Arab Christian tribe. He was a rebel against the normative teachings of the church and secretly organized a schismatic church structure that became the Syrian Orthodox Church. He was constantly fleeing arrest for his illegal activities.

Rabbula He became Bishop of Edessa in 412 and died in 435. He opposed the doctrine of the two natures of Jesus Christ (that Christ is fully man and fully divine). He also opposed the biblical scholarship of Theodore of Mopsuesia.

Bar Hebraeus He lived from 1226-1286. His name was Abul-Farag. He was the son of a Jewish physician. He converted to Christianity. He was a made bishop of the Jacobite church in 1246 and a polymath. He became "Primate of the East" in 1264. He wrote extensively mostly in the Syriac Aramaic language. He was respected by all.

Michael the Syrian (1126-1199) He became the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch in 1166. He wrote an important "Chronicle" that preserves a large portion of lost writings and the history of the Syrian Orthodox faction and also gives important information about the Crusades from an Eastern Christian perspective.

(Information about Syriac Church Fathers can be gleaned from any biographical dictionary of the Christian Church such as "The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church" by E. A. Livingston.)

Important Aramaic Books


Of course, the most important Aramaic book is the New Testament, which is preserved in different versions. Also important is the Syriac Peshitta Old Testament. The Diatesseron of Tatian the Assyrian exists only in an Arabic translation of the Aramaic original. Aramaic manuscripts and inscriptions have been found all across Asia and they have not all been completely translated or cataloged. There are also important Aramaic translations of works originally written in other languages as well as ancient literature such as the Book of Ahikhar. Here I want to focus on works written in the Christian era.


The Odes of Solomon an Aramaic Christian hymnbook from 70-130 AD.

The Doctrine of Addai the story of the founding of Assyrian Christianity.

The Acts of Thomas the story of Saint Thomas in India.

The Book of the Himyarites The story of a massacre of Christians by a Jewish leader of Arab tribes during the pre-Islamic era.

The Book of the Tower tells the story of the conversion of the Mongolian Keriat tribe to the Assyrian Church of the East.

The Book of Protection An Assyrian Christian book of prayers and blessings.

"Jesus Sutras" Assyrian Christian literature written in China.

The History of Mar Yadallah III and Bar Sauma the Mongol The story of a "reverse Marco Polo" the Nestorian monk Bar Sauma and his travels from China to Europe.


(Many writings of the Church Fathers, including some by the Syriac Aramaic Church Fathers can be viewed on-line at under "other fathers." See also "About Syriac" at . )



To learn the history of the Aramaic Christians see "A History of Christianity in Asia: Volume I: Beginnings to 1500" by Samuel Hugh Moffett, Ian Gillman and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit "Christians in Asia before 1500," Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist "History of the World Christian Movement, Volume I: Earliest Christianity to 1453," John M. L. Young "By Foot to China: Mission of the Church of the East, to 1400," Martin Palmer "The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity," and Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore "The Lost Sutras of Jesus." See also Bat Yeor "The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude" and Christoph Baumer The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity.


Church history is usually written in a Euro-centric manner in which ancient churches, some older than many European Christian communities, are omitted from the historical record. Recently, there has been change and the long histories of the churches of Asia and Africa are given their place.






The Aramaic Christians


Aramaic missionaries, mainly of the 'Nestorian' Church of the East, were some of the most dynamic and successful missionaries in Christian history.

