Special guest post by Jordash Kiffiak, co-author of Living Christian Aramaic
Syriac is not merely the dialect of Aramaic that provides learners with the largest body of Aramaic literature, including a lengthy catalog of Christian texts written in a Semitic language and related to the Bible and the earliest followers of Jesus. Syriac also serves as the most complete entrance to the study of other dialects of Aramaic, including the Aramaic in which ten chapters of the Bible were originally composed. These two points can be further elaborated.
The rich body of literature pertinent to the Bible, as well as to Christian thought and tradition, that is penned in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic is itself vast. The corpus includes, on the one hand, Christian commentaries on biblical books, theological treatises and sermons, beautiful poetry, and liturgical texts. On the other hand, early, important translations of biblical books were made in Syriac. First, the Peshitto (West Syriac; “Peshitto” is pronounced “Peshitta” in East Syriac)—a Jewish and pre-Christian translation of the Hebrew Bible from Hebrew into Syriac—preserves important evidence of Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures at around the time of Jesus. Second, various translations of the New Testament into Syriac (the New Testament Peshitto and, more importantly, the Old Syriac Gospels) attest to an important ancient understanding of the Christian Scriptures within a context of Semitic believers in Jesus, a world of thought that therefore bears special proximity of thought to the early Jesus movement. This point pertains, incidentally, also to the early Syriac Christian writers, Ephrem and Aphrahat, who preserve a special connection with the Semitic, Jewish roots of Christianity, being less influenced by Hellenistic modes of thought than the Christian writers in Greek and Latin of this period.
Learning Syriac opens the door to other dialects of Aramaic, notably the Aramaic used in the writing of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra. Unfortunately, only a little material preserves the Aramaic used there—namely, six chapters in Daniel and four in Ezra. For this reason, it is very difficult to get a meaningful grasp of that language from what remains. (For example, it would be impossible to create the Aramaic textbook we are offering, using the biblical Aramaic dialect, since so little of the vocabulary in the textbook is attested in Daniel and Ezra.) Given the Biblical Language Center’s focus on the Scriptures, it is no minor point that gaining fluency in Syriac is the single best means of attaining reading fluency and comprehension of the biblical texts in Aramaic!
Knowledge of Syriac also provides a helpful door through which one can access a rich body of literature in yet further dialects of Aramaic, providing additional context for Jesus and his early followers, alongside other Jews of the Second Temple period and beyond. One can read a variety of deuterocanonical and parabiblical texts from this period that either were composed in Aramaic dialects beyond Syriac, with fragments in the original language still extant (such as 1 Enoch and the Genesis Apocryphon), or were penned in Hebrew and preserved in part or in whole in important translations in Aramaic (such as Tobit). One can go on to read the Targums, early Jewish commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, and the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, 4th and 5th century collections of stories and legal rulings. Also one can read the translation of the New Testament into Christian Palestinian Aramaic, a Western Aramaic dialect which nevertheless uses the Syriac script.