I have previously published a post on Aramaic that provides historical background to the language and describes its relevance for biblical studies. My aim in the present post is to give an overview of resources available for the study of Biblical Aramaic, and to provide an evaluation of these resources. Prices quoted are current at the time of posting.
Hebrew and Aramaic are closely related, something like Spanish and Italian. Thus, Biblical Aramaic (BA) beginning grammars are designed for students who already have a working knowledge of Biblical Hebrew (BH). Because these grammars build on a student’s Hebrew knowledge, they are intended to teach Aramaic grammar in only one semester, rather than the usual full year. The four key Aramaic grammars that I recommend are Johns, Jumper, Schuele, and Rosenthal. One nice thing about these four books is that they are all small, thin volumes that are easily portable.
Johns, Alger F. A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic. Rev. ed. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1972.
Jumper, James N. An Annotated Answer Key to Alger Johns’s A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic. Rev. ed. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2003.
- Amazon price: $14.99 (Johns); $14.99 (Jumper); Logos price: $23.99 (both Johns and Jumper)
- Number of Lessons: 20
- Johns is my favorite introductory grammar for Biblical Aramaic. Johns is Adventist, but he doesn’t have any specifically Adventist theology in his grammar. What is important for me is that Johns has a conservative view of Daniel and Ezra, and this view comes through in both Johns’ grammar and in Jumper’s answer key.
- I also like the fact that Johns and Jumper were both trained in Semitics. Johns studied Semitics under William Foxwell Albright, and he studied Aramaic under Joseph Fitzmyer. He is not just an OT Hebrew professor who also teaches Aramaic, but is someone whose knowledge of Aramaic is much broader and deeper than Biblical Aramaic alone.
- If you know Biblical Hebrew well, you can teach yourself Biblical Aramaic in a summer, doing a chapter of Johns a week and checking your work with the answer key. Many of the early exercises in Johns are made-up, but the later exercises will lead you through a translation of all of Aramaic Ezra. Translating the biblical text and reading the annotations in Jumper’s answer key was something that I found very helpful.
Schuele, Andreas. An Introduction to Biblical Aramaic. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
- Amazon price: $22.16 (paperback); $12.99 (Kindle)
- Schuele is arranged as a reference grammar, but is written at an introductory level. It can be used by itself to learn biblical Aramaic, but it is best used as a complement to Johns. Since it is more technical than Johns, students will find it helpful for providing fuller explanations for things that Johns may only explain briefly.
- Schuele’s comparative word list on pp. 93-94 is helpful.
- Includes an answer key for exercises.
- For a review of Schuele, see Brian Davidson, Bulletin for Biblical Research, vol. 23, no. 2 (2013), 249-50, available here.
Rosenthal, Franz. A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic. 7th, expanded ed. Porta Linguarum Orientalium. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006.
- Amazon price: $31.19
- Rosenthal is the best intermediate/advanced reference grammar of Biblical Aramaic.
- After working through an introductory grammar, you can continue your Aramaic study by translating all the Aramaic portions of the OT. As part of this exercise, I would recommend looking up the references in Rosenthal for each verse. This well help greatly to solidify your understanding of Aramaic grammar.
- I would recommend having Rosenthal at your side whenever you are translating biblical Aramaic, and looking up his references to each verse.
- Rosenthal is also an excellent tool to consult when doing exegetical work in biblical Aramaic.
Greenspahn, Frederick E. An Introduction to Aramaic. 2nd ed. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
- Amazon price: $47.95 (softcover); Logos price: $43.99 (English); $11.99 (Spanish)
- Number of Chapters: 32; answer key in back
- Greenspahn differs from the other grammars in this list in that it is designed to be a general introduction to Aramaic, not just an introduction to Biblical Aramaic, though its focus is on Biblical Aramaic. Compared to Johns, it is a much longer introductory grammar that is designed to be part of a year-long Introduction to Aramaic course in a Semitics program, rather than a one-semester Biblical Aramaic course in a seminary program. Greenspahn’s method is, unfortunately, based on the view that the Bible is not any more special than other works of literature. He says, “With only some 200 verses of the Bible in Aramaic, there would be little reason to learn the dialect for that reason alone” (p. 1).
