The importance of Aramaic

Before we move into discussion of particular passages and particular terms related to Aramaic and the Bible, there is one more topic that needs to be discussed. That topic is the issue of the importance of Aramaic for study of the Bible, whether Old Testament or New Testament. Now, for the Old Testament, the relative importance of Aramaic should be obvious. Several chapters of the Old Testament were written in Aramaic. Thus for the proper study of those books, most notably Ezra and Daniel, the knowledge of Aramaic is essential.

The question, however, becomes much more complicated with regard to the New Testament. Aramaic was spoken in Palestine in the first century. Literature was composed in Aramaic in the first century. Unfortunately, as far as we know, books of the New Testament were written originally in Greek. At this point, some of my readers are screaming, “NO!” I will come back and revisit this point in my next Aramaic Thoughts, but for right now, the following can confidently be said: The oldest extant manuscripts, or manuscript fragments, of the New Testament are in Greek. Those that are in Aramaic are more recent, and generally appear to be translation Aramaic, rather than composition Aramaic. In order to soothe Mr. Kelsey, my comment regarding Aramaic manuscripts was intended to refer to original composition Aramaic texts, rather than later manuscripts in Syriac translated from the Greek. The Khaboris Codex, as important a find as it is, is in a script that was not invented until after the 1st century, and the Codex itself dates to the 10th century AD. If the Gospel according to Matthew was originally composed in Aramaic, then later translated into Greek, we have no 1st- or early 2nd-century Aramaic manuscript to demonstrate that.

In short, with regard to Aramaic and the New Testament, there are two dangers that need to be avoided. The first is the danger of underestimating the influence of Semitic (and in particular Aramaic) literary style and vocabulary on the composition of the New Testament books. This danger is not avoided by New Testament scholars who fail to recognize that the repeated appearance of kai (“and”) in the New Testament narrative passages especially is simply a reflection of constant use of the vav-consecutive in Old Testament narrative. There are a number of ways in which the influence of Aramaic (and Hebrew) makes itself known in the New Testament, and we will be looking at some of these in coming weeks. The second danger is that of overestimating the influence of Aramaic on the composition of the New Testament. An example of someone who has fallen into the latter error is George Lamsa. While he has done a great service to the Christian community to make available a translation of the Peshitta to the wider Christian public, he has not always been careful in his treatment of Aramaic, or the importance of its style, vocabulary, and thought patterns on the composition of the New Testament books. A further problem here is the failure to notice that some of the influence on New Testament style and vocabulary is not specifically Aramaic, but reflects the influence of the general Semitic background of the writers, and the influence of the Hebrew Old Testament as well on their language.

Thus, in subsequent studies, we will attempt to steer a middle course, avoiding these two errors, and finding accurate and useful information that may be drawn not only from Aramaic in relation to the New Testament, but to the Old Testament as well.

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Dr. Shaw was born and raised in New Mexico. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico in 1977, the M. Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1980, and the Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1981, with an emphasis in biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament and Targumic Aramaic, as well as Ugaritic).

He did two year of doctoral-level course work in Semitic languages (Akkadian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Middle Egyptian, and Syriac) at Duke University. He received the Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University in 2005.

Since 1991, he has taught Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a school which serves primarily the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he holds the rank of Associate Professor.

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