Enlarging the Aramaic Library of Ancient Judaism
The cache of Aramaic literature that gradually emerged from the caves near Qumran provides us with an important new window onto Judaism of the Second Temple period. Some of these scrolls furnished early, original-language witnesses to books about which we had previously known only through later translations – for example, 1 Enoch and Tobit – or the Jewish and Christian biblical canons, as in the case of Daniel. Most scrolls, however, offered tantalizing glimpses of Aramaic works that had been lost completely (e.g., the Genesis Apocryphon and Visions of Amram), or were merely echoed in later, significantly-altered writings in Greek (see the Aramaic Levi Document, a source for the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs). In the Aramaic Job copies from Cave 4 and Cave 11 we retrieved our only certain translation of a Hebrew book. Now, with the relatively recent full publication of the Aramaic texts from Qumran, primarily by Émile Puech, we can begin to study these texts as a group, and to appreciate the sum of this material as the skeletal remains of a broad Jewish literary movement.
The most studied and consequential aspect of the Aramaic scrolls to date may well be their Aramaic language. There are several good reasons for this.
First, prior to the discovery of these scrolls we possessed very few witnesses to the Aramaic language for a several-century period between the relatively standardized Official Aramaic of the Persian Empire and an assortment of later, much more diverse, Aramaic dialects. Beginning with the Genesis Apocryphon of Cave 1 (published in 1956), the Aramaic texts from Qumran offered an exciting new source of Aramaic for this “missing” period, a period termed by Joseph Fitzmyer “Middle Aramaic,” and by Klaus Beyer “Hasmonean Aramaic.”
Second, studying the Aramaic language of the scrolls held forth the best promise for efforts at dating them. As narrative texts that often rewrote or were modelled on earlier Hebrew texts from Israel’s past, such as Genesis, very few of these Aramaic literary compositions contain clear indicators of their date of composition. Dating accurately the language of a text offered one way of getting around this problem.
A third reason for interest in the language of these texts was a strong curiosity about the original language of Jesus, especially in 20th-century Europe. The groundwork of this interest had been laid well before the Qumran discoveries, by scholars studying the historical Jesus and compositional history of the gospels such as Gustav Dalman, Julius Wellhausen, and Matthew Black. The publication of the Aramaic scrolls incited a heated debate over their contribution to the language of Jesus, with the importance of the Qumran texts being championed by the likes of Martin Delcor and, especially, Joseph Fitzmyer.
The study of what has now become known as “Qumran Aramaic” is often, and with good reason, traced back to the seminal study of Yehezqel Kutscher on “The Language of the Genesis Apocryphon” in 1958. From that single article this sub-field has matured over nearly six decades to include such tools as reference grammars of Qumran Aramaic by Ursula Schattner-Rieser (2004) and Takamitsu Muraoka (2011), and Edward Cook’s recent Dictionary of Qumran Aramaic (2015). Many articles, doctoral dissertations, and monographs can be found dedicated to the topic of Qumran Aramaic from researchers working in Israel, Europe, North America, and elsewhere. Despite these contributions, much work remains to be done on the Aramaic of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
With this brief overview in mind, for the remainder of this essay I wish to concentrate on what I see as a few challenges and new directions in the study of Qumran Aramaic.
Our Basic Approach: The Typological Method of Dating Texts and Its Critics
The diachronic dating of a text’s language depends on slow, but discernable, shifts in how language was written, which in turn may reflect changes in spoken idiom or reading practices. With enough texts to study, we can begin to detect these shifts, cautiously place them in time and space, and then label individual linguistic traits as either earlier or later, relatively speaking.
For Aramaic, this phenomenon is nicely illustrated by which form of the relative pronoun is used in a text. In our oldest Aramaic works, the relative pronoun was זי. However, at some point the initial zayin shifted to a harder, dental sound and was replaced with a dalet, resulting in די. Eventually, something else happened to this word: It became optional to use a shortened form ד־, which was prefixed to the following word. In his early article on the Genesis Apocryphon, Kutscher used this linguistic shift, and many others like it, to determine the date of that scroll as being around the turn of the Common Era. Major points of comparison – or chronological anchors – for Kutscher were the earlier Aramaic of Daniel, and the later Aramaic of Targum Onqelos to the Pentateuch, between which he placed the Apocryphon. With this point now fixed, newly published scrolls from Qumran could be placed relative to the previously established dates, something that Edward Cook later termed the “typological method” of dating texts.