    By the end of the 500's A.D. Turkic and Mongol tribes were converted and a strong church was founded in India and the island of Socotra. Several Arab tribes had been converted as well. In 636 the Tang Emperor of China received Al-lo-pan, an Assyrian Christian who preached the Gospel to him. The Emperors bestowed their favor upon Christianity and commanded it to be preached throughout the Emperor. In 781 the Nestorian Stone was erected in China. It was inscribed in Chinese and Aramaic and proclaimed the Christian Gospel. This monument is three feet wide, nine feet tall and one foot thick. Several Christian scrolls, text, inscriptions, art and ruins of churches have been found across China and central Asia. In 1000 A.D. important Mongol tribes were converted. For a while Christianity was on the verge of becoming the dominant Mongol religion. The Church of the East thrived until 1400. It declined due to plague and persecution at the hands of Islam. Marco Polo wrote of finding Nestorian Christians throughout his journeys to the Far East. Rabban Bar Sama, a priest of the Church of the East, was a type of reverse Marco Polo. He was born in Beijing and traveled to Europe and wrote of this strange and exotic land he visited. The Syrian Orthodox Church evangelized Arabian tribes, the region of Yemen and Ethiopia.     At about 1400 the Nestorian Church entered a period of decline. The Church of the East declined but survived in its original homeland of Iraq and Iran. The only mission it established that survived is the Aramaic Churches of Southern India. There are millions of Christians India who belong to churches of the Aramaic heritage. In the state of Kerela they make up over 1/5 of the population. The "Nestorian" Church of the East has lost its missionary fervor. There have been rumors of isolated Nestorian tribes discovered in Mongolia. Some Catholics in Chinese families may go back centuries since the Roman Catholic Church took over some Nestorian Churches in China.


Before 2003, Iraq's Christian population was estimated to be around 5% of the total population. Due to Islamist/Jihadist insurgents targeting Iraq's Christian minority with violent attacks, many Iraqi Christians have become refugees and several thousands have fled Iraq. Two important groups of Iraqi Christians are the Assyrians and the Chaldeans. Both Assyrians and Chaldeans speak Modern Neo-Aramaic, a modern form of the ancient Aramaic language. Aramaic was the language that was spoken by Jesus Christ according to several references from the New Testament. Before the insurgency, there were over 200,000 Assyrians and over 800,000 Chaldeans in Iraq. There is also an Assyrian community in Iran. Assyrians in Iran live along the coast of Lake Urmiyah and also in the city of Tehran.


The Assyrian Language:


The Assyrians speak Modern Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. Aramaic is a Semitic language that is closely related to Hebrew and Arabic. During church services, both Assyrians and Chaldeans use Syriac as a liturgical language. (Syriac is an ancient form of Aramaic that was spoken in the city of Edessa. It is very similar to the Aramaic that was spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.) Sometimes, Modern Assyrian Aramaic is called Modern Syriac. However, this is incorrect as there are no immediate descendants of Syriac spoken today. Syriac is an ancient form of Aramaic and is more similar to the Aramaic Christ spoke than modern Aramaic is. There are scattered pockets of Aramaic-speaking Christian communities in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The Maronites in Lebanon and the Saint Thomas Christians in India also use Syriac as a liturgical/theological language. There are different dialects of modern Aramaic. Assyrians and Chaldeans actually speak different dialects. They are mutually intelligible, however, Assyrians can better understand the Chaldean dialect than Chaldeans can understand Assyrians. Assyrians are more likely to be able to read and write in Aramaic than are Chaldeans. While many Chaldeans speak Neo-Aramaic, many do not and on average Chaldeans are much further along on the path of "Arabization" (complete assimilation into Arab culture) than are the Assyrians.


The Titles "Assyrian" and "Chaldean"


There is a considerable amount of controversy over the titles "Assyrian" and "Chaldean" among these respective groups. They are very passionate about these titles and can become deeply offended by what they perceive as a misuse of these terms. The ecclesiastical background of those who call themselves "Assyrian" is the Church of the East. The Chaldeans are descendants of Christians who were from the Church of the East but joined themselves to the Roman Catholic Church. Assyrians do not recognize that the Chaldeans are truly Chaldeans. Assyrians take great pride in their ethnicity. From their point of view, the "Chaldeans" are a group of Assyrians that converted to the Roman Catholic Church. The Chaldeans do not recognizes the term "Assyrian" as legitimate and look upon people they view as "Assyrian nationalists" with contempt. Assyrians view themselves as the direct descendants of the ancient Assyrians of the Assyrian Empire. They are very serious about this and take great pride in their ancestral heritage. The Chaldeans view themselves as the descendents of the ancient Chaldeans and Babylonians and see themselves as the heirs of the mighty ancient Babylonian Empire and take great pride in their history as Babylonians.


