Modern Aramaic is Not the Language of Jesus

So, I was looking through my news feeds (which I monitor very carefully for anything on Aramaic) and I come across an article from CNN:
(CBS) For thousands of years, a tiny Syrian village has kept a well-guarded treasure: the language of Jesus. Tucked away in the Qalamoun Mountains, just north of Damascus, Syria, is Malula - one of the last places on earth where Aramaic is still spoken. [...] "Of course we are interested to maintain this language, because at the end, this is the language of Jesus Christ," says Father Toufic Eid of St. Sergius Church. (emphasis mine)
First I must say that I was thrilled when I first read (quite some time ago) about the city of Ma`loula and how it was able to preserve its native tongue, a variant of Aramaic. However, I am less than thrilled on how when news articles pop up about it from time to time that the following consistent claim is made: "This Aramaic is the very language of Jesus."

Unfortunately, such statements are very very misleading.

Is the language of Ma`loula Aramaic? Yes. No doubt about that. Isn't the language that Jesus spoke Aramaic? Yep. No doubt about that either. So why is the language of Ma`loula not the language of Jesus? If A -> B and B -> C then A -> C right?

"The Aramaic Language" is a bit of a misnomer. Aramaic in and of itself is not a single tongue, but a large group of very closely related languages. Where many of the "dialects" of Aramaic can exchange words with little difficulty (as British English is to American English), some are further removed (as Spanish is to Portuguese) and many are even mutually incomprehensible to an untrained ear (as English is to German).

The dialect of Ma`loula is very different from the Old Judean dialect that Jesus would have spoken.

So different, in fact, that Jesus would probably have a considerable amount of difficulty keeping up with 2000 years of lingual drift. There have been phonemic shifts, new vocabulary, changes in grammar, conquests, new ideas, and many many other things that influence how a language grows and evolves.

So what makes Ma`loula so special? It is unique in that it is a rare specimen of Western Aramaic, which is in the same sub-group as the dialect that Jesus would have spoken... Which is what also makes it so fascinating and valuable to the field of linguistics.

Through it, linguists can get a better picture of the language that Jesus would have spoken by tracing the observed changes back.

Perhaps some time in the future I'll put together an over article about the Ma`loula dialect and post some examples of how things drift over time.


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