The (Mostly) Hebrew Bible

30 04 2007

Everybody knows that, despite being referred to as the Hebrew Bible, some of the text is composed in Aramaic. Such sections are to be found in Daniel, Ezra, Jeremiah and Genesis, and together they constitute the corpus of “Biblical Aramaic”, the name being allocated on the basis of this fact. Differences (to varying degrees) may exist between Biblical Aramaic (BA) and other forms of Classical or Imperial Aramaic (to which it is presumed to belong), but this is not to suggest that BA was a purely isolated dialect. The Aramaic corpus, like many ancient corpora, is reasonably scanty; for all we know, Biblical Aramaic was thriving at a particular point in time and may have even constituted a spoken tongue. This would be testified to by its usage in both Genesis and Jeremiah: in the former there are two words in Aramaic that constitute a toponym as named by the Aramean Laban, and the second comes in the form of a single verse, lambasting an Aramaic-speaking people.

Still, there is some variation even within the Biblical Aramaic corpus, and this variation makes linguistic specification difficult. The verse in Jeremiah is a good example of this, within which two different forms of the same word both appear. The word is the Aramaic noun for “land, earth” and it appears as both ארקה (the Old Aramaic form) and ארעה (the Late Aramaic form). Most of the Aramaic within the Bible is orthographically Late, but the syntax is predominantly Old (hence the suggestion that the language itself was a dialect of Classical or Imperial Aramaic, rather than something younger). This in itself might have also constituted a nice example of where later scribes updated the language within the text, were it not so strange to find a verse within which they forgot to update one of two identical nouns. Of far greater likelihood is the notion that these sections were originally composed in Aramaic and are not simply the product of a later scribe.

This is where we come across a rather interesting idea. Is it not possible that other sections of the Bible were also originally composed in Aramaic? I have heard it suggested (although I do not recall by whom) that the beginning of Genesis was originally an Aramaic story and that evidence for this lay within the word-play between Eve (Hava) and serpent (havya in Aramaic). To the best of my knowledge, this idea is not entertained by many people today, save perhaps some Assyrians with a penchant for viewing the Syriac Peshitta as the “original” Bible. Still, while it may not have been the case with Genesis, who is to say that it was not the case with other texts within the corpus. Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, the former two of which both feature extensive Aramaic sections (in the case of Daniel, over half the text), have no known Aramaic translation. Could this not be used as evidence that Aramaic was their original language of composition?

David Marcus, in his attempted revitalisation of Frank Zimmerman’s 1975 thesis, has answered this question in the affirmative. The lack of an Aramaic translation (targum), coupled with the fact that Aramaic was a widely spoken language at the time of the composition of these texts, along with their setting within the Babylonian/Persian empire, all conspire to make this theory a viable one. Even so, more is required in order to stress Aramaic as an original language of composition, and Marcus turns to syntactic concerns. Focusing chiefly on the book of Nehemiah (itself without any Aramaic as it exists today), Marcus looks at a variety of calques within the text.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the terminology, calques are expressions which are adopted by one language (in our case, Hebrew) from another language (Aramaic) in a literally-translated form. While they might make sense within their new language, they generally make more sense within the old – to such an extent that they sometimes have a different meaning altogether. This is often the case where the two languages are quite different as, for example, Greek and Hebrew. Expressions within The Ascension of Isaiah that have appeared clumsy in the Greek have been found to make more sense were one to translate them literally into a Semitic language (borne out, as well, by the text’s Ethiopic version), and some have also used this as evidence of a Hebrew/Aramaic original to the Gospel of Matthew. Where the languages are very similar (as are Hebrew and Aramaic) we are unlikely to find anything so overt, and Marcus casts his critical gaze at some items of syntactic minutiae.

“Long Live the King!”, shout the people in 1 Samuel 10:24. In the Hebrew, this is יחי המלך (lit. “May the king live”) and it employs what is known as a jussive: a modal form employed to express a wish or a command. In Hebrew, jussives are often employed to denote a wish spoken by an inferior to a superior (as in our case) and are frequently issued in the third person – with imperatives being preferred for wishes and commands in the second person. The same expression also appears in 2 Samuel 16:16, 1 Kings 1:25, 34 and 39, 2 Kings 11:12, and 2 Chronicles 21:11. It appears as well in the Aramaic of the book of Daniel (2:4 and 3:9), within which it takes the form מלכא לעלמין חיי. In this case, the verb is actually an imperative, although differentiation between the two is rather difficult. Aramaic tends to prefer shorter forms of its imperatives and so, since word-length is oftentimes the arbiter between imperative and jussive, the distinction here may be only terminological. The starkest difference between the clauses lies in the usage of the adjective since, unlike the Hebrew, the Aramaic reads “May the king live forever“.

