Old Aramaic (code: oar) refers to the earliest stage of the Aramaic
language, considered to give way to
Middle Aramaic by the 3rd century
(a conventional date is the rise of the
Sasanian Empire in 224 CE).
Emerging as the language of the city-states of the
Arameans in the
Levant in the Early Iron Age, Old Aramaic was adopted as a lingua
franca (besides the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian) in the Neo-Assyrian
Empire, and in this role was inherited for official use by the
Achaemenid Empire during classical antiquity. After the fall of the
Achaemenid Empire, local vernaculars became increasingly prominent,
fanning the divergence of an Aramaic dialect continuum and the
development of differing written standards.
1 Ancient Aramaic
2 Imperial Aramaic
3 Post-Achaemenid Aramaic
4 Late Old Eastern Aramaic
5 Late Old Western Aramaic
"Ancient Aramaic" refers to the earliest known period of the language,
from its origin until it becomes the lingua franca of the Fertile
Crescent and Bahrain. It was the language of the Aramaean city-states
of Damascus, Hamath and Arpad.
Silver ingot of Bar-Rakib, son of Panammuwa II, King of Sam‘al
(now called Zincirli Höyük).
There are inscriptions that evidence the earliest use of the language,
dating from the 10th century BCE. The inscriptions are mostly
diplomatic documents between Aramaean city-states. The alphabet of
Aramaic then seems to be based on the Phoenician alphabet, and there
is a unity in the written language. It seems that in time, a more
refined alphabet, suited to the needs of the language, began to
develop from this in the eastern regions of Aram. The dominance of the
Neo-Assyrian Empire under
Tiglath-Pileser III over Aram-
the middle of the 8th century led to the establishment of Aramaic as a
lingua franca of the empire, rather than it being eclipsed by
Akkadian. Distinctive royal inscriptions at
Sam'al have led to some
scholars suggesting a distinctive "Sam'alian" or "Ya'udic" variant of
From 700 BCE, the language began to spread in all directions but lost
much of its homogeneity. Different dialects emerged in Assyria,
Levant and Egypt. However, the Akkadian-influenced
Aramaic of Assyria, and then Babylon, started to come to the fore. As
described in 2 Kings 18:26, Hezekiah, king of Judah, negotiates with
Assyrian ambassadors in Aramaic so that the common people would not
understand. Around 600 BCE, Adon, a Canaanite king, used Aramaic to
write to the Egyptian Pharaoh.
"Chaldee" or "Chaldean Aramaic" used to be common terms for the
Aramaic of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. It was used to describe Biblical
Aramaic, which was, however, written in a later style. It is not to be
confused with the modern language Chaldean Neo-Aramaic.
The first old Aramaic inscription to be found in Europe was the
Carpentras stele, published by Rigord in 1704.
Ancient Near East
After 539 BC, following the Achaemenid conquest of
Darius I, the Achaemenids adopted the local use of Aramaic.
When the Achaemenids extended their rule westward, they adopted this
language as the vehicle for written communication between the various
regions of the vast empire with its different peoples and languages.
The use of a single official language, which modern scholarship has
dubbed Official Aramaic or Imperial Aramaic, can be assumed to have
greatly contributed to the astonishing success of the Achaemenids in
holding their far-flung empire together for as long as they did.
In 1955, Richard Frye questioned the classification of Imperial
Aramaic as an "official language", noting that no surviving edict
expressly and unambiguously accorded that status to any particular
language. Frye reclassifies Imperial Aramaic as the lingua franca
of Achaemenid territories, suggesting then that the Achaemenid-era use
of Aramaic was more pervasive than generally thought.
Imperial Aramaic was highly standardised; its orthography was based
more on historical roots than any spoken dialect, and the inevitable
influence of Persian gave the language a new clarity and robust
flexibility. For centuries after the fall of the
Achaemenid Empire (in
331 BCE), Imperial Aramaic or a similar dialect would remain an
influence on the various native Iranian languages. Aramaic script and,
as ideograms, Aramaic vocabulary would survive as the essential
characteristics of the Pahlavi scripts.
