Aramaean Biblical Roots Come Alive
“My Father Was a Wondering Aramaean…” (Deuteronomy 26:5)
In recent years, a remarkable historic Aramaean Christian community has caught the attention of both the Israeli Parliament and of fellow people of faith in our land as these modern-day disciples of the historic Jesus bring to life the ancient history of Israel and the early days of the Messianic community during the First Century AD. The Aramaean roots, culture, and language that are found as far back as 3,000+ years ago spread throughout the Middle East during centuries of military conquests and massive migration waves. We are not surprised, therefore, to find the Aramaic language common among the Jewish population of Israel and the Galilee during the Second Temple period all the way to the days surrounding the appearance of Jesus and the birth of the Messianic Faith community in Jerusalem.
Key to this recent resurgence of the Aramaean community’s historic roots, language, and status in the State of Israel is our dear friend, IDF (reserve) Major Shadi Khalloul, who is the Founder and President of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association (ICAA). Born to the Aramaean Christian community that resides in the northern Galilee and Syria for thousands of years, Major Khalloul received a calling to devote his life and labors for the restoration and recognition of the profound Aramaean roots and language, the very language that Jesus and the disciples used in their everyday encounters.
Not only is the ICAA working to restore and promote the Aramaean identity and legacy among its own community members, Major Khalloul and his family also led a sacrificial yet successful political campaign to have the Aramaean community recognized by the State of Israel as a legitimate Aramaean national minority group that resides and thrives as full Israeli citizens in the Jewish State. This historic recognition not only confirmed the Arameans as a distinct and ancient people group whose roots go back thousands of years, but also separated the Aramaean community from the Arab national identity with which it was associated for many centuries.
Numbering roughly 10,000 members, this incredible and ancient community of Aramaean Israelis recognize their ancestral roots as being part of the early Messianic/Christian movement in Israel nearly 2,000 years ago, and their spoken language is the ancient Aramean dialect that Jesus and His disciples used! As the centuries moved on and imperial powers moved in, this faith-based Aramean community was absorbed as part of the Byzantine Christian Empire, and then changed again to become recognized as Christian Arabs as the Arab Muslims invaded the region.
It is only in recent years, here in Israel, that the original Messianic/Christian Aramean identity and roots have been recognized and celebrated, and we, at Sar-El Tours, are proud to introduce this community to our groups who can now visit their northern Galilean center, share an authentic meal together, worship with them, and experience their incredible journey through personal lectures and testimonies. Be sure to call your Sar-El Tours operator to book a visit, and check out http://www.aramaic-center.com/ to learn more.
Jewish/Aramaean Pre-Military Academy
Beyond building up the identity and recognition of the Christian Aramaean community, Major Khalloul also founded and is leading the Christian Aramaic-Jewish Pre-Military Educational Program called “Mechinat Kinneret” in Hebrew. This incredible groundbreaking program is the only one of its kind in Israel where Christian Aramaeans alongside Jewish young men and women engage in an extended seven-month long educational and training program that builds cultural bridges, expands young minds, and prepare these young adults to succeed in the Israeli military and society.
Your Sar-El Tours’ Operator will be happy to schedule an inspiriting visit for your group while traveling in northern Israel. Groups visiting the program are exposed to a unique and rare pre-military preparatory institute, enjoy a live panel meeting of Aramaean and Jewish youth, hear about their experience of living and training together, and learn from Major Khalloul about the program’s vision and the Christian Aramaic life in Israel & the Middle East. This immersive and challenging program integrates native Christian Aramaic youth into Israel's society as the young students reside, train, and learn side by side for seven months, focusing on the Hebrew language, physical training, military and leadership skills and much more.
