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.


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.