Aramaic Starter Kit

Aramaic, the neglected biblical language.

Aramaic is the third language (after Hebrew and Greek) in which portions of the Bible were originally written.  Genesis 31:47, Jeremiah 10:11, Daniel 2:4b–7:28, and Ezra 4:8–6:28, 7:12–26 are composed in Aramaic, accounting for about 268 total verses in the OT. Given that the total corpus is somewhat small (only about 1% of the OT by verse count), the language is infrequently taught at the seminary level. However, the language is hugely important historically, as it was the lingua franca (common language) of much of the Jewish and early Christian world. In fact, it is considered firmly established that Jesus’ primary spoken language was Aramaic, which is partly evidenced by several words in the Greek NT that are transliterations of Aramaic words.

Aramaic is also important in that some of the earliest translations of the OT other than the Septuagint are the Aramaic Targums as well as the Peshitta (in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic). It is possible that some written or oral Aramaic traditions were in use in the first century synagogues and perhaps even familiar to the NT authors. Indeed, there are good arguments to be made that some of the source materials used by the gospel writers were originally in Aramaic.

Hence, it is an important language. It looks and smells a lot like Hebrew, and it shares a lot of vocabulary, but it has vast differences as well.  I’ve been working on acquiring the language over the past year or so, and in my opinion it is a bit tougher than Hebrew when it comes to grammar and syntax. It lacks any real predictability in terms of word order (compared to the normal verb-subject-object pattern of most of Hebrew prose).[1] This flexibility can make it difficult to understand what you’re reading. However, it is rewarding to learn, not only to be able to deal with large portions of Daniel and Ezra in the original languages but also to make use of the targums and other Jewish literature.

I have found a general lack of helpful resources for Hebrew online, so I wanted to provide a “starter kit” much like I did for German and French.

(1) Background

I’ve been using “Aramaic” as if it were a single, monolithic language. In fact, there are numerous dialects spanning almost a millennium of usage (more, actually, given that there are still some small people groups who speak the language). For an overview of the various dialects, visit the following:

(2) Vocabulary

Perhaps even more than Hebrew, Aramaic is a lexically driven language. Vocabulary acquisition is hugely important. Unfortunately, I’m aware of  few vocabulary resources out there other than this somewhat dated print book.

I compiled a list of all lemmas found in two different groups of Aramaic writings (which happen to be most interesting to me): the biblical passages listed above, and the primary targums (Onkelos, Neofiti, Jonathan, Ps-Jonathan). This is a huge set of vocabulary, but when sorted by frequency things become more manageable. Unfortunately I’m unaware of a way to weed out the Hebrew words from this list, but as I’ve studied I’ve found that having everything mixed together is helpful, as it forces me to review Hebrew. Moreover, even if a root is shared with Hebrew, it is almost always vocalized differently in Aramaic and can even change root letters (e.g., shin often changes to tav). Hence it is not necessarily a bad thing to have a mixed list.

The following Excel spreadsheet contains three tabs: one containing the biblical words, one containing the words from the targums, and one containing a mixed list. Note that targumic Aramaic can be quite different than biblical Aramaic in places, but the vocab set is still helpful.

Note: You will need the Yehudit font (provided by Accordance) to display the Aramaic words. If you do not have that font, you can resort to this PDF, which is less user friendly but at least usable.

(3) Grammar Textbooks

downloadFor students coming from a seminary or bible college background who have at least 2 semesters of biblical Hebrew, the gold standard textbook is Basics of Biblical Aramaic, by Miles Van Pelt (Professor of Old Testament at RTS Jackson). It is simply fantastic and covers all the basics of the language. I can’t say enough good things about it.

download (1)As a secondary resource that can serve more as a refresher or “scholarly” grammar, Franz Rosenthal’s A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic is probably the go-to. It is short, incredibly dense, and assumes a lot of prior knowledge on behalf of the reader. The frequent use of transliterations (even for the names of stems), while technically more accurate, makes it a pain to read. Nevertheless, it is a valuable companion to have beside Van Pelt.

Both books are in the $30 range and are worth the price of admission, but if you are also looking for something on the cheap/free end of the spectrum, I have recently come across these online tutorials by Eric Reymond. I have not used them personally, but they may be a good place to start.

(4) Parsing

Aramaic verb parsing is quite a bit different than Hebrew, but unfortunately I have yet to come across a handy parsing reference guide. All three of the above books, however, come loaded with paradigms. See in particular lessons 6 and 7 in Reymond’s tutorial for basic parsing discussions.

(5) Reading

The most important thing one can do is actually to begin reading Aramaic. I have yet to find any helpful reading tools online, but here is a starter: Daniel/Ezra in Aramaic (with ESV side-by-side) and Targum Onkelos Genesis 1–15.

Zondervan’s Reader’s Hebrew Bible would normally be a good tool as well, but it is somewhat deficient for the Aramaic portions. The BHS Reader’s Edition is an improvement here.

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1. For those who know Hebrew, I would use the analogy that reading Aramaic is a bit like reading Hebrew reported speech, wherein all the grammatical rules fall by the wayside. Only everything in Aramaic is like that. Good luck!

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2 thoughts on “Aramaic Starter Kit”

    1. Thanks, Steve. Good point. I’m still trying to get my head around all the different dialects, so this is helpful. Thanks also for the link to your site. It looks like good stuff.
      Greg

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