This Pre-Military Kinneret program is committed to establishing an inclusive and equitable environment that transcends religious, racial, and gender differences, and its primary objective is to promote an understanding of diverse identities. By focusing on both Christian and Jewish communities, their dedicated staff creates a unique platform for intercultural familiarity while fostering multiculturalism, which, in turn, cultivates a bedrock of trust within Israeli society. The graduates emerge with a strong sense of values and possess the necessary tools for active participation in the Israeli society and entrepreneurial landscape.
Friends from all over the world are blessed and inspired while getting to know and learning from these amazing young people, and your Sar-El Tours’ operator will be glad to schedule a visit for your group. These face-to-face encounters can be held in the Pre-Military Program’s homebase by the Sea of Galilee, in your hotel, or in the Aramaean center, church, and village by Gush Halav in Northern Israel. You won’t want to miss this inspiring and uplifting experience of hearing the Aramaic language spoken and sung, and learning from the people whose indigenous identity draws from the days of Jesus and His early disciples. Check out their Instagram page at mechinat_kineret.
The biblical and historical legacy of the Aramaean people group is described in detail below; a tale of faith and courage that will move your heart.
How Far Back Do the Roots Go?
in Genesis chapter 10, where the offspring of Noah’s three sons (Shem, Ham and Japheth) are listed, Aram appears in a very prominent place among the children of Shem (whose name is the root source of the term ‘Semitic’) along with Asshur. By contrast, Eber (the probable ancestor of the Hebrew people) is mentioned only as a grandson of Shem. In Genesis 22:21 the name Aram appears again, this time as a grandson of Abraham’s brother Nahor, indicating a close relationship between the Hebrew Patriarchs and the Aramaeans. Added to this connection is the ritual declaration the Israelites were commanded to make before God in Deuteronomy 26:5, saying, “My father (Jacob or Abraham) was a wandering Aramaean who sojourned to Egypt…”
For many centuries, only a few people were aware of the vital role in the cultural history of the Middle East that has been played by Aramaean people and language, and especially during the millennium and a half prior to the Arab Islamic conquests which led to the widespread replacement of the Aramaic language by Arabic.
Historically, the Aramaean communities span four different religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Mandaeism – being best preserved among the various Christian Churches whose traditional language is Syriac which is the main Christian dialect of Aramaic. As empires and kingdoms kept rising and falling in the Middle East over thousands of years, the Aramaic language remained alive even when these great powers rose and fell. And though political and military structures kept changing, the Aramaic language continued to be active in the development of spiritual matters and was the main instrument for the formulation of religious ideas and movements which spread over the whole world. These included monotheistic groups, but chiefly the Messianic/Christian Faith which found its first expression in the Aramaic dialects spoken in the land of Israel during the days of Jesus.
Bible & History Combine
In both the Bible and ancient texts, ‘Aram’ appears as both a place and a personal name. As a place, ‘Aram’ is referred to as the region of the upper Euphrates as described in Akkadian inscriptions of the 23rd Century BC. As a personal name, ‘Aram’ is found in later Akkadian and Ugaritic texts, though historians debate whether these names relate to the annals of the kings of Assyria described in the Bible who were Israel’s bitter enemy.
Assyrian texts from the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I (1,114-1,076 BC) mention an Aramean people group, and the geographical term ‘Mat Arimi’ (Land of Aram) is found in the records of the Assyrian King Asshurbel-Kala (1,073-1,056 BC). Between these sources and the biblical records, the region east of the Euphrates River clearly corresponds to the biblical term Aram-Naharaim, meaning ‘Aram of the two rivers.’ In other biblical texts, Aram also refers to the region west of the Euphrates, extending as far south as Damascus. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Septuagint, the Aram-Naharim land is called ‘Mesopotamia’ (Genesis 24:10 & Deuteronomy 23:5) which in modern usage include the area between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers.
In other words, the Aramaeans settled over a wide area of the Middle East, covering virtually the entire span of the Fertile Crescent from the south of modern Syria to the south of Iraq. The King Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BC) mentions no less than thirty-six (!) Aramaean tribes which were settled in south-eastern Babylonian territories, and it is possible that the Aramaeans are also featured in Homer’s Iliad which reads, “Zeus thunders and lashes the earth over Typhoeos among the Arimoi where they say Typhoeos has his couch”.
