More on linguistic dating of biblical texts…

After my recent post about the debate on linguistic dating of biblical texts, readers may be interested to read an essay by Ehud Ben Zvi (University of Alberta). He takes up some of the questions that arise if Standard (or ‘Early’) Biblical Hebrew and Late Biblical Hebrew are concurrent styles rather than successive stages of linguistic development. He recognises, correctly I believe, that if these styles were concurrent, then it was a deliberate choice of authors to pick one style over the other. This leads Ben Zvi to consider what significance this choice might have had.

The essay can be accessed at its host site by clicking here. (Thanks to Ehud Ben Zvi for the link!)

Ben Zvi’s conclusion, that Standard Biblical Hebrew was a prestige language reserved for the core texts (especially the Pentateuch) that shaped the thought world of the Judean community, is perhaps the best theory on offer. However, it raises significant other questions that also leave me a little perplexed. The choice of the authors of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles to use Late Biblical Hebrew is quite enigmatic, especially given their clear devotion to Torah, which was written in Standard Biblical Hebrew. Was this a conscious decision to leave Torah enshrined in its prestige language and use a ‘lower’ (perhaps ‘lay’) linguistic style as a mark of deference to a more authoritative text? Was it, in the case of Ezra-Nehemiah, part of a deliberate private memoir style in which one would expect ‘ordinary’ language to be used over a prestige language? Or are there other considerations? Ben Zvi correctly argues for the continuation of Standard Biblical Hebrew knowledge throughout the Persian Era. The Habakkuk Pesher (1QpHab) from Qumran, written largely in Standard Biblical Hebrew, suggests that working knowledge of it persisted at least until the mid-first century BC. People were still using it to communicate, at least in their literature. So it would appear a deliberate decision on the part of Ezra-Nehemiah and the Chronicler to use Late Biblical Hebrew. But why leaves me still a little uneasy with the hypothesis of Standard Biblical Hebrew being a prestige language. I think it is the best fit at present, but the issue is by no means settled.

The Habakkuk Pesher (1QpHab) from Qumran


6 thoughts on “More on linguistic dating of biblical texts…

  1. What (roughly) is the breakup of the books of the OT into the 2 separate classifications? Is it just the Pentateuch that is classified as SBH? Or do you see later texts ‘imitating’ SBH at certain points?

  2. Hi George,

    In my 2010 SBL/NAPH paper I summarized my study of seven BH verbs that are routinely cited as evidence for the traditional EBH vs. LBH, early vs. late, framework. The verbs are:

    הלך (Piel)
    כנס (Qal and Piel)
    כעס (Qal)
    עמד (Qal, meaning “stand up”)
    קבל (Piel)
    קום (Piel)

    (Those who attended the meeting received a twelve-page handout of the data including S-curves of their distribution.)

    In short, I found that my results coincided well with Ehud Ben Zvi’s theory. That came as quite a surprise to me!

    I will simply quote (from the longer paper/article, to become a book chapter) one of my conclusions regarding these verbs and the issues of linguistic innovation and diffusion:

    ‘What then can we say about linguistic diffusion in BH? In this essay I have taken a variationist approach to seven “early”/“late” verb pairs attested in BH. In theory we would expect to see a gradual diffusion of the “late” verb from “early” to “late” biblical writings and continuing on into postbiblical writings. It is possible that over time there was systematic change in the co-existence of these competing “early”/“late” verbs. Yet on the basis of the current variation profiles of biblical books we are met by many individual sources and books and groups of books that do not fit the traditional EBH or “early” and LBH or “late” model. If we restrict our observations only to the core EBH and core LBH books, as many have done in the past, then the story seems rather straightforward: certain verbs with minimal attestation in Genesis–Kings diffuse over time and become more evident in Esther–Chronicles. However, there is substantial dissimilarity between these books concerning the choice of verbs and also their frequency of usage. Furthermore, the postbiblical sources of Ben Sira and the Dead Sea Scrolls do not modify this picture, which is surprising since these works were written later than the biblical books. The real break in Hebrew seems to be between all of these sources and Mishnaic Hebrew. I will return to this shortly. The next step is to incorporate the other biblical books, meaning principally the Latter Prophets and the remainder of the Writings. This complicates the image considerably in terms of the seven verbs researched here. The “tidy” EBH vs. LBH division collapses, and with the exceptions of Ezekiel and Qoheleth, other books stand closer to the Pentateuch and Former Prophets in terms of diffusion or, more correctly, limited diffusion. This gives the impression that LBH books are largely a sidelight among two other sets of EBH books, those in the Pentateuch and Former Prophets, on the one hand, and those in the Latter Prophets especially and to some extent in the Writings, on the other hand. These results coincide well with the argument of Ben Zvi for a central “triad” of books (Pentateuch, Deuteronomistic History, Latter Prophets) in a “SBH tent” and other texts written in LBH (a “LBH tent”) (Ben Zvi 2009). In the light of these observations perhaps we should stop talking about Early and Late Biblical Hebrew and speak rather about “Central Literary Biblical Hebrew” and “Peripheral Literary Biblical Hebrew.’

    In the book Ian Young and I are writing, Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew: Steps Toward an Integrated Approach, I have added another five verbs to these seven, to give a total of twelve. In conclusion, I find that that much BH data (more than just these verbs), closely examined, supports Ben Zvi’s conclusion, which was reached from a completely different angle.


  3. A perfect illustration of how our incomplete data on the Ancient Near East and especially the development of Biblical Hebrew constrains our inferences and conclusions. “Data insufficient” should be our mantra.

  4. Pingback: A Question Concerning Biblical Critcism | Pastoral Musings

  5. Pingback: [ad hoc] Christianity , Archive » Episode #10: Blogosphere roundup, March 9, 2011

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