Old Aramaic

For the language used in Hebrew Bible, see Biblical Aramaic.

Old Aramaic
(up to 700 BCE)
Region Ancient Near East
Era up to 700 BCE
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 oar
Linguist List

Old Aramaic is an extinct version of the Aramaic language. It is a phrase used by some writers to refer to the same phenomenon that is called “Ancient Aramaic” by others. This gives rise to considerable confusion. It will therefore be helpful to describe the terminology of two leading figures in Aramaic scholarship, Joseph Fitzmyer and Klaus Beyer, who differ greatly in their analysis of the various periods of Aramaic and thus also in their usage of terms to describe those periods. Joseph Fitzmyer's articles are slightly earlier.

Fitzmyer proposes recognizing five phases in the development of Aramaic.[1]

1. Old Aramaic – from ca. 925 to 700 BCE
Includes numerous small inscriptions and fragments of three Sefire steles, including Samalian.

2. Official Aramaic – 700 to 200 BCE (also “Imperial” or “Standard Aramaic”). Attested in several places in Egypt (including Elephantine), in Arabia and Canaan, as well as Syria, Assyria and Babylonia, but even in the Indus Valley.

3. Middle Aramaic – roughly 200 BCE to 200 CE. This phase includes the emergence of real local dialects, including the dialects of: a) Canaan and Arabia (Nabatean, Qumran, Murabba’at etc.), b) Syria and Mesopotamia (Palmyra, Edessa and Hatra).

4. Late Aramaic – roughly 200 to 700 CE. He accepts two large geographical subdivisions: a) Western (Jewish Canaan Aramaic, Samaritan Aramaic and Christian Syro-Palestinian Aramaic), and b) Eastern (Syriac, Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic and Mandaic).

5. Modern Aramaic (with numerous dialects).

We may note that in this scheme, Fitzmyer does not employ the term “Ancient Aramaic” at all, and he does not use the term “Old Aramaic” for anything later than 700 BCE. For him, writings after 700 BCE. fall under Official Aramaic.

Beyer, on the other hand, uses the term “Old Aramaic” to cover not only the writings before the advent of Official Aramaic, but also includes Official Aramaic itself, and the later dialects of Old Eastern Aramaic and Old Western Aramaic. Thus he uses the term “Old Aramaic” to refer to everything written up until approximately 200 CE. Since Beyer’s classification of “Old Aramaic” is far more inclusive than Fitzmyer’s, Beyer uses the term “Ancient Aramaic” to refer to that earliest period which is called Old Aramaic by Fitzmyer. And we may also note that what Fitzmyer calls Middle Aramaic is included under the rubric of Old Aramaic by Beyer, while Beyer’s Middle Aramaic begins after 200 CE and thus corresponds to Fitzmeyer’s Late Aramaic. Beyer’s classification may thus be summarized as follows:[2]

I. Old Aramaic

A. Ancient Aramaic – 11th century BCE to approximately 500 BCE.

B. Imperial Aramaic – The official language of the western part of the Persian empire from approx. 500 BCE to approx. 200 CE, but may be divided into various dialects beginning in the second century BCE.

C. Old Eastern Aramaic and Old Western Aramaic – largely contemporary with Imperial Aramaic, but not used for official documents.

II. Middle Aramaic – from approx. 200 CE and extending throughout the Middle Ages.

A. Eastern Middle Aramaic

B. Western Middle Aramaic

III. Modern Aramaic (modern Eastern, modern Western and modern Mandaic)



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