Tuesday, January 13, 2015

East Syriac and Jesus Christ

This Book entitled A PRACTICAL GRAMMAR FQR SYRIAC (ARAMAIC) marks the end of my journey in search of a truth. What I wanted to ascertain was whether the claim of East Syriac to be the continuation and classical form of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ and his Apostles is true. This claim of East Syriac was rejected in the past by some who asserted that the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the Apostles was Palestinian Jewish Aramaic , a dialect which has nothing to do with East Syriac (Chaldean Syriac or Chaldaic). People who made the above mentioned assertion do not seem to have made an in-depth study of the matter. What many of such people did was to quote what others had said. Hence the present writer having studied East Syriac for four years in the seminary and having made a comparative study of East Syriac and Palestinian Jewish Aramaic of Jesus' time at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and having used East Syriac in Liturgy as well as having taught it for several years, has come to the conclusion that East Syriac can rightly claim to be the continuation in a developed form of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and His Apostles.

The following are the reasons for this conclusion. 1) The Palestinian Jewish Aramaic spoken at Jesus' time was the continuation of the Aramaic that the Jews learned and spoke in Babylon of Mesopotamia during their exile there (597-537 B.C.). 2) Mesopotamia was the land from where the Patriarch Abraham originated. He and his descendants were Arameans . This is asserted in the Book of Deuteronomy alluding to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham : A wandering Aramean was my father (Deut.26:5). 3) kis thtMesopotamian Aramaic that the Jews learned and spoke during their exile and in Palestine after their return from exile. That means, they began to speak the language of their ancestors in Mesopotamia. The natural development of this language through centuries is to be taken for granted. 4) The fact that the Levites had to help the people to understand the Law when it was read out to them by Ezra for the first time in the original Hebrew, shows that the majority of the listeners were people who did not understand Hebrew. The language that they knew was Aramaic (Cf. Neh. 8:7-8). 5)

The Aramaic language adopted by the Jews during the exile in Babylon of Mesopotamia and made their own thereafter, was developed in Nisibis and Edessa , two centres of learning in Mesopotamia in the early Christian centuries to become the East Syriac of Syriac Patristic writings as well as of East Syriac Liturgy. Therefore it is quite logical to conclude that East Syriac is the developed and classical form of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the Jews of His time. 6) The transliteration of some words spoken by Jesus in the Aramaic of His time (Cf.Mk.5:41; 7:34; Mt.27:46) are easily understandable to one who knows East Syriac. Some archaic forms of words and pronunciation also can be distinguished.

The German stigmatist Teresa Neumann, who passed away in 1964, used to have the visions of the scenes of the life of Jesus Christ during her ecstasies.She could pronounce the Aramaic words she heard in her visions although she had not studied Aramaic. The Aramaic scholars who had visited her confirmed this fact. Two eminent persons from Kerala who visited her stated that the Aramaic words she pronounced were like the East Syriac (Chaldean Syriac or Chaldaic) words and that they were familiar with them because of the use of East Syriac in their Liturgy at that time. These two eminent persons were Mar Alexander Choolaparampil, the second Bishop of Kottayam in Kerala and Rev.Dr.Placid Podipara C.M.I. Mar Choolaparampil had visited Teresa Neumann before 1950.Dr.Placid visited her in August 1958. The present writer had the fortune of personally hearing from Dr.Placid himself the story of his visit to Teresa Neumann and the Aramaic words he heard from her when he interviewed her for hearing these. 7) The name Martha in the New Testament is yet another proof of the substantial identity of the Aramaic spoken at the time of Jesus and the Syriac language. Martha is a Syriac word. It is used in the New Testament as the name of the sister of Mary (Lk,10:38-42) and of Lazarus (.411:1,19-24,30,39,45). This word means Lady,Mistress etc. The Hebrew language does not have this word. This shows that the Aramaic spoken by Our Lord and the Apostles was substantially the same as Syriac. 8) The Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ cannot be expected to have remained as such even to this day. Language will grow up and will be enriched in the course of centuries before it becomes dead because of replacement by other languages. We know the historical fact that because of Arab invasions and the introduction of the Arabic language, Syriac ceased to be a spoken language and gradually became a language that was mainly used in Liturgy and Ecclesiastical writings .No other language in the world is similar to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ than East Syriac. This may be compared to the identity of a tree even after its growth into a large tree from the state of a seedling and a young tree several years before. Its present shape with wide spreading branches, fruits etc. does not change its identity. This comparison holds good in the case of the Palestinian Jewish Aramaic of Jesus' times and the developed East Syriac language of later Christian centuries.