The exact identity of these “Arimoi” people remains unclear, but some scholars follow the ancient view that they were actually Aramaeans. From about the seventh century BC the thread of continuity is mostly provided by the Aramaic language and those who use it, while the region kept experiencing massive political and military transformations.
Compared to the modern nation-states of the Middle East today, the Arameans were one of the largest ancient peoples who lived in the Fertile Crescent region which includes present-day Israel, northwestern Jordan, Lebanon, western and northwestern Syria, and Iraq. Their historical standing peaked at roughly 1,000 BC when Aramean states and principalities emerged throughout the region, and ‘Aram Damascus,’ the last independent Aramean kingdom in Syria, fell in 732 BC.
While the Aramaean kingdoms fell one by one to the aggressive Assyrian Empire, the Aramean migrants that were exiled throughout the region held important positions in governance, administration, and trade, keeping the Aramaic language alive and important. After the collapse of the Assyrian Empire in 609 BC, Aramaic continued to be the central administrative language in the Babylonian and Persian Empires that followed, maintaining its position until the fourth century BC when Greek armies invaded the region. During their Hellenistic rule, Aramaic lost its central role as the dominant administrative language to Greek and became (in many places) the language of the common people. It was therefore Aramaic that was the most common language in large parts of the Middle East, including the Land of Israel, at the time when Jesus of Nazareth came on the scene.
The Aramaeans & Biblical Israel
The Aramaean people had extensive historical connections with the Israeli people in antiquity. Biblical traditions suggest a common origin between the Arameans and the forefathers of the nation of Israel, including many mixed marriages. The rise of Aramean kingdoms in Syria paralleled the emergence of the Northern Israelite Kingdom in Samaria and the Galilee after the reign of Solomon, and the Bible describes hostile relationships between the Kingdom of Israel and the neighboring Aramaean kingdoms even while familial and trade ties continued. According to archaeological evidence, the northern part of the Land of Israel and the southern parts of Syria constituted one single geographical unit where different ethnic groups lived side by side who were exposed to each other's cultural and religious influences.
Often, northern Israel and southern Syria were characterized as an open frontier where the different ethnic groups coexisted and interacted. From the 9th Century BC until the fall of the Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 720 BC, the northern part of the Land of Israel experienced a series of wars between these two kingdoms. However, there were also periods of peace and alliances, and a clear geographical border between the Aramaean kingdoms and the Northern Kingdom of Israel is difficult to establish.
Settlements in the eastern and western Jordan Valley were exposed to each other’s cultural and religious influences, and in northern Israel was found a strong orientation toward the Aramean Kingdom as evident in architecture, pottery, iconography, worship, marriages, economy, and political alliances. In fact, the Bible tells us that the royal households in the Kingdom of Northern Israel were often closer to the Aramaeans and to the Phoenicians than to their Judean brethren in the Kingdom of Southern Israel.
Aramaeans And Christianity
Even though the earliest Aramaean Christian roots go all the way back to the Messianic Community in the Land of Israel during the 1st Century AD, the churches associated with the Aramaeans originated later on in regions where the Aramaic language was spoken under the Byzantine Empire which ruled the region from the 4th Century AD onwards. Among them were members of seven Christian denominations: five Syriac churches—the Maronite Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church (also called Jacobites), the Syrian Catholic Church, the Church of the East (also known as the Nestorian or Assyrian Church), and the Chaldean Church, and two Greek churches which included the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church.
The Aramaean national identity was not officially adopted by any of these churches, although some of their members see themselves as part of the Aramean nation. Each of these churches has its separate ecclesiastical structures and liturgical practices, yet they share a few common features, the most significant of which is the use of Aramaic language.
