The form of Middle Aramaic spoken by Nabatean nomads (Greek Nabataioi). Their kingdom was called Nbṭw (Aramaic), Nabatene (Greek), or Nabataea (Latin). They lived in the area to the east and south of Judea, roughly defined by Hejrah in the south and Damascus in the north, by Dumah and the Wadi Sirḥan (which forms part of the border between modern-day Jordan and Sa῾udi Arabia) in the east and by Rhinocolura (modern-day El ῾Arish) in the west. The Nabateans emerge in history toward the end of the fourth century (about 312 bce), but inscriptions using their language begin to appear only about 150 years later. During their heyday, Petra was their main city, halfway between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba (possibly = the older has-sela῾, “The Rock,” in Edom, Jgs. 1.36, 2 Kgs. 14.7). From it have come the vast majority of Nabatean inscriptions, mostly of a funerary or votive nature. Many, however, come also from Mada᾽in Ṣaliḥ in Sa῾udi Arabia and the Ḥawran and from caravan routes leading to Arabia, Judea, the Sinai Peninsula, and the eastern Delta of Egypt. Some literary and documentary texts written in Nabatean have come from caves in the Judean Desert.

The Nabateans were governed by kings, five of whom can be dated almost with certainty: Maliku (Malchus) I, 59/58–30 bce; ῾Obodat (Obodas) III, 30–9 bce; Ḥāritat (Aretas) IV 9 bce–40 ce; Maliku (Malchus) II, 40–71 ce; and Rabb᾽īl (Rabbel) II, 71–106 ce, when Nabatean land became part of the Roman provincia Arabia. At least six other earlier kings are known, but their dates and order of succession are disputed: Ḥāritat (Aretas) I, c.168 bce (mentioned in 2 Mc. 5.8); Rabb᾽īl (Rabbel) I, circa ?; Ḥāritat (Aretas) II, 120/110–96 (who may be the same as Rex Herotimus in M. Junianus Justinus, Epitoma Hist. Phil. 39.5.5–6); ῾Obodat (Obodas) I, 96–85; Ḥāritat (Aretas) III, 85–62; and ῾Obodat (Obodas) II, c.62/61–59. The two best known of the Nabatean kings were Maliku I, notorious for his wars with Judea, and Ḥāritat IV, who is the King Aretas in 2 Cor. 11.32 and whose daughter (name unknown) was married to Herod Antipas, who later repudiated her to marry “Herodias, his brother's wife” (Lk. 3.19; cf. Mk. 6.17). Inscriptions that mention him call him raḥem ῾ameh, “lover of his people.”

Nabatean as a dialect is a local form that developed from Standard or Official Aramaic and was used in the last three centuries BCE and the first three or four centuries CE. Some inscriptions written in it preserve archaisms derived from Standard Aramaic (e.g. hw and hy as third singular personal pronouns [instead of hw᾽ and hy᾽]; -hm as the third plural masculine pronominal suffix [instead of -hn in contemporary dialects]; zy and znh as the relative and demonstrative pronoun [instead of dy and dnh]). The usual matres lectionis (᾽,h,w,y,) are found, mostly in final positions, but they are sparsely used. There are no distinctive third plural feminine forms of the verb. The sign of the direct object is not l-, as in other contemporary dialects, but yt-; the latter is used only with suffixes, never alone preceding a noun object. The causative form of the verb is only rarely haphel, being succeeded already by ᾽aphel forms. Nun at the end of a closed syllable is rarely assimilated to the following consonant.

Nabatean is, however, more marked by the incidence of Arabic words in its vocabulary, which other contemporary dialects do not share (e.g. wld, “child” [walad]; ᾽l, “tribe” [᾽āl]; ᾽ḥr, “descendants” [᾽aḥar]; the preposition py, “in” []; and occasionally the article ᾽l [᾽al], especially in proper names). This incidence has suggested to some scholars that the Nabateans were Arabs who adopted the form of Aramaic used as the lingua franca during the time of Persian domination. Nabatean later borrowed a number of technical Greek words into its vocabulary (᾽pṭrpy᾽ = Greek epitropeia, ᾽strtg᾽ = stratēgos, hprk᾽ = hyparchos, klyrk᾽ = chiliarchos, qnṭryn᾽ = kentyriōn [actually Latin centurio]). Some inscriptions are bilingual, Greek/Nabatean or Nabatean/Arabic (sometimes written in Nabatean script).

Nabatean texts, on both stone and papyrus or skin, are written in a distinctive script, which developed from the earlier Phoenician and Aramaic mode of writing (see Birnbaum, 1956). It eventually influenced the writing of classical Arabic. The script varies slightly according to the locale in which the inscription is found.


  • Birnbaum, S. A. “The Negeb script.” Vetus Testamentum 6 (1956), pp. 337–371.
  • Bowersock, G. W. Roman Arabia. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.
    A good account of the Roman province in which Nabatean Aramaic was spoken
  • Cantineau, J. Le Nabatéen. 2 vols. Paris, 1930, 1932.
    The standard grammar of Nabatean Aramaic, which contains a short collection of texts and a lexicon of inscriptions known up to the date of publication; it is badly in need of replacement
  • Greenfield, Jonas C. “The Texts from Naḥal Ṣe᾽elim (Wadi Seiyal).” In The Madrid Qumran Congress: Proceedings of the International Congress on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Madrid 18-21 March, 1991, edited by J. Trebolle Barrera and L. Vegas Montaner, pp. 661–665. Leiden, 1992.
    Lists Nabatean texts from the alleged Wadi Seiyal caves with identifications
  • Lawler, John I. The Nabateans in Historical Perspective. Baker Studies in Biblical Archaeology, 11. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1974.
    A brief, handy survey of Nabatean history
  • Lewis, Naphtali. The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters: Greek Papyri. Judean Desert Studies, 2. Jerusalem, 1989.
    Includes the Aramaic and Nabatean subscriptions and signatures of these Greek documents, studied by Jonas C. Greenfield
  • Lindner, Manfred, ed. Petra: Neue Ausgrabungen und Entdeckungen. Munich, 1986.
    A collection of essays by different scholars on various aspects of Nabatean life and culture
  • Negev, A. “The Nabateans and the Provincia Arabia.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.8, pp. 520–686 (pls. I–XLVIII), edited by H. Temporini and W. Haase. Berlin, 1977.
  • Negev, A. Personal Names in the Nabatean Realm. Qedem, 32. Jerusalem, 1991.
  • Starcky, Jean. “Pétra et la Nabatène.” Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible, 7 cols. 886–1017. Paris, 1966. A comprehensive survey of all that was known about Nabatean language, sites, history, civilization, and religion up to 1965.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, s.j.