Biblical Aramaic

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Biblical Aramaic is the form of the Aramaic language that is used in the books of Daniel, Ezra and a few other places in the Hebrew Bible. See the article on the Aramaic of Jesus for the use of the language in the New Testament.

Aramaic and Hebrew

Hebrew is the main language of the Hebrew Bible. Aramaic only accounts for a very small proportion of the whole. Biblical Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew (perhaps a bit like Spanish and Italian), and they are written with the same alphabet.

During the eighth century BCE, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Near East. Before that period, it had been the native language of the Aramaean city-states to the east. In 701 BCE, King Hezekiah of Judah negotiated with King Sennacherib of Assyria, as his army besieged Jerusalem. The account in 2 Kings 18:26 sets the meeting of the ambassadors of both camps just outside the city walls. Hezekiah's envoys pleaded that the Assyrians make terms in Aramaic so that the people listening could not understand. Thus, Aramaic had become the language of international dialogue, but not of the common people. In 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and exiled many of the people of Judah to the east. Aramaic became the language of necessity for the exiles, and after the Persian Empire's capture of Babylon, it became the language of culture and learning. King Darius I declared that Aramaic was to be the official language of the western half of his empire in 500 BCE, and it is this Imperial Aramaic language that forms the basis of Biblical Aramaic.

Occurrence of Aramaic in the Hebrew Bible

Aramaic occurs in four discrete places in the Hebrew Bible:

  • Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26 — documents from the 4th century BCE concerning the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem.
  • Daniel 2:4b–7:28 — five subversive tales and an apocalyptic vision.
  • Jeremiah 10:11 — a single sentence in the middle of a Hebrew text denouncing idolatry.
  • Genesis 31:47 — translation of a Hebrew place-name.
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