Assyrian Beginnings


Every February, Assyrians celebrate a holiday called "the Rogation of the Ninevites" in which they remember the repentance of their ancient Assyrian ancestors at the preaching of the prophet Jonah as is recorded in the Old Testament. According to accounts written by the early church fathers, Mesopotamian Christianity was established by the Apostles Saint Thomas ("doubting Thomas") and the Apostle Thaddeus. The account is that Saint Thaddeus and Saint Mari preached to King Abgar of Edessa and then traveled throughout Mesopotamia preaching the Gospel. The Assyrians use the Divine Liturgy of Mari and Thaddeus, which is one of the oldest liturgies than is currently in use in the world. Many important early church fathers and theologians composed important theological and historical books in the Syriac language.


The Assyrian Church:


The Assyrian Church has been called the Nestorian Church in the past. Assyrians even called themselves Nestorians until fairly recently. The proper name for this church is "the Church of the East." Nestorius (circa 386-circa 451 A.D.) was a Patriarch of Constantinople who was deposed and condemned as a heretic for teaching that Jesus Christ had two separate natures, a human nature and a divine nature. This led to considerable controversy in the early church. Eventually, the church declared that Christ has two natures but they are united. This controversy split the church into several factions, Nestorians, Monophysites and the orthodox Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox. (The Monophysites deny Christ has two natures. They teach that he has one divine nature. The Coptic, Ethiopic, Syrian Orthodox and Armenian Church are Monophysite. They now seem to be objecting to the term "Monophysites" and prefer to be referred to as Henophysites. ) These old Christological controversies may seem very arcane and irrelevant, but they are very important to Eastern Christians and are very important to understand when relating to Eastern Christians, especially for clergy.) The Assyrian Church of the East is Trinitarian and the Nicene Creed is recited during Holy Communion. In the course of ecumenical dialogue, the Roman Catholic Church has declared that it no longer views the Church of the East as heretical. The term "Nestorian" could possibly be viewed as pejorative or derogatory and should be avoided when speaking to Assyrians. (It may be helpful when writing books and articles when referring to the Church of the East to note for clarification that it was known as the Nestorian Church. But this title is no longer proper terminology.) Some Assyrians object to being called "Nestorian" for the following reasons. First, Nestorius didn't found their church, the Holy Apostles did hundreds of years before Nestorius. Secondly, although they did accept "Nestorian" theologians, neither they nor Nestorius, ever taught the "Nestorian" heresy (the heresy that Jesus Christ is composed of two persons-the human and the divine).


The Church of the East


The Church of the East was once widespread throughout Asia. Archeologists have found remains of Assyrian church buildings in China and all across central Asia. Assyrian Christian literature has been found in the Chinese language hidden in caves in China. A monument dated to the year 781 tells of how in the year 636 the Chinese Emperor granted permission for Assyrian Christians to build churches, translate the Bible into Chinese and preach Christianity in the Chinese Empire. This monument is written in Chinese and Syriac. Marco Polo mentions seeing "Nestorian" churches all across his travels. Although the Church of the East was spread from Baghdad all the way to Beijing due to plague and long and sustained religious persecution from Muslim warlords, the Church of the East declined and dwindled into a small community in northern Iraq and Western Iran with a few churches in Western India.


The International Assyrian Community


Assyrians consider northern Iraq, called Beth Nahrain in Aramaic, as their homeland. There is a large and important Assyrian community in Urmiyah and Tehran in Iran. Many Assyrians fleeing from ethnic cleansing in Iraq during the 1930s have settled in the Khabur River Valley region of eastern Syria. Assyrians have been immigrating to the west for over one hundred years. There are large Assyrian American communities in Chicago, Illinois and Turlock and Modesto California. (Chaldeans have immigrated to San Diego, California and the Detroit area of Michigan.) Australia also has a large Assyrian community. Many Aramaic –speakers (some Assyrian but mostly Suryoyo-speaking Syrian Orthodox) have immigrated to Sweden. These communities support their fellow Assyrians in the Middle East. There are several Assyrian organizations and societies such as "the Assyrian Aide Society" and "the Assyrian Democratic Movement" which is a political party in Iraq. (There are also many Assyrian publications, websites and even musical albums.)


