Biblical Aramaic

From Biblical History & Civilization
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Biblical Aramaic is the form of Aramaic that is used in the books of Daniel and Ezra[1] 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 Aramaic language had served as a lingua franca throughout the Ancient Near East from the second half of the 8th century BCE to the end of the 4th century BCE,[2][3] 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 BCE, the language spoken by the Jews started to change from Hebrew to Aramaic, and Aramaic square script replaced the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.[4] After the Achaemenid Empire annexed the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE, Aramaic became the main language of public life and administration. King Darius the Great declared[5] Imperial Aramaic to be the official language of the western half of his empire in 500 BCE, and it is that Imperial Aramaic that forms the basis of Biblical Aramaic.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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:[10]


Hebrew and Aramaic have simplified the inflections of the noun, adjective and verb. These are more highly inflected in classical Arabic, Babylonian and Ugaritic.


  • 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.

Sound changes

Proto-Semitic Hebrew Aramaic
ð, δ ז ד
z ז
t ת
θ שׁ ת
ś שׂ
š שׁ
s ס
θ̣ צ ט
ṣ́ צ ק‎, ע

Aramaic in the Hebrew Bible

Undisputed occurrences

Other suggested occurrences

  • Genesis 15:1Template:Spaced ndashthe 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 23:10Template:Spaced ndashthe 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 ("כַּתַּר־ לִ֣י זְ֭עֵיר וַאֲחַוֶּ֑ךָּ")Template:Spaced ndashRashi, in his commentary on the verse, states that the phrase is in Aramaic.
  • Psalm 2:12Template:Spaced ndashthe 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.

Chaldean misnomer

For many centuries, from at least the time of Jerome of Stridon (d. 420), Biblical Aramaic was misnamed as "Chaldean" (Chaldaic, Chaldee).[11][12][13] That label remained common in early Aramaic studies, and persisted up to the nineteenth century.[14][15][16] The "Chaldean" misnomer was consequently abandoned, when further research showed conclusively that Aramaic dialect used in Hebrew Bible was not related with ancient Chaldeans and their language.[17][18][19]

See also


  1. and Gen. 31:47, Jer. 10:11
  2. Bae 2004, p. 1–20.
  3. Gzella 2015, p. 104-211.
  4. Moshe Beer, "Judaism (Babylonian)" Anchor Bible Dictionary 3 (1996), p. 1080.
  5. Saul Shaked, "Aramaic" Encyclopedia Iranica 2 (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 251
  6. Gzella 2015, p. 206.
  7. 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]
  8. 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.
  9. Kitchen 1965, p. 31–79.
  10. The following information is taken from: Alger F. Johns, A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1972), pp. 5-7.
  11. King 2009, p. 216-217.
  12. Gallagher 2012, p. 123-141.
  13. Gallagher 2015, p. 356-375.
  14. Gesenius & Prideaux-Tregelles 1859.
  15. Fürst 1867.
  16. Davies 1872.
  17. Nöldeke 1871, p. 113-131.
  18. Kautzsch 1884a, p. 17-21.
  19. Kautzsch 1884b, p. 110-113.


Template:Jewish languages