Foreign Dispatch: Learning The Language of Jesus in the Holy Land

By FOX News Radio’s Emily Wither in Bethlehem:

You’d think that in Bethlehem, where the New Testament says Jesus was born, his language, Aramaic, would live on today… not so.

“It’s been forgotten here in the Holy Land,” principal of Mar Aphrem School Amal Behnam, explained to Fox News Radio.

Here in the Palestinian village Beit Jala a few kilometers from Bethlehem’s Manger Square, Behnam is determined to save the centuries’ old language from all but disappearing in the Holy Land.

In an ambitious effort to make sure Aramaic isn’t confined to the history books, the school is trying to revive the language among the tiny Christian community that lives here.

“The whole idea of starting the school was to revive the Aramaic language and the heritage because this is something that is really very important to keep up,” Behnam said.

The principle says that while the youngsters can recite the Christian prayers, they want the next generation to understand it outside of the church.

“It’s part of our heritage, so why forget it? It’s being spoken in parts of Syria and Europe, Sweden for example; it’s only in the Holy Land that it’s been forgotten.”

The Syrian Orthodox Church runs the school and the kids are learning the Syriac dialect of Aramaic. It’s believed to resemble the Galilean language Jesus would have spoken.

They begin teaching Aramaic in Grade 2, when the kids are eight-years-old. For the first year they learn it orally before beginning to crack the alphabet. Behnam says, until now, no other school has been teaching it in the West Bank.

Priest Budros Nimeh heads up the lessons at the school. He says some of the older generation still speaks Aramaic, but it’s vanished among the young.

“We see that we have to use it again because it’s a treasure that we can’t lose,” he explained.

Understanding the Bible is one thing, but I had to ask Priest Nimeh if he really thought people would start speaking it widely again outside the church.

“Some of the people are speaking this language, but not the traditional written one,” he said.

“But we are teaching the main language in which students in the future can make use of it by reading the old books. Maybe some of them might become writers and they’ll start explaining the old books that nobody uses anymore,” he added.

The enthusiasm of the kids is infectious as they bound in to the classroom, all scraping chairs and flapping exercise books.

The kids say it’s important because they can understand what they’re reading in the Bible.

A young girl called Merna explains to me, “We don’t take it seriously, we take it like a game, and because of that it comes easily and we like it.”

But these are some pretty impressive kids.  Not only are they learning Aramaic, but they’re also taught in Arabic, English and Hebrew. And before I leave the school feeling completely linguistically inadequate, Merna tells me that next school year she plans to start learning French.

After class Nimeh explains to me his people fled Turkey a century ago and there were no schools in the area to teach the younger generation of the Aramaic-speaking refugees.

He says he’s afraid the language will one day die out because his people are spread all over the world.

He prays the Lord’s language will live on in the Holy Land just as Jesus would have spoken it.

“We are preparing for the new generation, it’s just the beginning.” 

LISTEN to some of Emily Wither’s reports from Bethlehem:

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