Assyrian Christian Groups


The leader of the Assyrian Church is the Catholicos-Patriarch. Originally, the Patriarch was elected by bishops. During a long period of intense persecution by Muslim rulers, the practice of passing the office from patriarch to his nephew began. This led to inadequate leadership. The position of Patriarch was religious and political. As non-Muslims, Assyrians were Dhimmis ("people of the book" which means a group that is tolerated but denied equal rights by the Islamic community). The Patriarch was the recognized leader of this particular group of dhimmis by the Muslims rulers. This hereditary system resulted in the Chaldean schism, led in 1553 by John Sulaqa. The patriarch of the Church of the East Mar Dinkha IV (born 1935) has led the Assyrian community from Illinois. There is also an Assyrian group that calls itself the Ancient Church of the East. This faction has had its own Patriarch, Mar Addai II, and follows the old calendar. (Mar Shimun XXIII introduced the modern Gregorian Calendar but the Ancient Church of the East prefers the older Julian Calendar. Mar Addai II resided in Baghdad.) There are also Assyrian Protestants. Many Assyrian Protestants belong to the Presbyterian Church due to the fact that Presbyterians came to Iran during the 1800s to work with the Assyrians.


Islam is a religion and a political system. Moslems are members of the umma, which can be translated as "the nation" or "the community." Although Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq, they are viewed as "outsiders" by many Moslems, since they, as non-Muslims, are outside the umma. As non-Muslims they are often discriminated against. During the Armenian Genocide of 1914-1915, 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Turks and tens of thousands of Assyrians were also slaughtered.(The Koran in Sura 9:27-30 commands Muslims, "Wage warfare against the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] as they do not believe in Allah nor the Last day, and they do not forbid what Allah and his apostle have forbidden, and they do not embrace the true faith, until they are subdued, pay tribute and are reduced to a state of humiliation.") Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Kurds and Turks carried out several pogroms and massacres of Assyrian Christians. The Assyrians volunteered to fight for the British during both World War I and World War II, hoping that the British would protect them from religious persecution. The Assyrians fought in a decisive conflict against Nazis in Iraq at Fallujah during World War II and were instrumental in achieving a major victory there. The Assyrians feel they were betrayed by the British and feel the British are partly to blame for the pogroms and ethnic cleansing that occurred after World War I and World War II. (Some Assyrians feel that an independent Assyrian nation should have been created after World War I.) Assyrians endured ethnic and religious persecution under the regime of Saddam Hussein (but also had a certain level of protection from religious violence). After the fall of Saddam Hussein insurgents have targeted Assyrians for terrorist attacks and have bombed churches during religious services and have assassinated clergy. With the surge some stability has returned. The Assyrians face an uncertain future in Iraq.








The Aramaic Churches



There are several churches in the Syriac Christian Tradition.

The Assyrian Church of the East

Also known as the Nestorian church and the Persian church and the East Syrian Church. This church adopted the views of Nestorius, a patriarch of Constantinople in 430, who believed in the Holy Trinity, the true divinity and humanity of Christ, but made a clear distinction between his human nature and divine nature, which were according to Nestorius, not to be confused. Contrary to the accusations of their opponents, especially those of the West Syriac faction, the Nestorian Church is theologically orthodox. They believe in the Nicene Creed and in the Divinity and humanity of Christ. The Church of the East never taught that Jesus was just a man or that he was a man who achieved divinity through his virtue. These accusations are vindictive lies. The Church of the East was founded by St. Thomas, St. Thaddeus and St. Mari.

Syrian Orthodox Church

Also known as the Jacobite Church and as the West Syrian Church. This Church is often accused of being Monophysite, that is of saying that Jesus Christ had only a divine nature and not a real human nature. This Church counts St. James the Just, called the Brother of Our Lord in the Scripture, as its founder. The West Syrian church uses its own distinctive Aramaic script, which is linear and less attractive when compared to the old 'Estrangelo' Script and the Nestorian script, this script is called Serto.


The Chaldean Church

The Chaldean Church originated from the Church of the East. This Church has united with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Maronite Church and Syrian Catholic Church

These are Aramaic churches that joined with the Catholic Church. Syriac Catholic Churches originated from the Syrian Orthodox Church. Maronites are centered in Lebanon. The Maronites use Aramaic in church but no longer speak it.

Mar Thoma Church

Indian churches of St. Thomas with Church of the East origins. This includes Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Rite Churches as well as independent St. Thomas Churches including Pentecostal churches.. St. Thomas founded the Church of India. The St. Thomas Christians use Syriac for liturgical purposes but speak Malayalam, a Dravidian language.


