February 27, 2007

Aramaic in the Tomb of Jesus

Today's New York Times has a report on a new documentary by a team that claims to have found the graves of Jesus and his family and that they show that he was married to Mary Magdalene and was not bodily resurrected. Whether their claim proves to be true remains to be seen - I'm sure we'll be hearing more about it. Unfortunately, the New York Times article is confused about the languages of Israel in the first century C.E., characterizing Aramaic as "an ancient dialect of Hebrew". Actually, Aramaic is a sister language of Hebrew and is not limited to ancient times.

In what is probably the most widely accepted subgrouping of the Semitic languages as given in Wikipedia, Aramaic is one of several subgroups of Northwest Semitic. One of its sisters is Canaanite, which includes Hebrew.

An alternative subgrouping is given in the Ethnologue family tree. In this classification, Aramaic is one of the two branches of the Central branch of the Semitic languages. The other branch is Southern, which consists of two subgroups: Arabic and Canaanite. Canaanite includes modern Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew, and a number of other extinct languages.

Although some varieties of Aramaic were spoken in ancient times and are extinct, Aramaic continues to be spoken, primarily by Eastern Rite Christians, though also by some Jews. If you meet someone who calls himself or herself an "Assyrian", he or she is probably a member of a community whose traditional language is a form of Aramaic. Another group of modern Aramaic speakers are a dwindling subset of the Mandaens living in Iran, who practice a religion descended from ancient Gnosticism.

Posted by Bill Poser at February 27, 2007 04:45 AM