The Importance of Biblical Aramaic
by Rev. Dr. Andrew Steinmann,
Distinguished Professor of Theology and Hebrew,
Concordia University Chicago
When the kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians in 587 BC, a new era began for the ancient people of God. During the Babylonian captivity, the language of the western reaches of the empire was Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew. Aramaic is named after the ancient Aramean kingdom that was centered in Damascus in modern Syria. By the time of the Babylonian empire, it had become the international language in the Ancient Near East, and several Old Testament books from that era contain portions in Aramaic (Jer 10:11; Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26; Dan 2:4b–7:28).
Aramaic has a long history (the first Aramaic in the Bible are two words by Laban—Gen 31:47), and continued to be a major language into the New Testament era and beyond. When the New Testament records the actual words of Jesus, it does so in Aramaic, the native language of Jews in Galilee in Jesus’ day (Matt 27:33, 46; Mark 15:22, 34; 5:41; 14:36; John 19:17) and the language of prayer for many in the early church (e.g., “Abba” Mark 14:36; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6; or “Maranatha” 1 Cor 16:22; Rev 22:20). Today, neo-Aramaic, a modern dialect, is still spoken in a few small villages in Lebanon, but it may not survive as an active language much longer.
So why should our pastors study Aramaic?
First of all, like the other biblical languages—Hebrew and Greek—God chose to inspire portions of His Word in this language. Though we have translated the Bible into modern languages, no translation can completely capture the exact nuances and turns of phrases in its source language. Thus, for much the same reason that scholars of French literature must read French or Luther scholars must be able to read German, we need pastors who can read and understand God’s Word at its most basic level. But God’s Word is more important than French literature or even the writings of Luther. When a question arises concerning the exact details of what God says to us in the prophet Daniel or the book of Ezra, the Church needs those who can read the actual inspired text.
In the past, great heresies have come from misunderstanding what many considered to be “details” in the text of the Scriptures. Without access to the biblical languages, including Aramaic, the Church cannot expose such errors. Thus, for the sake of maintaining the pure teaching of God’s Word, both His Law and the Holy Gospel, we need to be able to return to what the text actually says, not what may appear to be said in a translation.
In addition, Aramaic is important for understanding the background of the latter books of the Old Testament and even much of the New Testament. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Aramaic, and much later Jewish literature, as well as some early Christian literature, was written in Aramaic. Access to these texts in the original Aramaic language help us understand the cultural setting of much of the Bible, and therefore, help us understand God’s Word with a deeper appreciation for its message.
Therefore, although Aramaic may be the least of the biblical languages, it still retains importance for God’s people today.
Would you like to learn more? Dr. Steinmann has created free resources to help aid your study of Aramaic. Click the “Samples” tab to view and download.
Ready to dig deeper? Try Intermediate Biblical Hebrew, which takes you into thoughtful reading and deeper study of the biblical text.