This is where Marcus’ argument takes flight for the book of Nehemiah features an expression that appears to be a translation directly from the Aramaic. Greeting the Persian king with המלך לעולם יחיה (Neh 2:3), the author has Nehemiah employing the Aramaic word order (noun, adjective, verb), the Aramaic adjective (“forever”), and the lengthened Hebrew imperative – which allows no room for assuming the existence of a jussive. In fairness, the lengthened forms are more common in the later texts of the Bible and are often thought to be a symptom of Late Biblical Hebrew, within which the jussive tends to be eschewed and the cohortative (a lengthened wish-form in the first person) takes the place of the first-person imperfective. One might also, should they choose, see the other factors as being stylistic as well, were it not for the fact that this is but one of the several calques that Marcus identifies.

Also striking (to my mind) is the fact that the Peshitta in its Syriac translation of the text features exactly what we may have expected the underlying Aramaic to have been. In our example, the Peshitta reads:

Syriac Neh

That is, מלכא לעלם חיי. This is also the case with the other calques that Marcus indicates; in each instance, the Hebrew reads as a direct translation from an underlying Aramaic text and, in each case, the Syriac Peshitta appears to feature the reading that we would have otherwise expected were the book of Nehemiah to have been composed in Aramaic instead of Hebrew. Marcus does not raise the obvious question, but it is worth consideration: is the Peshitta, in the case of this book, a translation at all? If we were to assume the prevalence of an Aramaic version of the text, from which our version of the Masoretic Text was translated, then it may be perfectly reasonable to consider the Peshitta as a version of the same and not a translation as it was otherwise thought to be. For once, perhaps, the late Peshitta may be of more text-critical value than the early(-ier) MT.




9 responses

30 04 2007


If I’m not mistaken, there is also Egyptian in the Torah… Moshe for example is an Egyptian name.

30 04 2007
Simon Holloway

Yes, there may indeed be Egyptian words within the Bible as well. The one that you mention is an interesting one because, in Egyptian, Moshe means “son of”. Various Pharaohs had this word as a patronymic – Ramesses, for example, which was Ra-moshe (Son of Ra). The stated meaning in our text is “drawn out”, but this is more likely related to a Hebrew word. That same word appears within the passage, in the Pharaoh’s daughter’s reason for Moses’ name: כי מן־המים משיתהו

One of the words, for the record, that some scholars have identified as a true Egyptian word is the proclamation that the Pharaoh makes when touring the countryside with Joseph. This is found in Genesis 41:43 and is the seemingly ambiguous word, אברך. To the best of my knowledge, though, Egyptian influence is limited to loanwords, rather than clauses. Aramaic, on the other hand, is actually a language of composition within the Bible and so is really unlike any other.

If you want to look at loanwords in the Bible (perhaps a future post coming up?) then you would also find plenty in Greek and Persian, with possibly some in Sanskrit and Anatolian as well. Perhaps the greatest number are those from other Semitic languages – chiefly Aramaic and Akkadian, but most of the Akkadian influence comes via Aramaic anyway.

1 05 2007


Interesting post. Way back in 1953, Lambdin compiled a list, with comments, on Egyptian loanwords in the Old Testament. Not surprisingly, he called his paper “Egyptian Loan Words in the Old Testament (Journal of the American Oriental Society, 73:3, July – Sept., 1953, 145-155).” While some of his suggestions have since been disputed and a couple of additional examples have been suggested, this paper is a good place to start if one is interested in this subject. There are also a number of Akkadian loanwords in the “Hebrew Bible.” See Mankowski, Paul V., Akkadian Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew, Harvard Semitic Studies, 47, Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2000. The interesting question is, “did the early readers or writers of these words think of them as foreign?”

1 05 2007
Simon Holloway

Thanks for that, Duane. Mankowski’s text was a constant companion for me when doing my Honours research last year. I seem to remember having found my statements regaring אברך there as well, although I might be now conflating him with another. I shall have to look at Lambdin too; thank’s for letting me know.

