Thursday, December 1, 2011

An Introduction to the Aramaic Roots of Christianity

© Copyright 2011 Stephen Andrew Missick

Aramaic Roots

Recently, in an attempt to reconnect with a more authentic form of Christianity, many people have turned toward the "Messianic" movement. The Messianic movement is an attempt to re-connect with the Semitic or Jewish roots of the faith. Aramaic is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic. It is, along with Hebrew and Greek, one of the three original languages of the Holy Bible. According to the New Testament, Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth and the Early Church. Aramaic is still a living language. It is spoken by the Assyrian Christians of Mesopotamia. Due to the rise of Islamic extremism, Assyrian Christians (and other Christians of the region, such as the Coptic Christians of Egypt) have become the targets of attack. Some have described the persecutions and the refugee crisis that it has cause, ethnic cleansing. So we see that due to the instability, Aramaic is a threatened language whose future is in doubt. In the book of Jonah, God send the prophet to preach to the Assyrians of Nineveh. They believed his words. Every year the Assyrians celebrate the "Rogation of the Ninevites." (Rogation means repentance.) God blessed the Assyrian people in Isaiah 19:25.


Aramaic as a Biblical Language

Certain of the rabbis believed that Aramaic was the language spoken in the Garden of Eden (b. Sanhedrin 38b). Other rabbis blessed Aramaic because it is found in all three parts of the Old Testament in how it is divided in the Jewish traditions. 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)

Aramaic had been described as the language of Abraham, since the Bible describes him as an "Aramaic nomad" from "Ur of the Chaldees" in southern Iraq (Deut. 26:5). Israeli Jews of Iraqi descent still speak Aramaic. Israeli native Israeli speakers assembled a bank of musicians who performed in this ancient language and called themselves Nash Didan. Ariel Sabar wrote about his Jewish fathers quest to study his native Aramaic language in "My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Family's Past."


Aramaic in the Old Testament

"The Lord watch between you and me when we are apart one from another…" This famous verse is related to the first appearance of Aramaic in the Holy Bible. Jacob and his uncle Laban spoke these words to each other when they made a covenant with each other. Jacob called the place where he made this covenant "Galeed," Hebrew for "Heap of Witness" and Laban the Syrian named the place "Jegar Shadutha," which means "Heap of Witness" in Aramaic. (The word "Syrian" means the same thing as Aramean. Aramaic was the language of the Syrians. Syria was called Aram.)

The Book of Kings mentions how that Aramaic was the language of diplomacy. The Israeli representative asked the Assyrian ambassador to speak to him in Aramaic because he was afraid that hearing the threats from the Assyrians may frighten the people (2 Kings 18:17). At this time, the Jewish people spoke Hebrew and many didn't understand Aramaic. However, after the Babylonian Captivity the opposite was true.

In the story of "the Writing on the Wall," the hand of God appeared and wrote the Aramaic words "Mene, Mene, Teqel, Upharsin" upon the walls of the palace of King Belshazzar. This words spelled the doom of the King and his kingdom (Daniel 5:25).

Also, in Daniel we have the prophecy of the Son of Man. In this prophecy a cosmic messianic figure stands before the "Ancient of Days" (meaning God) and establishes an everlasting kingdom (Dn 7:9). Many theologians believe that Jesus was alluding to this prophecy when he called him self "the Son of Man." (This term is used over 80 times in the Gospels. Barnasha is how you say "Son of Man" in Aramaic.)


The Old Testament in Aramaic

"The Joy of the Lord is your strength!" Ezra spoke these words to the people after he read the Bible to the people in Hebrew and then explained it to them in Aramaic (Nehemiah 8:8-10).

Many Bible scholars believe that during the Babylonian Captivity that Aramaic became a common language among the Jewish people and it eventually displaced Hebrew. It seems that the common people largely spoke Aramaic and some among them no longer spoke Hebrew. (Jeremiah warned the people that if they did not give up their sinful ways and idolatrous worship, that God would punish them by sending the nation into exile to Babylon (modern day Iraq). The people ignored the prophet and as a result his prophecy was fulfilled. This period of exile in Babylon is called the "Babylonian Captivity." Although Aramaic became the language of the common people, Hebrew was maintained as a living language among certain communities.)

Since many of the Jewish people no longer understood Hebrew, it was necessary to translate the Bible into Aramaic. These translations of the Bible are called "the Targum" or "Targumim." Part of the synagogue service was the reciting of the Bible in Aramaic in order for everyone to be able to understand the Bible. Many Targums have survived. Some Targums were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In certain passages of Scriptures in the New Testament, the Old Testament is quoted from in the Targum version. The Targums were free interpretive translations and paraphrases. The Aramaic speaking Christians have a version of the Old Testament called the Syriac Peshitta. Bible scholars have determined that this version is actually an ancient Targum created by Messianic Jews.