One of the largest collections of Imperial Aramaic texts is that of
Persepolis fortification tablets, which number about five
hundred. Many of the extant documents witnessing to this form of
Aramaic come from Egypt,
Elephantine in particular (see: Elephantine
papyri). Of them, the best known is the Wisdom of Ahiqar, a book of
instructive aphorisms quite similar in style to the biblical Book of
Achaemenid Aramaic is sufficiently uniform that it is often difficult
to know where any particular example of the language was written. Only
careful examination reveals the occasional loanword from a local
A group of thirty Aramaic documents from
Bactria has been discovered,
and an analysis was published in November 2006. The texts, which were
rendered on leather, reflect the use of Aramaic in the 4th century BC
Achaemenid administration of
Bactria and Sogdia.
Old Aramaic and
Biblical Hebrew both form part of the group of
Northwest Semitic languages, and during antiquity, there may still
have been substantial mutual intelligibility. In the Pesahim, Tractate
87b, Hanina bar
Hama said that God sent the exiled Jews to Babylon
because "[the Babylonian] language is akin to the Leshon Hakodesh".
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great bearing an
Aramaic language inscription
Bilingual inscription (Greek and Aramaic) by Ashoka, 3rd century BC at
The conquest by
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great did not destroy the unity of
Aramaic language and literature immediately. Aramaic that bears a
relatively close resemblance to that of the 5th century BC can be
found right up to the early 2nd century BCE. The Seleucids imposed
Greek in the administration of
Mesopotamia from the start of
their rule. In the 3rd century BCE, Greek overtook Aramaic as the
common language in
Egypt and Syria. However, a post-Achaemenid Aramaic
continued to flourish from Judaea, Assyria, Mesopotamia, through the
Syrian Desert and into northern Arabia and Parthia.
Biblical Aramaic is the term for the Aramaic passages interspersed in
the Hebrew Bible. These passages make for a small fraction of the
entire text (of the order of 1%), and most of it is due to the Aramaic
parts of the Book of Daniel:
Genesis 31:47 – translation of a Hebrew place-name.
Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26 – documents from the Achaemenid
period (5th century BCE) concerning the restoration of the temple in
Jeremiah 10:11 – a single sentence in the middle of a Hebrew
text denouncing idolatry.
Daniel 2:4b–7:28 – five subversive tales and an apocalyptic
Biblical Aramaic is a somewhat hybrid dialect. It is theorized that
Biblical Aramaic material originated in both
Babylonia and Judaea
before the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty. According to historical
criticism, defiant Jewish propaganda shaped the Aramaic Book of Daniel
during Seleucid rule. These stories might have existed as oral
traditions at their earliest stage. This might be one factor that led
to differing collections of Daniel in the Greek
Septuagint and the
Masoretic Text, which presents a lightly Hebrew-influenced Aramaic.
Under the category of post-Achaemenid is Hasmonaean Aramaic, the
official language of the
Hasmonean dynasty of Judaea (142–37 BCE).
It influenced the
Biblical Aramaic of the
Qumran texts, and was the
main language of non-biblical theological texts of that community. The
major Targums, translations of the
Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, were
originally composed in Hasmonaean. Hasmonaean also appears in
quotations in the
Mishnah and Tosefta, although smoothed into its
later context. It is written quite differently from Achaemenid
Aramaic; there is an emphasis on writing as words are pronounced
rather than using etymological forms.
Babylonian Targumic is the later post-Achaemenid dialect found in the
Targum Onqelos and
Targum Jonathan, the "official" targums. The
original, Hasmonaean targums had reached
Babylon sometime in the 2nd
or 3rd century CE. They were then reworked according to the
contemporary dialect of
Babylon to create the language of the standard
targums. This combination formed the basis of Babylonian Jewish
literature for centuries to follow.
