Religious Organizations Network

In Jesus movie, Some See Hope for a Dying Tongue

Posted: Sunday, February 22, 2004 at 09:40 PM CT

Gibson's film features dialogue in Aramaic (, which few still speak.

JERUSALEM (AP) -- An ancient, dying language gets a new life on American movie screens this week.

Some linguists, who fear the language spoken by Jesus could vanish within a few decades, hope for a boost from Mel Gibson's new film, "The Passion of the Christ," opening Wednesday in U.S. theaters. The dialogue is entirely in Aramaic and Latin.

Among the few places in the world where Aramaic is still familiar is a small Syrian Orthodox church in Jerusalem, though even here it is little more than an echo these days.

A church elder laments that he has few people to speak to in Aramaic besides the monks. Parts of the liturgy have to be said in Arabic. A nun who sings the Lord's Prayer says the words are just about the only ones she can recite in Aramaic.

Aramaic was once the lingua franca of the Middle East and parts of Asia. Today, the Syrian Orthodox community in Jerusalem offers Aramaic summer school classes, but there is little interest and fewer than half the 600 members speak the language.

"Maybe the new generation will wake up and continue," said Sami Barsoum, 69, a community leader and fluent Aramaic speaker.

Just a half-million people around the world, mostly Christians, still speak Aramaic at home.

"Undoubtedly, Aramaic is in danger of disappearing," said Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem.

Aramaic is one of the few languages that has been spoken continuously for thousands of years. It first appeared in written records around the 10th century B.C., though it was likely spoken earlier.

It is a Semitic language and has similarities with Hebrew and Arabic. Carpenter, for instance, is "nagouro" in Aramaic, "nagar" in Hebrew and "najar" in Arabic.

Aramaic reached its widest influence when it was adopted by the Persian empire about 500 B.C. Written in a 22-letter alphabet -- similar in form to Hebrew -- it was a relatively simple language, and scribes and intellectuals helped spread it in a largely illiterate world, Bar-Asher said.

Aramaic texts have turned up as far apart as India and Egypt. Jews returning from exile in Babylon around 500 B.C. helped spread the language to the eastern Mediterranean, where it largely supplanted Hebrew.

Scholars believe Jesus might have known Hebrew -- which by that time was reserved mainly for use in synagogues and by upper classes -- and some Greek, but Aramaic was the language of his native Galilee.

The New Testament records Jesus' last words on the cross in Aramaic: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" The Gospel of Mark, most likely written in Greek, adds, "... which means, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' "

Michael Sokoloff, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, Israel, said it is believed that parts of the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic, but only Greek writings have been found.

Aramaic was largely replaced by Arabic during the Islamic conquest of the 7th century.

Today, a few people speak it in parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, India, Europe, Australia and some U.S. cities, including Chicago, Illinois.

In Syria, once the core of indigenous Christian Aramaic speakers, the language is still heard among 10,000 people in three villages perched on cliff sides in the Qalamoun Mountains north of Damascus.

But it is dwindling as the older generation dies, said George Rizkallah, a 63-year-old retired Syrian teacher. Rizkallah has appealed to the Syrian government and international organizations to help save the language.

A few thousand Israelis who emigrated from other Middle East countries still speak Aramaic, but few pass it on to their children.

However, the Talmud and other Jewish religious texts are written in Aramaic. It appears in the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, and in Israeli marriage and divorce contracts.

Sokoloff, the Semitic languages professor, is helping write an Aramaic dictionary.

Gibson's film, depicting Christ's final hours, uses subtitles. The script was translated into first-century Aramaic for the Jewish characters and "street Latin" for the Roman characters by the Rev. William Fulco, director of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California.

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