Aramaic in Post-Biblical Judaism and Early Christianity

Duke University will offer a six week seminar for college and university faculty on "Aramaic in Post-Biblical Judaism and Early Christianity". The seminar will have three components:

  1. supplementary instruction in three major dialects of Aramaic;

  2. seminar discussion and supervised research, aiming at familiarizing the participants with recent developments in the scholarly study of Aramaic language and literature in Post-Biblical Judaism and Early Christianity;

  3. four lectures on the history of the Aramaic language.

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Why is Aramaic important?

For nearly half of the first millennium BCE, Aramaic formed one of the languages of international government in the Middle East. Three major empires--Assyria, Babylonia and Persia--used Aramaic as a language of government. From the 700s to the late 300s BCE, Aramaic was the international language of governance, diplomacy and trade--the "English" of the ancient Middle East.

With the arrival of Alexander the Great in the Middle East, Greek supplanted Aramaic as the main language. But Aramaic did not disappear. Although it gradually broke apart into dialects, in many regions of the former Persian Empire Aramaic became an important local language. Indeed, Aramaic became the lingua franca in Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia.

In Palestine, Aramaic became one of the three languages used by Jews, along with the older Hebrew and the newly-arrived Greek. While Greek continued to be used as the governing language for Palestine well into the Byzantine period, use of Aramaic as the native language overcame Hebrew by the second century CE in all but the religious sphere. But even in religious matters, Aramaic was being used by the second century BCE and gradually became more important. As a result of this fact, a wealth of important writings in Aramaic have survived, from apocryphal and rabbinic texts to numerous translation/interpretations of Scripture, from religious and liturgical texts to legal documents, letters and inscriptions. Aramaic in Palestine remained a popular language for several centuries, until the coming of Islam and the introduction of the Arabic language in the seventh century. Only then did Jewish Aramaic begin to lose its productive literary character, although Aramaic literature remained in use for several centuries.

In Syria and Mesopotamia, a larger region north and east of Palestine, Aramaic also developed into an important local language, with the city of Edessa providing the center for the best attested Aramaic dialect, namely, Syriac. As Christianity began to grow, especially after its legalization under Constantine in the early fourth century, Syriac took on a new role. While most Christians in the Mediterranean world adopted Latin and/or Greek for religious purposes, those in Syria and Mesopotamia used Syriac. This Aramaic dialect became the language of the Syrian Christian churches, and played a major role in the formation of Christianity in the lands nearest its origins during its first millennium. The Church translated its Scripture into Syriac, wrote commentaries, and liturgical works. Syriac was also used in letters, legal documents and a wide variety of literary texts.

The importance of Aramaic to understanding the ancient world, then, is rich and complex. But from the perspective of the modern western scholarship, its most important attribute is as a key for understanding early Christianity and Late-Antique Judaism.

Why an NEH Summer Seminar about Aramaic?

Despite the importance Aramaic played in the history of the ancient Middle East and in the development of Christianity and Judaism, most American scholars of these religions lack a solid foundation in the Aramaic language and the texts written in it. This is mainly due to the American emphasis on biblical studies, in Hebrew and Greek, on the one hand, and on Christian history, with a concomitant emphasis on Latin and Greek, on the other hand. To be sure, most Old Testament scholars took the one required course in biblical Aramaic while in graduate school, but apart from those who decided to specialize in it, surprisingly few have pursued it further. It is the few scholars with European or Israeli training--a training that emphasizes language knowledge more heavily--who do most of the American-based research on Aramaic literature.

This has several important ramifications. First, even as some Aramaic texts have become more prominent in American scholarship, such as the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls or the Syriac New Testament, scholars who wish to study them do not know how to develop the ability in Aramaic needed to do so. Second, scholars with some ability in one area of Aramaic literature remain unaware of texts and scholarly advances in other areas. Indeed, some aspects of Aramaic studies have made major advances in the past decade or two and these have largely gone unnoticed by scholars in related areas. Third, scholars with little or no ability in Aramaic, even those with strong backgrounds in Hebrew texts, simply have never been exposed to the wide range of Aramaic writings, even in closely related fields, that could have an impact on their studies of Judaism and early Christianity.

This proposed Summer Seminar intends to provide participants the opportunity to learn the language of Aramaic and to introduce them to the array of texts, inscriptions, and other materials written in it. In addition, they will receive an overview of the history and development of the Aramaic language. While the survey will cover all of Aramaic, the language instruction and the texts receiving the primary exposure will be those of Judaism and Christianity in Palestine and Syria/Mesopotamia, as well as the historical, archaeological, and social contexts in which they were created.