Galilean Targumic is similar to Babylonian Targumic. It is the mixing
of literary Hasmonaean with the dialect of Galilee. The Hasmonaean
Galilee in the 2nd century, and were reworked into
this Galilean dialect for local use. The Galilean
Targum was not
considered an authoritative work by other communities, and documentary
evidence shows that its text was amended. From the 11th century
onwards, once the Babylonian
Targum had become normative, the Galilean
version became heavily influenced by it.
Babylonian Documentary Aramaic is a dialect in use from the 3rd
century onwards. It is the dialect of Babylonian private documents,
and, from the 12th century, all Jewish private documents are in
Aramaic. It is based on Hasmonaean with very few changes. This was
perhaps because many of the documents in BDA are legal documents, the
language in them had to be sensible throughout the Jewish community
from the start, and Hasmonaean was the old standard.
The Nabataean language was the Western Aramaic variety used by the
Nabateans of the Negev, including the kingdom of Petra. The kingdom
(c. 200 BCE–106 CE) covered the east bank of the Jordan River, the
Sinai Peninsula and northern Arabia. Perhaps because of the importance
of the caravan trade, the Nabataeans began to use Aramaic in
preference to Ancient North Arabian. The dialect is based on
Achaemenid with a little influence from Arabic: "l" is often turned
into "n", and there are a few Arabic loan words. Some Nabataean
Aramaic inscriptions exist from the early days of the kingdom, but
most are from the first four centuries CE. The language is written in
a cursive script that is the precursor to the modern Arabic alphabet.
The number of Arabic loan words increases through the centuries,
until, in the 4th century, Nabataean merges seamlessly with Arabic.
Palmyrene Aramaic is the dialect that was in use in the city state of
Palmyra in the Syrian Desert from 44 BC to 274 CE. It was written in a
rounded script, which later gave way to cursive Estrangela. Like
Nabataean, Palmyrene was influenced by Arabic, but to a much lesser
The use of written Aramaic in the Achaemenid bureaucracy also
precipitated the adoption of Aramaic(-derived) scripts to render a
Middle Iranian languages. Moreover, many common words,
including even pronouns, particles, numerals, and auxiliaries,
continued to written as Aramaic "words" even when writing Middle
Iranian languages. In time, in Iranian usage, these Aramaic "words"
became disassociated from the
Aramaic language and came to be
understood as signs (i.e. logograms), much like the sign ⟨&⟩
is read as "and" in English and the original Latin et is now no longer
obvious. Under the early 3rd-century BCE Parthians Arsacids, whose
government used Greek but whose native language was Parthian, the
Parthian language and the Aramaic-derived writing system used for
Parthian both gained prestige. This in turn influenced the adoption of
the name 'pahlavi' (< parthawi, "of the Parthians") for their use
of Aramaic script with logograms. The Persian Sassanids, who succeeded
the Parthian Arsacids in the mid-3rd century CE, subsequently
inherited/adopted the Parthian-mediated Aramaic-derived writing system
for their own
Middle Iranian ethnolect as well. That particular
Middle Iranian dialect, Middle Persian, i.e. the language of Persia
proper, subsequently also became a prestige language. Following the
conquest of the Sassanids by the Arabs in the 7th-century, the
Aramaic-derived writing system was replaced by Arabic script in all
but Zoroastrian usage, which continued to use the name 'pahlavi' for
the Aramaic-derived writing system and went on to create the bulk of
Middle Iranian literature in that writing system.
Late Old Eastern Aramaic
Mandaic magical "demon trap"
The dialects mentioned in the last section were all descended from
Achaemenid Imperial Aramaic. However, the diverse regional dialects of
Late Ancient Aramaic continued alongside them, often as simple, spoken
languages. Early evidence for these spoken dialects is known only
through their influence on words and names in a more standard dialect.
However, the regional dialects became written languages in the 2nd
century BCE and reflect a stream of Aramaic that is not dependent on
Imperial Aramaic. They show a clear division between the regions of
Babylon and the east, and Judah, Syria, and the west.