The Syriac Churches can generally claim to have inherited the Aramaic of Our Lord in the developed form. The East Syriac tradition has retained the system of pronunciation while the West Syriac has a different system of pronunciation because of the adoption of Greek letters with some adjustments to form vowel signs.

The above stated findings as the result of my studies and researches compel me to think that East Syriac is the continuation of the Palestinian Jewish Aramaic of Our Lord's time in its developed and classical form.

With regard to this Book on Syriac Grammar, I am only a Compiler who abridged a source book and added some extra notes and texts to the abridged matter. I do not claim to be the author of the entire work. The source of this Book is the splendid work Syro-Chaldaic (Aramaic) Grammar originally written by Fr.Gabriel of Stioseph T.O.C.D. (1922) and Revised by Fr.Emmanuel C.M.I. (1961) , both published from St.Joseph's Press,Mannanam, Kerala, India. The expositions given in this Book are abridgements of the grammatical portions as well as excerpts from the tables and other parts of the above mentioned source book. I am deeply indebted to these noble and erudite priests who have bequeathed a big legacy to the posterity through their works. As we belong to the same Religious Congregation, I have taken the freedom of compiling this Book based on their magnificent works. I remember with deep sentiments of gratitude all the professors who taught me Syriac. I am also thankful to all those who have encouraged and helped me to bring out this Book for the benefit of students who are interested in studying Syriac.

My admonition to the students who make use of this Book to pick up the basics of Syriac are given below:

  1. The Syriac language is unique because it is the classical form of the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus Christ and the Apostles. 
  2. Aramaic was the language in which Our Lord and His Apostles celebrated the Holy Mass. The Churches which use Syriac as their liturgical language are singularly privileged from this point of view. 
  3. Language is like a key to open a treasure-house of literary wealth. 
  4. The study of classical languages makes one a scholar. A student has to be alert to gather as much information as possible from a seminary or a centre of studies like that. The working knowledge of a new language acquired from such a centre of studies will surely enhance the academic standard of a person. 
  5. Syriac studies are not to be reckoned as the monopoly of the members of the Syriac Churches. It is the right of all the members of the Church to study the language spoken by Jesus Christ and His Apostles. That is now rendered possible through the study of the Syriac language. Therefore the faithful belonging to the Latin, Greek and other such Non-Syriac Rites should come to know Jesus more intimately through the study of the Syriac language. 
  6. The Aramaic spoken by Jesus must have had a Galilean accent and intonation as St.Peter also had (Cf.Mt.26:73). But the indirect reference to it by St. John as Hebrew (Cf. Jn 19:13, 17-20 and 20:16) is understood by scholars as a popular nomenclature for the Aramaic spoken by the Jews at that time, whose ancestral language was Hebrew. 
  7. In the Greek translations of the Old Testament the words "Aram" and "Aramaic" were rendered as "Syria" and "Syriac" respectively. The Greek has influenced the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. This is evident in 2 Kings 5:1; 6:23: Is. 7:8 and Amos 9:7. as we read in the Revised Standard Version, 
  8. The difficulty or easiness in learning this language depends upon the attitude of the students. If they think that it is difficult, they may encounter so many difficulties, On the contrary, if they think that it is easy, it will be easy and pleasant. 
  9. After attending a thirty-hour course with interest, the student will feel proud of having picked up the basics of this language and having taken possession of a key to open the treasury of Syriac (Aramaic) language and literature.
Thomas Kalayil CMI
Dharmaram College

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