- Greenspahn’s grammar is liked by many Aramaicists. However, as the SBL grammar, it is heavily colored by higher criticism, and for me this ruins the book. The commentaries that he recommends for Ezra and Daniel are all critical commentaries. On p. 5, he says, “scholars are not certain about the historical reliability of biblical statements about the patriarchs.” His comments on Daniel 7 are in line with the critical interpretation of that key prophetic chapter.
- One thing that bothered me when using Greenspahn was the way he cavalierly edits the biblical text in the homework exercises. In theory, the homework exercises require the translation of the entire corpus of Biblical Aramaic, but nearly all of the biblical texts are “simplified” and “abridged” and “normalized” in order to fit the plan of Greenspahn’s grammar. To Greenspahn, the biblical text is not sacred, so there is nothing bothersome about changing it to suit his purposes. Only Daniel 7 is presented without modification.
- Greenspahn uses a different system of nomenclature for the Aramaic verbal system than any other grammar of Biblical Aramaic, which can be confusing. The system Greenspahn uses has its merits, but it is designed for comparative Semitics scholars and linguists, not for clergymen who want to learn Biblical Aramaic. It would be helpful if Greenspahn at least used the nomenclature of both systems, so that students would be able to understand other grammars, lexicons, and commentaries.
- Many of the homework exercises are too challenging for most students. Asking students to translate unpointed extrabiblical Aramaic texts and write in the correct vowels is okay for an advanced Semitics program, but not for a seminary class in Biblical Aramaic. The same could be said for the exercises which ask students to translate English sentences into Aramaic.
- In summary, this grammar has an arrogant tone, which is evident in (1) Greenspahn’s glib handling of the biblical text; (2) Greenspahn’s strident dismissal of the authenticity of Daniel, without so much as mentioning that there are many competent scholars who believe the book is authentic; (3) Greenspahn’s replacement of standard BA verbal nomenclature with the labels used by Semiticists; (4) Greenspahn’s presentation of homework exercises that are too challenging for anyone but gifted Semitics students.
- Greenspahn’s comments on Aramaic grammar are generally reliable, where they are not colored by his theology. But Johns is easier to understand and better organized.
- Greenspahn is apparently the only Biblical Aramaic grammar available in Spanish.
Van Pelt, Miles V. Basics of Biblical Aramaic. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
- Amazon price: $30.54 (softcover), $92.09 (softcover + DVD lectures); Logos price: $37.99
- Number of Lessons: 22; answer key available online here
- Van Pelt’s approach is the polar opposite of Greenspahn’s. He says, “This book was not written for Aramaic scholars or for students interested in comparative Semitic grammar” (p. x). Van Pelt makes no attempt whatsoever to explain the place of Aramaic in the Semitic language family or the history of the Aramaic language. He calls Biblical Aramaic “Jewish Literary Aramaic,” which to me sounds too much like “Holy Ghost Greek,” as the language of the New Testament was once conceived. In reality, Biblical Aramaic belongs to the Imperial Aramaic dialect.
- Van Pelt’s grammar is popular because of the Zondervan marketing machine, but it is oversimplified for language purists. Van Pelt has a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but was not trained as an Aramaicist or a Semiticist. Thus, his explanations are not as precise as those in other grammars, and are too dumbed-down at times. Van Pelt mentions in the preface that he received some assistance from his colleague Peter Lee, who has a Ph.D. in Semitics and Egyptian languages, but the fact that he needed help hardly gives me confidence in this grammar, and I don’t trust its technical accuracy. The Basics of Biblical Hebrew grammar coauthored by Pratico and Van Pelt has also been criticized for technical inaccuracy, such as referring to wāw-consecutives as “the converted Perfect” and “the converted Imperfect.”
