An Unconvincing Cautionary Tale about “Unhistorical Hebrew Linguistics”

I have in the past pointed out and recommended the two volumes by Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd, titled Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (Equinox, 2008). In these two volumes the authors question the traditional view of the diachronic development of ancient Hebrew that sees the language move from ‘Early Biblical Hebrew’ (EBH) to ‘Late Biblical Hebrew’ (LBH). Instead, they put forward a compelling case that these two forms of Hebrew were actually different styles that existed concurrently.

Their theory has caused quite a stir in linguistic circles, as evidenced again by the recent objection from Ronald Hendel (University of California, Berkeley) in his article ‘Unhistorical Hebrew Linguistics: A Cautionary Tale’ at Bible Interpretation.

After reading Hendel’s short article, I do not believe he has adequately grasped the issues as Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd present them. In fairness to Hendel, he has only written a very short article, so it was never going to be a comprehensive critique. However, it appears from Hendel’s argument that he is more interested in establishing a text via text criticism, than engaging with the both the linguistic data and the epistemic problems that the traditional diachronic model presents. Perhaps the major problem that Hendel does not address is the grounds on which biblical texts are dated. There are a number of assumptions inherent in his short analysis about when books are dated, and this depends on the traditional diachronic model, which is then used to support the dating of texts. It’s a circular argument that he does not appear to step out of. One of the good things about the work of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd is that they are able to highlight this epistemic circularity and actually demonstrate that the traditional diachronic model is trying to hold itself up by its own bootstraps. And it is this very point that many linguists appear unable to come to grips with and, indeed, continue to perpetuate.

Again, I commend the work of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd, and urge those interested in understanding the development of the Hebrew language to consider their arguments more closely. This should begin with an actual reading of the two volumes of Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts, rather than a potted summary, upon which Hendel seems to have relied. Yes, they are offering a paradigm shift in our understanding of Hebrew, but as one works through the data and its implications, one realises how many assumptions have been implicitly at work in our previous understanding, and how tenaciously many of us seem to be clinging to them unawares. Their work deserves close study, and although I don’t agree with every point they make, they do put forward a largely compelling case. Hendel has only served to convince me of this by demonstrating the classic faux pas that Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd attempt to expose.


4 thoughts on “An Unconvincing Cautionary Tale about “Unhistorical Hebrew Linguistics”

  1. George,

    As you know, I don’t agree about YRE’s work. What Hendel should have pointed out is that YRE themselves already assume dates of texts and then go about showing how a feature isn’t early or late based on those pre-existing positions.

    What YRE *should* have proposed in their book (if they had wanted to be truly methodologically sound, rather than their concurrent dialects proposal), is that the only way to build a linguistic case apart from other methodologies is to process the Hebrew data by comparison with well-established diachronic shifts in other languages (Semitic and non-Semitic). This would truly have been a paradigm change.

    But they fail on this score. Rezetko’s response to my paper at SBL 2009 is revealing: “but your analysis provides results that don’t mesh with any common position on the order of the books.” So what? When I first started reading their book, I thought that this was the point—to push for linguistically sound research. Clearly I was wrong. YRE make an overall poor argument in their attempt to replace one model with an equally (if not more) problematic model.

    Hendel’s article is superficial, but he’s right about one thing: doing this task well requires more than a passing knowledge of historical linguistics (not just Hebrew or even Semitic, but also general). I would add typological linguistics as well. (And truly one should add theoretical linguistics to the task as well, but our field is yet a generation from being very open to linguistic theory.)

  2. Robert H.,

    What, you “don’t agree about YRE’s work”? Of course you “agree[d] about YRE’s work” in terms of what we set out to accomplish, which was to do away with the common approach to dating Biblical Hebrew writings on the basis of linguistic criteria:

    “[In volume one] You have covered *all* of the scholarship (to my knowledge) and effectively poked holes in the methodologies and conclusions reached by most scholars in using linguistic items for dating. I do not think highly of Hurvitz’s principles, though, and wish that could connect more with historical linguistics in general to propose some refinements or alternatives. I’m guessing that the likes of Brian Joseph and Lyle Campbell would simply roll their eyes at what passes for methodology in historical Hebrew studies.” (Robert Holmstedt, 11 January 2008)

    The point of Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts was NOT to write a history of biblical Hebrew, NOR to develop a historical linguistic approach to biblical Hebrew, BUT to confront head-on recent attempts to assign dates of origin to biblical writings on the basis of linguistic data. It’s in the book. It’s written there in black and white. And, we accomplished that goal, as you yourself say, so now let’s move on to the *next step*.

    Your statement that we “assume dates of texts” is big news to me? Please, tell me what dates you think we assume. I mean it. Tell me. Actually, Robert, no, we absolutely do not assume dates of texts [original dates of writings?]! On the one hand, you still don’t seem to grasp that like most commentators, historians, historians of religion, textual critics, literary critics, and so on, we believe that biblical writings were written and rewritten over time and, in the case of most books, over a very long period of time, which means that *a* single date for a biblical composition is simply erroneous. By the way, this brings the *historical linguistic* issue of composite texts to the fore, an issue that Hebraists and linguists of Biblical Hebrew have by and large failed to engage. Much more on this in the future… On the other hand, we think an important next step is to try to work together and to integrate the insights and conclusions of scholars working in different but adjacent areas of biblical studies (commentators, historians, etc., as above), so it is natural that I/we could say something to the effect that “your analysis provides results that don’t mesh with any common position on the order of the books.”

    Your statement in the quote above that “Brian Joseph and Lyle Campbell would simply roll their eyes at what passes for methodology in historical Hebrew studies” is certainly correct. And it’s a strong blow against the kinds of remarks that Ron Hendel and Jo Ann Hackett have made in a concurrent discussion elsewhere. But, the topic of Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts was the strange venture of linguistic dating among Hebraists and biblical scholars, whereas in the sequel, Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew: Steps Toward an Integrated Approach, we are taking the *next step* as we see it, which means bringing into conversation Hebrew studies and the various “linguistics” that you mention. But to truly make progress the linguists in the field also need to engage with textual critics, literary critics, and so on.

    Thanks at least for saying that Hendel’s article is superficial. We agree on that, and hopefully one day on much more.

    Robert R.

  3. Robert R.

    You need to re-evaluate what you consider legitimate scholarly methods of argument. Your treatment of my 2008 email is misleading (to be nice about it).

    You conveniently ignore that I went on to indicate what I considered problematic with your argument. Thus, you take my comment out of context and misuse it, since it applies equally well to your own work. If you didn’t catch that, it shows that analytically you are as obtuse as you consistently claim me to be. (If you insist on being nasty, then you’ll have to take it yourself.)

    Moreover, to quote a private email in a public forum with the permission of the sender is reprehensible. I stand by my comment, *when properly contextualized*, but the act itself says something about your academic character.

    As Hendel says in the comments to your B&I response, you would do yourself a favor by maturing as a scholar before publishing anymore, especially another book.

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