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. Aramaic grammars that I recommend include Callaham, Johns, Jumper, Schuele, Rosenthal, and Muraoka. The last five of these are small, thin volumes that are easily portable.
Callaham, Scott N. Biblical Aramaic for Biblical Interpreters: A Parallel Hebrew-Aramaic Handbook. HA’ARETS. Wilmore, KY: GlossaHouse, 2021.
- Amazon price: $39.99 (paperback), $49.99 (hardcover); GlossaHouse paperback $27.99, hardcover $39.90); Logos price: $17.99 (pre-order). There is also a Chinese version.
- Callaham earned his Ph.D. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently teaches at Baptist Theological Seminary in Singapore. It is evident from his grammar that he is a careful and well-read scholar.
- An understanding of the grammar of Biblical Hebrew, such as two semesters of Hebrew grammar courses, is a prerequisite for using this book. The book starts by discussing how Biblical Aramaic is similar to and different from Biblical Hebrew, without presenting the Aramaic alphabet and vowel system or explaining how to find and use editions of the Biblical Aramaic text, because parallel knowledge of Hebrew is assumed. It is also assumed that students will be able to pronounce (read) the Aramaic words on their own.
- This grammar aims to facilitate the teaching of Biblical Aramaic by making side-by-side comparisons with Biblical Hebrew throughout the book. Throughout most of the grammar, the page on the left side explains a Hebrew grammatical concept, and the page on the right side explains the corresponding concept in Aramaic, with similarities and differences noted. This is a helpful approach, not only for learning Biblical Aramaic, but also for solidifying one’s knowledge of Biblical Hebrew.
- There are a small number of “Suggested Learning Exercises” at the end of each chapter, but these are different from the traditional homework assignments, and there are no vocabulary lists to memorize for each chapter. Callaham says this is because Bible software programs have reduced or eliminated the need to memorize paradigms and vocabulary lists. He favors an inductive approach to learning Biblical Aramaic, in which students learn to recognize vocabulary and grammatical forms through reading and working with the Aramaic text, and relating it to their knowledge of Hebrew. Because of Callaham’s inductive style, Aramaic grammar is explained from the start by citing portions of the biblical text that have vocabulary and grammatical forms which students have not been taught. Although there is a glossary in the back, it is assumed that students will have access to a Bible software program to parse and define words they cannot figure out on their own. Teachers who have a more traditional pedagogical style could create their own quizzes with paradigms and vocabulary, but that is not the way this grammar is designed.
- This grammar is printed with black, red, and blue text. The red and blue text is used for color-coding grammatical features.
- When new topics are introduced in the grammar, cross-references are provided to parallel sections in Johns, Muraoka, and Rosenthal for additional explanations.
- Callaham helpfully prints both the traditional names of Aramaic verbal stems and the letters used for these stems by Semiticists, e.g., Peal G, Pael D, Shaphel C, Haphel C.
- There is a complete glossary of Biblical Aramaic in the back of the grammar, with Biblical Hebrew cognates noted.
- Callaham has Aramaic videos lessons based on his grammar on the Daily Dose of Aramaic website. These videos are especially valuable for independent learners. However, I found it surprising that Callaham does not read (pronounce) the Aramaic text in many of the videos. (Update: he has started doing more reading of the text in the daily videos.) He writes in the introduction to his grammar (p. xi), “this course is free of written composition exercises and the development of speaking and listening skills.” While I agree that it is not necessary to learn Aramaic as a living language, I do find that hearing and speaking the text is part of the learning process, and is essential to developing reading skills. Of course, a professor who uses this grammar can read the Aramaic text out loud and ask students to do the same.
- This is an excellent and up-to-date grammar with many scholarly references. I recommend it with the caveat that it is different from a traditional grammar, and as such it will not fit everyone’s teaching or learning style. However, even if one uses a traditional grammar such as Johns, Callaham’s grammar will still be a valuable tool for reference.
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); there is also a Korean version
- Number of Lessons: 20
- Johns is an excellent introductory grammar for Biblical Aramaic, written in a traditional style. Johns is Adventist, but he doesn’t have any specifically Adventist theology in his grammar. Importantly, he has a conservative view of Daniel and Ezra, and this view comes through in both Johns’ grammar and in Jumper’s answer key.
- Johns and Jumper were both trained in Semitics. Johns studied Semitics under William Foxwell Albright, and he studied Aramaic under Joseph Fitzmyer. Thus, 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.
Muraoka, Takamitsu. A Biblical Aramaic Reader: With an Outline Grammar. 2nd ed. Leuven: Peeters, 2020.
- Amazon price: $24.00
- The first part of this book is a nice outline of Biblical Aramaic grammar designed for students who already know Biblical Hebrew. The grammar is brief and technical, but is complete enough to be used as an introductory Aramaic grammar.
- The second part of this book consists of a verse-by-verse commentary on the grammar of Biblical Aramaic. This section is very helpful for exegesis, since Muraoka is one of the greatest biblical linguists of the modern era. He is also an evangelical Christian.
- Overall, I highly recommend this volume for the study of 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); Korean version: WorldCat, Kyobo
- 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; Accordance)
- Another good resource for Biblical Aramaic is the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains in Logos.
- A very concise but complete lexicon of Biblical Aramaic is Frank Matheus, A Biblical Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon (GlossaHouse, 2020). Amazon price: $49.99 for hardcover; $29.99 for paperback.
- 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.; also in Korean).
- 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 ($0.46). 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 the Logos version of CAL, 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 and Daily Dose of Aramaic.
- Biblical Aramaic: A Reader and Handbook. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2016. (Amazon price: $22.50; CBD price: $19.99; Logos price: $14.99) – 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: $35.16; CBD price, imitation leather: $33.95; Accordance price: $39.90; Logos price: $29.99) – This book has the Aramaic text in parallel with an English translation, and a sort of interlinear below. If you have good Bible software, you probably don’t need this book. I find the free Daily Dose of Aramaic videos more helpful for daily review.
- Cook, John A. Aramaic Ezra and Daniel: A Handbook on the Aramaic Text. Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019. (Amazon price: $39.75). – This book provides detailed analysis and explanations of the Aramaic grammar of Ezra and Daniel. Note that although Cook is evangelical, he follows critical views of the interpretation of Ezra and Daniel, and considers the Aramaic of Daniel to have been written in the second century BC.
- Commentaries on Ezra and Daniel interpret the Aramaic text. It is important when studying grammatical aspects of the text to understand how possible grammatical options affect interpretation, and which of these interpretations are reasonable in the context. Many commentaries also include notes about Aramaic grammar and vocabulary. Note, however, that most of the technical commentaries are non-evangelical.
- Critical editions of the Aramaic text will note variants in the manuscripts or ancient translations of Aramaic Ezra and Daniel. BHS is still the standard critical edition, in spite of its shortcomings. BHQ (Ezra) includes a helpful textual commentary. Kennicott is often overlooked, but very useful.
- 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.
- Noonan, Benjamin J. Advances in the Study of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020. (Amazon price: $30.49 Logos price: $27.99) – This book is a handy reference for the history of scholarly research and debate regarding Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic.
- There are also original (not translated) grammars of Biblical Aramaic in other languages, such as this one in Korean and this one (Amazon; Logos) in Spanish.
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 also online lessons and self-study options.
- 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. Syriac is the dialect of Aramaic that the Biblical Language Center chose for their course on learning Aramaic as a living language.
- 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.
Enjoy this content? Buy me a coffee.