Can Loanwords in the Hebrew Bible be the result of scribal updating?

A loanword is a word that originates in one language, but makes it into another language for common use.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with loanwords. These are interesting cases, because it makes us ask how and when these loanwords made it into Hebrew. They are often used as evidence for particular (usually late) dating of biblical texts.

I was recently asked whether it was possible for loanwords to have crept into biblical texts through editing. That is, could a later scribe, in the process of copying a text, have updated the language and replaced a Hebrew word in the early text with a loanword from another language? And if this is possible, what does this tell us about our methods of dating biblical texts?

Well, the scenario of later scribes inserting later loanwords into earlier texts is possible, but there is absolutely no way of verifying it without manuscript evidence of such a replacement occurring. If all we have is the text with the loanword, how are we supposed to know whether there was another word there originally?

Although the suggestion is possible, it is pure speculation.

This makes me ask three further questions.

First, why would we make this suggestion when it cannot be verified? Is it possible that we want a text to be dated early and a loanword is a ‘spanner in the works’, leading to a form of wishful thinking that perhaps the implication of a loanword can be sidelined if we introduce another reasonable-sounding variable? If this is the case, then it’s putting the cart before the horse in terms of reasoning.

The second question to ask is whether the suggestion of a loanword replacing an earlier Hebrew word is plausible.

The third question to ask is whether it’s probable.

Anything is possible. A few things might be plausible. But only one thing is probable.

It’s possible that the music I can hear in the distance is coming from a left-handed Albino midget from Tanzania who plays the fiddle every Tuesday in Buenos Aires each July and who is currently leading a mariachi band here in Sydney. It’s possible! But it’s not all that plausible. It probably is just someone’s iPod playing through speakers.

So, is it plausible, and even probable that a later scribe would update an earlier text with loanwords? I say it probably isn’t. Here’s why I say that.

There are certain principles by which to abide for appraising loanwords in a case like this. We need to give particular attention to:

  1. the language from which a word has come;
  2. the actual word itself; and
  3. the Hebrew word being replaced by the loanword

If the loanword is a common word that could come through ‘plebeian’ means, like trade or migration, then it’s possibly original and early. That is, the loanword entered Hebrew at a very early stage. But if that’s the case, then we’re no longer talking about a later scribe updating an early text. Also, loanwords of this sort are usually limited to the languages of wide-faring merchants. The Phoenicians were one such group, but their language is very close to Hebrew anyway, so we would be talking about cognates, rather than loanwords. The other wide-faring merchants were Greeks. So perhaps all the Greek loanwords in Hebrew are early?

Not so fast!

The second principle I mentioned above is important here. We need to consider the type of word represented by the loanword. If the word is an item that could be commonly traded or influenced, then yes, it might be a loanword. Words for luxury goods, musical terms, architectural terms, or names of exotic animals can all be loanwords. But if the word comes from the domain of authority and institution, then its entry into Hebrew is unlikely to pre-date the rise of the people who spoke the original language as a colonial power.

Persian loanwords are, in this particular case, quite telling. For example, the word דת (dat: ‘law’ or ‘directive’) reflects the mechanisms of rule. The word פרדס (pardes: ‘park’ or ‘botanical garden’—from which we get our word paradise) reflects the lifestyle and accomplishments of Persian royalty. Could such words have entered Hebrew before significant contact between Persians and Israelites/Judeans? This could only have happened once the Persians rose to imperial power in the mid to late sixth century BC and Hebrew speakers and writers came under their direct influence.

Furthermore, we need to ask what Hebrew word the loanword could have replaced. In the case of דת (‘law’), it could replace a number of Hebrew words, such as תורה (torah), חק (regulation), or מצוה (mitzwah). But then we need to ask, why would a scribe replace a Hebrew word that the original author thought perfectly adequate and which did the job admirably well for centuries? And in the case of biblical texts, these were texts that would have had some literary currency throughout these centuries. These aren’t the kind of words that would become obsolete.

