Aramaic was the native-tongue of many Aramean tribes that dwelt between Mesopotamia and Canaan. It emerged as a distinct language around the 10th century B.C. and quickly spread throughout the Near-East region. This is due, in part, to the scattered state of Aramean peoples. It also owes to the fact that they were among the greatest merchants and traders of the ancient world, second only to the Phoenicians. Thus, by the end of the 9th century B.C., Aramaic was the official diplomatic language of the Mesopotamian kingdoms, and it continued to expand in influence from that point on.
Strictly speaking, all dialects of Aramaic fall into two categories: Eastern and Western. Their differences came about as a result of being used in two very different linguistic circles: Akkadian and Hebrew. Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic began its development during the Exile of the Jews. Although many returned to Judah, many also remained and the dialect continued to develop, eventually becoming one of the Talmudic languages.
The other Eastern dialect is known as Syriac, which originated in Edessa, and spread widely from Syria into Persia. It was used in Jewish communities in Syria, Aram, and the surrounding lands.
Western dialects were developed in much the same manner. The Samaritan language, regardless of its strong connections with Hebrew, is considered an Aramaic dialect by linguists. It also possessed some Canaanite characteristics (in pronunciation, etc.) When Aramaic became the lingua franca of Judah, the former Exiles modified the language to their own purposes and Palestinian Talmudic was born. This was the principle language of the Jews in Palestine, even to the days of the Sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. All Jews of Canaan learned this tongue and spoke it, rather than Lashon ha-Kodesh, "The Holy Tongue" as Hebrew was then called (although many conservative groups still utilized Hebrew at the time).
Use In the Tanakh
It was because more and more of the common people did not understand Hebrew that the Targum was introduced. Targum comes from the Aramaic for “translator” and was originally used to denote the man responsible for translating the readings from the Tanakh in the synagogue so that the listeners could understand. As time passed, translations were written down of the Torah and the Nevi’im ("Prophets"). These translations of Tanakh divisions still retained the name “Targum” long after the human translators ceased to be used in the synagogues. Of the multitude of Targumim (plural of Targum) that were produced during the years before 70 A.D., only a few complete copies are still extant. These include the Babylonian Onkelos, which is a Torah Targum in Babylonian Talmudic and the Targum of Jonathan, which contains the books of the Prophets. There also exists the Samaritan Targum, which contains the Samaritan Pentateuch.#
As important as Aramaic was to Near Eastern literature, and to the development of the Judeo-Christian canon, it played a much greater role than any could have foreseen. The three and a half years that Jesus of Nazareth ministered publicly, he spoke in Aramaic and even some of the words he stated in that tongue were preserved in the Greek texts of the New Testament. Also, because of its universality, Aramaic allowed for the quick expansion of the Judeo-Christian faith, as there were few people in the Near East who did not understand Aramaic in some form. By the evangelization of the Apostles, a great wave of literature was opened up to the Western World - widening the gates of knowledge and allowing the European Continent to enter into the wide realms of knowledge - all because of a language.
- The Samaritan Pentateuch was not very different from that of the Hebrew Tanakh but certain commands contained therein were added or modified to suit the theological beliefs of the Samaritans (worship on Mt. Gerizim, for instance).
- The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition. Danbury, CT: Grolier, Inc. © 2001
- Bravmann, M.M. Studies in Semitic Philology. Leiden: E.J. Brill. ©1977
- Huehnergard, John. “ Proto-Semitic and Culture.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. © 2000.
- "Afroasiatic languages: The Semitic Languages." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.
© 1994, 2000-2005, on Infoplease. © 2000–2005 Pearson Education, publishing as Infoplease. 02/18/2005.
- What Language(s) Did Jesus Speak and Why Does It Matter?, by Mark D. Roberts