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.