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Aramaic, the English of the Levant in Antiquity

A holistic approach to Aramaic can uncover a shared backdrop of distinct cultural and religious traditions, help to trace their origins in the absence of other historical or archeological information, and enable one to appreciate the rich texture of certain words and expressions in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.

See Also: A Cultural History of Aramaic (Brill, 2015).

By Holger Gzella
Professor of Hebrew and Aramaic
Leiden University
January 2015

1. Introduction

Between the mid-first millennium B.C.E. and the spread of Islam more than a thousand years later, Aramaic was the international language of communication in the Ancient Near East, and as such by far the most important language in the region. During this period, which still forms the basis of much of modern Middle Eastern culture, it connected a vast area ranging from Egypt in the West to Afghanistan in the South, and from Anatolia in the North to Arabia in the South. It entered the Biblical books of Ezra and Daniel: the Aramaic parts of the latter in particular contain several of the most famous stories, such as the Colossus on Clay Feet, the Young Men in the Fiery Furnace, or the Writing on the Wall. Aramaic also provides a large amount of the much-debated “Semitic background” of the New Testament. Finally, it became the literary language of the living religious traditions of Jews, Christians, and others, among whom it has been studied – or even spoken – ever since. Even when overhearing speakers of Aramaic in public in some American, European, or Australian city, the trained ear can still pick up words and constructions that already occur in ancient Aramaic inscriptions or in parts of the Bible.

This cultural heritage also fed into the Western intellectual tradition. Once the immediate ancestors of present-day universities emerged in Early Modern Europe, Aramaic, like Hebrew and Greek, became a firm part of the curriculum. And yet it radiates far beyond academe. Its use in films inspired by Biblical themes such as The Passion of the Christ, still bespeaks the interests of contemporary popular culture. Aramaic manifests a dual nature. One the one hand it is viewed as the means of expression of a remote civilization that is sometimes associated with otherworldly wisdom, sometimes with demonic powers. On the other, it exercises an unbroken fascination as the idiom of Jesus. Few languages combine its enormous diversity with a similar immediate appeal.

2. Aramaic in its own right

Today, the investigation of Aramaic is compartmentalized in distinct academic disciplines and degree programs. Its study contributes essential first-hand knowledge to disciplines as diverse as Biblical Exegesis, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, and Semitic Linguistics, as well as the study of Judaism, Eastern Christianity, Islam, and other Late Antique religions, the history of the Hellenistic and Roman Near East, and the investigation of minority languages in the modern Middle East. As such, it plays a similar role as mathematics does for Astronomy or Applied Physics. Yet the current situation of Aramaic Studies resembles the insular communities of speakers of modern Aramaic languages interspersed throughout the Fertile Crescent as well as in the Western Diaspora: it is no longer part of a linguistic and cultural continuum. What is then the common background of all the different “Aramaics” that meander through the Ancient World, the Jewish-Christian tradition, and the contemporary Middle East? What unity lurks behind the many dissimilar scripts and linguistic systems associated with Aramaic? What justifies the challenging and time-consuming investigation of Aramaic as an end in itself?

A study of this language in its own right certainly does not represent self-sufficient ivory-tower knowledge. Rather it is an essential source of reliable first-hand information that is difficult to obtain in fields that use Aramaic material for more practical purposes. Very recent studies in the historical syntax of Aramaic show a worrying unawareness of even the most basic grammatical facts, let alone a proper understanding of the essential historical relationship between different Aramaic languages. Such signs illustrate the vital need for accessible and correct data that transcend the use of Aramaic as a mere tool. More importantly, a holistic approach to Aramaic can uncover a shared backdrop of distinct cultural and religious traditions, help to trace their origins in the absence of other historical or archeological information, and enable one to appreciate the rich texture of certain words and expressions in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. Surprising results are guaranteed: a student of Aramaic who happens to sit in an Indian restaurant and eat a “tandoori” dish, i.e., one made in a certain kind of oven, may recall the “Fiery Furnace” (tannūr) from Daniel 3. This is no coincidence, since both words are historically related, even if their respective contexts are now perceived as unconnected. Aramaic philology proper is about making wide-ranging connections against the background of a deep familiarity with languages and texts.

