A village where the language Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago is still spoken today. Above, the stunning St. Thecla monastery in Maaloula, Syria, near the Syrian border with Lebanon. Maaloula is one of three villages in western Syria where a dialect of Western Aramaic, a direct descendant of the language spoken by Jesus, survives. Maaloula is directly across the Anti-Lebanon mountains from the city of Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon. In Lebanon, the ancient Syriac language — a form of Aramaic — is preserved by Maronite and Syriac Christians (image from Wikipedia)
Lebanon Report 2023, #6: Monday, July 3
An Ancient Tradition That Still Endures
By Christopher Hart-Moynihan, Director, Friends of Lebanon Project
Lebanon is “more than a country,” Pope John Paul II said in the 1980s (link). Lebanon is in fact “a message,” he said… and Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis repeated this judgment many times. Lebanon is a message of unity, showing the world how different faiths may live together in peace, even in the face of temptations to division and separation.
Lebanon, with its ancient Christian community, is also a message of continuity over time to the words and teachings of Jesus himself — a message that connects our modern world to the ancient faith, 20 centuries after Jesus lived and preached in this region of the world.
The message is in the very language of the faith: Aramaic
This message is preserved in the very language used by the Lebanese Maronite Church: Aramaic.
Lebanon has a deep historical connection to Jesus Christ. In his Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus traveled to the cities of Tyre and Sidon: “And Jesus went from thence, and retired into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.” (Matthew 15:21) In Lebanon today, these two port cities, Tyre (Ṣur in Arabic) and Saida, are the two largest cities in the southern half of the country.
This means that Lebanon, along with modern-day Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, is part of the Christian Holy Land: the land where Jesus walked.
Lebanon maintains another, less well-known connection to Jesus. Lebanon is one of the few places in the world where one can still hear the words Jesus spoke, just as he spoke them. This is because here the ancient Aramaic language has been preserved into the modern era — even up until the present day.
Support for the Christians of Lebanon therefore means also support for the continued use of the language that Jesus spoke.
Here is a map showing, at the top, Byblos, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre, in the brown area marked “Phoenician States” — in the area of modern Lebanon. (The lake between Acre and Ashtaroth, colored light blue, in the area marked “Kingdom of Israel,” is the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus and his disciples lived and sailed in fishing boats, the light blue-colored area below Jericho is the Dead Sea):
A map showing the kingdoms in the territories of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, circa 1000 B.C. The kingdom of Aram Damascus, the ancient heartland of the Aramaic language, is to the north and east of Israel. The cities of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Byblos — all now part of modern Lebanon — are to the north and west of Israel, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. (image from Wikipedia)
A Brief History of Aramaic
Although Jesus was a Jew, and likely was familiar with both Hebrew and Greek, the language that Jesus and his apostles spoke, and preached in, was — like almost all other Jews of their time and place — Aramaic.
To understand this connection more fully, we must go back thousands of years, to a time long before the birth of Christ. In the Fertile Crescent, which stretches across modern-day Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon through Syria, southern Turkey, and Iraq, some of the world’s oldest civilizations arose, particularly around the cities of Uruk (southern Iraq), Nineveh (northern Iraq), Jericho (West Bank) and Damascus (Syria).
The languages spoken over the western half of this territory were Semitic, and in around 1000 B.C. various kingdoms were established, including the kingdom of Aram (centered on Damascus) and the kingdom of Hamath (centered on the city of Hama in modern-day Syria) where early forms of Aramaic were the principal language.
At around the same time, the ancient cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Berytus (Beirut) — centers of the Phoenician civilization and of modern-day Lebanon — were thriving.
Biblical scholars date the reigns of King Saul and King David in Israel to this time period as well.
The languages spoken in Aram, Phoenicia, and Israel during this period were Aramaic, Canaanite, and Hebrew: all Semitic languages, descended from one common ancestral tongue.
According to the Biblical record, the sons of Noah were said to be the forefathers of the Aramaeans, the Phoenicians/Canaanites, and the Hebrews. The Phoenicians/Canaanites were said to be descended from Noah’s second son Ham, while the Hebrews and Aramaeans came from separate branches of the descendants of Noah’s oldest (or possibly youngest) son, Shem. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy memorably describes Jacob as a “wandering Aramaean.”
Over the course of the millennium preceding the birth of Christ, the Aramaic language slowly spread until it was the lingua franca of the entire Middle East. Eventually it was adopted as a daily language even by the Hebrews and Canaanites/Phoenicians themselves. By the time Jesus was born, Aramaic and Greek (which spread gradually following the conquests of Alexander the Great around the year 330 B.C.) were the two dominant languages in the region.
Today, Lebanon is one of the few places in the world where Aramaic is still used. While most of the traditionally Aramaic-speaking lands have switched to Arabic over the past millennium, and Israeli Jews have revitalized Hebrew, Aramaic has survived as the language of the Middle East’s Christian minority.
Through our work, we wish to help preserve this ancient language.
A prayer book written in the Syriac language, which is the liturgical language of the Maronite Church and several other sui iuris Eastern Churches. Syriac is a language that descends from the Aramaic spoken in the Eastern Roman and Byzantine Empires during the first millennium A.D.
What is the difference between Syriac and Aramaic?
The Aramaic language was so geographically widespread, over such a long period of time, that multiple distinct dialects developed. Several of these dialects are even so different from one another that they are not mutually intelligible.
In this sense we can see parallels with medieval Latin, whose spoken or “Vulgar” forms eventually became the modern Romance languages — Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian, and others.
The different Aramaic dialects were centered on the great metropolises of the Near East: Babylon, Nineveh, Damascus, and Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples spoke Galilean Aramaic, one of the many dialects of Western Aramaic. In the centuries following the arrival of Islam, Western Aramaic gradually lost ground to Arabic in the Holy Land, Syria, and Iraq.
However, the Christian communities that did not convert to Islam continued to use Aramaic both as a daily language and as a liturgical language. Over the centuries of the first millennium A.D., the city of Edessa became a center of Christian culture, and the Aramaic dialect of Edessa was used in the Syriac Rite of the Mass as well as in many prayers and sacred hymns.
This dialect of Aramaic, which evolved organically in an unbroken tradition from the ancient Aramaic spoken by the peoples of the Old Testament and by Jesus Himself, is still in use today. It is known as the Syriac language, which is used by the Maronite Church and the Syriac Catholic and Orthodox Churches. So, roughly speaking, if Jesus spoke the Aramaic equivalent of Medieval Latin, what we are hearing when we listen to a Syriac Mass is akin to Modern Italian.
The first time I heard a service in the Syriac language was in Rome, at the Maronite Monastery in the Villa Serenella on the edge of the city. The chanting of the monks had a deep and meditative quality, and it was easy to imagine the Apostles and the early Christians praying in a very similar way.
And now, the beauty of this ancient language and its liturgical and musical tradition is, thankfully, becoming more and more accessible to Christians (and non-Christians) worldwide. In October 2016, Pope Francis was greatly moved upon hearing a choir sing an Aramaic psalm during his trip to Georgia (Click here to watch a video of the hymn with remastered audio).