What will be studied and why?

In general, the focus of this Seminar will be the forms of Aramaic that arose among the two religions of Judaism and Christianity, as practiced in the lands of the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Even when other versions of these religions developed their literature in the dominant language of the area, be it Hebrew, Greek or Latin, these religions made extensive, though not exclusive, use of Aramaic. For Judaism, the formative use of Aramaic began in the second century BCE and extended into the seventh century CE, while for Christianity it began in the second century CE and its creative period extended into the thirteenth. It is these forms of Aramaic that will form the focus of this Seminar.

Turning now to specifics, the structure of the Seminar will be based on three different tracks to achieve this aim. First, there will be instruction in Aramaic language, with attention paid to grammatical and lexical instruction as well as reading of selected text passages. This track will focus on the three main dialects of Aramaic associated with these religions. Two will be Jewish dialects, for the time frame of this track includes the major turning point in Judaism, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE. It turns out that there is a different dialect of Aramaic associated with Judaism before and after this cataclysmic event. The first dialect will be Jewish Literary Aramaic (a branch of Standard Literary Aramaic), the Aramaic dialect of Judaism essentially prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. The second will be the form of Aramaic that dominates in the post-destruction period, especially in Galilee, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic. The third will be the dialect of Christian Syria, namely, Syriac.

The second track of the Seminar will focus on the literature of written in these three dialects, as well as the history and culture of the people and religions responsible for them, including the social world as illuminated by archaeology. A key feature of the sessions will be not just the survey of history and literature, but specific emphasis on the history, cultural and religious problems which the Aramaic literature can help solve.

The third track will focus on the history and development of Aramaic as a language, from our earliest knowledge to the medieval and modern periods. This will include attention to Aramaic's historical development, its many dialects and the written remains which we now possess, both literary and inscriptional.

Given this approach to the material, the obvious question someone might ask is why is the Babylonian Talmud and its Aramaic lacking from the organization of this Seminar? First, participants will focus on Talmudic literature through the Talmud of the Land of Israel. Second, Babylonia lies outside the Roman Empire throughout its history. Serious instruction in the Babylonian Talmud, then, would require an extensive introduction to a different geo-political region, with its accompanying history and cultural manifestations. Third, understanding the Babylonian Talmud is not simply a matter of being able to read the language, but also to understand the religious background and content under debate in the text as well as the rhetorically coded forms in which those debates are pursued. This important yet difficult text takes years of training to read confidently; any claim on our part to give participants control of it, even if we were to devote the entire Seminar to it, would be laughable.

Is this approach feasible for the intended participants?

However laudable the goal of teaching scholars to work in one of the most important languages of the ancient Near East may be, can this be accomplished in this format? Can participants really learn a "new" language in six weeks? The answer is yes, partly due to the pool of potential candidates, partly due to the nature of the language itself, and partly due to careful planning of the pedagogy of the sessions. A detailed schedule for each of the tracks is presented in the next section of the narrative, along with a diagram illustrating the daily and week-by-week schedule.

We expect two kinds of participants to attend the Seminar, those with some background in Aramaic and those with background in ancient Hebrew but essentially none in Aramaic. Indeed, a working knowledge of Hebrew is a required minimum. Both of these types will actually derive from two major areas of study: Old Testament, and New Testament / Early Christianity. It is quite possible that some students of Second-Temple Judaism or ancient Mediterranean religions will also be interested. The main methodology employed by members of this potential pool may be in literary or historical studies, archaeology, philology or related fields.

With regard to the character of the language, participants in this Seminar will be expected to have a working knowledge of Hebrew. Since both Aramaic and Hebrew are Semitic languages, they function in similar ways, with similarities in syntax, word formation, morphology and even lexical items. In addition, two of the three dialects of Aramaic that will be taught are written in Hebrew characters (it is historically more accurate to say that Hebrew is written in Aramaic characters), so a new alphabet will not need to be learned. Finally, many of the texts that will be studied will have familiar elements, either because they deal with religious and biblical themes and passages that the participants will know--as translation, commentary or reworking of a known text--or simply because the importance of the texts means they have been read in translation. These features, we believe, will contribute to successful participation in this Seminar and the achievement of its goals.