Jeopardy! category: HISTORIC OBJECTS (10-7-2015)
$2000 Daily Double! clue: The St. James ossuary, said to have held bones of Jesus’ brother, is inscribed in this language spoken by Jesus
The gist: Which is not to say he couldn’t speak more. While Judea in Jesus’ day used Aramaic as its everyday language among locals, it was also, like much of the Roman Empire, a very multilingual society: Hebrew and Greek were also commonly spoken, and Latin may have been used by Roman officials, but only amongst themselves and not with the locals. Aramaic is actually a sub-family of the Semitic languages, spoken at the time around the Eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. It’s been written down for the truly remarkable duration of 3100 years, and it’s been the language of administration for some of the world’s greatest empires, including the Neo-Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, and Achaemenid Persia. It was used by numerous ancient religions, as well as several that survive into the modern era, including the Syriac Orthodox Church and Judaism as the language of the Talmud. The alphabet of Aramaic (technically speaking, an abjad) is the ancestor of both the modern Arabic and Hebrew scripts. Jesus would have spoken his teachings in Aramaic, but they wouldn’t have made it very far had they remained in that language, which is why his apostles wrote their books in Greek, the true lingua franca of the Roman Empire.
One more interesting fact about Aramaic is that the highest grossing “foreign language” film (to English speakers, at least), as well as the highest grossing R-rated film, was almost entirely in Aramaic (with a spattering of Latin): Mel Gibson’s 2004 biblical epic The Passion of the Christ. A pretty impressive modern legacy for such an ancient language.
The clue: Boils down to “what language would Jesus have spoken” – the stuff about the St. James ossuary is just filler to get it to fit the category. Nothing else going on here.
In Jeopardy!: Aramaic is in 28 clues in the J!Archive, nine of which mention Jesus as well. Nine also mention Hebrew, often as a related language or as one of the three languages of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the third being Greek. That’s most of the specifics. Another common theme is various Jewish prayers that are in Aramaic – if it’s a Jewish prayer that isn’t in Hebrew, it’s Aramaic.