The Persian Problem

Persian with Hebrew Letters in Germany prior to the Nazi Period

Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, Germany sent numerous archaeological expeditions to a number of areas within the former Persian Empire. One area they explored were some ruins on the far eastern edge of the Persian Empire, near Turfan in Chinese Turkestan. There they found a large amount of writings in Middle Persian, from around the 13th century CE and earlier. What was special about these writings, is that they were written with a unique version of the Aramaic (Syriac) alphabet, which preserved a clearer pronunciation of original Persian words than the traditional writing system used by the Persian Empire (see notes below). The writings were taken back to Germany, and published in numerous books. It was the practice of German scholars to use Hebrew letters when publishing anything which used an Aramaic alphabet. So, up until 1933, German scholars published hundreds of pages of these Persian writings using Hebrew letters. It should be noted that it was common, acceptable practice in pre-Nazi Germany for scholars of early Middle Eastern languages - Aramaic (as well as other Semitic languages) and Persian, to be completely familiar with reading and writing Hebrew letters, and Hebrew letters were almost always used when publishing texts such as these.
As these religious texts discovered were usually translated from Aramaic sources, original Aramaic names of divine beings often appear in the Persian texts.

Middle Persian writings published with Hebrew Letters in Berlin

Die Stellung Jesu im Manichäismus (Berlin, 1926)


Although the Persian Empire at one time ruled the entire Middle East - from the Mediterranean in the west to China in the east, the Persian language (an Iranian language) used borrowed languages and writing systems to conduct the affairs of the Iranian peoples (Iranian, from Sanskrit-Iranian Aryan). Persian was first written in around 500 BCE using about 30 cuneiform signs, which were borrowed from the preceding Babylonian Empire cuneiform system (which contained about 1000 cuneiform characters). At the same time, Aramaic (Imperial Aramaic), was used as the administrative language to unite the Persian Empire. (This was done with a system of native-Aramaic speaking scribes, who would write down in an Aramaic message what was dictated to them in Persian. When the message reached its destination, another Aramaic scribe would then read it and deliver the message back in the local language). The Persian Empire was, at this time in history, the largest empire the world has ever had, containing over 40% of the world's population. In the Hebrew bible as well, portions of the book of Daniel and the book of Ezra were written in Aramaic, and discussed the transition from the Babylonian Empire to the Persian Empire. There are numerous Persian words (about twenty), as well as names of Persian kings, in these Aramaic sections in the Hebrew bible. (Likewise, the Hebrew book of Esther, which also deals with Persia, contains numerous Persian words and names).
After attempting to write the Persian language with cuneiform for a few hundred years, the Persians switched to writing Persian with a modified version of the Aramaic alphabet. (They had already been using the Aramaic language for administration throughout the Persian Empire). So between about 200 CE through 1000 CE, a large body of uniquely Persian literature was written, using the new Persian (Aramaic) alphabet. The religion of the Iranians, and of the Persian Empire, was Zoroastrianism (founded by the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster), and the Persian writings which were written were all writings of the Zoroastrian religion.
One unique feature of this writing system is that, while most of the Persian words were written phonetically (as they were pronounced), there were a number of Aramaic words (about 1000), which were used as logograms, which means that a three-letter Aramaic word might appear in the midst of a Persian sentence, and the Aramaic word would be read as a sign (logogram) that was to be pronounced as a Persian word. In other words, to learn to read the Zoroastrian Persian texts, not only did the Aramaic alphabet have to be learned, but also the 1000 or so Aramaic logograms, and their Persian pronounced equivalents, had to be memorized. (The Persian writings discovered by the German archeologists - which we are dealing with in this section - did not use a system of logograms. They were all read phonetically, as written).