A Northwest Semitic language related to Hebrew. It was usually written in the twenty‐two letters of the Phoenician alphabet, although originally some letters had to represent more than one Aramaic consonant. The shapes of the letters used for Aramaic developed into the square script, which was adopted for Hebrew too in the Persian period. Aramaic differs from Hebrew in various ways. For example: the vocabulary is different, although some words are similar (e.g., Hebrew šālôm, “peace,” but Aramaic šĕlām); Hebrew uses the prefix ha‐ as the definite article, but Aramaic uses the suffix ‐ā; some consonants in Hebrew correspond to different ones in Aramaic (e.g., Hebrew hāʾāre⊡, “the land” or “earth,” but Aramaic ʾarqāʾ, later ʾarʿāʾ).
A number of Old Aramaic inscriptions are known from the tenth or ninth century BCE onward from Syria and Mesopotamia, and in the latter region it replaced Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian) as the language of everyday speech.
According to Deuteronomy 26.5, the Israelites were of Aramean descent, but the Bible nowhere represents Aramaic as their language, and Genesis 31.47–48 tells how Jacob called a pillar Galeed (“heap of witness”), whereas his Aramean father‐in‐law Laban used the Aramaic equivalent, Jegar‐sahadutha. In 2 Kings 18.26 (= Isa. 36.11) officials of Judah plead with an Assyrian official during the siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE not to speak “in the language of Judah” (i.e., Hebrew) in the hearing of the ordinary people of the city, but to use Aramaic. Aramaic had thus become the language of diplomacy (one understood by Judean leaders), while ordinary people understood only Hebrew; and the Assyrian wanted such ordinary people to understand his call to surrender.
From the sixth century BCE Aramaic continued to spread as the vernacular in the Palestinian region. Jeremiah 10.11 is in Aramaic, as is Ezra 4.8–6.18; 7.12–26. The Aramaic passages in Ezra are primarily official documents, and they reflect the fact that the Persian empire recognized the position of Aramaic by making one form of it an official language—the so‐called Imperial or Official Aramaic. A Jewish colony at Elephantine (Yeb) in Upper Egypt (Map 7:F6) has left many Aramaic papyri from the fifth century BCE (including letters about the rebuilding of a Jewish temple there and about the Passover); other documents in Aramaic from Egypt, Palestine, and other Near Eastern countries of this century and succeeding centuries have been found. Daniel 2.4b–7.28 is in Aramaic, and the book is usually dated around 164 BCE, though the author probably used earlier sources. Some scholars postulate a connection between the story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness in Daniel 4 and the Prayer of Nabonidus, an Aramaic text from Qumran which tells how Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, was ill in Tema in North Arabia and was healed by the intercession of a Jew. Among other Aramaic texts from Qumran are the Genesis Apocryphon (the story of Abraham, in general dependence on Genesis), parts of 1 Enoch, and a Targum (a free translation) of Job, which differs from the Targum of later times (See Translations, article on Targums).
By the first century CE, Aramaic was in general use in Palestine, especially in Galilee, although Hebrew was also spoken as a vernacular, especially in Judea (See Hebrew). In the New Testament we find bar, the Aramaic word for “son,” instead of Hebrew ben, in several personal names (e.g., Barabbas, Bartholomew, Bartimaeus) and in the patronymic of Simon Peter, Bar‐Jona (Matt. 16:17 [RSV]), and Aramaic words are used even in Jerusalem: Golgotha (Mark 14.72, etc.), Gabbatha (John 19.13: “in Hebrew” probably means “in the language of the Hebrews” and can thus denote Aramaic), and Akeldama (Acts 1.19). Some of the words of Jesus are Aramaic: “Talitha cum” (Mark 5.41), and “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (Mark 15.34; cf. Matt. 27.46, but there is a variant reading in Hebrew); but “Ephphatha” (Mark 7.34) and “Abba” (Mark 14.36; cf. Rom. 8.15) can be explained as either Hebrew or Aramaic. The statement in Matthew 26.73 that Peter's speech showed him to be a Galilean has been illustrated by rabbinic references to the inability of Galileans to pronounce guttural consonants correctly. As a Galilean, Jesus spoke Aramaic, and on the cross he quoted Psalm 22.1 in Aramaic, not in the Hebrew original, but he probably also spoke Hebrew. When Rabban Gamaliel wrote to Jews in Galilee—probably in the late first century CE—he wrote in Aramaic, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 11b).
Many Aramaic documents from the early centuries CE have been preserved. The Nabatean Arabs, who lived to the east and south of Palestine, used an Aramaic dialect, as did the inhabitants of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. Some letters and other documents from the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 132–35 CE are written in Aramaic, some in Hebrew, and some in Greek. They include letters from the leader of the revolt, who has usually been known as Bar Kokhba (“the son of the star” in Aramaic; cf. Num. 24.17), but whose real name was Bar or Ben Kosiba. Texts of the following centuries show differences between western and eastern dialects of Aramaic. The distinction appears, for example, in the Targums: the Jerusalem or Palestinian Targums (on the Pentateuch) are in western Aramaic, whereas the Targums of Onkelos (the Pentateuch) and Jonathan (the Former and Latter Prophets) reached their final form in the east, though they were probably originally composed in Palestine. Western dialects include Jewish Palestinian Aramaic (e.g., the Jerusalem Talmud) and Samaritan and Christian Palestinian Aramaic; and eastern dialects include Babylonian Aramaic (e.g., the Babylonian Talmud), Syriac, and Mandaic (the language used of the texts of the gnostic Mandean sect).
Syriac reached its present form ca. 200 CE. Although there are earlier, non‐Christian inscriptions, most of the Syriac literature is Christian, because it became the standard language of many eastern churches. They carried its use as far as South India and even China.
Aramaic was eventually replaced by Arabic in the Near East as a result of the spread of Islam. A western form survives in a few Syrian villages, and there is still a vernacular form of Syriac.
J. A. Emerton