Aramaic in the Old and New Testament

Winding down deeper into the Scriptural ancient scripts trail, one discovers so much more. It often seems like diving deeper and deeper into a bottomless ocean. There is so much knowledge and spirituality to be gained, I often wonder, as to how did I miss making this pleasant journey earlier in my life? It’s happening now all thanks to a microscopic bug labelled Covid. Ironic.

If you have read the previous ancient scripts trail post, then you know that Hebrew is the script for the Tanakh/Old Testament (OT) and Koine Greek for the New Testament (NT). However, it now emerges that considerable portions of the scripture text are written in Aramaic. Well, its just about 1% of the OT, but then that is about 250 verses, and a few of them in the NT too. ( The Gospel of Mark, chapter 5, verse 41 has the Aramaic “Talitha Kumi” or “Little girl, arise” also used as the featured image of this post. )

The Aramaic language was the official language of various empires that attacked and subjugated the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel and Judahʳᵉᶠ. Not surprising then that the books of Daniel and Ezra carry many chapters in Imperial Aramaic*, the lingua franca of the Babylonianᴺᵉᵇᵘ and the Achaemenidᶜʸʳ empires.

I was able to code in Imperial Aramaic to my system, for the pleasure of the interested readers. It has a Unicode block allotted to it, . Daniel chapter 2 verse 4 kicks off the Aramaic portion and it ends with chapter 7. The script reads from right to left.

Daniel 2:4 — Then the Chaldeans spoke to the King in Aramaic – “O King, live forever! Tell the dream to your servants, we will give the interpretation.”

דניאל ב.ד — וידברו הכשדים למלך, ארמית: מלכא לעלמין חיי — אמר חלמא לעבדך ופשרא נחוא

𐡃𐡍𐡉𐡀𐡋 — 𐡅𐡉𐡃𐡁𐡓𐡅 𐡄𐡊𐡔𐡃𐡉𐡌 𐡋𐡌𐡋𐡊 𐡀𐡓𐡌𐡉𐡕 𐡌𐡋𐡊𐡀 𐡋𐡏𐡋𐡌𐡉𐡍 𐡇𐡉𐡉 — 𐡀𐡌𐡓 𐡇𐡋𐡌𐡀 𐡅𐡐𐡔𐡓𐡀 𐡍𐡇𐡅𐡀

Above, you can see the English, then Hebrew and lastly in bold italics, the Imperial Aramaic text. It almost takes me back to the time when Daniel must have stood before an enraged emperor i.e. Nebuchadnezzar, who wanted to tear apart all the magicians, soothsayers and wise men of his kingdom. He wanted them to tell him what his dream was and to interpret his dream. The slaughter was about to begin as no one was willing to do so. That is until Daniel stepped in. Living in faith was never easy.

The NT has far fewer Aramaic portions. The older Imperial Aramaic script had changed to a form closely resembling the Syriac-Aramaicᴾᵉˢʰ script. (The script reads from right to left and has its own Unicode block, allowing me to code it in my system.) It is an established fact that Aramaic was the common language in Israel, during the time of Christ. The Gospel of Mark, chapter 15 verse 34 has Aramaic in it.

Mark 15:34 — At the ninth hour, Jesus cried in a loud voice – “Eloi Eloi lema sabachtani” which is translated as “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”

ܐܠܝ ܐܠܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ

Aramaic in bold italics, above. The Syriac Peshitta NT puts it as ‘Eil Eil Lmana Shwaqthani’. I have rendered it as ‘Eli Eli Lmana Sabaqthani’ᴱˡᶦ, more in line with the traditional rendering. Some of the bystanders of the crucifixion, heard His cry, and misunderstood it as a call to Elijah. ‘Eli’ rhymes partly with ‘Elia’, Aramaic for Elijah.

The Aramaic script fills an important void as far as my understanding of the Scripture goes. It brings into focus the times of Jewish captivity and exile in Babylon and then other empires, then on to the Messiah and His Ministry. The language and the script continued to be used widely in the Middle-East till the 7th century AD. Thereafter, it managed to survive through the centuries in parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Israel and India. Currently, it is the liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox church.

That’s all from me.

Please do check out the references below if you are interested in digging deeper into Aramaic.

References:

ʳᵉᶠ History of ancient Israel and Judah

* Imperial Aramaic

ᴺᵉᵇᵘ Babylonian Kingdom

ᶜʸʳ Achaemenid Empire

ᴾᵉˢʰ Syriac-Aramaic Unicode Peshitta — The Syriac NT

‘ᴱˡᶦ The cry of the Messiah on the Cross — ‘Eli’ translates to ‘My God’, ‘El’ for God and the ‘i’ suffix denotes the genitive case ‘My’; ‘sebaq’ means to forsake, in Aramaic.

The Trail of Ancient Biblical Scripts

Hi there!!

I have been busy on the ancient scripts trail, while studying the Tanakh aka Old Testament and the New Testament. Thanks to the Coronavirus, well not really!