The Syriac churches are now liturgical, formal and traditional. There are also Assyrian Protestant churches.


The Mandaeans: The Disciples of John the Baptist


    In southern Iraq and Iran there is a tribe of Aramaic people called the Mandaeans. They consider themselves to be the descendants of the followers of John the Baptist. They practice baptism by immersion every Sunday. They have also preserved a large body of writing in the Mandaic language, a dialect of Aramaic closely related to the Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud. Their writings include a book called the Ginza, or Treasure, and The Book of John the Baptist. Mandaeans accept John the Baptist as the true prophet but reject Jesus. They accept some old and New Testament saints but reject others. Their religion as it exists today has degenerated into a form of Gnosticism. There are only 15-50,000 Mandaeans today.


Modern Aramaic-speaking Jews



Ariel Sabar wrote of his father Yona and of his Aramaic heritage in My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.

There are many Assyrian bands that play Aramaic traditional music, church music and even Aramaic Rock-n-roll. There is a Jewish Aramaic music band called Nash Didan that does traditional and contemporary Aramaic music.


Modern Aramaic Resources


Aramaic Bible Translation sells Bible movies, including the "Jesus" film, in the Aramaic language and also has audio Bibles. (The Jesus film is a two-hour film based on the account of the life of Christ found in the Gospel of Luke. The "Jesus Video Project" is an attempt to dub this film into every language on earth, including modern dialects of Aramaic.) They are currently located at 100 Wycliffe Drive, West Chicago, Illinois, 60185. Visit them online at or call 630-876-8452. A dramatic presentation of the Gospel of John in Modern Aramaic is also available.


Help Aramaic Christians in Need:


The Barnabas Fund gives aide to persecuted Aramaic Christians in the Near East. Barnabas Fund, 6731 Curran St., McLean, VA 22101. The Barnabas fund is online at and can also be reached by phone at (703) 288-1681, toll-free 1-866-936-2525 or can be reached via email at


(A fuller "Aramaic Resource Guide" is included in my book "The Language of Jesus: Introducing Aramaic.")




Aramaic of the New Testament




In the New Testament we have Jesus and the early church praying in Aramaic:


Abba, Father


And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt. (Mark 14:36)


The Aramaic word "Abba" is also found in the writings of Paul in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6) Abba is an Aramaic loan word in Modern Hebrew. The Hebrew word is "avi." God is called "Father" over 100 times in the Gospels!


Eloi, Eloi lama sabachtani


And at the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi lema sabachtani?" which is translated, "My God, my God, for what have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) See also Matthew 27:46.


It Jesus had been speaking Hebrew he would have said, "Eli, Eli, lama azabanti." Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1 from the Aramaic version. An Aramaic translation (or paraphrase) of the Old Testament is called a Targum. In the Traditional Hebrew text of Psalm 22 it says "Like a lion my hands and feet" but recent archeological discoveries have shown the original reading to be "They have pierced by hands and feet."




"Maranatha" 1 Corinthians 16:22. This word is also used in the Didache. It means "Come, Our Lord." The word for "Lord" in Hebrew is "Adonai."


In Aramaic "Mar" means "Lord." "Maran" means "Our Lord." Maranatha can be translated as either, "Our Lord, Come" (Marana tha) or "Our Lord has come" (Maran atha). Those who argue that Jesus spoke only Hebrew admit that Maranatha is indeed Aramaic but then state that when Paul uses it he "is writing to his non-Israelite, non-Hebrew-speaking audience." But Corinth is between Athens and Sparta! This was a Greek and not an Aramaic-speaking region. Paul uses the "Maranatha" prayer because it is a prayer of the Aramaic speaking mother-church in Jerusalem. The Maranatha prayer has greater significance than just a prophetic significance. Ben Witherington III notes the importance of the Maranatha prayer in his book The Brother of Jesus, "In concluding his letter, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 16:22 offers up a prayer in Aramaic, "Maranatha", which means "Come, Lord." In other words, Jesus is already called Lord by Aramaic speaking Jewish-Christians, and he is prayed to. Now, early Jews did not pray to people who were merely revered dead rabbis, teachers, or even prophets. They might well pray for a rabbi to be raised on the last day, but they would not pray to him and implore him to come. Yet, that is what Paul is doing here, and he is probably echoing a prayer he heard offered in the Jerusalem church, where such prayers were spoken in Aramaic. The dramatic importance of such a prayer should not be underestimated. Jews were forbidden to pray to someone other than God. This prayer strongly suggests that Jesus was included within the earliest Aramaic Jewish Christians understanding of God. In other words, Jesus was already viewed very early on as divine by his earliest followers, and this included James [the Just]. The notion that seeing Jesus as a divine figure was added only late in the first century and was done so only by Gentiles is simply not true."