To give just a few random examples, a comprehensive and integrated study of Aramaic can demonstrate that Jews, Christians, and Samaritans in Roman Palestine spoke very similar, yet not identical, dialects that were distinguished by the use of different scripts. So did Jews, Christians, and Mandaeans in Sasanian Babylonia. For the latter groups, the study of Aramaic can offer a glimpse into popular religious practice, as reflected by magical bowls and amulets that was at variance with the respective orthodoxy. It can also reveal that the language of personal devotion in the Book of Daniel has its roots in court protocol and legalese, similarly to the wording that may underlie the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer in Greek (“forgive us our trespasses/debts”). The latter aspect in particular, which unlocks the many layers of meaning that have accumulated in individual words over the centuries, also has an impact on non-academic ways of reading the Bible and may count as Semitic philology’s most immediate contribution to a practice traditionally termed the “Application of the Senses,” that is, an appreciation of the text that is as vivid and sensual as possible.

3. History and diversity

For most of its history, then, Aramaic was not the language of a single ethnic or cultural group. Rather, and for reasons still little known, it was a language whose speakers managed to make the successive superpowers of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians adopt it before it finally spread among the adherents of a number of major religions. Its evolution can be subdivided into several distinctive phases, each with a major bearing on the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, their reception history, and their cultural environment. The chronological dividing-lines remain somewhat fluid, since the surviving material has been produced by scribal traditions. Such traditions are always conservative and can linger on even for centuries after the political or cultural context collapsed in which they once arose.

Conversely, a suitably dynamic subclassification reinforces the subtle threads that connect many coexisting or subsequent variants of Aramaic, reproducing the succession and interaction of distinct civilizations in the Near and Middle East. It is therefore not so much the elusive concept of a “region” that defines continuity in the Fertile Crescent, but the unbroken evolution of languages and literary as well as oral traditions over the millennia. Aramaic is thus a bridge that connects the Ancient Near East to the present-day Middle East. Traveling on that bridge through centuries and millennia provides the traveler with an unparalleled view of the region's continuity and disruptions.

The development of Aramaic went through five major chronological phases that all relate to changes in the social history of the Near and Middle East. In a first phase, Aramaic-speaking principalities emerged in Syria shortly after 1000 B.C.E., which were soon incorporated into the Assyrian empire and its Babylonian successor. In a second phase, Aramaic was rigorously standardized as a lingua franca and reached the pinnacle of its spread during the bureaucratic reform of the Persian empire between ca. 500 and 300 B.C.E. In a third stage, new and highly diverse written varieties of Aramaic emerged during a period of intense cultural contact in the Hellenistic and Roman Near East, some time after about 200 B.C.E. In the third and fourth centuries C.E., the Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, and Mandaean literary traditions were consolidated in Late Antique Palestine and Babylonia. Finally, during the Islamic period since the seventh and eighth centuries C.E., Aramaic was gradually reduced to the minority language it still is today.

3.1. The emergence of Aramaic

Aramaic’s beginnings, however, were less grand. It originally evolved in the northern parts of Syria-Palestine, as did its Southern neighbor Hebrew as well as Hebrew’s Canaanite sister-idioms Phoenician, Moabite, and a few other small-corpus languages from Transjordan. Although they all form part of the same linguistic and cultural matrix, it is fair to assume that at least the Aramaic dialect used in Damascus and the Hebrew variant of Jerusalem were not mutually intelligible. When new population groups emerged in a power vacuum by way of “ethnogenesis” after a period of demographic shifts and grew into more complex societies with centralized forms of administration during the opening centuries of the first millennium B.C.E., the various vernaculars of these groups acquired the status of written languages. They became entrenched in the chancelleries of the rising small polities, underwent a process of standardization of letter forms, spelling, idiom and document forms, and began to serve as an official means of expression for publicly commemorating the deeds of the local rulers. Many of the earliest textual witnesses are thus royal inscriptions. Moreover, these languages were used for recording literary traditions in scribal circles. A famous early example is the Deir Alla plaster text from Jordan, which exhibits a few interesting parallels with Numbers 22–24. Bookkeeping was no doubt an important domain as well, but it is less well attested for the earliest period, presumably due to the use of perishable writing materials.

