Biblical Aramaic is the form of the Aramaic language that is used in the books of Daniel, Ezra and a few other places in the Hebrew Bible. It should not be confused with the Aramaic paraphrases, explanations, and expansions of the Jewish scriptures known as targumim.
In 2 Kings 18:26, the linguistic situation is directly referred to, as Jerusalem (during the reign of Hezekiah) was besieged by the army of Sennacherib in 701 BCE. The 2 Kings account sets the meeting of the ambassadors of both camps just outside the city walls. Hezekiah's envoys pleaded that the Assyrians make terms in Aramaic so that the people listening would not understand. Thus, Aramaic had become the language of international dialogue, but not of the common people.
During the Babylonian exile, Aramaic became the language spoken by the Jews, and the Aramaic square script replaced the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. After the Persian Empire's capture of Babylon, it became the language of culture and learning. King Darius I declared that Aramaic was to be the official language of the western half of his empire in 500 BCE, and it is this Imperial Aramaic language 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 would have spoken a western form of Old Aramaic until their partial Hellenization from the 3rd century BCE, and the eventual emergence of Middle Aramaic in the 3rd century CE.
Biblical Aramaic's relative chronology has mostly been debated in the context of dating the Book of Daniel. In 1929, Rowley argued that the origin must be later than the 6th century BCE and that the language was more similar to the Targums than the Imperial Aramaic documents available at his time. Others have argued that the language most closely resembles the 5th century Elephantine papyri and is therefore a good representative of typical Imperial Aramaic. Kenneth Kitchen takes an agnostic position, stating that the Aramaic of the Book of Daniel is compatible with any period from the 5th to early 2nd century BCE.
Aramaic and Hebrew
Biblical Hebrew is the main language of the Hebrew Bible. Aramaic only accounts for 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.
- Same Aramaic square script (which 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 the portions of the Bible written in Hebrew and those 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 three states: the absolute, construct, and emphatic.
- The definite article is a suffixed -ā (א) in Aramaic, but a prefixed h- (ה) in Hebrew.
- Aramaic is not a Canaanite language and thus did not experience the Canaanite vowel shift from *ā to ō.
- 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 place-name.
- 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 concerning 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), this 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"). Rabbi J.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 this is an Aramaic word meaning "dust."
- Job 36:2a – Rashi, in his commentary on this verse, states that this phrase is in Aramaic.
- 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.[page needed]
- 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. 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.