To catch a glimpse of just how ancient—and strong–our Christian faith truly is, take a drive up the Jersey turnpike. Say what?
How cool would it be to walk into a church filled with worshipers all speaking the same language that Jesus and his apostles spoke? You might think that you need a time machine. You don’t. You don’t even need to go to the Middle East. New Jersey will do.
A recent article in America magazine told the story of an Aramaic-speaking Christian community fifteen minutes west of Manhattan in Paramus, New Jersey. They are known variously as Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriac Christians (Syriac being a dialect of Aramaic).
You may be thinking “Aramaic?” Well, Aramaic, not Hebrew, was the language of everyday life in first-century Palestine. We see evidence of this in the Bible. Parts of the Old Testament, most notably the book of Daniel, are written in Aramaic. When Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus, she calls him “rabboni.” And on the cross, Jesus recited Psalm 22 in Aramaic.
As the names “Chaldean” and “Assyrian” suggest, they are an ancient people from what the Bible calls “Assyria” and “Babylon,” the part of Iraq known as the “Nineveh Plain,” as well as southern Turkey and Syria.
Their ancestors lived in the area long before the Arab invasions and the coming of Islam. They are probably our closest living link to the patriarchs of the Old Testament. In Genesis 12, we are told that Abraham, on his way to the promised land, settled for a time in Haran, which became a “centre of Assyrian Christianity” before the fourth century.
Deuteronomy 26 instructs the Israelites to say, “A wandering Aramean was my father,” when offering their first fruits.
To quote the psalmist, these Christians have a “goodly heritage.” But it’s one that has been passed down at a very high cost. The Islamic conquest in the seventh and eighth centuries reduced them to second-class status.
But despite hardships, they made enormous contributions to what is called “Islamic civilization” in the fields of philosophy, science and medicine. The works of Greek philosophers that Arab Muslims are credited with preserving were first translated into Syriac and then into Arabic by Syriac-speaking Christians.
If life under Islamic rule was hard from the seventh through nineteenth centuries, it turned lethal in the early twentieth, in what came to be known as the Sayfo—the Syriac for “sword.” Between 1914 and 1920, some 150 to 300 thousand Syriac Christians were murdered by the Turks.
Most recently, there was the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As Lawrence Kaplan wrote in the New Republic at the time, “Sunni, Shia, and Kurd may agree on little else, but all have made sport of brutalizing their Christian neighbors.”
Then, of course, there was ISIS. Two years ago, when then-Secretary of State Kerry said that ISIS was guilty of genocide against Christians, he was talking about Syriac Christians. The “infidels” in Mindy Belz’s book “They Say We Are Infidels,” are mostly Syriac Christians.
And that brings me to New Jersey. The group profiled in America magazine is part of the Syriac diaspora created by the persecutions of the past century. More Syriac Christians live outside their ancestral homelands than in them. It’s possible that if present trends hold, there will be more Syriac Christians in the United States and Mexico than in Iraq.
These are the people we have been praying for when we pray for the persecuted—and they have a lot to teach us, not the least of which is how to remain faithful in the face of unimaginable oppression and persecution.
It’s a lesson that might even be worth a trip to New Jersey.
Eric Metaxas is the host of the “Eric Metaxas Show,” a co-host of “BreakPoint” radio and a New York Times #1 best-selling author. His most recent book is “Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.”