The general process of linguistic codification of Aramaic and its cousins shortly after 1000 B.C.E. coincided with the breakthrough of alphabetic writing. It also produced the Judaean chancellery language that lies at the heart of Classical Hebrew. Occasional references in the Hebrew Bible to a shared ancestral lineage of the Aramaeans and the Israelites (Gen 31:20.24.47; Deut 26:5) cannot be anchored in any known historical context and may simply emphasize the outsider status of Israel according its own national tradition. Nonetheless, Aramaic inscriptions from this period contribute vitally to our understanding of the political, religious, and linguistic environment of Ancient Israel. Different forms of “Old Aramaic” are epigraphically attested for the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E., yet the dialect of the upcoming kingdom of Damascus soon seems to have marginalized the others. There is also indirect evidence that traders and specialized craftsmen accelerated the spread of Aramaic in larger parts of Mesopotamia. There may even have been a certain degree of Hebrew-Aramaic bilingualism in the Syrian-Israelian border zone, and possibly scattered instances of occasional Aramaic influence in the poetic language of some of the earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Judges 5).

3.2 Aramaic as a world language

After the Assyrians had incorporated parts of the Levant – that is, the Syrian principalities and the Northern Kingdom of Israel – into their expanding empire, Aramaic, by then already a fairly widespread idiom in Western Asia, was given formal recognition in Assyrian domestic and provincial administration. Biblical historiography, too, exemplifies this situation (2 Kings 18:26). From that point on, Aramaic and the alphabetic script coexisted with Akkadian and cuneiform writing, the native Mesopotamian scribal tradition, in a largely bilingual but apparently not yet fully standardized bureaucratic system. Many dozens of clay tablets (with or without an Akkadian parallel version), which have only been discovered and published during the past years, confirm the increasing consolidation of Aramaic in bookkeeping and official letter writing, further supported by indirect references to alphabetic, i.e., Aramaic, writing. Large parts of the documentation that once must have existed are lost because the soft, organic material on which they were written (such as papyrus and leather) did not survive. Nevertheless, the general picture is clear: in the first major world empire, the use of Aramaic outlived the Syrian principalities in which its written tradition was once created.

When the Babylonians took over from the Assyrians in the seventh century, they continued the latter’s bureaucratic practice. Aramaic in the Babylonian period is yet poorly attested, but its growing use in the private sphere and the exact workings of Aramaic-Akkadian language contact suggest that the use of Aramaic, beneath the surface of the visible record, extended far and wide. Eventually, it confined Akkadian to the prestigious literary genre of royal inscriptions and the conservative economic circuit of the major temples and the Babylonian patrician families. It is likely, though impossible to prove, that the shift to Aramaic as the dominant spoken language in Mesopotamia was completed at some stage in the sixth or ultimately in the fifth century B.C.E. Exiles from Jerusalem to Babylon would therefore have been incorporated into a largely Aramaic-speaking society.

The lack of standardization in the seventh- and sixth-century material indicates that Aramaic was adopted somewhat haphazardly in Assyrian and then in Babylonian administration for pragmatic reasons. Following a bureaucratic reform in the early years of the Achaemenid empire, however, Aramaic was purposefully codified as the main language of provincial administration and diplomacy. The result was a distinctive and long-lasting scribal tradition, best termed “Achaemenid Official Aramaic.” Clerks and scribes throughout the vast region under Achaemenid sway between Egypt and Bactria (modern Afghanistan, now for the first time documented in an archive that belonged to the provincial governor) were trained according to the linguistic and ideological standards prescribed by the Great King’s chancellery. The unity of this material between the western and the eastern periphery is thus much higher than before, and the limited amount of variation is mostly caused by imperfect learning. In some regions, notably Palestine and parts of Egypt, Aramaic now also served as the official written idiom among the local population (Syria, the old homeland of the language, is not yet represented in the written evidence, but one has no reason to doubt that this was the case there, too); in others, by contrast, as in Arabia, Anatolia, and Iran, it interacted with indigenous languages, even if the exact distribution of Aramaic and the respective local idioms is subject to further investigation. Aramaic can thereby contribute to promising new lines of research on linguistic diversity in Anatolia and pre-Islamic Arabia.