In the East, the dialects of Palmyrene and Arsacid Aramaic merged with
the regional languages to create languages with a foot in Imperial and
a foot in regional Aramaic. The written form of Mandaic, the language
of the Mandaean religion, was descended from the Arsacid chancery
In the kingdom of Osroene, centred on
Edessa and founded in 132 BCE,
the regional dialect became the official language: Old Syriac. On the
upper reaches of the Tigris, East Mesopotamian Aramaic flourished,
with evidence from Hatra,
Assur and the Tur Abdin. Tatian, the author
of the gospel harmony known as the Diatessaron, came from the Seleucid
Empire and perhaps wrote his work (172 CE) in East Mesopotamian rather
than Syriac or Greek. In Babylonia, the regional dialect was used by
the Jewish community, Jewish Old Babylonian (c. 70 CE). The
everyday language increasingly came under the influence of Biblical
Aramaic and Babylonian Targumic.
Late Old Western Aramaic
Language of Jesus
Language of Jesus and Syriac language
The western regional dialects of Aramaic followed a similar course to
those of the east. They are quite distinct from the eastern dialects
and Imperial Aramaic. Aramaic came to coexist with Canaanite dialects,
eventually completely displacing Phoenician in the 1st century BC and
Hebrew around the turn of the 4th century CE.
The form of Late Old Western Aramaic used by the Jewish community is
best attested, and is usually referred to as Jewish Old Palestinian.
Its oldest form is Old East Jordanian, which probably comes from the
region of Caesarea Philippi. This is the dialect of the oldest
manuscript of the
Book of Enoch
Book of Enoch (c. 170 BCE). The next distinct phase
of the language is called Old Judaean into the 2nd century CE. Old
Judaean literature can be found in various inscriptions and personal
letters, preserved quotations in the
Talmud and receipts from Qumran.
Josephus' first, non-extant edition of his
The Jewish War
The Jewish War was written
in Old Judaean.
The Old East Jordanian dialect continued to be used into the 1st
century CE by pagan communities living to the east of the Jordan.
Their dialect is often then called Pagan Old Palestinian, and it was
written in a cursive script somewhat similar to that used for Old
Syriac. A Christian Old Palestinian dialect may have arisen from the
pagan one, and this dialect may be behind some of the Western Aramaic
tendencies found in the otherwise eastern Old Syriac gospels (see
In the 1st century CE, Jews in Roman Judaea primarily spoke Aramaic
Koine Greek as the international language of the Roman
administration and trade). In addition to the formal, literary
dialects of Aramaic based on Hasmonaean and Babylonian there were a
number of colloquial Aramaic dialects. Seven dialects of Western
Aramaic were spoken in the vicinity of Judaea in Jesus' time. They
were probably distinctive yet mutually intelligible. Old Judaean was
the prominent dialect of
Jerusalem and Judaea. The region of Ein Gedi
had the Southeastern Judaean dialect.
Samaria had its distinctive
Samaritan Aramaic, where the consonants he, heth and ayin all became
pronounced the same as aleph, presumably a glottal stop. Galilean
Aramaic, the dialect of Jesus' home region, is only known from a few
place names, the influences on Galilean Targumic, some rabbinic
literature and a few private letters. It seems to have a number of
distinctive features: diphthongs are never simplified into
monophthongs. East of the Jordan, the various dialects of East
Jordanian were spoken. In the region of
Damascus and the Anti-Lebanon
Mountains, Damascene Aramaic was spoken (deduced mostly from Modern
Western Aramaic). Finally, as far north as Aleppo, the western dialect
of Orontes Aramaic was spoken.
The three languages influenced one another, especially Hebrew and
Aramaic. Hebrew words entered Jewish Aramaic (mostly technical
religious words but also everyday words like ‘ēṣ "wood"). Vice
versa, Aramaic words entered Hebrew (not only Aramaic words like
māmmôn "wealth" but Aramaic ways of using words like making Hebrew
rā’ûi, "seen" mean "worthy" in the sense of "seemly", which is a
loan translation of Aramaic ḥāzê meaning "seen" and "worthy").
