An ancient Semitic language having a close relationship to Hebrew and originally spoken by the Aramaeans. (See ARAM No. 5.) With the passing of time, however, it came to embrace various dialects (some of them viewed as separate languages) and enjoyed wide use, especially in SW Asia. Aramaic was employed particularly from the second millennium B.C.E. to about 500 C.E. It is one of the three languages in which the Bible was originally written. The Hebrew word ʼAra·mithʹ occurs five times and is translated “in the Syrian language” or “in the Aramaic language.”
Biblical Aramaic, formerly called Chaldee, is found in Ezra 4:8 to 6:18 and 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11; and Daniel 2:4b to 7:28. Aramaic expressions also appear in other parts of the Bible, but many of the attempts of scholars to identify Aramaic sources for Hebrew words are simply conjectural.
The use of some Aramaic expressions is not surprising, for the Hebrews had close contact with the Aramaeans and with the Aramaic language for a long time. Among the earliest renditions of the Hebrew Scriptures into other languages were the Aramaic Targums. Fragments of early Targums of some books have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Language. Aramaic and Hebrew are both classified as being in the Northwest Semitic family of languages. Though Aramaic differs considerably from Hebrew, it is a cognate language having the same letters in its alphabet with the same names as the Hebrew. Like Hebrew, it is written from right to left, and originally the Aramaic script was consonantal. However, the Aramaic employed in the Bible was later vowel pointed by the Masoretes, just as they vowel pointed the Hebrew. Aramaic has been influenced by its contact with other languages. Besides containing various Hebrew, Akkadian, and Persian proper names of localities and persons, Biblical Aramaic shows Hebrew influence in religious terms, Akkadian influence particularly in political and financial terms, and Persian influence in such terms as those relating to political and legal matters.
Aramaic, in addition to having the same script as Hebrew, bears a similarity to it in verbal, nominal, and pronominal inflections. The verbs have two states, the imperfect (denoting incompleted action) and the perfect (signifying completed action). Aramaic employs singular, dual, and plural nouns and has two genders, the masculine and the feminine. It differs from other Semitic languages by displaying a preference for the vowel sound a, and in other ways, including certain consonantal preferences, such as d for z and t for sh.
Basic divisions. Aramaic is generally divided into Western and Eastern groups. However, from a historical standpoint the following four groups have been recognized: Old Aramaic, Official Aramaic, Levantine Aramaic, and Eastern Aramaic. It has been suggested that likely various dialects of Aramaic were spoken around and within the Fertile Crescent and Mesopotamia during the second millennium B.C.E. A difference between early forms of Aramaic and Hebrew may be noted at Genesis 31:47. After Jacob and Laban effected a reconciliation, a heap of stones was set up as a witness between them. Laban called it “Jegar-sahadutha” in Aramaic (Syrian), while Jacob called it “Galeed” in Hebrew, both expressions meaning “Witness Heap.”
Old Aramaic is a name applied to certain inscriptions discovered in northern Syria and said to date from the tenth to the eighth centuries B.C.E. Gradually, however, a new dialect of Aramaic became the lingua franca or the international auxiliary language during the time of the Assyrian Empire, supplanting Akkadian as the language used for official governmental correspondence with outlying areas of the empire. In view of its use, this standard form of Aramaic is referred to as Official Aramaic. It continued to be employed during the time Babylon was the World Power (625-539 B.C.E.) and thereafter, during the time of the Persian Empire (538-331 B.C.E.). Especially did it then enjoy wide usage, being the official language of government and business over a wide area, as archaeological discoveries attest. It appears in dockets on cuneiform tablets; on ostraca, papyri, seals, coins; in inscriptions on stone, and so forth. These artifacts have been found in such lands as Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Anatolia, northern Arabia; in regions as far N as the Ural Mountains; and to the E as distant as Afghanistan and Kurdistan. The use of Official Aramaic continued during the Hellenistic period (323-30 B.C.E.).
It seems that it is this Official Aramaic that is found in the writings of Ezra, Jeremiah, and Daniel. The Scriptures also give evidence of the fact that Aramaic was a lingua franca of those ancient times. Thus, in the eighth century B.C.E., appointed spokesmen for King Hezekiah of Judah appealed to Assyrian King Sennacherib’s representative Rabshakeh, saying: “Speak, please, to your servants in the Syrian [Aramaean, and hence, Aramaic] language, for we are listening; and do not speak to us in the Jews’ language in the ears of the people that are on the wall.” (Isa 36:11; 2Ki 18:26) The officials of Judah understood Aramaic, or Syrian, but evidently it was not understood by the common people among the Hebrews at that time in Jerusalem.
