The language of the corpus of written material from Palestine from roughly 200 BCE to 200 CE are written in Palestinian Aramaic. The corpus principally comprises literary and ephemeral texts from Qumran, Murabba῾at, and Naḥal Ḥever, but include inscriptions on ossuaries, tombstones, and coins; Aramaic words found in Josephus and the New Testament; and certain very early rabbinic texts, such as Megillat Ta῾anit. Palestinian Aramaic belongs to the phase of the language that Joseph Fitzmyer (1979) has called Middle Aramaic, distinguishing it from the earlier Official or Imperial Aramaic, on the one hand, and the dialects of Late Aramaic on the other. Contemporary with Palestinian Aramaic are the Aramaic dialects of Nabatea, Edessa, Palmyra, and Hatra.
Morphologically, Palestinian Aramaic differs little from Official Aramaic. The principal differences are the use of third-person plural feminine forms of the pronoun, suffix, and verb; the use of dn rather than dnh for the demonstrative; and the occasional use of d for the earlier relative particle dy. Syntactically, Palestinian Aramaic displays a preference for historic Semitic word order (verb-subject-object), whereas Official Aramaic tends to free word order. In comparison with contemporary Aramaic dialects, Palestinian Aramaic tends to make more conservative use of Official Aramaic dialect traits than most. For example, unlike its contemporaries, Palestinian Aramaic retains the use of the jussive.
A major question in research on this dialect is the degree to which it represents the spoken Aramaic of Palestine—that is, how different were the spoken and written forms of the language? In all languages there are some differences, so the question is one of degree. Was there a “Standard Literary Aramaic,” as many scholars contend, that was used to write most types of literary text? The existence of such a standard would imply a diglossia, in which different forms of a language serve different functions in complementary distribution. It would also imply, therefore, that various spoken Aramaic dialects existed in Palestine in this period—dialects whose distinctive forms would never appear in written texts except inadvertently. One of the larger issues involved is what sort of Aramaic texts scholars might rightly use in attempting to reconstruct hypothetical Aramaic originals of the sayings of Jesus.
Aramaic texts from Qumran number approximately one hundred, one-sixth of the nonbiblical scrolls; virtually all are literary as opposed to documentary. Broadly speaking, these are theological writings. Their dates correspond to the dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls generally (c. 150 BCE–70 CE). Attempts to date individual texts more precisely have not taken into account the possibility of significantly variant scripts among scribes working in a given period and are therefore unreliable. These Aramaic texts are for the most part written in the Jewish square script that developed from the Aramaic script used in the Persian period. Some are written in cursive or semicursive forms, but those scripts more commonly characterize contracts and other ephemeral writings such as are frequent among the Bar Kokhba materials. Among the best-preserved Aramaic scrolls from the Qumran caves are the Genesis Apocryphon, 11 Q Targum Job, the Enochic literature, and several copies of the Book of Tobit. A group of works that are more or less closely related to the biblical Book of Daniel are, like several chapters of that book itself, written in Aramaic. These writings include the Prayer of Nabonidus (4Q242), the “Son of God” text (4Q246), and the pseudo-Daniel apocalypse (4Q243–245).
Numerous Palestinian Aramaic texts from Murabba῾at and Naḥal Ḥever are associated with the Bar Kokhba-led Second Jewish Revolt (132–135 CE). These texts include marriage contracts and writs of divorce, IOUs, deeds of sale, and subscriptions to contracts. Perhaps most significant is the correspondence from Bar Kokhba to his lieutenants, and from his lieutenants to others. A substantial proportion of the Bar Kokhba letters are in Aramaic, but others are in Hebrew or Greek. Alongside the Aramaic contracts are Nabatean analogs. Thus, these materials illustrate the linguistic complexity that characterized Palestine in this period. How Aramaic functioned socially vis-à-vis the other languages in use in this complex is still uncertain.
Aramaic ossuary and tomb inscriptions come principally from the region of Jerusalem and number nearly one hundred. New ones continue to be discovered almost every year. Excavations at Masada discovered many Aramaic-inscribed ostraca—letters and tituli picti, or “labels.”
A potentially confusing imprecision in the literature is sometimes encountered in which Palestinian Aramaic is used loosely to connote very different corpora from the one described here. It is important to distinguish the term as defined above from the Aramaic of Palestine: the earliest Aramaic materials found in Palestine date to the ninth century BCE, long before the period under discussion here. The terms Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, denoting materials from the Byzantine period, and Christian Palestinian Aramaic, for materials from the same general period, are also used.
- Fitzmyer, Joseph A. “The Phases of the Aramaic Language.” In A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays, pp. 57–84. Missoula, 1979. Seminal essay on the division of Aramaic, clearly proposing basic aspects of the view of Palestinian Aramaic adopted in this article.
- Fitzmyer, Joseph A., and Daniel J. Harrington. A Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts: Second Century B.C.–Second Century A.D. Rome, 1978. Handy collection of Palestinian Aramaic texts, including virtually everything then known and a bibliography for each text. Dozens of new texts are available, however, principally from Qumran Cave 4, Masada, and the Babatha archive.
- Lewis, Naphtali, et al. The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters: Greek Papyri, Aramaic and Nabatean Signatures and Subscriptions. Jerusalem, 1989. The Greek contracts from the Babatha archive, Papyri 15, 17–19, 20–22, and 27 have Palestinian Aramaic subscriptions that Jonas C. Greenfield treats in a separate section of the book.
- Muraoka, Takamitsu, ed. Studies in Qumran Aramaic. Abr-Nahrain, Supplement Series, vol. 3. Leiden, 1992. Eight studies on Qumran Aramaic that touch on virtually all the central issues involved in defining Palestinian Aramaic.
- Reed, Stephen. Dead Sea Scroll Inventory Project: List of Documents, Photographs, and Museum Plates. 14 fascs. Claremont, Calif., 1991–1992. Complete list of all the Dead Sea Scrolls and Bar Kokhba and related materials, including an indication of the language in which the text is inscribed; the place to begin compiling an inclusive text of all Palestinian Aramaic materials. Now revised in Emanuel Tov, et al., eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls on Microfiche: A Comprehensive Facsimile Edition of the Texts from the Judean Desert (Leiden, 1993). Note as well Reed's Dead Sea Scrolls Catalogue: Documents, Photographs, and Museum Inventory Numbers (Atlanta, 1994).
- Tov, Emanuel. “The Unpublished Qumran Texts from Caves 4 and 11.” Journal of Jewish Studies 43 (1992): 101–136. Provides a quick overview of texts from Qumran caves 4 and 11, indicating those in Palestinian Aramaic.
- Yadin, Yigael, and Joseph Naveh. The Aramaic and Hebrew Ostraca and Jar Inscriptions. Masada I, the Yigael Yadin Excavations, 1963–1965, Final Reports. Jerusalem, 1989. Includes the Palestinian Aramaic inscriptions, letters, and lists, and The Coins of Masada by Ya῾acov Meshorer.
Michael O. Wise