Aramaic: A History of the First World Language

In this volume—the first complete history of Aramaic from its origins to the present day—Holger Gzella provides an accessible overview of the language perhaps most well known for being spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. Gzella, one of the world’s foremost Aramaicists, begins with the earliest evidence of Aramaic in inscriptions from the beginning of the first millennium BCE, then traces its emergence as the first world language when it became the administrative tongue of the great ancient Near Eastern empires. He also pays due diligence to the sacred role of Aramaic within Judaism, its place in the Islamic world, and its contact with other regional languages, before concluding with a glimpse into modern uses of Aramaic.

Although Aramaic never had a unified political or cultural context in which to gain traction, it nevertheless flourished in the Middle East for an extensive period, allowing for widespread cultural exchange between diverse groups of people. In tracing the historical thread of the Aramaic language, readers can also gain a stronger understanding of the rise and fall of civilizations, religions, and cultures in that region over the course of three millennia.

Aramaic: A History of the First World Language is visually supplemented by maps, charts, and other images for an immersive reading experience, providing scholars and casual readers alike with an engaging overview of one of the most consequential world languages in history.

The volume here under consideration is comprised of the following:

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Oldest Aramaic and Its Cultural Context
3. Aramaic as a World Language
4. Aramaic in the Bible and Early Judaism
5. Aramaic between the Classical and Parthian Worlds
6. Syriac and the End of Paganism
7. The Second Sacred Language: Aramaic in Rabbinic Judaism
8. Not Just Jews and Christians: Samaritans, Mandeans, and Others
9. Aramaic in Arabia and the Islamic World
10. Modern Aramaic from a Historical Perspective

This book first appeared in Dutch in 2017.  Thankfully, it has now been translated and thus made available to a much wider audience.

Those of us of a certain age learned the importance of Aramaic by reading the (now dated) works of Joachim Jeremias, one of the most significant scholars of the New Testament of his or any day.  At Jeremias’ feet we discovered the amazing world of Jesus’ own mother tongue and the language in which he taught and prayed.  Yet there was then no academic treatment of Aramaic AS a language.

Gzella has remedied that situation with his present study.  Here he leads us to a deeper understanding of this critically important language, not only for reading various texts in the Old Testament, but for reading the New Testament in the proper light and the history of the earliest Church in its own words.  First, he does so by describing the importance of Aramaic and the history of its study.  He next turns to a description of the oldest Aramaic and its context in Syria-Palestine and its rise to international language in Babylon and Persia (as well as that slice of land we call Palestine).

Next, the Old Testament and the New and the influence of Aramaic therein are treated.  We are then taken down the path where we discover in more detail the language among the Parthians, and then the rise of Syriac and its importance for early Christianity.

Aramaic in Rabbinic Judaism and the varieties in which it occurs in Judaism are the subject of examination next and Aramaic bibles come to the fore.  The spread of Aramaic among Christians and Jews as well as Mandeans and Samaritans also comes up for detailed analysis.

In the final chapters G. illustrates the abiding significance of Aramaic and shows how it remains a minority language in parts of the world.  For 3000 years Aramaic has existed, and there’s no reason to believe that it will cease to be any time soon.

The volume concludes with an ‘Essential Bibliography’, a glossary of linguistic terms, and an index.

This fascinating work is a detailed historical study of a language.  I mention that again because readers should be alerted to expect lots of linguistic discussions.  It is not merely a book about Aramaic and the Bible.  It is far more than that, though of course it is that too.  Readers interested in the particular field of biblical studies could benefit from a reading of chapter 4 even if the time to read the other chapters escaped them.  And for persons interested primarily in Church history, chapters 6 and 8 would do the trick.

But if you are interested in the history of a language from beginning to present, then naturally the entire volume needs to be read, digested, and engaged.

Curiously enough, our friend Jeremias makes nary an appearance except in a footnote where his name is the title of a volume.  His work is ignored, eclipsed, as it were, by more thorough and accurate undertakings.  Gustav Dalman too is absent.

Scholarship rolls forward in time, crushing those in its path who cannot keep up (even though unable to because of their untimely departure from this life).  In time, Gzella’s work too will be eclipsed and his name will not appear in so much as a footnote.  But it will be a very long time until that happens, because scholarship can’t supersede one’s work until it catches up to it.  And no one is near to catching up to Gzella’s work on Aramaic.

This is a book worth reading for linguists, biblical scholars, and historians of Christianity.  If you are a member of those sacred throngs, this book should be read by you.