Many dozens of contracts, official and private letters, and economic documents illustrate both the modalities of provincial government and every-day life in the Persian empire: its efficiency, adaptability, and control; the fuzzy line between the public and the private domain, which may bolster exploitation; and the pervasive imperial signature. Achaemenid Aramaic had become the medium of a common legal and administrative tradition that united the entire imperial territory, buttressed by an efficient messenger system. Since established bureaucratic procedures may lead a life of their own, this tradition lived on in many former parts of the empire after its fall in the last third of the fourth century B.C.E. The thread of Achaemenid legalese continues to run through later ownership declarations of tombs in pre-Islamic North Arabia, marriage documents and bequests from the Dead Sea region as well as slave sales from Dura Europos in Syria right down to customary Rabbinic marriage law. It is also clear that Aramaic, as a means for administration and representation, survived into the first centuries C.E. in some parts of Iran.

In addition to the imperial chancellery tradition, national literatures in Aramaic emerged, most notably in Palestine, where Aramaic supplemented the production of religious compositions in Hebrew. The “square script,” as it is now generally employed for Hebrew and other Jewish languages, is originally a variant of the Achaemenid letterforms. A local literary form of the Achaemenid standard language also underlies the Aramaic parts of Ezra and Daniel (no matter whether the letters in Ezra represent authentic documents or a fictional invention patterned after official edicts); some of its distinctive features can still be identified despite subsequent modifications and a much later vocalization. It continues seamlessly into the creation of Jewish literature known from the Second Temple period, such as the numerous patriarchal narratives, vision reports, exhortations, and “diaspora novels” (like the Book of Tobit) attested among the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls that respond to various issues of Jewish identity in a time of cultural conflict. The syntax and lexicon of Hebrew compositions such as Daniel, Nehemiah, and Chronicles also exhibit Aramaic influence beneath their classicizing veneer. The Hebrew-Aramaic bilingualism of Jewish traditional literature thus has its roots in the Achaemenid age. Significant parts of the Hebrew Bible in its received form took on their shape in a milieu where Aramaic served as a dominant language.

Eclipsed by the scribal tradition that governs the surviving evidence, however, Aramaic vernaculars continued to spread and evolve among sizeable parts of the population. Archaeology points to major demographic changes in Palestine in particular, owing to the impact of the Babylonian destruction and the Achaemenid restoration; as a result, the numbers of speakers of Aramaic increased significantly in this region. Different Aramaic vernaculars came to the fore again after the Achaemenid empire was conquered by Alexander the Great and its international scribal tradition was cut off from its vital source and became decentralized.

3.3. Aramaic and Greco-Roman civilization

Small local kingdoms then arose once again toward the end of the Hellenistic period, when the rule of Alexander’s successors grew weaker, and flourished with the relative peace and ample trading opportunities under the subsequent Roman rule since the first century B.C.E. Consequently, new written forms of Aramaic emerged, each with its own peculiar script: among the Jews in Palestine, the milieu of many later Rabbinic writings; in North Arabia, where they eventually produced the Arabic script; in Syrian Palmyra and Edessa, the latter being the cradle of Syriac, the main language of the Christian Near East; and in Mesopotamia, where the Babylonian Talmud and Mandaean mythology originate, transforming some of the region’s ancient lore. They all exhibit varying degrees of interaction between the surviving Achaemenid scribal heritage (spelling conventions and terminology) and the respective local dialects that remained in use as spoken languages during the preceding centuries. It would therefore be misleading to subsume them all under one common denominator.

Contact with Greek, especially in urban centers (several of which were in fact newly-established Hellenistic cities), produced a considerable amount of bilingualism and biculturalism. A more fine-grained linguistic analysis nonetheless shows that Aramaic continued to be used widely in daily life, and not simply among the uneducated rural population. On the one hand, common changes in phonology and morphology across the entire Aramaic dialect landscape, from Palestine to Mesopotamia, as they crop up in thousands of inscriptions from this period, point to an unbroken continuum of speakers; otherwise these linguistic innovations could not spread like waves caused by a pebble in a pond. On the other hand, the nature of the inscriptional evidence itself shows that Aramaic maintained its status as a high-register medium of expression. It could even be employed by the self-conscious mercantile elites of the city of Palmyra in Syria or the Nabataean kingdom in Arabia in honorific and dedicatory inscriptions. Affinity with Hellenistic culture and Roman citizenship could thereby be articulated by the use of native linguistic means.

