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Anglicans Online last updated 19 November 2017

an essay for Anglicans Online
9 March 2014

Lost in Translation - Aramaic in the Context of Christ
Steve Caruso

It has been about 10 years since my hobby of translating ancient languages became my profession, and off and on over that period I've wondered to myself about the state of languages in relation to faith.

If you're Jewish, and you grow up in the Jewish faith, you learn Hebrew, as that's what the Hebrew Bible is written in. If you're Muslim, and you grow up within Islam, you learn Arabic, as that's what the Qur'an is written in.

When you are Christian, as I am, and you grow up in the Christian faith, there are by and large no language requirements as part of your religious schooling. Perhaps if you're Catholic, you learn a bit of Latin, but that's about it.

The New Testament, the core volume of Christianity, was written and compiled in Greek. So then the next logical question is, "Should all Christians learn Greek?" That might certainly be a place to start for the serious student, and most seminaries and universities offer appropriate courses, sometimes even tailored towards learning Greek in the context of the Bible.

However, there is a further twist that throws a considerable kink into the works: Although his words and teachings are recorded in the New Testament in Greek — and our Bibles rely upon translating from that Greek — Jesus himself, and his earliest followers, spoke Aramaic; a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic.

Very specifically, he spoke early Galilean Aramaic, which is a very distinct and obscure dialect, and one that has nearly been lost to time and some well-intentioned negligence. The elites of Jesus' time looked down upon the Galilean dialect with contempt, because they saw it as inarticulate and unrefined.

Despite that, it managed to survive the Roman occupation and urbanization of 1st Century Jewish culture to enjoy a brief renaissance after the fall of the Temple in 70 AD when Jewish scholars retreated to Galilee. However, this bit of prosperity was very short lived, as with the rise of the first Patriarchal Caliphate when it was completely displaced by Arabic. In the end, well meaning Eastern Aramaic speaking scribes were entrusted with the documents — which they promptly set out to "correct" of their perceived errors, and most of these "errors" were perfectly normal Galilean vernacular.

Only a handful of phrases Jesus spoke survive to this day in Aramaic, and those are shuffled in among the verses of the Greek New Testament. We're all familiar with "talitha koumi," "Boanerges," "Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani," "Abba," "Rabboni," "Cephas." But — think about it — outside of that, none of Jesus' original words have been preserved within the New Testament.

I find that fact somewhat frightening. If you were to take all that time necessary to learn Koine Greek in order to read the New Testament in its original language, you're still — for all intents and purposes — relying upon a translation. This means that much of the Bible that you hear read, especially during the Gospel readings every Sunday, is then a translation of a translation.

So, what can be done? In my opinion, the best means of tackling such a disconnect is first through raising awareness. Not all Aramaic is created equal, as it were. Here and there you'll read in the news about a local church or a community in the Middle East that "speaks the language of Jesus," but what these stories describe is Syriac or other Neo-Aramaic dialects which are so far removed in both time and distance from Jesus' mother tongue that they would not have been mutually intelligible.

Second, reliable resources on the Galilean dialect are sparse to find. Since 1900, no less than four grammars on the language have been written by preeminent scholars; however, each and every one of them is useless, as they were based off of corrupt manuscripts. It's only been in the past 50 years that academics have seriously studied a number of old, "uncorrected" manuscripts that were found amongst the Cairo Genizah, and a vast number of curiosities about the dialect were put to new light. Still, despite that, today not a single reliable grammar exists and there is no properly articulated syntax.

It seems then, that since there is no easy path, the only way is to carve out a new one.

Anglicans in America share an interesting position. Out of all of the Christian denominations, we have among us the largest number of graduate and post-graduate degrees per capita. Many use that education in the reasoned manner in which we view our faith, and don't tend to shy away from the hard questions. We tend to be thinkers. I believe that it's time to be true to that even further in relation to Christ's native language.

This is why I've started to pull together Galilean resources on AramaicNT.org, a website where people can read the reconstructed words of Christ online in a way that is real and relevant. Among other things I've translated excerpts of The Book of Common Prayer, and the spoken dialog of the Gospels so that the subtle wordplays and puns that are lost in the Greek have a chance to shine through. I have also seen the launch of The Galilean Aramaic Lord's Prayer Bracelet Project so that fellow Christians can carry a reminder of Our Father in its native tongue along with them wherever they may go.

Besides raising awareness, the proceeds from both of those endeavors are going directly towards developing a written curriculum. Not just a stuffy grammar or a book that one can put up on their shelf and look at (which is the way that many a Greek or Hebrew grammar goes) but a series of learning materials that can teach the dialect conversationally, as a living language, a language of prayer, and a language of contemplation.

It has been about 10 years since my hobby of translating ancient languages became my profession, and now I can finally see a future where if you're Christian and grow up in the Christian faith, you *can* pursue the language that Christ spoke — unobstructed — and keep it alive for future generations.


Steve Caruso is the Translator at Aramaic Designs and The Aramaic New Testament. He welcomes comments and questions sent to AramaicDesigns@gmail.com.