[b-hebrew] Hebrew as a Spoken Language vs. Aramaic

Bryant J. Williams III bjwvmw at com-pair.net
Mon Oct 29 18:22:55 EDT 2007

Dear Dave,

It appears from the following article that Jews at the time of the Bar-Kokhba
Revolt were speaking and using the language of the area that they lived in. In
this instance, Babatha, who was from the Petra area spoke the Nabatean Aramaic,
used the Greek in official documents consistent with the Roman province of
Arabia (created 106 AD), but married in accordance to the Law of Moses. How this
will affect the use of Hebrew versus Aramaic is really not answered.

Of course, it would make sense that the Jews would speak the language of the
culture that they were living in, but I think that it is an argument from
silence to say that they would not speak Hebrew in Judah, even after the
Babylonian Exile. If what Ezra and Nehemiah indicate is true, then it speaks
volumes of the problem of intermarriage where the children would speak the
language of the mother. This is condemning the practice of Jewish men marrying
non-Jewish women (which is against the Law of Moses). Furthermore, it appears
from Ruth that she understood and spoke Hebrew. Just from the conversations with
Naomi and her husband, her deceased husband, Boaz, etc. It is apparent that
linguistically speaking that the people understood and spoke several languages.
My niece, who is American, teaches at a Missionary School in Lisbon. She speaks
American English, Portuguese and Spanish, fluently (she says that she even
dreams in those languages). Her husband is able to speak Portuguese and Spanish
(is slowly learning American English). Any children they might have will be able
to speak several languages. True, this is a small analogy, but I do not doubt
that this can be repeated, ad inifinitum, back several generations and is even
true at the time of Biblical Hebrew.

Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

This article from BAR can accessed online at the following:


Note the following about the Babatha Archive Letters:

Of the 35 documents in Babatha’s archive, 26 are written in Greek, six are
written in Nabatean (a dialect of         Aramaic spoken mainly in the area
southeast of the Dead Sea), and three are written in Aramaic (the Jewish
vernacular of the time).

    The Greek documents have been published in their entirety as a book. They
bear the signatures of people with traditional Jewish, Nabatean,c Roman and
Greek names. One of Babatha’s loan documents is signed by Kallaios son of John,
Simon son of Simon, Gaius Julius Proclus, Onesimos, Theodore, Joseph and John.5
Every name but Simon’s is Greek. Simon, Jesus, Elazar, Judah, Shelamzion and
Miriam are among the Jewish names that appear in her Greek documents. Others are
a combination of Jewish and Greek names, such as Elazar Khthousion and Judah
Cimber, in accordance with long-standing custom.6 Nabatean names, such as
Abdereus son of Soumaios, ‘Abd’obdath son of Shuheiru, and Nubi son of Walat,
are listed among the witnesses of the Petra council extract that appointed two
guardians for Babatha’s son. The two guardians are ‘Abdobdas son of Illouthas,
whose name is Nabatean, and John son of Eglas, whose name is Jewish.7 A judicial
summons written in Maoza is witnessed in Aramaic by Elazar son of Shim’on and by
Yehosef and Elazar, sons of Mattat; it is also witnessed in Greek by Thaddeus
son of Thaddeus.8 When Babatha sold a date crop in Maoza to Simon son of Jesus,
she had a Nabatean, Yohana son of Makhoutha, as her mandatory legal guardian for
the transaction.9 In general, Babatha’s documents indicate that Jews and
non-Jews transacted business together.

What can we learn from the formal elements of the documents in Babatha’s
archive? Many are in Greek because that was the official language of the Roman
province of Arabia and of the registries where transactions and legal decisions
were recorded. Some are in Aramaic because it was the first language of the area
’s Jewish residents. Others are in Nabatean because it was the dialect of
Aramaic used by the Arab residents of the southern and western regions around
the Dead Sea.

The Greek documents were written by scribes, some of whom were not very
proficient in Greek grammar.17 These documents show that Roman legal forms were
already in use a mere few decades after the Roman province of Arabia was formed
in 106 C.E. The Roman governor apparently traveled to different cities and towns
to hold official court sessions, each called a conventus in Latin and referred
to individually in these Greek documents as a parousia.18

