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Home > Weekly Columns > Aramaic Thoughts

Aramaic Thoughts
Week of October 25 - 31, 2020


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Author Bio
Dr. Shaw was born and raised in New Mexico. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico in 1977, the M. Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1980, and the Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1981, with an emphasis in biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament and Targumic Aramaic, as well as Ugaritic).

He did two year of doctoral-level course work in Semitic languages (Akkadian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Middle Egyptian, and Syriac) at Duke University. He received the Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University in 2005.

Since 1991, he has taught Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a school which serves primarily the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he holds the rank of Associate Professor.

An Introduction to an ancient language:

Aramaic is one of the three languages used in writing the original texts of the Bible. It does not occur in the New Testament, which was composed entirely in Greek. However, some scholars are of the opinion that the Gospel According to Matthew may have originally been composed in Aramaic then translated later into Greek. While this is certainly possible, there is no way of proving it, since no manuscripts of Matthew in Aramaic currently exist.

In the Old Testament, several passages, or parts of passages, are in Aramaic. The shortest of these is Genesis 31:47, in which occurs two Aramaic words. In the passage, Laban and Jacob have made a covenant, confirmed by a heap of stones. Laban gives it the Aramaic name Jegar-sahadutha, while Jacob gives it the Hebrew name Galeed. Both names mean “heap of witness.” Jeremiah 10:11 is in Aramaic, the answer given to the Jews to give to those who would tempt them to idolatry. The other passages are Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; and Daniel 2:4-7:28. The rationale for the Ezra passages being in Aramaic is obvious, though I intend to come back and say more about these passages in a later note. The rationale for the central chapters of Daniel being in Aramaic has always been a subject of debate, and a definitive explanation is unlikely.

Apart from the texts of the Bible composed in Aramaic, other material in Aramaic remains from the ancient world. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls material is in Aramaic. The Targums, translations/paraphrases of the Old Testament books are in Aramaic. Some of the rabbinic material from the Christian era is also in Aramaic. In addition, the Peshitta, an ancient version of the Scriptures, is in Syriac, which is a late dialect of Aramaic. All of these will be discussed in more detail in later notes.

It is usual to consider Aramaic in five stages, or phases. The first of these is Old Aramaic, which includes inscriptions on stone and pottery, down to about 700 BC. These materials have been found in Northern Syria, Upper Mesopotamia, and northern Palestine. The second stage is Official Aramaic, lasting from approximately 700 to 200 BC. In this period, Aramaic was the official language of the Babylonian and Persian empires, as well as that of the eastern portion of the Greek world after the time of Alexander the Great. The Biblical material from Daniel and Ezra comes from this period. From 200 BC to AD 200 is the period of Middle Aramaic. During this phase, Aramaic begins to develop local dialectical differences. The fourth period of Aramaic is Late Aramaic, from approximately AD 200 to 700. The development of the Syriac dialects of Aramaic dates from this period. Finally, Modern Aramaic is still spoken in various regions of the Middle East.

It may be that you readers already know much of this material. If so, I apologize for the repetition, but for those who don’t, it is good to lay a solid foundation before moving on to more detailed treatments of Aramaic words and texts. For those with an interest in further reading, I would suggest Joseph Fitzmyer’s A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (Scholar’s Press, 1979), as well as the essays on Aramaic in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 1988) and the Anchor Bible Dictionary (Random House, 1992). The Fitzmyer work has also been reprinted in The Semitic Background of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1997).

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