The Importance of Aramaic for Biblical Studies

Most everyone learns Hebrew in seminary (or at least is introduced to Hebrew, technically I wouldn’t call knowing enough to look up words in BDB or double-clicking your computer program “learning” Hebrew, but that’s a discussion for another day…), but few of us learn Aramaic. This despite the fact that there actually is some Aramaic in the Bible (albeit a very small percentage). I guess nobody is expected to preach from Daniel or Ezra? I know, when exactly would seminarians find time to study Aramaic as well, when they hardly learned Hebrew?

I didn’t formally study any Aramaic in seminary either, but during my three years at HUC I have begun to appreciate its importance for both Hebrew linguistics and Biblical Studies (you probably have noticed an Aramaic bent to my blog over the last months as I study for comps). This is most likely due to the fact that my adviser is an expert in Aramaic, but the more I study the harder it is to ignore its importance.

For instance, the way various standard literary dialects of Aramaic have developed with a mix of features of other dialects provide insight into the issues of chronology and typology in biblical Hebrew that I have been posting about. In fact, in his paper, “Contributions of Aramaic Studies to Hebrew Philology” in the IOSOT congress volume (Basel, 2001), Dr Kaufman says:

Indeed I would venture to claim that the scholar who attempts to master the intricacies of Biblical Hebrew dialectology without more than a passing acquaintance with Aramaic dialectology of those periods does so at his or her peril (pp 50-51).

Read the rest of that paper for other important contributions of Aramaic. For my part, I am beginning to try and compile some of these features for myself, and I will try and make my summaries and synthesis available in a new essay series. I will begin with an introduction to Aramaic, and shortly I hope to have finished a summary of the Old Aramaic dialects. As always, I appreciate any comments or suggestions anyone has.

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7 Comments on “The Importance of Aramaic for Biblical Studies”

  1. Where is a good place to start in the study of Aramaic if you have a decent grasp of Biblical Hebrew?

  2. Peter Bekins Says:

    I would start with Biblical Aramaic. Eric Raymond, a lecturer at Michigan, has a nice website If you would prefer to buy a grammar, Rosenthal’s A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic 7th Edition. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2006 is a classic, or you may try Greenspahn’s An Introduction to Aramaic. 2nd Edition. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. HALOT and BDB include Biblical Aramaic so you shouldn’t need a lexicon.

    You can also use the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon on-line. Here is the text-browse page. Select Biblical Aramaic, then select which text you would like to read. Select a chapter, and it will be displayed with each verse separated. Click on a verse number to see a list of each word in that verse along with its dictionary entry. After familiarizing yourself with the basics, I would just start reading in Ezra 4:8-6:18. Hope this helps.

  3. Jay Says:

    Looking forward to the series, Pete. Aramaic’s not my cup of Semitic קפה, but it too often gets overlooked, even by Semiticists, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that seminarians who rarely care for the languages (and many who do seem to think Greek is the most important) wouldn’t consider a language that only appears in four books of the HB . . .

  4. Helps a lot. Thank you.

  5. […] Biblical Aramaic at GCTS is that we are able to take a course in it at all. As Peter Bekins has pointed out (his post was actually the inspiration for this one), many seminaries do not offer Aramaic, and if […]

  6. […] So, what does all of that mean? Nothing of any consequence, except to point out yet again that translating the Bible is a difficult and imprecise task. On the other hand, simply reading the Hebrew is a fun, energizing, and too often overlooked leisure time activity. Discussions regarding how a passage should be translated, and whether proper English or Hebrew word order should be favored would be rendered completely moot if everyone would simply learn Hebrew and Greek (and I suppose, to be fair, Aramaic needs to be added to that list, as Peter Bekins has pointed out). […]

  7. Kenny McManus Says:

    I think that a basic break down of the emotions attached to Aramaic would make it more interesting… we know a bit about the history but the details of how the speaker or reader attached very specific emotions to the words would be exciting to learn.
    In English those emotions are lost with words like love… but in the ancient language the description of YHVH love for us would be a lot different than God loved the world… hope it inspires you to maybe disclose that.

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