Why did Jesus speak Aramaic and not Hebrew? This is a question that concerned me for most of my life. I have known many Jewish people throughout my life and all of them spoke Hebrew. Therefore, I just assumed that Jesus being Jewish spoke Hebrew as well. This assumption is the basis for a lot of problems in our society. We judge things by how they are now, not how they were then.
I was introduced to this fact about fourteen years ago when a local parish priest told the congregation that Jesus spoke Latin and the Catholic Church was the oldest and original Christian Church. I knew that Jesus did not speak Latin- maybe just a few words but that was all. That is when I began to study what language he actually spoke and what language the Jewish people spoke at the time of Christ.
It is the general consensus of religious scholars and historians that Jesus and his disciples primarily spoke Aramaic, the traditional language of Judea in the first century AD. Their Aramaic was most likely a Galilean accent distinct from that of Jerusalem. Jesus spent most of his time in the communities of Nazareth and Capernaum in Galilee, which were Aramaic-speaking villages.
Aramaic is also an ancient language over 3800 years old. In the Bible, ancient Aram was part of Syria. The Aramaic language has its origins in the Aramean city-states of Damascus, Hamath, and Arpad. The alphabet at that time was similar to the Phoenician alphabet. As the country of Syria emerged, the Aramean states made it their official language.
In Genesis 31, Jacob was making a covenant with his father-in-law Laban. Genesis 31:47 reads, “Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed.” It’s giving the Aramaic name and the Hebrew name for the same place. This indicates that the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) were speaking what we now call Hebrew (the language of Canaan) while Laban, who lived in Haran, was speaking Aramaic (or Syrian). Obviously, Jacob was bilingual.
After the Assyrian Empire conquered the lands west of the Euphrates River, Tiglath-Pileser II (King of Assyria from 967 to 935 BC) made Aramaic the second official language of the Empire, with the Akkadian language the first. Later Darius I (King of the Achaemenid Empire, from 522 to 486 BC) adopted it as the primary language, over Akkadian. Consequently, the use of Aramaic covered vast areas, eventually splitting into an eastern and western dialect and multiple minor dialects. Aramaic is really a language family, with variations that may be unintelligible to other Aramaic speakers.
When the Achaemenid Empire fell to Alexander the Great in 330 B.C everyone had to begin using the Greek language; however, most people continued speaking Aramaic as well. When Alexander the Great died and his generals took over the Empire- Greek was the official language of many areas in the Middle East. The Seleucid Empire finally took over much of the Holy Land. They then forced the Jews to give up many of their customs and to begin to worship their gods. This is when a revolt of Jews was led by the Maccabees to stop the Greek influences. At this point under the Maccabees' leadership- Israel completely turned away from the use of Greek with the common people and continued with Aramaic. Aramaic was the language of trade, commerce, and it was what the common person spoke.
Many important Jewish texts were written in Aramaic, including the Talmud and Zohar, and it was used in ritual recitations like the Kaddish. Aramaic was used in yeshivot (traditional Jewish schools) as a language of Talmudic debate. Jewish communities usually used the western dialect of Aramaic. This was used in the Book of Enoch (170 BC) and in The Jewish War by Josephus.
Going back to the parish priest who said that Jesus spoke Latin and the Catholic Church was the oldest Christian Church, that statement got me thinking. If Jesus spoke Aramaic, was there a Catholic Church that used this language in their Liturgy today and the answer really shocked and surprised me- there was and it was a Catholic Church- the Maronite Catholic Church.
The Maronite Church has one of the oldest liturgies in the Catholic Church. Even today, Eucharistic prayers are done in Aramaic.
Eucharistic Prayers- Last Supper
The Last Supper is viewed by Catholics as the official institution of the Eucharist, inaugurating the liturgical celebration of Mass.
While today the Mass is said in a variety of languages throughout the world, it is likely that Jesus said the words of institution in his native tongue of Aramaic. Therefore, that parish priest was right, there is a Catholic Church that continues to use the original language that Jesus used with his Apostles at the Last Supper. Come out and enjoy the richness of the Catholic Church and see what it would be like if we were seated at that table almost 2000 years ago.
Eucharistic Prayers- Today
Cel: (taking the bread in his hands and praying in Syriac)
wa-byaow-mo haow daq-dom ha-sho dee-leh ma’-bed ha-yeh en-sa-bel lah-mo bee-daow qa-dee-sho-to oo-ba-rekh oo-qa-desh waq-so oo-ya-bel tal-mee-daow kad o-mar: sab a-khool meh-neh kool-khoon ho-no den ee-taow fagh-ro deel dah-lo-fai-koon wah-lof sa-gee-yeh meh-teq-seh oo-meh-tee-heb lhoo-so-yod haow-beh wal-ha-yeh dal-'o-lam 'ol-meen.
And on the day before his life-giving passion, he took bread in his holy hands. He blessed, sanctified, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body which is broken and given for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins and for eternal life. Cong: Amen.
Cel: (taking the chalice in his hands and praying in Syriac)
ho-kha-no 'al ko-so dam-zeegh wo men ham-ro oo-men ma-yo ba-rekh oo-qa-desh oo-ya-bel tal-mee-daow kad o-mar: sab esh-taow meh-neh kool-khoon ho-no den ee-taow dmo deel dee-ya-tee-qee hda-to dah-lo-fai-koon wah-lof sa-gee-yeh meh-teh-shed oo-meh-tee-heb lhoo-so-yod haow-beh wal-ha-yeh dal-'o-lam 'ol-meen.
In a similar way, over the chalice of wine mixed with water, he blessed and sanctified it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is my blood of the new covenant, which will be poured out and given for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins and for eternal life. Cong: Amen.