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Language Studies

Aramaic Thoughts

Aramaic and the Old Testament - Part 1

Apart from two short passages, (Genesis 31:47 and Jeremiah 10:11) Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; and Daniel 2:4-7:28 are the portions of the Old Testament that are written in Aramaic. The rationale for the two sections of Ezra that are in Aramaic is easy to determine. These are the passages that deal with official correspondence regarding the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem under the auspices of Darius and Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:8; 5:6) and the mission of Ezra under the auspices of King Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:11). It is the form of Aramaic that Fitzmyer calls "Official Aramaic" and is found throughout the period roughly from 700 to 200 BC. As such, this phase of the language is attested in Egypt, Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, and the Indus Valley. There is some local variation, but not much, and the general character of the language is consistent throughout this incredibly broad area.

The large section of Daniel that is written in Aramaic, on the other hand, is certainly a puzzle. Fitzmyer considers the Aramaic of Daniel to fall into the category of Official Aramaic, rather than the next phase of the language—Middle Aramaic, which extends from roughly 200 BC to AD 200. Since many of documents the from Qumran and Murabba’at and related finds are in Aramaic, there is sufficient data to conclude that the latter are indeed from a different period of the language than is the Aramaic of Daniel. The recent commentary by John Goldingay (Word Biblical Commentary, 1987) agrees with this assessment: "The Aramaic of the book (2:4b-7:28) is a form of Imperial Aramaic, the international language of the Middle East through much of OT times. It contains a fair number of Akkadian and Persian words and in chap. 3 three Greek ones, and matches the stories’ setting in the eastern dispersion. It is distinguishable from the later Aramaic of Qumran but might be dated anywhere between the late sixth and early second centuries BC (p. xxv)."

The curiosity about this date for the language is that it actually fits better the period that it claims to represent (the sixth century BC) than it does the period in which most scholars think the book originated: roughly 170-160 BC. From the latter date, the reader would expect a style of Aramaic more closely akin to the Aramaic of Qumran.

The essential mystery of the Aramaic of Daniel is, however, the why of it. Why is the book partly in Hebrew and partly in Aramaic? The fact of the matter is that no one is entirely sure, and most recent commentaries on the book have ceased even to speculate about it. Goldingay (cited above) gives no discussion of the issue, nor does the even more recent commentary by Ernest Lucas (Apollos Old Testament Commentary, IVP, 2002). Plunging in where angels fear to tread, we will attempt, in this and the next column to propose some possibilities and lean in the direction of a conclusion on the basis of an examination of the book itself. To this end, a brief statement of the content of the book is in order. Chapter one briefly recounts the rise of Daniel and his three friends to positions of responsibility in the bureaucracy of the Babylonian empire after having been taken into captivity in approximately 605 BC. Chapter two tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay, and the dream’s interpretation by Daniel. Chapter three is the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s great idol, and the attempted execution of Daniel’s three friends due to their failure to worship the great statue.

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