In the case of פרדס, the closest words in Hebrew would have been גן (gan: ‘garden’ or ‘grove’) or כרם (kerem: ‘vineyard’ or ‘orchard’). If, for example, in Song of Songs, a later scribe took an earlier manuscript and inserted the Persian loanword פרדס (pardes: ‘park’ or ‘botanical garden’) at 4.13, why did he not replace the word גן (gan: ‘garden’ or ‘grove’) in the previous verse, and another seven times elsewhere in the book (4.15 [x2], 16; 5.1; 6.2 [x2]; and 8.13), or the nine occurrences of כרם (kerem: ‘vineyard’ or ‘orchard’; 1.6 [x2]; 2.15 [x2]; 7.13; 8.11 [x2], 12)?

It just doesn’t add up as probable, let alone plausible.

So we return to the original question: Could a scribe living at a late date have updated an earlier text with later loanwords? Without specific manuscript evidence to demonstrate it, probably not. But we do need to take each case on its own merits and ensure we apply sound reasoning to the analysis.

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19 thoughts on “Can Loanwords in the Hebrew Bible be the result of scribal updating?

  1. What about innerbiblical quotes? Take for example the parallel passages in 2 Kgs 24f and Jer 52. While the inf.cs. of mālaḵ in connection with a suffix 3ms (designating “reign”) in 2 Kgs 24:18 and 25:1 remains unchanged in the synoptic account in Jeremiah 52 it is replaced by the Aramaic malkût in Jer 52:31 (parallel to 2 Kgs 25:27). Does the process of updating or editing necessarily have to be a meticulous procedure with regard to the copyists (or even authors who use older sources) activities?

  2. Thank you for your response! Wouldn’t that imply exactly the opposite? I do not doubt your comment about מלכות being a cognate to Hebrew lexemes designating similar meanings. However, מלכות is a cognate from a related language, namely, Aramaic. Hebrew has a number of words (verbal and nominal) to express the meaning of “Kingdom, Reign” (e.g. ממלכה, מלך, ממלכות). There is no need for the usage of מלכות. Therefore, I believe it is wise to think of מלכות as a prestige-borrowed loanword from the Aramaic language. While it is a slightly different phenomenon from loanwords that are borrowed from non-semitic languages, the usage of מלכות is borrowed from a different languages for prestigous reasons. Assuming that the author of Jeremiah 52 used 2 Kings 25 as a source (whether written or oral), I believe it is possible and likely that he betrayed his own linguistic background. Think of comparable instances in the Babylonian corpus where the usage of mimation or of the e and a vowels varies within one literary document. Granted, these are not lexical variations. However, the Epic of Gilgamesh version from Assurbarnipals library shows a variety of linguistic features from the first millenium B.C. although it must have originated much earlier. I guess that Tigay’s work on the evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic would be a useful study to begin evaluating how the linguistic profile of a ANE literary text changes in the course of copying. What do you think?

    • I don’t think it implies the opposite. The fact that מלכות is a cognate to מלך, rather than a synonym from another root, makes it much more a natural choice than an otherwise unrelated loanword. I wouldn’t classify this as a prestige word either. I see why you might, but the meaning of the word is fairly common and the fact it has Hebrew cognates to my mind undoes the suggestion of it being a prestige loanword. If it had been a word from the root שלט, it would be a different story.

  3. Hi George

    Thank you so much for the response, I guess it needed a more in depth answer than this exchange allows. Thank you again.
    I went to Regent and was not critical of Mr. Provan, he is a fine scholar like yourself-just to clarify.

    My suspicion on the schema of dating the text follows this line of reasoning: Moses obviously did not speak or write Hebrew because it did not exist in his time. Egyptian would have been the language used and Hebrew would have evolved from this and Semitic influences over time.
    We know that even with the earliest fragments at our disposal we are not getting the original language conveyed by Moses by a long shot, the text would have evolved with the language. It would have gone from Egyptian, to the early,to the middle and late Hebrew.
    The ox head of the early to the modern aleph shows the inluence of the surrounding cultures, aramaic aleph, and greek alpha.
    I do question if modern dating is a bit overconfident as must have been massive change from the time of Moses until a separate language emerged and coupled with no manuscript evidence. Also how many early words were mixed in with later words, and the land of Palestine/Canaan was on the famous highway connecting the trade of the fertile crescent and the east and west.
    i guess without early manuscripts it is a difficult task

    • Yes, very difficult without manuscripts. It’s all speculative. In addition to all of this, we have to take into consideration the diachronic development of sources and books. How much did Moses write? How much did others write? Where did the various books we now have come from and develop?