This provides an interesting case of acculturation with considerable explanatory power for more comprehensively assessing the multicultural fabric of the Hellenistic and Roman Near East. Aramaic, both as a scribal idiom and as a vernacular, thus occupies a prominent place also in the cosmopolitan world of the New Testament and the early Christian mission. After all, Palmyrene Aramaic inscriptions were erected in places as far away as Roman Britain and Syriac graffiti have been discovered in Krefeld in Germany. And when the apostle Paul went to Arabia (Gal 1:17), he would have had some exposure to Nabataean Aramaic as the official language there.

3.4. Consolidation of religious traditions in Late Antiquity

Things changed again after the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century C.E. With the consolidation of Jewish, Christian, and other traditions in Late Antiquity, when religious identity largely replaced political affinity, some written varieties of Aramaic came to serve as the basis of emerging religious literatures. Their appearance coincided with a growing infrastructural apparatus and an increasing visibility of non-pagan religions in the form of many Jewish and Samaritan synagogues and numerous Christian dioceses. Collection, redaction, or translation of material pertaining to religious belief and practice in Rabbinic academies or Christian monasteries produced vast amounts of new texts in Aramaic that were subsequently copied over and over again by generations of scribes until the invention of the printed book. In Palestine, Jews produced the Targumim and the Palestinian Talmud; Aramaic-speaking Christians versions of the New and Old Testament, but also homiletic literature, translated from the Greek, the official language of Christianity in the Roman East; and Samaritans their own Targum as well as liturgical hymns. In Syria and Mesopotamia, Jews created the Babylonian Talmud; especially Aramaic-speaking Christians outside the Roman sphere of influence propagated Syriac as the vehicle of exegesis and religious poetry; and Mandaeans wrote down their mythological accounts of the origin of the world.

3.5. Aramaic in the Islamic period

Aramaic in Late Antiquity can be divided into a “Western” and an “Eastern” dialect group, but different scripts in either branch reaffirm visual distinctiveness even if the underlying language is very similar. Uncovering contacts between them is an important task for future research. These various literary traditions continued even when the spread of Islam in the region eventually caused a shift to Arabic as the dominant language around the ninth century C.E. Numerous Greek scientific and philosophical writings were received into the upcoming Muslim elite by way of Syriac translations, but that is not the end of the story: Jews revived Aramaic creative expression in medieval Spain and Yemen; Syriac accompanied the Christian mission to Central Asia and China, and still served as the language of original compositions during the late twentieth century.

Modern forms of Aramaic, which survived among fragmented groups of speakers in an increasingly Arabic- and Kurdish-speaking environment, originate in the same dialect landscape as the Late Antique literary languages. Many of them are now on the verge of extinction, yet they still have countless secrets to disclose: what the history of their speakers may have been in otherwise badly-documented periods, how fundamental changes in linguistic systems can be observed during long periods of attestation, and how rich the true dialect diversity of Aramaic may have been even in Antiquity beneath the scribal garb of the textual sources.

4. Conclusion

Even a bird’s-eye (or rather a satellite’s-eye) view of the history of Aramaic like this one shows that each attempt at renewing and enriching Aramaic philology feeds into many academic debates, such as theology, history, sociolinguistics, language contact and change, or multiculturalism. It is firmly connected to the patrimony of the entire Near East and thus has a potentially high profile at an interdepartmental level. This is the principal justification for maintaining in-depth expertise in one or two of the major periods of Aramaic in present-day Faculties of Humanities. But whoever views complexity as such as meaningful and valuable, may well study Aramaic as an end in itself, independent of its possible applications – and will be amply rewarded.

Suggestions for further reading

Gzella, Holger (ed.). 2011. Languages from the World of the Bible. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter.

Gzella, Holger. 2015. A Cultural History of Aramaic: From the Beginnings to the Advent of Islam. Leiden: Brill.

Niehr, Herbert (ed.). 2014. The Aramaeans in Ancient Syria. Leiden: Brill.

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