One well-known Aramaic phrase from the Targums is the phrase "Shekinah Glory." Shechinah – an Aramaic word meaning resting-place, not found in Scripture, but used by the later Jews to designate the visible symbol of God's presence in the Tabernacle, and afterwards in Solomon's temple. When the Lord led Israel out of Egypt, he went before them "in a pillar of a cloud." This was the symbol of his presence with his people. God also spoke to Moses through the 'shekhinah' out of a burning bush. For references made to it during the wilderness wanderings, see Exodus 14:20; 40:34-38; Leviticus 9:23, 24; Numbers 14:10; 16:19, 42.


Aramaic in the Inter-Testamental Period

During the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament, Aramaic was used by the Jews of the Holy Land. After liberating the Temple from the Greeks, Judah Maccabee (in Aramaic, Judah Maqaba, meaning "Judah the Hammer) established a holiday called Hanukkah (which means "Dedication" in Aramaic).

During this period the Book of Tobit was composed in Aramaic. Several copies were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Book of Tobit tells the charming story of the angel Raphael, who is able to intervene and help the struggling family of Tobit.

The Book of Enoch was also written in Aramaic. This book is quoted from by Jude, the Brother of Jesus in his epistle. The complete text of Enoch has been preserved by the Christians of Ethiopia in the Semitic Ethiopic (or "Ge'ez") language.


Aramaic as the Language of Jesus of Nazareth

The New Testament is written in Greek. However, many Aramaic words are found embedded in its Greek text. For example, we find the Aramaic words "Abba, Father," "Mammon," (meaning "wealth") and "Raca," (meaning "empty-headed) in the teachings of Jesus (Mark 14:36, Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:11, Matthew 5:22). Jesus also uses Aramaic when healing people. To the deaf mute Jesus said "Ephphatha," Aramaic for "Be Opened" and to the daughter of Jairus he said, "Talitha Qum" which means, "Little Girl, get up" (Mark 7:34, Mark 5:41).


The Cry from the Cross

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 hundreds of 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). 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.


Aramaic Names in the New Testament

Many of the people in the New Testament have uniquely Aramaic names. Often, Jesus gave his followers Aramaic names. He named Simon Kaifa, which is written as Cephas in the King James Bible and its equivalent is "Peter" in Greek (John 1:42) Jesus named James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, "Boanerges" which means "Sons of Thunder" in Aramaic (Mark 3:17). In Aramaic "Bar" means "Son" and in Hebrew "Ben" means "Son." Many people have "Bar" in their names such as Bartholomew and Barnabas. (Barnabas means "Son of Encouragement" in Aramaic (Acts 4:36).) The name Thomas is Aramaic for "Twin" (John 11:16). The name Magdalene means "from the town of Magdala" in Aramaic. Magdala is the Aramaic word for "Tower" (Luke 8:2). Simon Canaanean means "Simon the Zealot" (or Simon the Terrorist) in Aramaic (Mark 3:18). Many places mentioned in the Gospel have Aramaic names. Bethsaida, the city of Phillip, means "the Fisherman's House" in Aramaic (John 1:44). Jesus was crucified at Golgotha, meaning "Place of the Skull" in Aramaic and Judas committed suicide at Aqel Dema, which means "Field of Blood" in Aramaic (John 19:17, Acts 1:19).



Aramaic and the Apostles

According to an ancient Aramaic manuscript entitled "The Doctrine of Addai," Thaddeus went to Mesopotamia and preached to an Aramaic speaking king named Abgar who ruled the city of Edessa. Thaddeus then continued to preach to the Assyrian people. According to the early Church Fathers, Thomas also went to preach to the Assyrians, Babylonians, the Parthians and all the peoples of the east. According tot the Aramaic book entitled "The Acts of Thomas," Saint Thomas established the church in India. Today, the Christians of Southern India are known as "Saint Thomas Christians" and belong to the Aramaic Church tradition. Other ancient Aramaic Christian writings have come down to us. This includes "The Odes of Solomon" which is an ancient Jewish Christian hymn book. Since the "peoples of the east" spoke Aramaic, it was necessary for them to have the Scriptures in their own language so a translation of the Bible was made into their dialect of Aramaic. This form of Aramaic is called Syriac and it is very similar to the form of Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the Apostles. This Aramaic version of the Bible is called the Peshitta.


