Why learn Aramaic?
Who spoke Aramaic?
The short answer: just about everyone in the ancient world.
Aramaic was the lingua franca in the Ancient Near East for more than two thousand years. It was first spoken by the Arameans around 1,200 B.C. Then, when the Assyrians conquered the Arameans and brought them into captivity, they brought their language with them. From that point on, Aramaic replaced Akkadian as the language of commerce and government in Assyria and beyond.
After the collapse of the Assyrian empire, the Babylonians and Persians inherited the language. With each successive empire, Aramaic was exported throughout conquered territories and people groups.
As the economic and cultural influence of the empires spread, so did Aramaic, slowly replacing local languages in the subjugated territories.
This shift took place in Palestine beginning in the sixth century B.C. Although official business in Palestine was still conducted in Hebrew, most people began speaking Aramaic. This is why some of the newer texts from the Old Testament are written in Aramaic. Jesus and his disciples likely spoke Aramaic as well. (The Hebrew language saw a resurgence after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.)
After the time of Jesus, Aramaic was widely spoken in the Middle East for several hundred years. It wasn’t until the rise of Islam in the seventh century that Aramaic finally ceased to be the dominant language in the region. By that time, it had morphed into numerous dialects and distinct languages.
Today, Aramaic is still spoken in a few communities in modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. There are also small pockets of Aramaic speakers who have immigrated to Australia, Sweden, and Turlock, California.
If you consider that texts of early English are virtually unrecognizable to modern speakers (for example, try reading lines 22 and 23 from Beowulf, written in English roughly a thousand years ago : “þæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen / wilgesiþas, þonne wig cume”), the longevity and importance of Aramaic in the ancient world is astounding. For two thousand years, it outlasted armies and emperors.
To be economically and socially connected in the ancient world was to know Aramaic.
Where is Aramaic found in the Bible?
For Christians and Jews, key Aramaic texts include portions of the Talmud and the Targums, as well as the Peshitta—the Aramaic translations of the New Testament, which remain important to scholars today for the value in historical and textual criticism.
But there are also two lesser-known instances of Aramaic in the Old Testament outside Daniel and Ezra:
- Genesis 31:46–47 reads: “He said to his relatives, ‘Gather some stones.’ So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed.” The place name Jegar Sahadutha is an Aramaic word.
- Jeremiah 10:11 contains an Aramaic sentence found in the middle of a Hebrew text: “Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.’”
In total, 269 verses in the Old Testament are translated from Aramaic or include Aramaic words in the original. This constitutes less than 2% of the entire Old Testament.
This may not sound like much.
However, consider that 269 verses are equivalent to:
- all of Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Psalm 1 in the Old Testament, or
- all of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
You would not want to be without the required skills to faithfully interpret these portions of the biblical text.
It’s true, two percent may not seem like a big deal. But if your goal is to work with the original languages of Scripture, and if you take the view that every word of Scripture is important, then missing two percent of the Old Testament leaves a big gap in your understanding.
Your ability to work with the original languages of the Bible is incomplete without Aramaic.
Learning Greek and Hebrew is important.
How to learn Aramaic
The best way to learn Aramaic is to sign up for the new Basics of Biblical Aramaic online course, taught by Miles Van Pelt. This is a full, graduate-level online course adapted from Dr. Van Pelt’s teaching experience and from the Basics of Biblical Aramaic grammar.
Here are four reasons why the Basics of Biblical Aramaic online course is the best way to learn Aramaic:
- You’ll learn from a seasoned teacher and scholar. The course is structured in a way to set you up for success. Dr. Van Pelt has taught this course for several years to students of all ages and abilities. He understands the challenges you’ll face, so the course follows a straightforward pattern. You’ll grasp each concept before you move on to the next one.
- You can work at your own pace. This is a self-paced online course, so you can pause and rewind videos to ensure you’ve heard and understood the lectures. Take as long as you need to work through the exercises. And do the readings at whatever pace helps you learn best.
- You’ll get access to the digital textbook. The digital textbook is included in the course, which means you don’t need to worry about switching between lectures, readings, and exercises. Every component of the learning experience is integrated together in an easy-to-use, intuitive platform.
- You’ll be able to read the Aramaic text of Scripture. We’ll walk you through everything, step-by-step, starting with setting up your keyboard and learning the alphabet, all the way to translating Scripture from Aramaic into English at the end of the course.
When you sign up, you’ll be on your way toward working with the Aramaic texts of the Bible. Sign up today!
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