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The First Riddle: Part One

Above: Aramaic text from a 17th century New Testament Lectionary. Aramaic has played an important role in the composition of Scripture, biblical history, and the history of the Church.

And the king said to them, “I had a dream, and my spirit is troubled to know the dream.”Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.” Daniel 2:4

For by people of strange lips ​​​​​​​and with a foreign tongue ​​​​​​​the LORD will speak to this people, ​​​ ​​​​to whom he has said, ​​​​​​​“This is rest; ​​​​​​​give rest to the weary; ​​​​​​​and this is repose”; ​​​​​​​yet they would not hear. ​Isaiah 28:11

Much is said about the Bible and, unfortunately, most of it is faulty. The Book of Daniel is no exception; in fact, this book’s remarkable features have made it a magnet for mystics and skeptics alike. Fortunately, the Scripture is given to us as for our learning, so we can be confident that we can understand it! Over the next few posts, we will explore three puzzling features of Daniel’s book and see how a complete understanding of Daniel’s ministry allows us to unravel each of these riddles.

The First Riddle: Language

Are you bilingual? The Book of Daniel is! Daniel’s book contains the single most extensive collection of Aramaic text in the Bible. The Book of Jeremiah features a verse of Aramaic, and Ezra contains excerpts of official letters written in Aramaic; but the Book of Daniel is composed of nearly six chapters of Aramaic text—half of the book itself. What’s more, the Aramaic arrives without warning in the second chapter, proceeding out of the mouth of Nebuchadnezzar’s wise men midway through verse four:

And the king said to them, “I had a dream, and my spirit is troubled to know the dream.” Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.”

From this point, Aramaic constitutes the remainder of chapter two and all of chapters three through seven. The Book of Daniel opens in Hebrew (Dan. 1:1–2:4a) but quickly gives place to Aramaic (2:4b–7:28), only to return to Hebrew for the remaining five chapters (Dan. 8:1–12:13). This surprising arrangement has fostered much discussion and speculation over the years; however, the answer to this riddle resides in the text itself—in the passages of Daniel and the languages in which they are written.

What Is Aramaic?

Aramaic is an ancient Semitic language that takes its name from the region of Aram (“Paddan-aram” Gen. 25:20; 28:2), an area shared today by Syria, Lebanon, southeast Turkey, and western Iraq. This ancient language dates to the days of the Patriarchs (Gen. 28:5–7; Dt. 26:5), and was certainly used by them before they took up Hebrew, the “lip of Canaan” (Gen. 31:47; Isa. 19:18).1 

Aramaic was elevated to international status in the eighth century BC by the up-and-coming Assyrian Empire, who selected Aramaic as the language of choice for diplomatic affairs (1 Ki. 18:26). The language grew increasingly influential under Assyria’s successors—the Babylonians and the Persians—making such headway among the general populace as to make it the dominant language of Mesopotamia by the time of Daniel (605 BC), and the dominant language of Palestine by the time of Nehemiah (445 BC).2 

By the time of Christ, Aramaic was the chief vernacular of the ancient Near East, a place of prominence it would hold until the Arab conquests of the 7th century AD. Greek was well known and frequently spoken in New Testament times—especially among the educated and elite—but Aramaic was the one language that enabled the various peoples of the ancient Near East to meet and converse together, regardless of their background or social status.3 

Back to Babylon (6th Century BC)

The linguistic switch of Daniel 2:4 would have surprised the Jews of Daniel’s time. While Aramaic was on many a Mesopotamian tongue, it was new and foreign to the average Jew of the 6th century BC. The Jews spoke and wrote in Hebrew and would continue to do so for years after the Babylonian captivity.4  The presence of six Aramaic chapters in Daniel seems odd when one notes that the exilic books of Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel, as well as all of the post-exilic books, were written in Hebrew.

So, why all the Aramaic? Well, before we could explore that question in detail, we had to give you a basic understanding of the nature and history of Aramaic, especially as it relates to the Bible. We will apply this knowledge in our next post to get to the bottom of this linguistic riddle.

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1.  Gleason Archer,  A Survey of the Old Testament,  (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 2007), 117.

2.  Archer, A Survey of the Old Testament, 116–117; Franz Rosenthal, A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, (Wiesbaden: Harrossowitz Verlag, 2006), 10.

3.  Rosenthal, A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, 9; The Aramaic of Daniel in the Light of Old Aramaic  (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), 11.

3.  F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments  (Old Tappan: Fleming Revel Co., 1984), 44.

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