- Example #1: Van Pelt unhelpfully refers to the Aramaic infinitive as the “infinitive construct,” on the assumption that this will help students who know Biblical Hebrew understand the function of the Aramaic infinitive. However, this terminology is unique to Van Pelt. Aramaic only has one infinitive, and so Aramaicists do not use the term “infinitive construct,” which is strictly a Hebrew grammar term.
- Example #2: Van Pelt does not use any diacritics or guttural markers in his transliterations, on the assumption that these will make the grammar too difficult. Many Semiticists would say that Van Pelt misrepresents the sounds of Aramaic by omitting these diacritics.
- Example #3: Van Pelt seems to treat Aramaic as a dialect of Hebrew in order to “help” students learn the language, but from a linguistic standpoint this is incorrect (p. 3).
- I would not use or recommend Van Pelt’s grammar out of concerns about its linguistic accuracy.
- HALOT is the primary lexicon I recommend for Biblical Aramaic (Amazon; Accordance; Logos). In Hebrew, I often prefer BDB to HALOT (more conjectural, interpretive), although I use both. But in Aramaic, HALOT is much better than BDB due to advances in Aramaic studies and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I generally don’t even look at BDB in Aramaic.
- An excellent supplement to HALOT is Vogt, Ernst. A Lexicon of Biblical Aramaic: Clarified by Ancient Documents. Translated and revised by J. A. Fitzmyer. Subsidia Biblica 42. Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2011. (was $37.50 on Amazon)
- Volume 16 of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) covers Biblical Aramaic. This is an excellent, in-depth resource that is well respected in mainstream scholarship. (Logos; Amazon)
- Another good resource for Biblical Aramaic is the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains in Logos.
- There are also Biblical Aramaic vocabulary lists in Johns (A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic) and Mitchel (A Student’s Vocabulary for Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic—Amazon price: $11.58 for 2nd ed.; Logos price: $12.99 for 1st ed.).
- The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (CAL = “Targum Lexicon” in Logos) is the best all-around Aramaic lexicon. CAL can be accessed online for free. The online version is more complete than the version in Logos. Be aware that CAL covers all periods of Aramaic, and not just Biblical Aramaic. For Biblical Aramaic definitions, look for the abbreviations BAEzra and BADan (example). In Logos, the abbreviation is “BibAr” (also “BibArEzra” or “BibArDan”).
- Less useful is Cook, Edward. Dictionary of Qumran Aramaic. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015. (Amazon price: $54.50; Accordance price: $49.90). This dictionary is designed for use with Aramaic texts from Qumran; Biblical Aramaic is from an earlier period.
- Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Targumim (available free here and here; for purchase in Logos here) and Smith’s Syriac Dictionary (available free here and here; for purchase in Logos here) can be used with CAL for diachronic word studies, but should not be used for translating Biblical Aramaic.
- Bible software – (1) Both Accordance and Logos offer two different syntax trees for the entire Old Testament, including the Aramaic sections. These syntax trees will be very helpful for understanding the grammar of the text if you are weak in Aramaic. Of course, it is ideal if your knowledge of Aramaic advances to the point where you can evaluate these syntax trees critically, but for the most part the grammar is straightforward. (2) Accordance and Logos both have tagged Targumic texts. Accordance has the most complete tagging, but doesn’t provide information from CAL, like BibleWorks and Logos do. (3) Accordance and Logos also offer Syriac resources.
- Online platforms – Various online platforms are available for the study of Biblical Aramaic, most notably Jesus Spoke Aramaic.