    Jews clearly used the prevailing legal forms and institutions to make and
litigate contracts with other residents of the province. Several of the Greek
documents contain formal questions and answers concerning the validity of a
transaction,19 following the form of a Roman legal document called a stipulatio
in Latin. The ancient translation of Babatha’s subscription to her inventory and
the registration of her land includes her oath to its accuracy, sworn by the
tuche (the spirit, good fortune, protective deity [Latin, genius]) of Lord
Caesar, in good Roman fashion.20 Babatha’s original Aramaic subscription, which
was in the official document submitted to the government, was not included in
her personal copy, so we do not know what was written for her in Aramaic. We
should not assume, however, that she would have avoided such idolatrous
expressions as swearing by Caesar’s tuche. Kraemer has cited Latin Jewish
inscriptions containing invocations to gods such as Dis Manibus (the gods of the
lower world) and Iunonibus (the Juneans, referring perhaps to goddesses
associated with Juno). Some Jews may have felt comfortable using conventional
references to the gods without implying any commitment to their worship.21

    Her documents, and similar ones, reveal the influence of Greek norms as
well. In two Greek marriage contracts, one from Babatha’s archive and one from
another archive found in the Cave of Letters, the husbands commit to clothing
and feeding their wives and children according to Greek “custom” (nomo)29 or
Greek “custom and manner” (nomo kai tropo).30 In Babatha’s own Aramaic marriage
contract, however, Judah marries her “according to the law of Moses and the
 Jews” (yhwd’y).31 Similarly, in an Aramaic marriage contract from Wadi Murabba
‘at dating approximately to 117 C.E., the son of a man named Manasseh takes a
wife “according to the law of Moses” (kedin Moshe).32

    Both Greek and Aramaic forms seem to have been used interchangeably by Jews
around the Dead Sea area, perhaps with the same general meaning.33
Interestingly, we know of no Greek “custom and manner” of maintaining one’s
family. For example, the other Greek marriage contract from the Cave of
Letters34 provides for the support of the wife and children if the husband dies.
This provision is found not in Greek law, however, but in Jewish law. So even if
the contract says “according to Greek custom,” Jewish customs are being followed
by Jews who make contracts in Greek. Most probably, in this and other matters of
law the villagers followed prevailing local custom, which was called the “law of
Moses” in Hebrew and Aramaic and “Greek custom” in Greek.35

----- Original Message ----- 
From: <dwashbur at nyx.net>
To: <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: Monday, October 29, 2007 10:42 AM
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] Hebrew as a Spoken Language vs. Aramaic

I've read Qimron.  I'll have to see what I have of DJD 10.  I examined it for my
book, but
didn't really look that closely at the language discussion because it wasn't
germane at the

As I said before, I'm not in a position to have access to the journals at the
moment (that's
not likely to change for a good 6 months) so I can't examine Smith's article.
But what I have
seen of material that uses the DSS to draw conclusions about popular language of
the time
is generally (I emphasize this word) based on extrapolation from what's
observable in the
scrolls themselves. I question the legitimacy of this extrapolation.  The
majority of the
arguments I have seen say something like: these documents, although they are
religious in
nature, show that Hebrew wasn't just a religious language, but was also a
popular language.
The discussions that I've seen, though, never quite explain HOW this is so.
Smith's study
that you mention may indeed do such a thing, and if I can get my grubby little
hands on it, I'll
be glad to check it out.  To be continued.....................

On 29 Oct 2007 at 10:47, Ken Penner wrote:

> In response to Dave's position:
> > Again, I suggest that the DSS tell us nothing about Hebrew as
> > a common language of the era.
> The official publication of the DSS would suggest they do: E. Qimron, "The
Language," Qumrn Cave 4.V: Miq?at Ma?ase Ha-Torah (DJD 10; Clarendon: Oxford,
1994), 78-80.
> Also, Mark Smith examined the time reference of the waw-consecutive
> verbs in a broad selection of Qumran texts (Pesharim, Rule of the
> Community, Rule of the Congregation, Rule of Benedictions, War Scroll,
> Temple Scroll, and Halakhic Letter). He concluded that two usages of
> tenses (literary and spoken) existed in both Biblical and Qumran
> Hebrew: the literary form preserved the use of the (past)
> waw-consecutive, and the spoken form discarded it.  (M. Smith, The
> Origins and Development of the Waw-Consecutive; "Converted and
> Unconverted Perfect and Imperfect Forms in the Literature of Qumran,"
> BASOR 284 (1991):1-16; and "4Q462: A Preliminary Edition," Revue de
> Qumr n 15 (1991-2): 55-77.)
> Ken
> Ken M. Penner, Ph.D. (McMaster)
> Acadia/Greek&Hebrew
> Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic vocabulary memorization software:
> http://purl.org/net/kmpenner/flash

Dave Washburn
Why do it right when you can do it again?
b-hebrew mailing list
b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org

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