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Biblical Aramaic is the form of the Aramaic language that is used in the books of Daniel, Ezra and a few other places in the Hebrew Bible and should not be confused with the Aramaic paraphrases, explanations, and expansions of the Jewish scriptures known as targumim.
Biblical Aramaic's affinity to other types of Aramaic has been hotly debated largely due to its implications on dating the Book of Daniel. There are three main hypotheses. In 1929, Rowley argued that the origin must be later than the 6th century BCE and that the language was more similar to the Targums than the Imperial Aramaic documents available at his time. Others have argued that the language most closely resembles the 5th century Elephantine papyri and is therefore a good representative of typical Imperial Aramaic. KA Kitchen takes a middle position, noting that Biblical Aramaic is most similar to Imperial Aramaic between 600–330BC but that in no way means it could not have been written as late as 170BCE. Thus, Kitchen posits that the nature of Biblical Aramaic has no impact on dating.
Biblical Hebrew is the main language of the Hebrew Bible. Aramaic only accounts for about 250 verses out of a total of over 23,000. Biblical Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew as both are in the Northwest Semitic language family. Some obvious similarities and differences are listed below.
During the 8th century BCE, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Near East. Before that period, it had been the native language of the Aramaean city-states to the east. In 701 BCE, King Hezekiah of Judah negotiated with King Sennacherib of Assyria, as his army besieged Jerusalem. The account in 2 Kings 18:26 sets the meeting of the ambassadors of both camps just outside the city walls. Hezekiah's envoys pleaded that the Assyrians make terms in Aramaic so that the people listening would not understand. Thus, Aramaic had become the language of international dialogue, but not of the common people. In 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and exiled many of the people of Judah to the east. During the Babylonian exile, Aramaic became the language of necessity for the Jews and the Aramaic square script replaced the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. After the Persian Empire's capture of Babylon, it became the language of culture and learning. King Darius I declared that Aramaic was to be the official language of the western half of his empire in 500 BCE, and it is this Imperial Aramaic language that forms the basis of Biblical Aramaic.