In any case, I think that there are some words that might have been considered foriegn at the time, perhaps depending upon the nature of their employment, but many that were not. Do we, as English speakers, think of a Hauptsturmführer (to use one of Mankowski’s examples) as a foreign word? How about deja-vu? The question then arises as to the nature of the difference between the two, and Mankowski (in his introduction, I believe) suggests a delineation between such forms on the basis of their purported usage. Unless I am remembering incorrectly, the former example constitutes a lehnwort and the latter a fremdwort, although I shall have to check that.

2 05 2007

Interesting post. The language of the Biblical Patriarchs was a subject of discussion for the Biblical commentators in the early to mid-Middle Ages known as the Rishonim. Although there were longstanding traditions that the Patriarchs spoke Hebrew mentioned in texts such as Genesis Rabba, it seems to me that that a new emphasis on the sacredness of Hebrew by writers such as Yehudah Halevi and mystical speculation on the power of language as an instrument of creation (or rather the instrument of creation according to the Sefer Bahir), mandated that commentators establish Hebrew’s primacy (which they tended to do).

So it’s even more intriguing that the Ramban in his commentary on Genesis 45:12 where Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers, suggests that Aramaic was the language of the Patriarchs. Joseph attempts to convince his brothers of his true identity with the phrase “it is my mouth talking to you”. Other commentators interpret the phrase to mean: “See, I am speaking your language, without the need for a translator to stand between us.”, citing Onkelos’ Targum (‘I am speaking in your language’) as supporting evidence. The Ramban disagrees, arguing rather that Hebrew was a Canaanite language that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had learned in Canaan, rather than brought with them from Mesopotamia. As proof he cites the different names that Jacob and Laban give to the site where they agreed to a truce in Genesis 31:48 (Yegar Shahaduta in Laban’s case and Galed (mound of witness) in Jacob’s case.) Instead he interprets the phrase to mean: You are hearing the assertion I am your brother from me — a high-ranking Egyptian official — with no obvious vested interest in claiming familial ties to a bunch of down on their luck semi-nomads so that you will bring your father to Egypt.

It’s intriguing because the Ramban and Ibn Ezra (cited by Spinoza in as one of his inspirations for his Biblical commentary in Tractatus Theologico-Politicus) were perpetually at each others’ throat about conflicting Biblical interpretations. The Ramban frequently refers to Ibn Ezra as filling the ranks of the ‘kitnei emunah’. Ibn Ezra’s approach was based on the linguistics of the day, using what be called today textual analysis, resulting in some novel ideas (as well as hints that the Torah was not written by a single person), while the Ramban emphasized the use of traditional sources to resolve apparent contradictions.

3 05 2007

What about ‘totafot’ ?(interpreted as tephillin). Is that word Egyptian in origin?

6 05 2007
Simon Holloway

Noodnik: Thanks for that! I have spent some time now looking at the sources that you refer to; I enjoy receiving glimpses of how the mediaeval commentators read each other. I also happen to quite like the passage that the Ramban employs and I have always found that scene to be particularly dynamic. It’s one of those sections that really cries out for interpretation and it’s interesting to see how many different ways there are of going with it.

Ha-Historion: I have not encountered that before, that טוטפות derives from an Egyptian word. There was an Assyrian word, tatapu that meant “surround, encircle” and a related Arabic word, طاف (tapa) that meant the same. BDB suggests that this was the origin of our Hebrew word, although some people (eg Klein, who is cited in the BDB) think that it is related to the root √טפפ, meaning to tap or strike. Klein compares it to the Greek στιγμα (stigma) in that it may have originally referred to a marking on the flesh. In any case, the Aramaic word seems to refer to bands or circlets (Jastrow mentions ornamental headdresses and, in the Mishna, it is used for female headpieces in general) so it is reasonable to maybe see something similar in the Hebrew. Perhaps an ornamental means of wearing a scroll or parchment which, really, is exactly what it was also to become.

6 05 2007
Simon Holloway

By the way, Balashon also speaks about totafot. Definitely worth having a read.

24 08 2009

Why does the above call “forever” in “live forever” an adjective? Adjectives modify nouns. “Forever” modifies the verb (“live”) and answers the question “when.” “Forever” is not an adjective, but an adverb.

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