All opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Aramaic, the mother tongue of the Apostles and the language Jesus cried out while on the cross, is often regarded as ancient history. Though ancient, the language is still alive. Aramaic— the original language of the books of Daniel, Ezra and the Talmud— endures to this day after over two thousand years of tragedy and tenacity.
From the times of Assyria and Babylon to the Arab invasions of the 7th century AD, Aramaic served as a lingua franca across the Fertile Crescent and places even further afield. Aramaic inscriptions have been found next to Hadrian’s Wall in England and on bilingual stele in China and India. The rise of Arabic— propelled by the advance of Islam— ensured that Aramaic would be a language associated with an increasingly marginalized Christian minority. Today, the language is spoken by around half a million speakers scattered across the globe.
Aramaic faces two existential threats: eradication and assimilation. Aramaic communities in Syria and Iraq bore the brunt of the Islamic State’s attempts to wipe out anything not compatible with their fundamentalist worldviews. Their churches desecrated, villages destroyed and communities uprooted, Aramaic speakers— many now asylum seekers— struggle to pass on their ancient language to the next generation.
Many Passages participants have the privilege of hearing Aramaic spoken in Galilee. Jish, a village located on the frontier between Israel and Lebanon, is home to a small Aramaic-speaking community intent on passing down the language to the next generation. Philip Morrow, a Passages alumnus and graduate of Houston Baptist University, is using his passion for linguistics to help ensure that Aramaic will continue in the homeland of the Apostles. I had the chance to talk with him as he shared his passion for the language.
The following conversation has been edited for length.
Do you remember the first time you heard Aramaic?
“Like most English-speaking Christians, my first encounters with Aramaic seeped through the Gospels. ‘Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani,’ (‘My God. My God, why have you forsaken me?’) which Christ cried out during the crucifixion, likely come from an Aramaic translation of Psalm 22. He may have grown up hearing it that way, or he may have coined it at that moment. In either case, Aramaic was personal and real to Jesus: an authentic expression of his most basic human emotions.”
You’ve studied many Biblical languages. What makes Aramaic stand out to you?
“Aramaic is a precious remnant of first-century Jewish culture. It preserves the beliefs of diasporic Jews, early Christians, and much of the Eastern Church. Most notably, it is widely acknowledged to be the ‘language of Jesus.’ Calling it the language of Jesus doesn’t make it magical, but reminds me of his humanity. Jesus lived and taught in the context of his world and used the mundane things of it to best relate to the people he came to save.”
How has your relationship with Aramaic continued after your trip to Israel?
“Oddly enough, I started studying Aramaic right after my first trip for a Biblical Languages minor. On my second Passages trip, one of the participants on my bus told me that she spoke Aramaic at home. While in Jish, hearing her speak with the local Christians in Aramaic made me want to do that too. Studying Aramaic Targums (translations) of the Bible— which not only translate the text but expound and clarify it— has widened my perspective like nothing else has.”
Do you have any favorite Aramaic words or phrases?
“My name, Philip, is Greek for ‘friend of horses.’ Phil, my nickname, is Greek for ‘friend.’ So my nickname in Aramaic would be one of two things: HaBro (ܚܒܪܐ) or RaHmo (ܪܚܡܐ). HaBro (ܚܒܪܐ) is a generic term for friend, similar to ‘pal’ or ‘buddy’ in English. RaHmo (ܪܚܡܐ), my given name, is a few steps deeper. The term originally meant ‘womb.’ From this, we get the idea of love— the love a woman has for her child. That gets broadened into a hyperbolic term for loving someone: showing them mercy, patience, kindness, etc. Syriac (a modern Aramaic dialect) liturgy asks God to remember His ReHumutho for us— His enduring and close love for us. So when I hear my name in Aramaic, I’m reminded of the beauty of language to occupy so many spaces in such conceptually stimulating ways… plus, I’m glad someone’s calling me their friend!”
What can Passages Alumni do to help Aramaic continue?
“As much as I would love for Passages alumni to all start speaking Aramaic with me, I know we’re not all called to do that. In fact, every single Passages alum can be even more effective by speaking English.
The Israeli Christians we work with are in a very difficult sociolinguistic position. They must often speak Arabic with their neighbors, they have to learn Hebrew and English in school, and they want to learn Aramaic at home.
If you speak English, you can help two of these endeavors at once. By joining a nascent program I’ve designed called ‘CrossTalk‘ you can virtually fellowship with the students and young adults in Jish and the surrounding villages. Just by talking with them in English, you will provide a very important service to their education that will promote their professional and social development far more than you know. And by connecting them with Western Christians who support their goal of revitalizing Aramaic, you play into a much larger social phenomenon that encourages and empowers them to steadily reclaim their unique identity, culture, and land.”
If you’ve never heard Aramaic for yourself, listen to the Philos Project’s Shadi Khalloul recite the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic.
Learn more about Aramaic and the people who still speak it:
The Lost History of Christianity, by Philip Jenkins.
The Last Christians, by Andreas Knapp.
Decline of a Lingua Franca: The Story of Aramaic, by The Atlantic.
Among the Ruins, by Christian Sahner.
Christian Martyrs Under Islam, by Christian Sahner.