A Conversation about Biblical Aramaic: A Reader & Handbook

biblical-aramaicIf you study Biblical Aramaic and haven’t yet gotten a chance to explore this new handbook, you’re in luck. We sat down with Amy Paulsen-Reed, one of the editors, so she can tell us more about the book and how it was put together.

But first, a bit about the book. Biblical Aramaic: A Reader & Handbook is designed to enable students, pastors, and scholars to read the Aramaic portions of the Bible with understanding and confidence. Created by Donald R. Vance, George Athas, Yael Avrahami, and our very own Jonathan G. Kline (who also developed the questions below), it contains the full text of the Aramaic portions of the Bible, extensive vocabulary and word lists, and an apparatus that contextually glosses and parses 94% of all vocabulary.

How is Biblical Aramaic: A Reader & Handbook different from other books on Biblical Aramaic? What are its unique features?

What makes Biblical Aramaic: A Reader & Handbook (BARH) different is that it contains vocabulary and morphology lists that use attested forms (the ones that occur in the text) and gives you their frequency so you can focus on the most common ones as opposed to memorizing paradigms full of forms you’ll never see in the biblical text. Also, the Reader section, which contains all the Aramaic texts from the Bible, contains a streamlined and more accessible apparatus than the BHS Reader, especially with regard to the parsings.

biblical aramaic features

Is this a grammar of Biblical Aramaic? Is it a reference book?

Unlike most of the resources out there, BARH focuses on helping the student learn and understand the forms that occur in the biblical text, as opposed to only lexical forms. It is not a grammar, although by studying the lists, which organize words according to parts of speech, stem, and strong/weak root types, the student will be inductively learning various aspects of the grammar.

BARH is thus complementary to Biblical Aramaic grammars, since the lists display the grammatical forms in a fresh and logical way, which will reinforce one’s study of a traditional grammar or textbook. It is also complementary to a grammar in that it provides the full Aramaic text from the BHS Reader, which makes it easier to access the Aramaic portions of the Hebrew Bible. This book greatly enriches and reinforces study of any Biblical Aramaic grammar.

Who is BARH for?

BARH is for anyone learning Biblical Aramaic at any level. If you’re just starting out and want to focus on basic vocabulary, you can easily identify the most common words and forms since everything is organized by frequency; and if you’ve already taken a course and want to refresh your memory, the lists allow you to identify and focus on the areas you most need to review. And again, the fact that you’re only seeing the forms that actually occur in the text means that all of your study and review directly improves your ability to read the biblical text, whether you’re a beginner or a veteran.

BARH contains a lot of lists. How are these organized, and why are they useful?

biblical-aramaic-close-up-insideJonathan Kline, our academic editor and the architect of these lists, put a lot of thought into creating these. He starts off by giving you two frequency lists: one containing all the words in Biblical Aramaic that occur two times or more, and one containing all the hapax legomena (words that only occur once). The first of these two lists allows you to easily see the most common words. The first 50 words in the list take you down to a frequency of 18, while the first 100 words take you down to a frequency of 10; and the next 100 words take you down to a frequency of 5. This is both encouraging and motivating, because you don’t have to memorize too many words in order to really get a handle on the vocabulary of Biblical Aramaic.

List #3 is a master verb list by frequency, which is also super encouraging to look at. If you study the 20 most common verbs, you’re already down to a frequency of 10! The same goes for the Common Noun List – the first 40 words get you down to a frequency of 10. The genius of these lists is that they provide a clear, focused path of study that leads towards mastery, with mastery defined as the ability to read and understand the biblical texts in Aramaic.

There are verb lists by stem (G, D, etc.), and again, they only show the forms attested in the text, so if a verb only shows up as 3ms, 3mp, and 3fs, those are the only forms given in the paradigm. The same goes for the lists of weak verbs (I-Aleph, II-Ayin, etc.).

There are also lists of forms (of all parts of speech) that have pronominal suffixes: ms nouns with 3ms suffixes, fs nouns with 3ms suffixes, and so on. This provides an inductive experience with Biblical Aramaic in a more focused, organized way than just reading the text.

There are also lists of easily confused words, such as homonyms and consonantal homographs (the consonants are the same, but the vowels are different). And at the end, Jonathan gives you lists of Persian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Greek, and Hebrew loanwords that occur in the Aramaic text, which is both fascinating and helpful.

What exactly is in the Reader section of BARH?

First of all, the Reader contains every bit of Aramaic in the Hebrew Bible, including the isolated Aramaic verses from Genesis and Jeremiah. And since it’s a Reader, it provides glosses (definitions) for all except the 25 most common words. This means that once you learn those 25 words, you don’t have to consult a dictionary for less common vocabulary – it’s all right there on the bottom half of the page.

The notes to the Reader also contain parsings for all verbs. One difference between the parsings provided in the BHS Reader and this Reader is that BARH has the space to spell out the parsings, as opposed to using a code that you have to memorize. For example, where BARH gives you “G SC 3ms” (Grundstamm, suffix conjugation, 3rd-person masculine singular), the BHS Reader gives you “G12,” which requires you to have already memorized the specific numbered grammatical code that it uses. The fact that BAHR actually gives you the parsing makes it more accessible.

Do the vocabulary lists in BARH just contain basic definitions for the words, or do they provide contextual glosses?

biblical-aramaic-insideGreat question. When you look a word up in the dictionary, you have a list of possible meanings. A contextual gloss means that the definition given is the one that best fits the context of a particular verse. BAHR gives you the contextual gloss. This saves you the step of trying to decide which of several definitions applies to the specific verse you’re reading and helps you avoid the mistake of thinking that all of the definitions apply at once (the “totality transfer” fallacy).

I already have a copy of Biblia Hebraica: A Reader’s Edition (a.k.a., the BHS Reader). Is this book just an excerpted version of the Bible’s Aramaic texts from the BHS Reader?

Nope! As I mentioned above, the parsing information is spelled out more fully, as opposed to using a numbered code. The annotations for the Reader section of BARH are more accessible and easier to understand. In addition, two-thirds of BARH consists of its extensive vocabulary and morphology lists, none of which are found in the BHS Reader.

Can BARH be used in a Biblical Aramaic course?

BARH cannot replace a traditional grammar or textbook, but it is an invaluable tool for any student of Biblical Aramaic. On a syllabus, it would be an excellent “recommended text.”


Amy Paulsen-Reed is an Assistant Editor and Sales Rep at Hendrickson Publishers. She has a doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, where she focused on Jewish biblical interpretation in antiquity. She lives in Burlington, MA with her husband Michael and her daughter Lillian. She is a self-confessed language and grammar nerd, and enjoys cooking, baking, and napping in her spare time.

barhFor more information about Biblical Aramaic: A Reader & Handbook, visit our website.

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