Aramaic Literature in the Dead Sea Scrolls by Andrew B. Perrin

Readers of the New Testament may know that Jesus’ native language was likely Aramaic, the language of the first-century Jews living in the Galilee. Aramaic was not a “native” tongue but an imported one, imposed during the waves of imperial occupation of the near East by Assyria and Persia, where it was the official language. This imperial history is reflected in the pages of the Bible itself, where certain texts were actually composed in Aramaic, including Gen 31:47, Jer 10:11, Ezra 4:8-6:18, Ezra 7:12-26, and Dan 2:4b-7:28. 2Kgs 18:26 illustrates this linguistic history and the tension it created between regional groups and imperial powers.

Due to its increased use in Assyrian and Babylonian administration, Aramaic took hold in many areas as both the official and vernacular language from the eighth century B.C.E. onward. As Alexander the Great pressed across the ancient Near East in the late fourth century B.C.E., the Greek language spread in his wake along with Hellenistic culture.

While Aramaic and Greek were for many centuries the dominant imperial languages of the region, Hebrew was the idiom of Israelite tradition and the mother tongue of peoples with a common heritage in the Israelite tribal confederacy and the monarchies of the tenth to the sixth centuries B.C.E. In other words, Hebrew was a local language that fostered a “linguistic community” of Israelites and, later, Jews—even if those people also learned Aramaic, Greek, and other languages as a matter of necessity.

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide a snapshot of Judea’s multilingual makeup in the mid-to- late Second Temple period (the fourth century BCE to the first century CE), with copies of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek writings among its collection. Ten to 13 percent of the Qumran library was written in Aramaic. In addition to a modest collection of documentary texts (for example, lists, contracts, and transaction records) these texts represent some 30 ancient Jewish literary compositions. Among these are writings that  were eventually canonized in the Hebrew Bible (for example, Dan 27), texts received among the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon (for example, Tobit), and other works often termed pseudepigraphal because they are first-person narratives attributed to characters from the scriptural past (for example, 1 Enoch).

The collection also includes previously unknown texts of various descriptions and genres (for example, Genesis Apocryphon or the cave 11 Job translation). Collectively, the suite of Aramaic literature reflects the literary heritage of southern Judean scribes adept at retelling, expounding, and translating the Hebrew scriptural traditions. Since these works were read, but not likely penned, at Qumran, the Aramaic texts provide an ideal space for exploring the currents of thought that circulated more broadly through Second Temple Judaism.

The tales told in the Aramaic texts generally cluster around two poles of Israelite history. Works like Visions of Amram or the Aramaic Levi Document expand and extend the authority of the patriarchal traditions of Genesis by reworking existing character portraits and interpreting episodes to include more contemporary interests. Writings such as Four Kingdoms and Pseudo-Daniel represent historically fictive settings in the post-exilic world, often in a court-tale setting akin to that of the early chapters of Daniel. Regardless of their narrative locations, the writings in the collection contain recurring interests and motifs, from dream-visions and prayers to apocalyptic outlooks and priestly traditions.

Beyond the bounds of Qumran studies, the Aramaic texts are relevant to students of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The Aramaic cycle of visionary tales in Daniel, as well as the imperial correspondences imbedded in Ezra, may now be contextualized alongside writings of the same time period and language. Items such as the expectation of an eschatological city in the Aramaic New Jerusalem may be compared with the vision of Rev 21:9-27, and the narrative depiction of Abraham laying on hands in prayer in Genesis Apocryphon 20:28–19 contains the earliest known precursor to this practice, featured in writings like Acts 28:8.

In these ways, the Qumran Aramaic materials contribute to our understanding of the context of the later books of the Hebrew Bible, recovering a more complete picture of ancient Jewish thought and practice, and mapping the trajectories of those traditions into early Christian literature such as the New Testament.

Andrew B. Perrin, "Aramaic Literature in the Dead Sea Scrolls ", n.p. [cited 28 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/aramaic-literature-in-the-dead-sea-scrolls

Contributors

Andrew B. Perrin

Andrew B. Perrin
Assistant Professor, Trinity Western University

Andrew B. Perrin is assistant professor of religious studies and co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University. His recent publications include the book The Dynamics of Dream-Vision Revelation in the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015). His current research project is a commentary on the Qumran Aramaic texts for the Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls series.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

A Macedonian (Greek) general who conquered the Persians and ruled over a vast empire, from Greece to the Indus River, in the 330s B.C.E.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

A region in northern Mesopotamia whose kings ruled most of the ancient Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Formally recognized within a religion; most commonly describes books of the Bible or Christian saints.

Concerned with the future final events of the world.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

The southern kingdom of Judah.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

A genre of ancient literature in which authorship is falsely attributed to a notable figure.

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

Gen 31:47

47Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed.

Jer 10:11

11Thus shall you say to them: The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens.

Ezra 4:8-6:18

8Rehum the royal deputy and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes as follows9(then Rehum the royal deputy, Shimshai the scribe ... View more

Ezra 7:12-26

12“Artaxerxes, king of kings, to the priest Ezra, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven: Peace. And now13I decree that any of the people of Israel or their ... View more

Dan 2:4b-7:28

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2Kgs 18:26

26Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and Shebnah, and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in the Aramaic language, for we understand it; do not ... View more

Rev 21:9-27

Vision of the New Jerusalem
9Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the ... View more

Acts 28:8

8It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him.

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