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The Language of Jesus

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Aramaic appeared in the 10th century BCE and by the 5th century, it had become the major language in the Near East, spoken and written from Egypt to India. In Eretz Israel, Hebrew was still spoken in a late dialect which would survive until approximately the end of the 2nd century CE. However, the language that was spoken by most of the population was a dialect of Aramaic known as Western Aramaic.

From what we know, in Galilee towards the end of the Second Temple Period, the only language spoken by the Jews was Aramaic, with Hebrew being preserved at the time only in the southern area of Judea. Thus, it safe to assume that the language of Jesus was Aramaic.

Aramaic remained the language of the Jewish and later Christian population of Eretz Israel during the Byzantine and later Muslim Periods, although it began steadily losing ground to Arabic. From the 6th century on, we have a large number of Christian texts written in Aramaic from Eretz Israel for the use of the Aramaic-speaking Christian community, which continued to exist until late into the Middle Ages.

Aramaic in the dialect called Syriac has remained to this day the language of prayer for millions of Christians both in the Middle East and in the Diaspora, although in its spoken versions it is unfortunately fighting an uphill battle.

Pilgrims to Israel can become better acquainted with this ancient language by visiting masses celebrated by the the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church and the Maronites.

Prof. Michael Sokoloff