Hebrew and Aramaic

In the period between the writing of the Old and New Testaments HEBREW was replaced as the everyday language of the Jews by Aramaic. But the rabbis continued to use Hebrew in their learned deliberations, as we see from the Mishnah, the book of law written in that language. The majority of the Essene sect documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Hebrew. When the actual words spoken are quoted in the New Testament they are often Aramaic, not Hebrew.

ARAMAIC is a Semitic language, originally used by the Aramaeans of Syria, which became widespread throughout the Near East as an international language. Because its alphabet was easier to use than the cumbersome cuneiform scripts used by the Assyrians and the Persians, they adopted it for diplomacy and commerce.

IMPERIAL ARAMAIC (700-200 BC) was quite uniform and is found on inscriptions from as far away as Anatolia and Afghanistan. Some passages in the Old Testament books of Ezra and of Daniel are written in this dialect. Other periods and dialects included:

MIDDLE ARAMAIC (200 BC-AD 200). After Alexander the Great had conquered the Near East and Greek had spread widely, various local dialects of Aramaic developed. From this period comes the Aramaic of the New Testament, of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the Bar Cochba texts, of the Nabateans and of the Palmyreneans.

LATE ARAMAIC (AD 200-700). In this era the western branch of Aramaic included Samaritan, and Christian Palestinian Aramaic; the eastern branch included Syriac, Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic and Mandaic. When Jesus cried out on the cross 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani), He was speaking Aramaic. Many words in the New Testament are transliterations from the Aramaic. Peter's name Cephas is from 'kepha' (rock); Thomas is from 'toma' (twin). 'Bar' the Aramaic word for (son) occurs in such names as Bartholomew, Bar- Jonas, Barabbas and Bartimaeus. (The Hebrew word for son is 'ben' ). Golgotha is from 'golgolta' (skull); and Maranatha comes from 'maran' (our Lord) and 'eta' (come).

Apart from some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Bar-Cochba texts, only one extensive writing in Aramaic survives from Palestine in the New Testament period - the 'Megillat Tacanit' (The Scroll of Fasting). Almost all other Aramaic texts surviving are short inscriptions on the limestone boxes used for the deposit of the bones of the dead (ossuaries) dating from 100 BC to 70 AD. Of the twenty-nine inscribed ossuaries recovered on the Mount of Olives by one archaeologist, eleven were in Aramaic, seven in Hebrew and eleven in Greek.

Some time after the exile of the Jews to Babylon, Aramaic translations and paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures, called TARGUMS, were made for those who understood Aramaic better than Hebrew. We have targums for all the Old Testament books except Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. The earliest extant targums are from Qumran on the Dead Sea. An extensive targum on portions of Job came from one cave and dates from 150-100 BC

The major- targum of the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, is known as Onkelos. It is quite a literal translation of the Hebrew and seems to have originated in Palestine, but was Later edited in Babylonia between the second and fifth centuries AD. The major targum of the books of the prophets is known as Jonathan. It was modeled on Onkelos, but is a less literal translation.