The Syriac churches preserved their religious and linguistic uniqueness even after the Arab conquest which led to the Islamization of the majority of the population in the Middle East. Under Arab Muslim empires such as the Mamluks and Ottomans, the Eastern Christian churches of the Middle East enjoyed relative autonomy while residing in those regions for hundreds of years. However, this stability came to an end during the last decades of the Ottoman rule in the Middle East, and during World War I Christians in Turkey and Iraq suffered persecutions, massacres and mass deportations. Recent developments, such as the Syrian Civil War and the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, have added more suffering to the local Christian population.
During the Crusades, ties developed between the Syriac Christian churches and the Latin Church in the West, and in the 12th Century AD the Maronites recognized the authority of the Pope and embraced the Catholic faith. From the 15th Century on, following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, the Arabic language became the primary language of prayer, and some groups from the Greek Orthodox Church united with the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch under the Pope's authority.
Political conflicts in the Middle East over the last centuries, including the Iran-Iraq War, the disputes over Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, the Gulf Wars, and the instability in Iraq have led to increased emigration of Christians from the region. This migration resulted in significant challenges for the Aramean-Syriac Christian communities, with many fleeing to the West.
Aramaean Search for Identity
This migration to the West created serious identity challenges for the Aramaean speaking churches since, until the 19th Century, the central component of the identity of Middle Eastern Christians was their Christian faith as a minority population within a predominantly Muslim community. Now, renewed identity searches among Syriac Christians were needed as they moved West, since they now faced the risk of losing their unique identity and their Aramaic language. The main reason for this was that in Western countries the majority of the population was already Christian, and the religious element which had been the central identity component of the Syriac Christians was no longer a distinguishing factor.
This need for an alternative source of identity led Syriac Christian churches to look back to their more ancient roots and to the Aramean Kingdoms that ruled the Fertile Crescent region centuries before the establishment of these churches. Some identify themselves with the ancient Aramean people and emphasize the Aramaic language as a link between different Syriac Christian churches and the Aramean nation, while others look for identity in the Messianic faith roots that go back to the days of Jesus and His disciples.
Some groups within the Syriac Christian churches identify with the ancient Assyrian empire, claiming that they are descendants of the ancient Assyrians, using the term "Assyrians" to describe themselves. During and after World War I, many Assyrian Christians who were displaced from Iraq, found the strength of the Assyrian national identity a unifying element among the dispersed communities. This search for identity which was generated in response to historical trauma, migration, and the quest for self-definition among Syriac Christian communities continues till today.
The Aramaeans in Israel
In Israel, there are nearly 170,000 Christians, of whom 134,000 are registered as Arab nationals. Due to fervent indigenous activism led by Major Khallul and his family, and a thorough State sponsored historical research, In September of 2014, Israel’s Minister of the Interior proposed that Christians residing in Israel who are registered as Arab nationals could change their national registration to Aramean if they so choose, and on January 18, 2017, a bill was passed in the Israeli Knesset facilitating that historic change.
In the years leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel, conversations were made and agreements were reached between members of the Maronite community and the Jewish Agency, driven by the notion of camaraderie between two national minorities aspiring for independence. These agreements, however, didn’t lead to any substantial outcomes as the newly born State of Israel was soon thrust into ongoing Arab-Israeli wars.
In 1942, a comprehensive report was prepared for the Zionist Organization regarding the Maronites in Lebanon, highlighting the sympathy of the Maronite Patriarch towards the Jews. Meetings between individuals in the Zionist movement, including Dr. Chaim Weizmann, and members of the Lebanese Jewish community with Maronite religious figures were held, aiming to foster closer relations between the movements.
In 1946, a secret agreement was signed between the Maronite Church and the Jewish Agency outlining the framework for strengthening relations and cooperation between Maronites in Lebanon and Jewish settlement in Israel based on mutual recognition of rights and aspirations. The agreement included recognition by the Jewish Agency of the Christian nature of Lebanon, and an assurance that Jewish settlement in Israel had no territorial ambitions in Lebanon. The Maronite Church expressed support for Jewish immigration to Israel and the establishment of an independent Jewish state.
