Biblical Aramaic is the form of Aramaic that is used in the books of Daniel and Ezra in the Hebrew Bible. It should not be confused with the Aramaic paraphrases, explanations and expansions of the Hebrew scriptures, which are known as targumim.
As Old Aramaic had served as a lingua franca in the Neo-Assyrian Empire from the 8th century BC, linguistic contact with even the oldest stages of Biblical Hebrew, the main language of the Hebrew Bible, is easily accounted for.
During the Babylonian exile of the Jews which began in the early 6th century BC, the language spoken by the Jews changed from Hebrew to Aramaic, and Aramaic square script replaced the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. After the Achaemenid Empire annexed the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, Aramaic became the language of culture and learning. King Darius the Great declared Imperial Aramaic to be the official language of the western half of his empire in 500 BC, and it is that Imperial Aramaic that forms the basis of Biblical Aramaic.
Biblical Hebrew was gradually reduced to the status of a liturgical language and a language of theological learning, and the Jews of the Second Temple period that started in 516 BC would have spoken a western form of Old Aramaic until their partial Hellenization from the 3rd century BC and the eventual emergence of Middle Aramaic in the 3rd century AD.
Biblical Aramaic's relative chronology has been debated mostly in the context of dating the Book of Daniel. In 1929, Rowley argued that its origin must be later than the 6th century BC and that the language was more similar to the Targums than to the Imperial Aramaic documents available at his time.
Others have argued that the language most closely resembles the 5th-century BC Elephantine papyri, and so is a good representative of typical Imperial Aramaic. Kenneth Kitchen takes an agnostic position and states that the Aramaic of the Book of Daniel is compatible with any period from the 5th to early 2nd century BC.
Aramaic and Hebrew
Biblical Hebrew is the main language of the Hebrew Bible. Aramaic accounts for only about 250 verses out of a total of over 23,000. Biblical Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew, as both are in the Northwest Semitic language family. Some obvious similarities and differences are listed below:
- The Aramaic square script was adopted to write Hebrew in place of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet found in earlier inscriptions.
- The system of vocalization used is the same for both the portions of the Bible written in Hebrew and the portions written in Aramaic.
- Verb systems are based on triconsonantal roots.
- Similar functions of the verbal conjugations.
- Different letters in each alphabet are sometimes used to make the same sound.
- Nouns have absolute and construct states.
- The definite article is a suffixed -ā (א) in Aramaic (an emphatic or determined state), but a prefixed h- (ה) in Hebrew.
- Aramaic is not a Canaanite language and so did not experience the Canaanite vowel shift from *ā to ō.
- In Aramaic, the preposition dalet functions as a conjunction and is often used instead of the construct to indicate the genitive/possessive relationship.
Aramaic in the Hebrew Bible
- Genesis 31:47 – translation of a Hebrew placename, Jegar-Sahadutha Strong's #H3026
- Jeremiah 10:11 – a single sentence denouncing idolatry occurs in the middle of a Hebrew text.
- Daniel 2:4b–7:28 – five stories about Daniel and his colleagues, and an apocalyptic vision.
- Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26 – quotations of documents from the 5th century BCE on the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Other suggested occurrences
- Genesis 15:1 – the word במחזה (ba-maħaze, "in a vision"). According to the Zohar (I:88b), the word is Aramaic, as the usual Hebrew word would be במראה (ba-mar’e).
- Numbers 23:10 – the word רבע (rôḇa‘, usually translated as "stock" or "fourth part"). Joseph H. Hertz, in his commentary on this verse, cites Friedrich Delitzsch's claim (cited in William F. Albright' JBL 63 (1944), p. 213, n.28) that it is an Aramaic word meaning "dust".
- Job 36:2a – Rashi, in his commentary on the verse, states that the phrase is in Aramaic.
- Psalm 2:12 – the word בר (bar) is interpreted by some Christian sources (including the King James Version) to be the Aramaic word for "son" and renders the phrase נשקו-בר (nashəqū-bar) as "kiss the Son," a reference to Jesus. Jewish sources and some Christian sources (including Jerome's Vulgate) follow the Hebrew reading of בר ("purity") and translate the phrase as "embrace purity." See Psalm 2 for further discussion of the controversy.
- and Gen. 31:47, Jer. 10:11
- Franz Rosenthal, A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1961), p. 5.
- Moshe Beer, "Judaism (Babylonian)" Anchor Bible Dictionary 3 (1996), p. 1080.
- Saul Shaked, "Aramaic" Encyclopedia Iranica 2 (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 251
- Rowley, Harold Henry (1929). The Aramaic of the Old Testament: A Grammatical and Lexical Study of Its Relations with Other Early Aramaic Dialects. London: Oxford University Press. OCLC 67575204.
- Choi, Jongtae (1994), "The Aramaic of Daniel: Its Date, Place of Composition and Linguistic Comparison with Extra-Biblical Texts," Ph. D. dissertation (Deerfield, IL: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) 33125990 xvii, 288 pp.
- Kitchen, K. A. (1965). "The Aramaic of Daniel" (PDF). In Donald John Wiseman (ed.). Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel. London: Tyndale Press. pp. 31–79. OCLC 1048054. Retrieved 2008-11-16.
- The following information is taken from: Alger F. Johns, A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1972), pp. 5-7.