importance of Aramaic (Syriac)

Jesus, the apostles, and the first Christians spoke and wrote in Aramaic.


Jesus, the apostles, and the first Christians spoke and wrote in Aramaic, the language which the children of Israel had acquired during the Assyrian, or Babylonian, captivity, and which, aside from being spoken in Palestine was also used in Syria, Mesopotamia, and far beyond these boundaries. It was the com­mon language of the Jews as well as the Gentiles in the Near East. Portions of the books of Daniel and Ezra were written in the Aramaic language. Aramaic is closely related to the old Hebrew tongue. Hebrew, as the national Ian­- guage of the Jews before the captivity, could not be the language of the early Christian church with its great mission program; but Aramaic was the means of general communica­tion in the Near East, and the acquisition of the Aramaic tongue made this great mission pro­gram possible.

Most of the documents published in the East were immediately translated into the languages spoken in the respective countries, as we see it from the edicts mentioned in the book of Esther (Esther 3:12; 8:9), and the inscription on the cross (John 19:20).                                       

Not a few of the prominent scholars of today assert that the New Testament originally was written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek. We shall quote here only a few. Pro­fessor J. DeZwaan, of the University of Leyden, wrote a number of articles under the heading : "John Wrote in Aramaic." Dr. Charles Cut­ler Torrey of Yale University asserts that the first Christian church offered her writings to the Jewish nation with the claim of divine in­spiration, and "inspired writings had to be written in Aramaic or Hebrew; Greek was ex­cluded."

The Jews of the dispersion had synagogues in all larger cities, and here they worshiped, then as now, in their own sacred language. The churches organized by Paul and the other apos­tles came out of the synagogues, and here no Greek was used. The Jews would have em­phatically rejected a Greek Gospel. Every­where the first Christians were Jews who be­lieved in Jesus as the promised Messiah. The proclamation of the gospel orally, as well as in writing in the Greek language, would have been a profanation to them and would have met with the keenest opposition everywhere.

Paul, for that reason, made his address of de­fense before the Jewish people at Jerusalem in the Hebrew (rather Aramaic) tongue, and as they heard that language, all were silently lis­tening. (Acts 21 :40 ; 22 :2. )

The Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, was not made for the Jews in Egypt, but for the interested Greek-speaking Egyptians, as Doctor Torrey asserts. That the New Testament throughout has Ara­maic characteristics is sustained also by John Urquhart. He writes:

"The late Emmanuel Deutsch, whose authority in matter of Hebrew speech and literature is undisputed, says 'The style, the idiom, the innumerable open and latent illusions, the form and substance, in fact, of the fundamental books of Christianity contained in the New Testament, written, as Lightfoot has it, by Jews, among Jews, for Jews, can only be properly appreciated and thoroughly understood by constant reference to the oral literature'-,that is, the Hebrew oral literature—of that period."'

At the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 A. D., the New Testament Scriptures existed in the Aramaic. tongue.4 They had played a very important part in the swift promulgation of the gospel. Up to the fall of Jerusalem, Jewish Christians in most of the churches had the leadership, but by and by the Gentile Chris­tians gained numerical predominance and also gained in spiritual leadership. But with the increase of the Greek Christians, the significance of the translated Greek New Testament also gained ground. Outside Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia the Christian church services were conducted more and more frequently in the Greek and Latin languages.

In the year 411, Bishop Rabula of Edessa carried out a translation of the New Testament from the Greek back into the Aramaic lan­guage. In the Syriac book, Life of Rabula, we find the following reasons why he made this translation: "Now, because of its variations, of which there were many, he translated, by the wisdom of God that was in him, the New Testa­ment from Greek into Syriac, exactly, just as it was."5

This sentence has received an undue emphasis among many scholars, and is the ground for the belief that the Bible of the Eastern Church was a translation from the Greek. But the ex­isting variations show that the New Testament Scriptures were in the Aramaic, but now this bishop wanted to have uniformity. The East­ern Church has always rejected Rabula's trans­lation. She clung, as before, to her original writings, naming her canon Peshitta, according to Syrian peshitta, simple or clear.

The Aramaic Christians had their New Tes­tament before Rabula saw the light of the world, at which also Sir Frederick Kenyon, for­mer director of the British Museum, hinted with the assertion : "That the foundation of the Peshitta goes back to the very early date, is shown by the fact that it does not contain those books of the New Testament which were the last to be generally accepted."6

In later years these writings (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the Revelation) were added to the canon of the Eastern Church, but are not officially recognized as belonging to the original canon of the Peshitta.

The Nestorians, who carried the gospel to India, China, and other parts of Asia, have always preserved the Scriptures with the great­est care. Asahel Grant, M. D., the first Amer­ican missionary to discover the Christian As­syrians, writes in his book The Nestorians or the Lost Tribes: "The Nestorians have pre­served the Scriptures in manuscript with great care and purity."7

So it can be rightly presumed that in the Peshitta are found the writings of the New Testament in the original Aramaic language of Christianity. The mode of thought, which is based always on the Old Testament, could be adequately, simply, and clearly expressed only in the apostles' own language, the Aramaic—and clearness of expression is in evidence in the name of the Aramaic or Syriac canon, Peshitta, which means "clear," as we can see from Mat­thew 6:22, which in the Peshitta says, "If there­fore your eye be `peshitta.' " Hebrews 4:9 reads here : "It is therefore the duty of the chil­dren of God to keep the Sabbath."

In view of the prominent influence of the Greek culture and language in the Occident, and of the shutting off of the Church of the East through Islam, it has been widely assumed in Europe and America that the New Testament originally was written in the Greek language.

But discerning scholars of today recognize more and more that Aramaic was the language of the early Christian church, and that the Scriptures of the New Testament were written in that language also. This fact has always been asserted by the Church of the East. This church suffered much through the war storms of the Mongols and the spread of Islam. To­day it is very small in numbers, but it counted more members during the Middle Ages than the Greek and the Latin churches combined, and it has done a great missionary work in the Near and Far East. The Mongols and the Moslems destroyed most of this work.

The Lord Jesus said in Matthew 24:35: "My words shall not pass away." This utterance certainly has a twofold meaning. His very words are still alive.

The Church of the East split into different sections, but all call their language Aramaic, which is written in Syriac characters. In Europe and America this language is called, after the manner of the ancient Greeks, Syriac, in contrast to the Jewish-Aramaic literature, which is written with Hebrew (rather than Assyrian) characters. Syriac is simply Ara­maic in Syriac script. During the days of the apostles, when the New Testament writings were composed, there was no difference in the way of writing