The oldest ‘known’ ancient script ( i.e. backed by ancient artefacts discovered by archaeologists ), which was used by the Hebrews is Paleo-Hebrew *(PH for short) aka the Phoenician* script. Due to the availability of it’s alphabet in Unicodeⁿ, I was able to modify some system files to incorporate it in my operating system. This script was in use from 1000 B.C. to 500 B.C.ⁱⁱ

Another script that was even more ancient and, was the precursor of PH, was the Proto-Sinaitic** (PS for short) script. Unfortunately it is available only as a user font as of now and we cannot use it across the internet. This script was used, from Canaan to Sinai, during the period: 1900 B.C. to 1500 B.C.ⁱⁱ, i.e. from the time of Abraham’s exploits to Joshua’s reign. PS was also the precursor of the ancient Greek script, which led later to the development of Koine Greek.

The relevance of getting to know these ancient scripts lies in the fact that we can ground ourself in the historical basis of the Scripture. Further, we can make out that far from being nonchalant in communication, people in ancient times were constantly trying to better the writing scripts and preserve their history, for later generations.

Let’s kick off by using the PH, PS scripts for Genesis 1:1, ( in Hebrew — בראישת א.א ) , please keep in mind that all these scripts were written in a right to left style.

Latin: In the beginning, God made the Heavens, and the Earth.

Hebrew: בראשית, ברא אלהים, את השמים, ואת הארץ

PH: 𐤁𐤓𐤀𐤉𐤔𐤕, 𐤁𐤓𐤀 𐤀𐤋𐤄𐤉𐤌 𐤀𐤕 𐤄𐤔𐤌𐤉𐤌, 𐤅𐤀𐤕 𐤄𐤀𐤓𐤑

Rendering of Genesis 1:1 in PH Image form , top row and in PS script, bottom row.

As seen in the image above, the Paleo-Hebrew (PH) script had evolved from the Proto-Sinaitic (PS) one and this is brought about by the images of the PH script, which is the basis of the PH text. *The PH images and text alphabet chart is available in the resources link section at the end of this post.

Consider the first word in Genesis 1:1⁰: B’reishit or נראשית, it means ‘At first’ or as translated in English ‘In the beginning’. The key alphabet here is ‘ר’ or Resh, in Hebrew. Resh means the head, and since it was/is considered the prominent part of the body it also means authority and being first. Now the PS script clearly brings out the ‘head’ part with their pictographical alphabet Ra’š, that of a human head.

The Hebrew alphabet Resh, starting off from the PS ‘head’ at the bottom row, ( presented prominently on the right part of the image above ) and its iterations through PH 𐤓 , and finally to its current form of Hebrew ר , on the top row.

Digging deeper we find the Hebrew alphabet chain starts at א, or aleph, this is a variation of an ox head pictograph which was used in the PS script. The ancients regarded power to be represented by an ox head. I am assuming that this is because most of them were agriculturalists and knew the importance of cattle. Aleph thus represents strength and leadership, even in the current Hebrew alphabet system. The PH script comes close to representing Aleph as an ox head 𐤀 , but the PS script takes the cake with the image of its first alphabet, below:

The alphabet Alp in PS script also known as aleph in later PH and Hebrew scripts, it matches almost perfectly with an ox head.

Moving on to Koine Greek we have Christ Himself describing Himself as the Alpha Α and Omega Ω, in the New Testament. Alpha starts the Koine Greek alphabet chain and Omega is the last alphabet in the chain. Thus Christ is the Absolute Power as both the Head and the End of All Creation. This will be the subject of another post delving into how the PS script morphed on to the Phoenician aka PH script and then created the ancient Greek writing system. Koine Greek and the modern Greek script are the children of the PS script.

I could go an and on but this post will almost certainly turn into a thick novel, so its time to conclude by saying that if you find the PS, PH and Phoenician scripts mention confusing, don’t blame me. It all happened at the tower of Babel, and we are all just wading in the aftermath. I would also like to point out that this is no way an exhaustive description of ancient Biblical scripts, interested readers may delve deeper by using resources mentioned below just to start on this trail.

Resources:

*Paleo-Hebrew/Phoenician: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleo-Hebrew_alphabet This page contains the PH Image and text chart. Remember PH is the abbreviation for Paleo-Hebrew.

ⁿUnicode: https://home.unicode.org

**https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Sinaitic_script Please remember that PS is the abbreviation for Proto-Sinaitic script. The font is by Kris J. Udd, copyright information of his fonts is available online.

ⁱⁱTime periods are approximate, as are the timelines of the Biblical patriarchs.

https://biblehub.com/interlinear/genesis/1-1.htm Note: I did not use the nikkud marks because these were not used in ancient Hebrew scripts. Nikkuds are vowel marks, and vowel pronunciations were left to the reader, who were quite aware of the consonant-vowel word play.