Kutscher’s lead was followed by a number of excellent linguists, such as Michael Sokoloff and Stephen Kaufman. In time, however, the typological method ran into trouble. Edward Cook and Michael Wise pointed to factors for which Kutscher’s basic model did not adequately account. Wise highlighted the potentially important social factor of diglossia, in which one community, or even one person, could access two forms of a language – a “high” dialect and a “low” dialect. These two dialects – which might include what to later scholars seem to be diachronic differences – could alternate based upon different social situations or text genres, undermining confidence in dating by such “diglossic” traits. Cook’s arguments focused more on variation due to geographic location and individual scribal preferences, a point on which I will elaborate below. Unease with any straightforward typological approach has continued to grow, as seen in the recent work of Aaron Koller and Holger Gzella. At this stage, a much more complex model is under construction, a model which seeks to account for geographic, social, and other factors alongside the reality of diachronic linguistic change. Returning to our example from above, many would now argue that זי, די, and ד־ might well have been used at roughly the same time, depending on who was writing, and where they were doing so. While Kutscher’s method and diachronic dating should not be discarded, it is now being recognized that we should temper the confidence and precision with which we date texts.
Scribal Preference and the Distinction between “Original Composition” and Later Copies
It will come as no surprise to those who have studied the Qumran texts, or indeed any other textual corpus from antiquity, that the scribes who wrote the copies we now possess were individuals with their own peculiar habits. This can be seen plainly in their penmanship, but it also extended to the realm of linguistic preference. With the increased number of Aramaic manuscripts now available, especially multiple copies of a single work, we can better appreciate the ways in which – and the extent to which – scribes could alter the language of a text in the process of its transmission.
Drawing again on our example from above, in a parallel passage from two copies of the Animal Apocalypse of 1 Enoch, 4Q205 uses the later form of the relative pronoun די, while for the same phrase 4Q206 has the earlier זי. Hundreds of other examples of this phenomenon may now be adduced from the Qumran texts, though it is important to stress that these changes seem to have taken place within a relatively fixed range of diversity. What do such changes mean for attempts at the linguistic dating of texts?
First of all, it drives home the point made in the previous section: If we know that scribes could and did change certain linguistic traits during copying – traits that would otherwise be used for diachronic comparison and dating – we must remain circumspect about the confidence and precision with which we assign dates to texts. Furthermore, we must be careful to specify what we are dating. When we say we are dating the language of a “text” or a “work”, do we mean the language of the earliest stages of when a text was composed? Or perhaps we mean the language of only this copy, which may have been created at an appreciably later time? Do we mean both, assuming these are essentially the same thing? It is important to keep such questions in mind as we seek to place the Qumran texts in time and place based on their language.
To make matters even more complicated, Steven Fassberg and others have questioned the frequent assumption that a “later” linguistic trait always bespeaks a later historical situation, since it may also be that scribes intentionally used archaic language in some situations. With all of this before us, we can affirm Cook’s observation that “nothing is more certain than that individual scribes differed in their use of such features as matres lectionis, use of שֺ or ס, retention of historical spellings, and so on.”
It may seem from my comments thus far that dating a text by its language is hopeless, but there remain good reasons to invest time and energy into this enterprise. One such reason is that scribal fluctuation can be measured in cases where copies of a work overlap, something that occurs nearly 80 times in the Qumran Aramaic texts, if we include overlaps between the Aramaic portions of Daniel and the Masoretic Text (approximately 50 times without such occurrences). These overlaps are very important, permitting us to gain a partial sense of the types and extent of changes that might be made from copy to copy during the Second Temple period. This makes it possible to factor scribal preferences into our assessments, thereby making them more reliable.
Another factor with the potential to inform comparative study of the language of the Aramaic Qumran texts is ongoing investigations into whether, or to what extent, these texts comprise a coherent corpus. If we determine that some of the texts have strong family resemblances, and were likely to have emerged from a common Jewish social situation, this has implications for how homogenous we might expect the linguistic background of the literature to be. The same may be said if we can establish that certain works do not share much in common in terms of their content and composition.
Establishing the Limits of a Dialect, and Asking whether Qumran Aramaic Is One
A related, and notoriously knotty, topic is how much linguistic variation we can tolerate while still considering the various texts under discussion as belonging to the same “dialect” of Aramaic. This question may seem like a minor one, but where we draw the boundaries of dialects can have significant consequences for how we integrate the literature into our sketches of Second Temple period Judaism. In reality, distinguishing between dialects is just a way for us to categorize and codify what we consider to be important differences in a broader language system, which maintains an overall coherence and core intelligibility. Since language is inextricably tied to real people in the real world, there are often social or historical divisions that are created or reinforced by the allotment of language dialects. Of course, one scholar might well distinguish differently between dialects than another, and often dialects are as much the result of historical or social developments as true linguistic difference.
In the 1970s the label Qumran Aramaic came into use and grew to be treated as a distinctive linguistic entity. The most closely-related dialect is undoubtedly Biblical Aramaic, and particularly the Aramaic section of Daniel, with which Qumran Aramaic has repeatedly been compared. However, with all of the Qumran evidence now available, the distinction between “Qumran Aramaic” on the one hand and “Biblical Aramaic” on the other should, in my opinion, be reassessed. There are two reasons for this.
