I sometimes speak the language of Jesus when I fill my car with gasoline.
That’s because the friendly young couple who run one of my local gas stations are from northern Iraq, and their language – modern Aramaic – is apparently derived from the language that Jesus spoke. They have been teaching me a few words.
Actually, I don’t know if Jesus really did say shlama ‘lokhun (hello) or baseema (thank you). There seem to be many variants of the language, and of course modern dialects presumably differ from the classical language, just as do modern and classical Greek, and modern Italian and Latin.
But I do know that Jesus said Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (Matthew 27:46), and my friends at the gas station say that’s pretty close to how they would say it.
Tragically, we now witness the rise of Islamic State, which has launched a campaign of genocide against the Christians of northern Iraq and southwest Syria, where the language is also spoken. Numerous residents have fled as ISIS gains more territory. The future of Aramaic as a living language is in doubt.
But now comes a rare piece of Mideast good news. A revival in Aramaic is occurring in, of all places, Israel.
Gush Halav – known in Arabic as Jish – is a small town in the Galilee Valley, in northern Israel. More than half the population are Maronite Christians, who still use Aramaic in their church liturgy, and even often speak it.
Since 2011, under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education, Aramaic has been taught in the town’s schools. And last year the Israeli government recognized the country’s 20,000 Aramaic people as a distinct nationality.
So, as Christians increasingly flee from many of their traditional lands in the face of murder or slavery, it is heartening to see a tiny part of the region where they are able to live in peace, and where their traditions are respected and encouraged.
Indeed, Christians are now under threat of subjugation throughout much of the Mideast, with Israel as a shining exception. Christianity there is actually thriving and growing. For that praise God.