Language Choice and Narrative Location
As others have observed, the Aramaic writings from Qumran are limited in their putative historical background to either one of two periods. Some of these writings refer to the primordial history of the world, at the time of Enoch and Noah, or at the time of Israel’s patriarchs. Others relate to the time after the destruction of Jerusalem, when Israelites were under the rule of the oriental empires of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. In contrast, no Aramaic writing from Qumran relates to the main period of Israel’s existence in between these periods, that is, the days of Moses, Joshua, the Judges, and monarchies. A few words are due about each of these periods, as well as about the languages chosen to depict each of them, particularly regarding the mimetic function of Aramaic for these Qumran texts and how that language choice enhanced the message of the compositions in the collection. Since the golden age of Aramaic ultimately declined as Hebrew took its place in the first and second centuries BCE, the emergence of Aramaic writings dated generally to this period needs close consideration.
Let us begin with the writings which depict the rule of the empires. Aramaic literature—not only by Jews—chose the rule of past empires as a central focus, with particular attention given to the petty politics and intrigues of royal courts. Examples include: Ahiqar, the Aramaic scribe officiating at the court of the Assyrian king; Tobit, the uncle of Ahiqar in the same court; Daniel and his three companions; the Prayer of Nabonidus; and the obscure Qumran text now known as 4Q550, so-called “Jews in the Persian Court.” As we know now, Aramaic was not only the spoken language in most of these courts, growing in prominence gradually from the Assyrians to the Persians, but often also the written language. Aramaic-speaking scribes and their kin commemorated the opportunities that occurred for them to achieve prominence. Jews, like other west-semitic minorities in Babylonia and Assyria, were no exception to this rule. At some stage in this time, and into the Hellenistic period, stories like those of Daniel were considered a foundation stone for Jewish identity in the Diaspora. The Aramaic language in which they were cast was part of the mimesis, reconstructing the assumed reality at the time of the story. Indeed, people in the Hellenistic period conceived of the past imperial courts as Aramaic-speaking, regardless of whether this image was historically valid.
Aramaic was also conceived as the language of primordial generations. During the Hellenistic period in Palestine, people did not know such languages as Akkadian and Sumerian, and were not aware of the use of those languages in the distant past. Such a conception is hinted in Bavli Sanhedrin 38:2, where Rav declares “The First Adam spoke Aramaic.” For Jews in particular, Aramaic was essentially “the language that isn’t Hebrew,” that is, the language that was spoken before the discovery of Hebrew and before the stabilization of Hebrew/Jewish identity. The Hebrew patriarchs, as Deuteronomy 26:5 declares, had been Arameans before they gradually came to establish the Hebrew kin group, to become a nation. Take for example the Genesis Apocryphon, which conveys the history of the patriarchs Enoch, Noah, and Abraham, all of them clearly Aramaic speakers according to this scroll. Is it by chance that the Apocryphon does not reach later than the patriarchs? Would it have also depicted Moses as speaking Aramaic?
Aramaic writings from Qumran also depict Levi and his clan, Qahat and Amram, as speaking Aramaic. It is only on Sinai, with Amram’s son, Moses, that Hebrew is revealed. As Moses climbed Mount Sinai, the historical moment came when the nation was created and its unique language established. Further writings originating in the same apocalyptic tradition which are imbued to Moses, are all written in Hebrew (e.g., Mosaic Pseudepigrapha like Words of Moses [1Q22] and Apocryphon of Moses [4Q375, 4Q376, 4Q409]), as are various representations associated with his successor, Joshua (e.g., Joshua Apocryphon [4Q378–379]).
Aramaic and the Growth of the Apocalyptic Tradition
It so happened, either by chance or intentionality, that the protagonists of apocalyptic visions were expected to be Aramaic speakers because of the period in which they lived. Apocalypticism draws legitimacy from the antiquity of the seer: the more ancient the seer, the more authority he conveys. Primordial figures like Enoch, Noah, and Levi, all Aramaic speakers as explained above, thus happened to be the earliest protagonists of the apocalypse. This mimetic decision also makes sense in terms of the content of the visions. As we know, the fantastic content of apocalyptic visions is widely divergent from the more refined content of the Hebrew Pentateuch. Indeed, the Pentateuch had been written in an attempt to downplay the mythology of the distant past, as part of the heroic effort of biblical authors to establish a refined sort of Hebrew epic. Several centuries later, in the early Hellenistic period, as mythological content was creeping back to the Jewish mind, it was only logical that this content first appeared in Aramaic, the apocalyptic language par excellence.
Aramaic was not only fit for apocalyptic narrative, but was also a perfect match for apocalyptic science. Thus we read about astronomy in the Enochic Book of Luminaries, as well as some mathematical calculations in Aramaic Levi Document. The Aramaic medium allowed authors to continue the ancient near eastern scientific tradition, where these teachings originated, in a new Levantine garb.
