Words in Context


Middle East archaeologist David Down reads between the lines of an an ancient Aramaic manuscript. He discovers a message that’s still relevant.

In May 2005 with 23 keen, amateur archaeologists, I made an interesting discovery at Mareshah, in Israel, where we have been excavating for the past six years. In all my years of excavations, I’ve found a lot, but never an inscription. This year proved a bonanza; we found 18! It is from such ancient inscriptions that much of our knowledge of the ancient world is derived.

There were three main types of writing material used in antiquity: papyrus (like paper), made from papyrus reeds of Egypt; parchment and vellum, made from animal skins; and inscriptions on pottery shards. The first two were expensive, but broken pottery was plentiful and could be written on with a reed brush dipped in water containing charcoal powder. Such inscribed pieces of pottery are termed ostraca. They could be used for unimportant commercial documents, memos to be kept on file, or writing a love note to a girlfriend.

They were mostly commercial documents our group unearthed and, as one might suspect, they appear unimportant, being mostly sales and receipts. But they weren’t without interest, especially to me. They contain names, which reveal the nationality of the writers, and the items mentioned disclose much about the business status of the community. But of particular interest to me as a scholar of Bible times was that they were written in Aramaic.

Aram was the Hebrew word for Syria, and the Syrian language became the common language of this area from Babylon to Israel. Aramaic was not really a separate language; rather, it was more a dialect.
Some of the Bible was originally written in Aramaic. In Matthew 27:46 it’s recorded that Jesus, on the cross, cried out: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” The text itself gives the meaning, adding, “… that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?‘”* Mark has Jesus saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.” This isn’t a contradiction; rather, Mark is simply translating the Hebrew into Aramaic.

Some six centuries before, the Old Testament prophet Daniel made an interesting use of Aramaic. Chapter two, verse four, says, “Then the Chaldeans spoke to the king in Aramaic …” From that point to the end of chapter seven, Daniel writes in Aramaic. Then he resumed his recording of the prophecies in Hebrew. This aberration has intrigued scholars for generations and they are by no means agreed on the reason for it. But there must be a reason, and what follows is my view.

A Prophecy For All

The section Daniel chapters two to seven deals with matters pertaining to the history and future of Babylon: Chapter two depicts Babylon as a head of gold; chapter three was the golden image Nebuchadnezzar set up; chapter four is the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which led to his conversion; chapter five is about Belshazzar seeing the writing on the wall (it’s from here that the common expression is derived); chapter six is the children’s favourite story, that of Daniel in the lions’ den; chapter seven contains the symbolism of the four great beasts, a prophecy, with the first beast a lion with eagles’ wings.

Both the Babylonians and the Persians would have understood the meaning of this, for right in the middle of Babylon stood a statue of a lion standing astride a fallen man. To them it represented Babylon’s supremacy over the nations.

The book of Daniel would eventually be incorporated into the Hebrew Bible, but at that time, I would think, Daniel would have wanted the people of Babylon to understand the meaning of their history. Given his concern for the salvation of the king (in chapter four), he would want them to have access to these messages, written in a language they understood—Aramaic.

This, I believe, is a simple explanation as to why Daniel wrote those chapters in Aramaic. But why revert to Hebrew from chapter eight? For much the same reason, but in reverse.

The Babylonians wouldn’t have understood the message of chapter eight at all. It begins with Medo-Persia, and isn’t about Babylon. Even Daniel didn’t fully understand it. The last verse says, “I, Daniel, fainted and was sick for days … I was astonished by the vision; but no-one understood it.

However, the symbolism of Daniel eight is easily interpreted: the ram symbolised “the kings of Media and Persia” (verse 20), and the goat represented the king. That first king was Alexander the Great. Then came a “little horn” (verse 9), which symbolised Rome in both its pagan and papal forms. Verse 11 says, “the place of his sanctuary was cast down.” In 70 AD the Roman general Titus destroyed the sanctuary or temple in Jerusalem, but this horn is also said to “cast truth down to the ground” (verse 12).

A Sanctuary In Heaven

The book of Hebrews is devoted to an explanation of a heavenly sanctuary and its services. Its main point, says the writer, is that “we have … a high priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man” (Hebrews 8:1, 2). Regrettably, the Christian church has for the most part lost sight of this sanctuary.
And for Daniel, the thought of this casting down caused him distress. he asks the messenger angel, “How long will the vision be, concerning the daily sacrifices and the transgression of desolation, the giving of both the sanctuary and the host to be trampled underfoot?

For two thousand three hundred days” (8:13, 14), comes the answer. A day in prophecy represents a prophetic year (Ezekiel 4:6), so in other words, it would be until the end of 2300 years that the truth of the heavenly sanctuary would be lost. But at the end of this period, this truth would become clear. Daniel didn’t understand this prophecy because he fainted before a starting point in time was given. He had to wait 11 years before more light was thrown on the matter. Then, in response to his prayer, an angel told him to “consider the matter, and understand the vision” (Daniel 9:23). Then a prophetic time period of 70 weeks was outlined to him— “the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem” (9:25)—which provides a starting point for both time periods.

In 457 BC the Persian king Artaxerxes issued just such a decree—for Jerusalem’s restoration (see Ezra 7:12-26)—that matched this prediction. That’s 456 complete years, and subtracting those 456 years from the 2300-year period, one arrives at 1844 AD. So according to the prophecy, it would be in that year the truth of the heavenly sanctuary would come to light.

This was fulfilled in the person of the 19th century US preacher William Miller and his followers in many Christian churches, who, through intense study of the biblical passages, came to an understanding of this time prophecy. However, because of the generally accepted view that the sanctuary was on earth, they believed its fulfilment would be in Jesus’ return to earth and its purification by fire. They believed this would occur in 1844.

They had the correct termination date, but the wrong event. When Jesus didn’t return in 1844, they were bitterly disappointed. But further study revealed the sanctuary to be in heaven (alluded to in Hebrews 8), and that the “cleansing” of the sanctuary (in heaven) was, in fact, a process of judgment.

Judgment Necessary

Before Christ returns, there has to be a judgment to determine who will be saved and who will be lost. That’s why God’s warning message to the world of today is, “Fear God and give glory to him, for the hour of his judgment has come” (Revelation 14:7). The unbelieving, the immoral, the frauds and criminals should indeed fear God, “for God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether it is good or whether it is evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).

The good news is—and this is published in hundreds of languages around the world today for all to read—that no-one need perish, for “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God,” and “he is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him” (Hebrews 4:14; 7:25).

*Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1. All biblical quotations are from the NKJV.