The Greek of the
New Testament often preserves non-Greek semiticisms,
including transliterations of Semitic words:
Some are Aramaic like talitha (ταλιθα) that can represent the
noun ṭalyĕṯā (Mark 5:41).
Others can be either Hebrew or Aramaic like Rabbounei
(Ραββουνει), which stands for "my master/great one/teacher"
in both languages (John 20:16).
^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds.
(2017). "Old Aramaic".
Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck
Institute for the Science of Human History.
^ Panammuwa II and Bar-Rakib: Two Structural Analyses, K. Lawson
Younger, Jr., University of Sheffield Archived 2016-03-04 at the
^ See Porten, Bezalel; Yardeni, Ada (1999). Textbook of Aramaic
documents from ancient Egypt: Ostraca & assorted inscriptions.
Hebrew University, Dept. of the History of the Jewish People.
ISBN 978-965-350-089-1. and "Aramaic - Examples of
writing". Mnamon : Ancient writing systems in the
Mediterranean. . The stele is known as KAI 269. Maurice Pope
The story begins just before the century opened. In 1692 a long band
of material from a mummy burial was unwrapped in the presence of M. de
Maillet, the French Consul in Cairo. It carried figures drawn in the
ancient Egyptian style which were accompanied by an ink-written text
in a hitherto unknown sort of writing. It was cut up, presumably at
the time of unwrapping, into seven or eight pieces, and sent to
France. One of the pieces came to the notice of Jean-Pierre Rigord, a
collector of antiquities, who discussed the find in the Memoires de
Trevoux of June 1704. Rigord's article was illustrated with plates of
an ordinary hieroglyphic inscription, a specimen of the mummy text,
and another stone inscription from
Egypt from his collection. With the
aid of the passage about Egyptian writing in Clement, he identified
the first as 'symbolical hieroglyphic', the second as either
'hieratic' or as 'cyriological hieroglyphic', and the third as
'epistolographic'. He thought that this last one, written from right
to left, was probably Phoenician. The script was said to have been in
public use, and Phoenician might have come in as a mercantile language
with the Shepherd Kings. The divergence of the language from Hebrew
(the original tongue of mankind) had obviously reached the point of
unintelligibility in Joseph's day for an interpreter to have been
considered necessary between him and his brothers, and Jerome had said
that Phoenician was half-way between Hebrew and Egyptian. Finally,
Rigord suggested that the language might have been the same as Punic.
^ Aramaic at Encyclopædia Iranica
^ Frye, Richard N.; Driver, G. R. (1955). "Review of G. R. Driver's
"Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B. C."". Harvard Journal of
Asiatic Studies. 18 (3/4): 456–461. doi:10.2307/2718444.
JSTOR 2718444. p. 457.
^ Geiger, Wilhelm; Kuhn, Ernst (2002). "Grundriss der iranischen
Philologie: Band I. Abteilung 1". Boston: Adamant: 249ff.
^ Stolper, John A. Matthew (2007). "What are the Persepolis
Fortification Tablets?". The Oriental Studies News & Notes
(winter): 6–9. Archived from the original on 14 February 2007.
^ Naveh, Joseph; Shaked, Shaul (2006). Joseph Naveh, ed. Ancient
Aramaic Documents from Bactria. Studies in the Khalili Collection.
Oxford: Khalili Collections. ISBN 978-1874780748.
^ Beyer. p. 28 n. 27; Wiesehöfer, Josef; Azodi, Azizeh. Ancient
Persia. pp. 118–20.
^ "Iranian Scripts for Aramaic Languages," in the Bulletin of the
American Schools of Oriental Research 341 (2006), pp. 53-62.
T. Muraoka & B. Porten (2004). A Grammar of Egyptian Aramaic.
Handbook of Oriental Studies, The Near and Middle East. Brill.
Franz Rosenthal (1995). A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic. 6th revised