Son of Man (Barnasha)


The Aramaic phrase "Son of Man" can mean "a man," "a human being," "a person" or even "I" or "me." In the Gospels and other places in the New Testament it is used as a Messianic title. It seems to have come from a prophecy of the coming of a pre-existence divine being in the Aramaic section of the Book of Daniel. Daniel says concerning the Son of Man, "I saw in the night visions,a nd behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed." (Daniel 7:13-14)




Jesus saith unto her, Mary, She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabbouni; which is to say, Master. (John 20:16)


So Jesus answered and said unto him, "What do you want Me to do for you?" The blind man said to Him, "Rabboni, that I may receive my sight" (Mark 10:51, NKJV)


The Rabbinic title "Rabban" is of Aramaic origin and "Rabbi" is as well.


(NOTE: Hebrew and Aramaic are so similar that some words are the same in both languages also certain words originating from Hebrew, such as HOSANNA, made their way into the Aramaic language. (Hosanna means "Save Now" in Hebrew but came to mean "praise" in Aramaic.) The Aramaic form of the word for Passover, which is "Pascha," is used in the Greek of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7 and many other places). The holiday Hannakah is Aramaic for "Dedication" Jesus celebrated this holiday (John 10:22). Chanukah celebrated the victory of Judah Maccabeus over the Greek oppressors of the Jewish people. Judas Maccabee is Aramaic for "Judah the Hammer." Titles of religious groups such as the Pharisees, from the Aramaic "Separated Ones" and the Essenes, from the Aramaic Chasya, the "Pious" are from Aramaic.




Many of the names of people in the New Testament are Aramaic names. Many people in the New Testament have the Aramaic word "bar" in their names. Why would so many people have Aramaic names unless they are speaking Aramaic? Bar is Aramaic for "Son of" while Ben is Hebrew for "Son of." (The "Hebrew only" sect tries to dismiss the fact that there are so many Aramaic names in the New Testament. This demonstrates an error in their methodology- explaining away evidence instead of explaining the evidence.)




Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas" (which, when translated, is Peter). NIV footnote: Both Cephas (Aramaic) and Peter (Greek) mean rock. John 1:42. (See also 1 Corinthians 1:12 and Galatians 2:9). In Matthew it is mentioned that when Peter was in the courtyard of the high priest, the people said that he must be a Galilean because "his speech" gave him away. The bystanders were probably commenting of Peter's Galilean accent. The Talmud describes how the Galileans had their own accent to their Aramaic. They didn't pronounced their gutturals clearly. This is probably why Jesus' name in Aramaic is pronounced "Yeshu" in ancient Jewish sources and by Aramaic Christian till this day. "Yeshu" was the Hebrew way of saying "Jesus" until recently, when missionaries introduced the form "Yeshua" into Modern Hebrew.)




Simon Peter, Thomas called Twin, Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples were gathered together. (John 21:2)


In Aramaic Thomas (teoma) means "the twin."


Simon Canaanean


Canaanean means Zealot, which means "terrorist" or "insurgent." (Mark 3:18)


Mary Magdalene


"And also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) out of whom seven demons had some out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. (Luke 7: 2-3 NIV) Magdala is the Aramaic word for "tower." Jerome commented that perhaps she acquired this title since her faith was like a tower. However, it seems she is called Mary of Magdala because she came from the town of Magdala.)


Thaddeus and Lebbeus


(Matthew 10:3) Thaddeus means "breast" or "nipple" and Lebbeus, or Libba, means "heart."




In Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. (Acts 9:36). This Aramaic name means Gazelle.





Martha in Aramaic means "Lady" (Luke 10:38-41. John 11:1-39, John 12:2).




Matthew 10:3. Son of Ptolomey or perhaps "son of furrows" or "son of the ploughman."

In Hebrew "Son of…" is Ben. In Aramaic it is "Bar." There are many people with this Aramaic name-form in the New Testament.


Jesus Barabbas


Barabbas means "Son of the Father," He was the one whom was chosen by the crowds to be released instead of Jesus the Messiah. He was a brigand and a murderer (Matthew 27:16)


Simon Bar-Jonas


And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou Simon Bar-Jona; because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 16:17)


Bar-Jonas, means "Son of Jonah." Certain manuscripts read "Son of John" instead. The name "John" was Johannan.


Joseph Barsabbas


Barsabbas was considered as a candidate to be numbered among the Twelve Apostles (Acts 1:23). His name means "Son of the Sabbath," perhaps because he was born on a Sabbath day.


Elymas Bar-Jesus


And when they had gone through the whole island, as far as Pahpos, they found a certain man, a magician, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-Jesus. (Acts 12:6)


This man's name means "the Son of Jesus." During the first century, Jesus was a very common name. In his writings, Josephus mentions several different people named "Jesus." The name "Jesus" is a form of the name "Joshua."


Judas Barsabbas


This Barsabas was sent to Antioch carrying a letter from the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15: 22). He was a prophet (Acts 15:32) Judas Barsabbas is most likely a close relative of Joseph Barsabbas, possibly his brother.


Joseph Barnabas


Joseph Barnabas (Acts 4:36) from Bar-Nava meaning "Son of Prophecy," translated as "The Son of Encouragement" or "The Son of Consolation." This was the traveling missionary companion of Saint Paul.






"When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge's seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha)" (John 19: 13).


Josephus in The Jewish War V. ii. 1:51 states that Gabbatha means "high place' or "elevated place."




"Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.) Here they crucified him, and with him two others-one on each side and Jesus in the middle" (John 19: 17-18). See also Mark 15:22.




John 11:1

Meaning "House of Dates"




John 1:44

Meaning "House of the Fisherman"




John 5:1-15

Jesus performed a miracle at the Pool of Bethzatha. This Aramaic place name is mentioned in the famous Copper Scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Copper Scroll is an ancient treasure map from the first century.




Have no fear of those who kill the body, but can by no means kill the soul. Fear him instead who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. (Matthew 10:28)


The word "Gehenna" in Aramaic came to be the word used for "the burning hell" or "hell-fire." This was from the symbolism found in the burning rubbish dumps of Gey-Hennom, in the valley outside of Jerusalem. The Aramaic word Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew "Gey-Hennom," meaning "Valley of the Sons of Hennom." This cursed place was a place of idolatrous worship and human sacrifice in the Old Testament era. The Aramaic word "Gehenna" is found in many places in the Greek text of the New Testament but is usually translated as 'hell" in English versions. Also, in should be noted that Jesus in this saying in Matthew 10:28 uses what the Aramaic scholar Joachim Jeremias called the "divine passive." This was reverencing the name of God by speaking of the Lord by means of circumlocutions. The Jewish people at the time of Jesus' ministry would avoid speaking the proper name of God, which is "Jehovah" or "Yahweh." (Actually the original pronunciation wore likely Yahwoh and alternately Yahoo. The Divine Name could also have been originally pronounced "Yahuwoh." The form Yahoo is found in many ancient writings and inscriptions including the ancient Aramaic scrolls used by the Jewish community in Elephantine, Egypt shortly after the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.) Often they would substitute "Name," "Glory," "Heaven" and many other words for the Divine Name. Jesus often uses the "divine passive" when he speaks of God as "Him," "He who" and etcetera.






And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," which is "Be opened." (Mark 7:34). This word is Ethpatach and is the same in both Hebrew and Aramaic because these languages are so closely related.


Talitha Koum


And taking the hand of the child, he said to her, "Talitha koum," which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, get up." (Mark 5:41)


This Aramaic phrase here is important because Jesus is using it in an Aramaic speaking household. So we see that the household of a president of the synagogue is an Aramaic-speaking household. Thus we see that it wasn't just the uneducated who spoke Aramaic but also the educated and the elite. Talitha means little girl-not "Tallit" (garment) nor "Little lamb."