- Biblical Aramaic: A Reader and Handbook. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2016. (Amazon price: $22.50; CBD price: $19.99) – This volume is small enough to be easily portable, and provides a handy way to keep your biblical Aramaic fresh by reading through it periodically. The lists in the back are also handy. You can read through Biblical Aramaic using this volume for review quite quickly. You can get similar information in your Bible software or apps, but the reader is probably better for language proficiency.
- Kline, Jonathan G. Keep Up Your Biblical Aramaic in Two Minutes a Day: 365 Selections for Easy Review. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2017. (Amazon price, hardcover: $36.49; CBD price, imitation leather: $17.99)
- Audio recordings – Biblical Aramaic is a small enough corpus so that you listen to all of it in an hour or two. (1) One way to hear the Aramaic portions of the Bible read with modern Hebrew/Sephardic pronunciation is to listen to the recording of Abraham Schmueloff, which is available in various places online, such as here. (2) The best free online recordings are from the 929 Project. I have made playlists of Omer Frenkel’s reading of Ezra and Daniel in Hebrew and Aramaic on SoundCloud.
- Flashcards – The small size of the Biblical Aramaic corpus makes memorizing the entire vocabulary of Biblical Aramaic an achievable goal. With the vocabulary memorized, you will be able to sight read all the Biblical Aramaic texts. Various flashcard apps can be used to help with this.
- Comparative Semitics – (1) See my chart of Semitic phonological equivalences. A chart like this one is important for recognizing Aramaic cognates of Hebrew words. An Aramaic word and a Hebrew word that are from the same Semitic root may be spelled differently due to differences in the development of Hebrew and Aramaic phonology from Proto-Semitic (example: דְהַב in Aramaic = זָהָב in Hebrew). (2) See my chart of the Semitic verbal system. This chart will help you remember the function of Aramaic verbal stems by showing their Hebrew equivalent.
It is possible to gain a working knowledge of Aramaic solely by studying Biblical Aramaic. However, the biblical corpus is too small to develop expertise in the Aramaic language simply by reading and rereading Biblical Aramaic. For example, doing a word study in Aramaic usually requires researching extrabiblical usage. This the opposite of the situation for Classical Hebrew, which has a large biblical corpus and a very small extrabiblical corpus. In Aramaic, the biblical corpus is generally too small for lexical studies, but there is a huge corpus of extrabiblical Aramaic, so that our knowledge of ancient Aramaic is actually much greater than our knowledge of ancient Hebrew. There are various ways to “go beyond” Biblical Aramaic in order to become an Aramaic expert. This usually entails study in a Semitics program, although there are some things you can do on your own.
- Judaic Aramaic – Studying extrabiblical Jewish texts written in various Aramaic dialects will give one the sort of exposure to a large corpus of literature that is needed to develop skill in a language. The Targumim and Midrashic literature are very helpful in this regard. For texts closer to the biblical period, one can study the Elephantine Papyri, the Aramaic texts from Qumran, and Jewish inscriptions from the Second Temple Period.
- Syriac – Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic with a vast corpus of literature and many connections to biblical studies. Syriac is useful for textual criticism in both the OT and the NT. It is also useful for Comparative Semitics and Patristics. Syriac is still used in the liturgy of some Eastern churches.
- Imperial Aramaic – For those who wish to focus on Biblical Aramaic, the study of extrabiblical Imperial Aramaic literature (including inscriptions) is recommended.
- Neo-Aramaic – For those who wish to learn Aramaic as a spoken language, there are various dialects of Neo-Aramaic in existence, such as Assyrian and Chaldean. But be aware that there are significant differences between Neo-Aramaic and Biblical Aramaic. For more information, see the articles on Neo-Aramaic here and here.
- Comparative Semitics – Learning other Semitic languages besides Hebrew will also increase one’s grasp of Aramaic. The Semitic languages are closely related, so if one learns Arabic, Akkadian, Ethiopic, Ugaritic, et al. he will be able to understand how the specific grammar and vocabulary of Biblical Aramaic fits within the overall pattern of Semitic grammar and vocabulary.