The Ancient Assyrian Church of the East

Usually, the history of Christianity is told from a Euro-centric perspective. Therefore, the historical contributions of Aramaic, Chinese, Indian, Coptic and Ethiopic Christians are overlooked. Tatian the Assyrian was the disciple of the famous Justin Martyr. Tatian composed the first harmony of the Gospels which he entitled the Diatesseron. He apparently created a Syriac and a Greek version. There are also other renown theologians of the Syriac tradition. This includes Saint Ephraim, Saint Isaac of Nineveh and Bar-Hebreus (his name in Aramaic means "son of the Hebrews" as he was a Jewish Christian). There are different churches of the Aramaic tradition. This includes the Church of the East. (This church has been called the "Nestorian" Church in the past. However, it was founded long before Nestorius was born. In the Church of the East, the Nicene Creed is recited during every service. So, the Church of the East is theologically orthodox and has been recognized as so by many theologians and by the Roman Catholic Church). The Syrian (or Syriac) Orthodox Church is another important church of the Aramaic Church tradition. Another influential church of the Aramaic tradition is the Maronite church of Lebanon. Also, there is a group of Aramaic baptizers called the Mandaeans. They claim to believe in John the Baptist but not in Jesus Christ. Assyrian physicians and scholars became very influential in the Islamic world after the Islamic Conquest.

Assyrian Christian Missionary Activities

From their origins until about 1500, the Assyrian Christians were very active in global missions. They founded churches in India. Assyrian Christians also planted churches along the "Silk Road." The Silk Road is the name given by historians to the various trade routes through central Asia which connected the East to the West. Marco Polo traveled across the Silk Road and describes finding "Nestorian" churches often. In 636 A.D., Assyrian Christians preached to the Emperor of China. He declared his favor upon Christianity and commanded that churches be built and that the Scriptures be translated into Chinese. Christianity thrived in Asia for centuries. Many of the Mongols were Christians. Assyrian Christianity was widespread under the rule of Genghis and Kublia Khan. In fact, many in the Mongolian royal family were members of the Assyrian Church of the East. Later, due to Islamic persecution and the ravages of the Black Plague, many Syriac Christian communities in the Far East disappeared. (After the Assyrian Church fell in decline, Roman Catholics would often make converts of Chinese "Nestorian" Christians. It is possible that many Chinese Christians roots go back to Syriac Christianity.) The Church of the East also planted churches in remote areas such as the Isle of Socotra off the coast of Africa. Archeologists have found Chinese Imperial monuments proclaiming the Christian messages, Christian scrolls written in Chinese and the ruins of church buildings and Christian cemeteries. The Church of the East survived in Iraq, Iran and India.


The Persecution of Aramaic Christians

On October 31, 2010, two Islamic radicals with suicide vests full of projectiles entered a church and detonated themselves into the congregation. Over fifty were killed. Throughout their entire history, Assyrian Christians have been persecuted. Before the dawn of Islam, certain Zoroasterian rulers persecuted the Assyrian Christians. After Islamic armies arrived in Mesopotamia, Assyrian Christians had to endure Islamic rule. Throughout the Islamic world, Christians are discriminated against, persecuted and at times there have been massacres. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Turks and Kurds persecuted Assyrian Christians. In one attack, the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East was murdered. Perhaps the most terrible massacres occurred during the "Armenian Genocide" of the World War One period and the period after. During this genocide, Muslims killed Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. In August 1933, over two hundred Assyrian Christian men, women and children were machine gunned to death by the Iraqi army. After this slaughter, the officers and soldiers who participated in the massacre were given awards for this action. Christians always face discrimination in Muslim countries. Saddam Hussein did prevent Islamist attacks on Assyrians. After the second Gulf War, Islamist attacks on Assyrian Christians intensified and tens of thousands of Assyrian Christians became refugees. Please pray for the Aramaic speaking Assyrian Christians of the Middle East and all other Middle Eastern Christians.


The Lord's Prayer in Aramaic

Avvon d-bish-maiya, nith-qaddash shim-mukh.
Tih-teh mal-chootukh. Nih-weh çiw-yanukh:
ei-chana d'bish-maiya: ap b'ar-ah.
Haw lan lakh-ma d'soonqa-nan yoo-mana.
O'shwooq lan kho-bein:
ei-chana d'ap kh'nan shwiq-qan l'khaya-ween.
Oo'la te-ellan l'niss-yoona:
il-la paç-çan min beesha.
Mid-til de-di-lukh hai mal-choota
oo khai-la oo tush-bookh-ta
l'alam al-mein. Aa-meen.


Aramaic Resources

For more information, see my You Tube Channel at I also have a blog at I have written several books on Aramaic including "The Words of Jesus in the Original Aramaic," "Aramaic: The Language of Jesus of Nazareth," "The Language of Jesus: Introducing Aramaic" and "Christ's Language: Spiritual Insight from Aramaic." "The Language of Jesus" includes a helpful "Aramaic Resource List" which can also be found in my blog.

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