How does Daniel fit into this picture? Living in the age of empires, Daniel was also expected to speak (and write) Aramaic, and indeed, early Danielic traditions are written in Aramaic. This is the case not only in the court-tales, such as those in chapters 3 and 6, but also the apocalyptic visions, such as the visions of chapters 2 and 7 (though the apocalyptic content of the former remains debated). These traditions are related to the early traditions of the Watchers, as can be seen in Daniel 4:10. However, at some stage in the development of the tradition it became acceptable to write apocalypses even in Hebrew. This preference is part of the intricate play on language switch in the Book of Daniel, resulting in the awkwardly phrased Hebrew visions in chapters 8–12.
Case Studies in Second Temple Judaism’s Literary Heritage: Jubilees and Qumran
The process outlined here reaches its culmination with the book of Jubilees and with the literature of the Yahad. Each one of these two in its own way grants precedence to the Hebrew language and denigrates the preceding Aramaic literature. Something must have happened in the second century BCE which brought about a revival of literary Hebrew and some reticence from the Aramaic genres prevalent until then. It is also of interest that 1 Maccabees was written in Hebrew. Did the shift have to do with the surge of nationalism during the Maccabean revolt, as suggested by the late Ben Zion Wacholder? Or maybe even earlier, as also Ben Sira wrote his book in Hebrew around 200 BCE? However we account for the increased usage of Hebrew by some authors during the first and second centuries BCE, while Aramaic writings were still copied and circulated, they seem to have lost precedence to the rival language of Hebrew.
In Jubilees 12, we find that Hebrew was not first discovered by Moses on Sinai, but rather already by Abraham, as an angel revealed it to him in a nocturnal vision. The gamut of Hebrew is thus extended, from the main periods of Israelite history to the marginal periods, where Aramaic once reigned. This instance squares with the strong nationalistic trend in Jubilees as a whole. The author simply could not accept that Abraham and the other patriarchs did not know Hebrew: in which language would they have encountered the Divine? In Jubilees we read the stories of Enoch and Noah, Abraham and Levi, not in their original Aramaic medium but rather in refined Hebrew form. The language shift thus goes hand in hand with a shift in content, as Jubilees domesticates the previous mythological-apocalyptic traditions by aligning them with the Torah, and by representing them in Hebrew rather than in Aramaic.
In the Qumran corpus, one encounters further advances in the preference for Hebrew. In Yahad circles, whatever is central and important should be written in Hebrew, not in Aramaic. Moreover, the figures of Enoch and Noah no longer play first fiddle at Qumran. We even encounter cases where older Aramaic wisdom is consciously translated into Hebrew, often with embellishments and reworking. Thus, we find a Hebrew Tobit at Qumran (4Q200), no doubt the fruit of translation from the original Aramaic; 1Q19 gives a Hebrew version of the story of Noah’s birth; 4Q186 uses horoscopic wisdom from the Aramaic 4Q561; and, finally, the Hebrew calendrical text 4Q317 uses the calculations of the Enochic astronomical book while adjusting them to a more liturgy-oriented ephemeris.
As a summary of a long and detailed article, published in Hebrew in 2009, this treatment cannot do justice to the myriad of details contained in that full study. Nor can all the historical and textual details fit into the smooth narrative depicted above, and some deviations must be admitted. Yet on the whole, we can still tell the story of Aramaic as a language which had originally conveyed the voice of the non-Jewish margins, while at the same time benefiting from their universal aura. This golden age of Jewish Aramaic, particularly successful in apocalyptic circles, gradually declined in the first to second centuries BCE, as Hebrew became the main choice for Jews to compose their literature.
Further Reading on Topics and Texts Treated in this Article
J. Ben-Dov, “Science in Aramaic and in Hebrew at Qumran: Translation and Concealment,” in Aramaica Qumranica: Proceedings of the Conference on the Aramaic Texts from Qumran in Aix-en-Provence, edited by K. Berthelot and D. Stökl Ben Ezra, STDJ 94 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 379–401.
J. Ben-Dov, “Hebrew and Aramaic Writing in the Pseudepigrapha and the Qumran Scrolls: The Ancient Near Eastern Background and the Quest for a Written Authority,” Tarbiz 78 (2009): 27–60 (Hebrew).
D. Dimant, “The Qumran Aramaic Texts and the Qumran Community,” in Flores Florentino: Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Early Jewish Studies in Honour of Florentino García Martínez, edited by A. Hilhorst, É. Puech, and E. Tigchelaar, JSJSup 122 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 197–205.
E. Tigchelaar, “Aramaic Texts from Qumran and the Authoritativeness of Hebrew Scriptures: Preliminary Observations,” in Authoritative Scriptures in Ancient Judaism, edited by M. Popović, JSJSup 141 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 155–71.
Jonathan Ben-Dov is George and Florence Wise Chair of Judaism in the Ancient World at the University of Haifa. Among his publications on the Aramaic texts from Qumran are the monograph Head of All Years: Astronomy and Calendars at Qumran in the Ancient Context (Brill, 2008), and the co-edited volume Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature (NYU, 2015).
The Ancient Jew Review and Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute forums and reviews commemorating the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Qumran scrolls were edited by Dr. Andrew Perrin (Trinity Western University), Dr. Andrew Krause (University of Münster), Dr. Jessica Keady (University of Chester), and Spencer Jones (Trinity Western University).
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