The Malta Independent 11 December 2018, Tuesday

The Lord’s Prayer: the Maltese Semitic version and its historical origins

Simon Mercieca Monday, 25 December 2017, 07:35 Last update: about 13 months ago

Some weeks ago, the Malta Independent carried an article about Pope Francis wishing to change certain words currently used in the Lord’s Prayer. Pope Francis expressed his desire that Catholics around the world follow the French version and change the words ‘lead us not into temptation’ into “do not let me fall into temptation.”

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As a historian, I am convinced that a historic study on the way this prayer was recited in the past can lead to further understanding of the history of such an important prayer and the way this prayer evolved over the centuries.

The history of this prayer in Malta is linked to the arrival of masses of Arab refugees from Syria, who were escaping persecution from the Sassanids. Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his book In his book A History of Christianity, recounts how Monophysite Christians were escaping to the West from Syria at around the year 1000. These Christians were received with open arms by the Sassanid rivals, the Ummayyad. In the 11th century, Arab Malta was under the Ummayyad.

The presence of this Christian denomination in Malta can be attested, both directly and indirectly, through a number of historical incidences. Studies in the history of architecture are showing that Maltese farmhouses are said to resemble more those to be found in Syria than those in North Africa. Perhaps, one may argue that this is not enough to uphold the theory on the presence of Syrians in Malta. But it is the similarity between the history of language and religion that supports and even strengthens the theory of Syrian presence. Malta has a predominance of oriental saints such as St. George and St. Catherine of Alexandria.

These were saints much venerated by the Monophysites. Then, there is the reference to the Trinitarian Christians. The historian, Jeremy Jones thinks that this term was addressed specifically to the local Muslims. If this is so, there would not have been a need for the Latin Christian rulers in Malta to specify that God had to be the Trinitarian one. Muslims were simply dubbed as infidels. Therefore, the ruling Christians had no need to specify the type of God that Muslims should start venerating on their conversion. Different was the situation with Monophysite Christians. They were strictly not Trinitarians. They only recognized one nature in Christ; He was only divine and not human. Thus, they had to be specifically instructed by the new Christian overlords, after 1091, on the type of divinity that they should start worshipping.

Furthermore, there is the reference, in 1175, when Bishop Burckhardt described Malta 'a Saracenis abitata’.  Burckhardt, who was Frederick I’s (Barbarossa) ambassador to the Muslim Prince Saladin, referred to this in his travel memoirs. The phrase was historically explained to mean that Malta was inhabited by Muslims. But when Burckhardt used this term, he did not mean Muslims but Syrians. This is what the term Saraceni meant in the 12th century. This phrase started to mean ‘Muslims’ centuries after Burckhardt. In the fifteenth century, the noun Saracen was still not synonymous with Muslim. In fact, there are still documents in the Latin West explaining this word as meaning Christians, Muslims and Jews. Syria in the 10th and 11th century had all these three denominations.

There are a number of Scholars of Arabic in the 19th century who convincingly argued that Maltese is derived from Syria and Lebanon. The similarity of Maltese to the language of Syria can only be explained by the movement of people. Those who study the history of migration know that a massive number of Syrians had to escape to the West during the 10th and 12th century because of their Monophysite faith.  

It must have been the presence of these Christians from Syria that conditioned our language and helped Arabic not to be viewed as something alien to Christianity. But did these Syrians migrants speak Arabic? If these were Christians, the chances are that they spoke Aramaic. This particular Christian denomination spoke this language and the last vestiges of native Aramaic speakers were dispersed during the current Syrian war.

In fact, nineteenth-century scholars, writing about Maltese affirmed that Maltese was derived from the Arab language used in Syria and Lebanon. At this particular time, there were Maltese scholars linking Maltese with Aramaic. They were known as ix-XirkaXemija and one of their exponents even wrote a detailed study entitled Malta Cananea.

Undoubtedly, the Christians in Malta were allowed to pray in Arabic and until recently, practically until the early twentieth century, a tradition evolved within the local Christian community to support the Semitic use of the language in Christian liturgy. The last two important foremost exponents of this movement were Pietro Paolo Saydon and Dun Karm Psaila and the last member of this group, died this year: he was Fr. Sebastian Camilleri. 

In his book entitled Inquisition and Society in Spain, Henry Kamen mentions a particular incident that took place in Spain. The Moriscos - the Muslims who converted to Christianity - were being forced to pray in Spanish or Latin. They were prohibited from praying in Arabic. In January 1567, one of their leaders in Granada, Francisco Núñez Muley, made a vociferous protest in their defence. He had been a page to Hernando de Talavera, Archbishop of Granada. Muley drew-up a memorandum protesting against injustices that were being committed against his people. In this memorandum, he wrote the following:

Every day we are mistreated in every way, by both secular officials and clergy, all of which is so obvious that it needs no proof… How can people be deprived of their natural tongue, in which were born and raised? The Egyptians, Syrians, Maltese and other Christians people speak read and write in Arabic and are still Christians as we are.”

At around this same time, the Augustine friars in Malta must have had a Monophysite Bible in Arabic. The Augustinian friar, Spirito Pelo Angosciola, referred to it for quotations in his famous sermon delivered during the foundation day of Valletta. His quotes were in Latin, but the verses quoted are not identical to those found in St Jerome’s Latin translation but appear to resemble more the wording in the Monophysite Bible. This requires further research.

Why am I stating all this? The ‘Our Father’ in Maltese is a prayer that historically is made up of Semitic words except for the first word Missierna. Incidentally, the word missier was considered to derive from Sicilian. Ġużé Aquilina explained it to stem from “mio sire”. In truth, it derives from Southern France. This word is written as ‘misser’ in old French documents and is pronounced in the same way as it is pronounced in Maltese. This is how it was written in Malta in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. 

I think it would be a great loss if the Our Father in Maltese is touched. I will not enter into the issue whether temptation should be in the first person singular (as it is being suggested by the Pope) or first person plural. In this case, it would be interesting to look at eighteenth and early publications of the Our Father in Maltese to check how this sentence was actually written.

What can be said is that the historic reference by Núñez Muley confirms that the Maltese, from time immemorial, were saying their prayers, undoubtedly even the Our Father, in Maltese. Secondly, and more importantly, our version is the nearest to how Jesus Christ told it to his disciples. In fact, the Maltese word for temptation “tiġrib” means more than temptation as the Pope rightly implied in his sermon. This word is to be found in both Aramaic and Arabic. And if these Syrian refugees prayed in Aramaic, then this version risks to be much closer to the way it was said by Christ than in any other language.

For sure, touching our Semitic variation of the Lord’s Prayer without taking into consideration a long historical tradition would be the greatest affront to our language and religion. It would mean distancing our Maltese version from the way it was pronounced by Christ himself. In our case, it is not an issue of a poor translation. The possibility is that some words have changed in meaning over time but before any changes are effected, it is important that scholars study how our Semitic version was written in the past centuries.

Wishing a Blessed and Happy Christmas to all.

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