The Aramaic Language
Aramaic is one of the Semitic
languages, an important group of languages known almost from the
beginning of human history and including also Arabic, Hebrew,
Ethiopic, and Akkadian (ancient Babylonian and Assyrian). It is
particularly closely related to Hebrew, and was written in a variety
of alphabetic scripts. (What is usually called "Hebrew" script is
actually an Aramaic script.)
The Earliest Aramaic
0ur first glimpse of Aramaic comes
from a small number of ancient royal inscriptions from almost three
thousand years ago (900-700 B.C.E.). Dedications to the gods,
international treaties, and memorial stelae reveal to us the history
of the first small Aramean kingdoms, in the territories of modem Syria
and Southeast Turkey, living under the shadow of the rising Assyrian
Aramaic as an Imperial Language
Aramaic was used by the conquering
Assyrians as a language of administration communication, and following
them by the Babylonian and Persian empires, which ruled from India to
Ethiopia, and employed Aramaic as the official language. For this
period, then (about 700–320 B.C.E.), Aramaic held a position similar
to that occupied by English today. The most important documents of
this period are numerous papyri from Egypt and Palestine.
Aramaic displaced Hebrew for many
purposes among the Jews, a fact reflected in the Bible, where portions
of Ezra and Daniel are in Aramaic. Some of the best known stories in
biblical literature, including that of Belshazzar’s feast with the
famous "handwriting on the wall" are in Aramaic.
Jewish Aramaic Literature
Aramaic remained a dominant language
for Jewish worship, scholarship, and everyday life for centuries in
both the land of Israel and in the diaspora, especially in Babylon.
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the
remains of the library of a Jewish sect from around the turn of the
Era, are many compositions in Aramaic. These new texts also provide
the best evidence for Palestinian Aramaic of the sort used by Jesus
and his disciples.
Since the Jews spoke Aramaic, and
knowledge of Hebrew was no longer widespread, the practice
arose in the synagogue of providing the reading of the sacred Hebrew
scriptures with an Aramaic translation or paraphrase, a "Targum" In
the course of time a whole array of targums for the Law and other
parts of the Bible were composed. More than translations, they
incorporated much of traditional Jewish scriptural interpretation.
In their academies the rabbis and
their disciples transmitted, commented, and debated Jewish law; the
records of their deliberations constitute the two talmuds: that of the
land of Israel and the much larger Babylonian Talmud. Although the
talmuds contain much material in Hebrew, the basic language of these
vast compilations is Aramaic (in Western and Eastern dialects).
Christian Aramaic Literature
Although Jesus spoke Aramaic, the
Gospels are in Greek, and only rarely quote actual Aramaic words.
Reconstruction of the Aramaic background of the Gospels remains a
fascinating, but inordinately difficult area of modem scholarly
Christians in Palestine eventually
rendered portions of Christian Scripture into their dialect of
Aramaic; these translations and related writings constitute "Christian
A much larger body of Christian
Aramaic is known as Syriac. Indeed, Syriac writings surpass in
quantity all other Aramaic combined. Syriac is originally the literary
language of the city of Edessa (now Urfa in SE Turkey). The language
became the tongue of the entire eastern wing of the church, from about
the third century C.E. down until well past the Muslim conquest.
Syriac writings include numerous Bible
translations, the most important being the so-called Peshitta (simple)
translation, and countless devotional, dogmatic, exegetical,
liturgical, and historical works. Almost all of the Greek
philosophical and scientific tradition was eventually translated into
Syriac, and it was through this channel that most found their way into
the Islamic World and thence, into post-Dark Ages Europe.
There are many other branches of
Aramaic literature, including the substantial literature of the
Mandaeans, a Gnostic religious group, and the Bible translation,
liturgy, and doctrinal works of the Samaritans.
Aramaic survives as a spoken language
in small communities in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. The
Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon will not attempt to be a full dictionary
for this Modern Aramaic, which is best undertaken as a separate task,
but where an ancient word has a modern continuation, the Modern
Aramaic use will be recorded.