But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:22)


In the Aramaic of the Talmud, Raka means empty one, fool, empty-headed. This Aramaic word, imbedded in the Sermon on the Mount is additional evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic. The person who translated the Sermon from Aramaic into Greek, couldn't think of a Greek equivalent for the Aramaic word "Raca" so he left the word un-translated (transliterated) in the Greek text.




"But you say, "If a man says to his father or his mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban"-(that is a gift to God)…" (Mark 7:9-13).


This word refers to an offering or a sacrifice. Modern Assyrians call their Holy Communion service the Korban. In this passage Jesus was condemning a doctrine of the scribes and Pharisees that stated is you swore to give money to them, this released you from the obligation of using that money to support your needy elderly parents. Korban is both Hebrew and Aramaic. "KORBAN" meaning "a gift to God" has been found being used in an Aramaic inscription on an ossuary discovered in Israel.





No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)


See also Luke 16:9-13 and 2 Clement 6.


Mammon is an Aramaic word that represents an evil personification of greed. This corresponds with how the word the Aramaic word KOWBAIN (debt) is used in the Lord's Prayer. In Christ's teachings, especially in his parables, we see a link between sin and debts and the idea of forgiveness of sins as forgiveness of debt.



About the Author


Reverend Stephen Andrew Missick is the author of The Assyrian Church in the Mongol Empire, Mar Thoma: The Apostolic Foundation of the Assyrian Church in India, and Socotra: The Mysterious Island of the Church of the East which were published in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies (Volume XIII, No. 2, 1999, Volume XIV, No. 2, 2000 and Volume XVI No. 1, 2002). He is the author of The Words of Jesus in the Original Aramaic: Discovering the Semitic Roots of Christianity, Mary of Magdala: Magdalene, the Forgotten Aramaic Prophetess of Christianity, Treasures of the Language of Jesus: The Aramaic Source of Christ's Teaching, Aramaic: The Language of Jesus of Nazareth and Christ the Man. He is an ordained minister of the gospel. He graduated from Sam Houston State University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Rev. Missick has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and has lived among the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Aramaic Christians in Syria. He also served as a soldier in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and 2004. While serving as a soldier in Iraq he learned Aramaic from native Aramaic-speaking Iraqi Assyrian Christians. Rev. Missick is the writer and illustrator of the comic book "The Assyrians: The Oldest Christian People," the comic strip Chronicles: Facts from the Bible and the comic book series The Hammer of God which are available from The Hammer of God comic book series dramatizes the stories of Judah Maccabee and Charles Martel. He has also served as a chaplain in the Army National Guard in Iraq during his second deployment in 2009 and 2010.


Contact Stephen A. Missick at PO Box 882 Shepherd TX 77371 A monthly newsletter, The Aramaic Herald, is available free of charge. DVDs and Gospel tracts with an Aramaic focus are also available from the above address. Rev. Missick has several short video teachings and presentations at and a blog at






The Words of Jesus in the Original Aramaic: Discovering the Semitic Roots of Christianity


Mary of Magdala: Magdalene, the Forgotten Aramaic Prophetess of Christianity


Treasures of the Language of Jesus: The Aramaic Source of Christ's Teaching


Aramaic: The Language of Jesus of Nazareth


The Lord's Prayer in the Original Aramaic


Jesus the Poet


The Language of Jesus: Introducing Aramaic


Christ the Man


A Soldier in Iraq


The Hammer of God: The Stories of Judah Maccabee and Charles Martel


Judas Maccabeus: The Hammer of God


Charles Martel: The Hammer of God


The Ascents of James: A Lost Acts of the Apostles


The Second Adam and the Restoration of All Things


Saint Thaddeus and the King of the Assyrians


The Ennead


The Art of the Ennead


The Secret of Jabez: The Mystery of the Rechabite Kenites in the Bible


Comic Books:


The Assyrians: The Oldest Christian People

Chronicles: Facts from the Bible

The Hammer of God: Character and Historical Reference

The Hammer of God Coloring Book

The Hammer of God Mini-Comic

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