      Linguistic dating of biblical texts is fraught with difficulty without hard evidence. There is some logic that can be applied, but we can usually only go so far. Dating of texts is often hard to pin down.

        • True. But interestingly, the law that Moses gives Israel is small enough to be able to fit carved on the side of an altar (Deut 27.5–8). That’s not the Pentateuch. All too often we make the mistake of thinking that Moses gave Israel the Pentateuch. He didn’t. He gave Israel the Law—a much smaller thing. And as Deut 1.5 implies, Moses was the one who began to explain the Law, implying it was carried on by many after his death.

          • The Torah does seem to have a lot of editing and the evidence is in Moses being used in the third person in an introduction.
            This is probably due to the culture being a hearing (oral)culture, and the words were probably written down and edited and organized later. Am I off course with this?
            I wonder what part of the Law was written on these stones? Was it the first fruits and tithes of Deut. 26 as this was the beginning of the third address to the people
            What I find interesting is the text says write on large stones, but not only large stones, but to write on plastered large stones.
            Back to the dating game, the Egyptians mostly wrote on plastered stone, but the Mesopotamian’s wrote into stone surfaces.
            We have this information at our disposal, so it does point to the Mosaic period.

            • The practice was widespread and continued for a long time. The Balaam Oracles at Deir Alla are a similar phenomenon, though those texts are written on the walls of a chamber in c.8th century BC. It would still be unusual for anyone to write about themselves in the third person. We know first person accounts do happen frequently, including the Bible. So yes, there is extensive editing and development of material in the Pentateuch, as would be expected of any law tradition.

            • Oooops, sorry George, i meant to say if the words of the Law that are written on the stone are those in chapter 27:14-26 as this is the beginning of the third address
              Or is it what is commanded in 12-26 written on the stones.
              Sorry for the misleading mistake I was trying to go by memory-or the lack of it lol

                • I am sorry I did not mean to say the whole of the chapters, but mountain tops of the commandments, and of course the Aseret Hadiberot.
                  It could be the moral law or code, but I am not sure if they broke it down in moral,civil and ceremonial.
                  The curses and blessings of Mt Ebal I have always equated to the sheep and goats in the New Testament-with the resting and dwelling place of God in the middle

  4. Thanks, George. I think debates can be difficult to close based on individual terms, but statistical patterns can be pretty telling, especially when examining suites of terms. E.g. when an individual Aramaic term becomes current amongst Hebrew speakers may be hard to establish, but the sudden ‘Cambrian explosion’ of Aramaic terms in exilic to postexilic texts is unmistakable. Persian terms are a real bellwether in my book, being very unlikely to enter Hebrew vocabulary prior to 550. The logical process in my mind is to demonstrate the high prevalence of a set of loanwords in texts that are uncontroversially postexilic, like Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, and then to ask whether they appear in the more debated cases. Sometimes they do (especially in, say, Song of Songs) and sometimes they don’t (e.g. rarely in supposedly post-exilic contributions to the Pentateuch). Repeating the process often builds up a pretty comprehensive picture of books and parts of books that appear to have arisen after the exile.

  5. Reblogged this on firstthreequarters and commented:
    My comment: debates can be difficult to close based on individual terms, but statistical patterns can be pretty telling, especially when examining suites of terms. E.g. when an individual Aramaic term becomes current amongst Hebrew speakers may be hard to establish, but the sudden ‘Cambrian explosion’ of Aramaic terms in exilic to postexilic texts is unmistakable. Persian terms are a real bellwether in my book, being very unlikely to enter Hebrew vocabulary prior to 550. The logical process in my mind is to demonstrate the high prevalence of a set of loanwords in texts that are uncontroversially postexilic, like Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, and then to ask whether they appear in the more debated cases. Sometimes they do (especially in, say, Song of Songs) and sometimes they don’t (e.g. rarely in supposedly post-exilic contributions to the Pentateuch). Repeating the process often builds up a pretty comprehensive picture of books and parts of books that appear to have arisen after the exile.

  6. Pingback: The Biblical Studies Carnival – December 2014 | Daniel N. Gullotta

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