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Aramaic Literature in the Dead Sea Scrolls

The 30 Aramaic texts in the Qumran library reveal the currents of thought that circulated more broadly in Second Temple Judaism.

Text of 1 Enoch in 4QEnoch (4Q201)
Text of 1 Enoch in 4QEnoch (4Q201)

Readers of the New Testament may know that Jesus’ native language was likely Aramaic, the language of the first-century Jews living in the Galilee. Aramaic was not a “native” tongue but an imported one, imposed during the waves of imperial occupation of the near East by Assyria and Persia, where it was the official language. This imperial history is reflected in the pages of the Bible itself, where certain texts were actually composed in Aramaic, including Gen 31:47, Jer 10:11, Ezra 4:8-6:18, Ezra 7:12-26, and Dan 2:4b-7:28. 2Kgs 18:26 illustrates this linguistic history and the tension it created between regional groups and imperial powers.

Due to its increased use in Assyrian and Babylonian administration, Aramaic took hold in many areas as both the official and vernacular language from the eighth century B.C.E. onward. As Alexander the Great pressed across the ancient Near East in the late fourth century B.C.E., the Greek language spread in his wake along with Hellenistic culture.

While Aramaic and Greek were for many centuries the dominant imperial languages of the region, Hebrew was the idiom of Israelite tradition and the mother tongue of peoples with a common heritage in the Israelite tribal confederacy and the monarchies of the tenth to the sixth centuries B.C.E. In other words, Hebrew was a local language that fostered a “linguistic community” of Israelites and, later, Jews—even if those people also learned Aramaic, Greek, and other languages as a matter of necessity.

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide a snapshot of Judea’s multilingual makeup in the mid-to- late Second Temple period (the fourth century BCE to the first century CE), with copies of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek writings among its collection. Ten to 13 percent of the Qumran library was written in Aramaic. In addition to a modest collection of documentary texts (for example, lists, contracts, and transaction records) these texts represent some 30 ancient Jewish literary compositions. Among these are writings that  were eventually canonized in the Hebrew Bible (for example, Dan 27), texts received among the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon (for example, Tobit), and other works often termed pseudepigraphal because they are first-person narratives attributed to characters from the scriptural past (for example, 1 Enoch).

The collection also includes previously unknown texts of various descriptions and genres (for example, Genesis Apocryphon or the cave 11 Job translation). Collectively, the suite of Aramaic literature reflects the literary heritage of southern Judean scribes adept at retelling, expounding, and translating the Hebrew scriptural traditions. Since these works were read, but not likely penned, at Qumran, the Aramaic texts provide an ideal space for exploring the currents of thought that circulated more broadly through Second Temple Judaism.

The tales told in the Aramaic texts generally cluster around two poles of Israelite history. Works like Visions of Amram or the Aramaic Levi Document expand and extend the authority of the patriarchal traditions of Genesis by reworking existing character portraits and interpreting episodes to include more contemporary interests. Writings such as Four Kingdoms and Pseudo-Daniel represent historically fictive settings in the post-exilic world, often in a court-tale setting akin to that of the early chapters of Daniel. Regardless of their narrative locations, the writings in the collection contain recurring interests and motifs, from dream-visions and prayers to apocalyptic outlooks and priestly traditions.

Beyond the bounds of Qumran studies, the Aramaic texts are relevant to students of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The Aramaic cycle of visionary tales in Daniel, as well as the imperial correspondences imbedded in Ezra, may now be contextualized alongside writings of the same time period and language. Items such as the expectation of an eschatological city in the Aramaic New Jerusalem may be compared with the vision of Rev 21:9-27, and the narrative depiction of Abraham laying on hands in prayer in Genesis Apocryphon 20:28–19 contains the earliest known precursor to this practice, featured in writings like Acts 28:8.

In these ways, the Qumran Aramaic materials contribute to our understanding of the context of the later books of the Hebrew Bible, recovering a more complete picture of ancient Jewish thought and practice, and mapping the trajectories of those traditions into early Christian literature such as the New Testament.

  • Andrew B. Perrin

    Andrew B. Perrin is assistant professor of religious studies and co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University. His recent publications include the book The Dynamics of Dream-Vision Revelation in the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015). His current research project is a commentary on the Qumran Aramaic texts for the Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls series.