First, Daniel – the chief constituent of Biblical Aramaic – is also, strictly speaking, Qumran Aramaic. (The same can be said for the Aramaic of Ezra and Jeremiah 10:11.) The book of Daniel was found in numerous copies at Qumran, and were it not for our prior sense of Daniel as a canonical book, and all other Aramaic works from Qumran as non-canonical, we would surely be at ease placing the Aramaic chapters of Daniel alongside the other Aramaic Qumran texts as yet another example of Qumran Aramaic. It is surely also canonical and historical reasons that have led to Daniel being regularly treated in isolation from other Qumran Aramaic texts, despite Daniel’s striking affinities with the broader Aramaic corpus from Qumran.
Second, both Biblical Aramaic and Qumran Aramaic are themselves quite varied, and overlap with one another to such an extent that a clear distinction between the two may be questioned. In Biblical Aramaic, Jer 10:11 and Ezra’s Aramaic portions bear the marks of an earlier form of the language than Daniel. Daniel can also be said to have a few “earlier” – or at least different – linguistic traits than many Qumran Aramaic texts. For example, a number of scholars have noted that Daniel has a palpably greater variety in sentence structure (syntax) than does a “middle of the road” Qumran Aramaic text like the Genesis Apocryphon, Book of Giants, or Tobit. However, with almost any such trait chosen for comparison we can find a non-biblical Qumran Aramaic text as a counter-example. In the one or two cases where a distinctive trait may remain in a text like Daniel, we may debate whether it is enough to maintain the linguistic distinction between Biblical Aramaic and Qumran Aramaic. One benefit of this debate will be a greater appreciation of Daniel’s natural placement among the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls, not just the Biblical Dead Sea Scrolls.
Terminology: Biblical Aramaic, Qumran Aramaic, Something Else?
There are legitimate reasons to maintain the label Biblical Aramaic when focusing on the canonical corpus only, but I have suggested above that there are some problems with using that designation in contrast to – and to indicate an earlier dialect than – Qumran Aramaic. Yet, before we undo this distinction, it is worth asking which terms might serve us better.
Klaus Beyer, followed recently by Holger Gzella, included Qumran Aramaic under the broader category Hasmonaean Aramaic (which is preceded by Biblical Aramaic), and this is one possible option. The problem is that it leads to the impression that these texts were composed in the Hasmonean period, which I and most others working on these texts believe is incorrect; they are largely pre-Hasmonean.
Another option is Jonas Greenfield’s Standard Literary Aramaic, under which he importantly included both Biblical Aramaic and Qumran Aramaic. Sokoloff and Fassberg each tweaked Greenfield’s label, using instead the designations Jewish Literary Aramaic and Standard Jewish Literary Aramaic, respectively. In my opinion, the one drawback of this label is that it does not give a chronological sense of the dialect.
For this reason, I suggest that the language of Biblical Aramaic and Qumran Aramaic be combined under the category Early Jewish Literary Aramaic. This label has the advantage of signalling the literary character of the language (following Greenfield and many others), its several Jewish characteristics (with Sokoloff and Fassberg), and its diachronic placement at the beginning of specifically Jewish Aramaic dialects, such as Jewish Palestinian Aramaic and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. The word “Early” also avoids fixing the dialect to a specific politico-historical period, such as “Hasmonaean” or “Hellenistic,” with which it is unlikely to coincide neatly.
Of course, under this general heading we remain free to explore the finer contours and development of the dialect attested between the various compositions and copies, including between the now-biblical works (traditionally Biblical Aramaic) and those that did not achieve canonical status (traditionally Qumran Aramaic). We may compare texts with more “eastern” and more “western” features (e.g., the syntactic differences between Daniel and the Genesis Apocryphon), or with “earlier” and “later” features (e.g., the Prayer of Nabonidus and Tobit), all the while recognizing that these differences occur among what are much more substantial and numerous linguistic similarities, warranting their treatment together as one tool to help us better understand these fascinating texts and their place in ancient Jewish life.
Further reading on topics and texts treated in this article see:
K. Beyer, The Aramaic Language: Its Distribution and Subdivisions, translated by John F. Healey (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986).
E. M. Cook, A Dictionary of Qumran Aramaic (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2015).
J. A. Fitzmyer, “The Contribution of Qumran Aramaic to the Study of the New Testament,” New Testament Studies 20 (1974): 382–407.
Y. Kutscher, “The Language of the ‘Genesis Apocryphon’: A Preliminary Study,” Aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by C. Rabin and Y. Yadin (Jerusalem: Magness Press, 1958), 1–35.
T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Qumran Aramaic, ANES 38 (Leuven: Peeters, 2011).
U. Schattner-Rieser, L’araméen des manuscrits de la mer Morte, I: Grammaire, (Prahins: Éditions du Zèbre, 2004).
Daniel Machiela is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University. His published work on the Qumran Aramaic texts includes a text-edition and topical study of the Genesis Apocryphon (Brill, 2009) and articles in Dead Sea Discoveries, Journal of Jewish Studies, Journal of Biblical Literature, and Revue de Qumran. He is currently writing a two-volume handbook on the language, literature, and scribal contexts of the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls.
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).
For news, events, and research opportunities at the Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute follow Twitter.com/twudssi and Facebook.com/twudssi.