However, when the agreement became publicly known it faced opposition from other members of the Maronite Church, and especially as Lebanon joined other Arab states in the 1948 war against the new-born State of Israel. During the conflict and following Israel's Operation Hiram in October of 1948 which resulted in the occupation of several villages in southern Lebanon, a few Maronite Christians approached the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) seeking to enlist. The political leadership, however, chose not to grant their request but allowed the IDF to only train some of them as volunteers for activities beyond the enemy lines.
Between 1949 and 1951, representatives of the Maronite Christian community reached out to Israel seeking support in their internal political struggles in Lebanon, promising to support Israel when they came to power. The Israeli Foreign Ministry refrained from direct involvement but provided symbolic financial assistance to these movements. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who viewed these agreements as strategically important for both nations was nevertheless opposed by others who thought that Israeli interference in Lebanon was not a realistic option at that stage. Sadly, many view these events as missed opportunities to stabilize Lebanon and secure a neighboring Christian Arab State who could have been a strategic regional friend of Israel.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, a small number of Christians volunteer for military service each year, and in 2012 the Christian Recruitment Forum was established, aiming to encourage Christian Arabs to enlist in the IDF. The forum's activities have garnered responses from various Christian groups in Israel who saw military service in the IDF as a means to improve their status within Israeli society, achieve equal rights, and break free from their minority status among the Arab Muslims. This initiative, however, did not receive support from the Christian religious establishment and faced criticism from the Christian Arab community as a whole.
A study conducted in 2008 on the national identity of Maronite and Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Israeli regions of Gush Halav, Usfiya, Haifa, and Jerusalem, found that the majority of respondents did not define themselves as Arabs or Palestinians at all, but rather as Christian Syrian Arameans! Most of them knew a few words in Aramaic but could not read or write it, yet they regarded the Aramaic-Syriac language as important to their identity as Maronites.
Interestingly, about 85% of the Christian Arab population in Israel, or around 125,000 individuals, meet the governmental conditions for changing their nationality registration from Arab to Aramaean according to the Ministry of Interior’s guidelines. Among those who meet these conditions, around 60,000 are Greek Catholics, 50,000 are Greek Orthodox, 10,000 are Maronites, and the others are Syrian Orthodox and Catholics. Unfortunately, only a small number has opted to change their national identity from Arab to Aramaean so far, but the movement is growing.
A Language in Continuous Use For 3000 Years
What languages meets these following conditions?
- Appearing in antiquity by inscriptions and documents for at least 3,000 years.
- Stretching from western Turkey to Afghanistan and from the Caucasus to southern Egypt.
- Became a major literary language for tree faiths.
- Reached southern India and western China by the time of the Arab conquests.
- Is still spoken today in the Middle East by members of four different faiths.
- Has, in the course of the twentieth century, been taken to all five continents.
- Has been the spoken language of Jesus and His disciples.
Although a few languages can lay claim to three millennia of known history, none but Aramaic, in its various dialects, can meet all these conditions. This is an astonishing record, yet the entire span of the known history of Aram and its cultural significance has never yet been fully discovered.
And yet, in all its historic twists and turns, the Aramaic language is best known as the language spoken by Jesus and His disciples during the early days of the birth of the Messianic/Christian Faith movement in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago. The Aramaean heritage is very much like a pearl hidden in the fields of history, awaiting to be discovered. And while many of these discoveries have to be dug out of the ground in archeological excavations, others live and work among us today here in Israel as the members of the Israeli Christian Aramaean community.
Be sure to visit them during your next Israel trip. Your Sar-El Tours’ operator would love to make the introduction.
See you in Israel soon.
Your Sar-El Tours’ team