A number of years after the Jews returned from Babylonian exile Ezra the priest read the book of the Law to Jews assembled in Jerusalem, and various Levites explained it to the people, Nehemiah 8:8 stating: “They continued reading aloud from the book, from the law of the true God, it being expounded, and there being a putting of meaning into it; and they continued giving understanding in the reading.” This expounding or interpreting may have involved paraphrasing the Hebrew text into Aramaic, Aramaic possibly having been adopted by the Hebrews when in Babylon. The expounding also, no doubt, involved exposition so that the Jews, even if understanding the Hebrew, would comprehend the deep significance of what was being read.
What Language Did Jesus Speak? On this question there is considerable difference of opinion among scholars. However, concerning languages used in Palestine when Jesus Christ was on earth, Professor G. Ernest Wright states: “Various languages were undoubtedly to be heard on the streets of the major cities. Greek and Aramaic were evidently the common tongues, and most of the urban peoples could probably understand both even in such ‘modern’ or ‘western’ cities as Caesarea and Samaria where Greek was the more common. Roman soldiers and officials might be heard conversing in Latin, while orthodox Jews may well have spoken a late variety of Hebrew with one another, a language that we know to have been neither classical Hebrew nor Aramaic, despite its similarities to both.” Commenting further, on the language spoken by Jesus Christ, Professor Wright says: “The language spoken by Jesus has been much debated. We have no certain way of knowing whether he could speak Greek or Latin, but in his teaching ministry he regularly used either Aramaic or the highly Aramaized popular Hebrew. When Paul addressed the mob in the Temple, it is said that he spoke Hebrew (Acts 21:40). Scholars generally have taken this to mean Aramaic, but it is quite possible that a popular Hebrew was then the common tongue among the Jews.”
It is possible that Jesus and his early disciples, such as the apostle Peter, at least at times spoke Galilean Aramaic, Peter being told on the night Christ was taken into custody: “Certainly you also are one of them, for, in fact, your dialect gives you away.” (Mt 26:73) This may have been said because the apostle was using Galilean Aramaic at the time, though that is not certain, or he may have been speaking a Galilean Hebrew that differed dialectally from that employed in Jerusalem or elsewhere in Judea. Earlier, when Jesus came to Nazareth in Galilee and entered the synagogue there, he read from the prophecy of Isaiah, evidently as written in Hebrew, and then said: “Today this scripture that you just heard is fulfilled.” Nothing is said about Jesus’ translating this passage into Aramaic. So it is likely that persons present on that occasion could readily understand Biblical Hebrew. (Lu 4:16-21) It may also be noted that Acts 6:1, referring to a time shortly after Pentecost 33 C.E., mentions Greek-speaking Jews and Hebrew-speaking Jews in Jerusalem.
Professor Harris Birkeland (The Language of Jesus, Oslo, 1954, pp. 10, 11) points out that Aramaic’s being the written language of Palestine when Jesus was on earth does not necessarily mean that it was spoken by the masses. Also, the fact that the Elephantine Papyri belonging to a Jewish colony in Egypt were written in Aramaic does not prove that it was the chief or common tongue in their homeland, for Aramaic was then an international literary language. Of course, the Christian Greek Scriptures contain a number of Aramaisms, Jesus using some Aramaic words, for instance. However, as Birkeland argues, perhaps Jesus ordinarily spoke the popular Hebrew, while occasionally using Aramaic expressions.
While it may not be provable, as Birkeland contends, that the common people were illiterate as far as Aramaic was concerned, it does seem that when Luke, an educated physician, records that Paul spoke to the Jews ‘in Hebrew’ and when the apostle said the voice from heaven spoke to him ‘in Hebrew,’ a form of Hebrew was actually meant (though perhaps not the ancient Hebrew) and not Aramaic.
Lending further support to the use of a form of Hebrew in Palestine when Jesus Christ was on earth are early indications that the apostle Matthew first wrote his Gospel account in Hebrew. For instance, Eusebius (of the third and fourth centuries C.E.) said that “the evangelist Matthew delivered his Gospel in the Hebrew tongue.” (Patrologia Graeca, Vol. XXII, col. 941) And Jerome (of the fourth and fifth centuries C.E.) stated in his work De viris inlustribus (Concerning Illustrious Men), chapter III: “Matthew, who is also Levi, and who from a publican came to be an apostle, first of all composed a Gospel of Christ in Judaea in the Hebrew language and characters for the benefit of those of the circumcision who had believed. . . . Moreover, the Hebrew itself is preserved to this day in the library at Caesarea, which the martyr Pamphilus so diligently collected.” (Translation from the Latin text edited by E. C. Richardson and published in the series “Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur,” Leipzig, 1896, Vol. 14, pp. 8, 9.) Hence, Jesus Christ as a man on earth could well have used a form of Hebrew and a dialect of Aramaic.