Aramaic (Arāmāyā, Syriac: ܐܪܡܝܐ) is a family of languages or dialects belonging to the Semitic family. More specifically, it is part of the Northwest Semitic subfamily, which also includes Canaanite languages such as Hebrew and Phoenician. The Aramaic script was widely adopted for other languages and is ancestral to both the Arabic and modern Hebrew alphabets. Accordingly, Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, spoke the Aramaic dialect during his public ministry.
During its approximately 3000 years of written history, Aramaic has served variously as a language of administration of empires and as a language of divine worship. It became the lingua franca of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–605 BC), Neo-Babylonian Empire (605–539 BC), the Achaemenid Empire (539–323 BC), the Parthian Empire (247 BC–224 AD), and the Sasanian Empire (224–651), of the Neo-Assyrian states of Assur, Adiabene, Osroene and Hatra, the Aramean state of Palmyra, and the day-to-day language of Yehud Medinata and of Judaea (539 BC – 70 AD). It was the language that Jesus supposedly used the most, the language of large sections of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra, as well as the main language of the Talmud. Aramaic was also the original language of the Bahrani people of Eastern Arabia, and of the Mandeans and their Gnostic religion, Mandeanism, as well as the language of the once widespread but now extinct Manichaean religion. The major Aramaic dialect Syriac is the liturgical language of Syriac Christianity, in particular the Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Saint Thomas Christian Churches in India, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and the Maronite Church.
Aramaic's long history and diverse and widespread use has led to the development of many divergent varieties, which are sometimes considered dialects, though they are distinct enough that they are sometimes considered languages. Therefore, there is not one singular, static Aramaic language; each time and place rather has had its own variation. Aramaic is retained as a liturgical language by certain Eastern Christian churches, in the form of Syriac, the Aramaic variety by which Eastern Christianity was diffused, whether or not those communities once spoke it or another form of Aramaic as their vernacular, but have since shifted to another language as their primary community language.
Modern Aramaic is spoken today as a first language by many scattered, predominantly small, and largely isolated communities of differing Christian, Jewish, and Mandean ethnic groups of West Asia—most numerously by the Assyrians in the form of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Chaldean Neo-Aramaic—that have all retained use of the once dominant lingua franca despite subsequent language shifts experienced throughout the Middle East. The Aramaic languages are now considered endangered.