I've talked to a number of Christians over the years who were surprised to learn that the New Testament was not originally written in Hebrew, but in Greek. This blows their mind, because people associate the Christian Bible's original language with Hebrew. This is understandable, because most of the Christian Bible really was written in Hebrew - the Old Testament (or "Hebrew Bible," if you prefer) was written almost exclusively in Hebrew - all but about 250 verses of it, which were originally written in Aramaic. Besides Hebrew and Greek, there is one other language for Christian scholars, who want to read the Christian Bible in the original. (And you thought your mind wasn't blown enough ... )
I can guess what most of you are probably thinking: "What the heck is Aramaic, and why did the authors of the Bible choose to write in it?" If the ancestral language of the Jews was Hebrew (and it was), why did the Jewish authors of what we today call the "Old Testament" not write everything in Hebrew?
Map of the Ancient Near East
To answer this, one has to examine the complicated geopolitics of the Ancient Near East - in the region that we today call the "Middle East" - during the time in which the Old Testament takes place. The children of Israel were in captivity for a great portion of their history, and their history is filled with stories of being conquered by local superpowers - one after another, without letup. They were enslaved by the Egyptians, they were enslaved by the Persians, and they were enslaved by the Babylonians (among others). But it is the Syrians (or Chaldees) whose influence is of most importance here, because one name for the language called "Assyrian" or "Chaldee" is the name "Aramaic." Let me explain.
My church's Bible Dictionary says that "The Arameans were not a single nation but a widespread branch of the Semitic race. In the King James Version they are generally called Syrians." The Arameans, furthermore, "had kinship with the Hebrews," and "from an early date there were many Arameans in Assyria and Babylonia." In these countries, "the Aramaic language finally prevailed over the old Assyrian and was only displaced by the Arab conquest." Eventually, the Arameans "lost their political independence ... But their language, which was already that of a great part of the empire of Nineveh, continued to spread in the train of Assyrian and Persian conquest." (Source: Entry on Aram and Arameans, in my church's Bible Dictionary, with emphasis added)
Because the Arameans had kinship with the Hebrews, their language is closely related to the Hebrew tongue; with the two languages having a genetic similarity to each other - much like that found between Spanish and French. My church's Bible Dictionary also says that "There is evidence that after the return from exile the Jews themselves gradually adopted Aramaic as the language of common life." (Source: same entry referenced above) Just as slaves brought from Africa to the Americas adopted the languages of their conquerors - such as English, for African Americans in the United States - the enslaved Jews adopted the languages of their conquerors, which included the conquering language called Aramaic. My church's Bible Dictionary entry on Aramaic itself says that it was "An official language of the Persian Empire, spoken widely throughout the Near East." (Source: Entry about Aramaic) And the previously mentioned entry on Aram and Arameans says that "Aramaic was the diplomatic speech of Palestine in the time of Hezekiah" (Source: Entry on Aram and Arameans). When forced to live in the Persian Empire as slaves, Jews had to adapt and learn the local languages; and one of those diplomatic and survival languages was Aramaic.
Standard edition of the Hebrew Bible in the original
So which parts of the Old Testament - or the "Hebrew Bible," if you prefer - were written in Aramaic? My church's Bible Dictionary says that "The original language of most of the Old Testament is Hebrew, but a few portions ... were written in what is popularly called Chaldee, but more correctly Aramaic." (Source: Entry on Bible itself) The portions mentioned in the omitted part of this excerpt include four chapters in Ezra, six in Daniel, and a single verse in Jeremiah. And these are just the places where entire verses are in Aramaic - there are still more where Aramaic words are used, in verses that are otherwise written entirely in Hebrew. Specifically, in the words of the entry referenced above, "Aramaic words are also found in Job, Song of Solomon, Jonah, Esther, the Hebrew parts of Daniel, and some of the Psalms." (Source: Entry on Aramaic)
Greek New Testament
But the influence of Aramaic is not merely found in the Old Testament - it is also to be found in the New Testament, often referred to as "Hebrew" and lumped in with "that other Jewish language." In the words of the entry on Aram and Arameans, "The dialect called Hebrew in the New Testament is not the language of David and Isaiah, but a form of Aramaic." (Source: Entry on Aram and Arameans) In the words of the entry on Aramaic itself, "The common language of the Jews after the return from Babylon was Aramaic, and it is most probable that Jesus and the Twelve spoke Galilean Aramaic, rather than the Hebrew of earlier times." (Source: Entry on Aramaic, with emphasis added)
My favorite painting of Jesus Christ
"You mean Jesus spoke Aramaic?" you might be wondering. "Yes" is the answer - and so did many others. Aramaic words are to be found throughout the New Testament as well; and in the words of another entry in our Bible Dictionary, it is said that "the books of the New Testament are the work of a single generation and were written in Greek (with the possible exception of the Gospels of Matthew and John, which may have been written in Aramaic)." (Source: Entry on Bible itself, with emphasis added) Aramaic is indeed an important language for scripture, both for the Old and New Testaments; and it is an important language not only for the Jews, but for Christians as well.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
My search for the Hebrew Bible in the original
My search for the Greek New Testament
Why I am learning Ancient Greek