Review: Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics

My brief review of Brill’s monumental Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics has been published in the latest issue of Themelios (39.3). Click HERE to read it.

A Rejoinder by Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd on Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts

Last week, Bible Interpretation published an article by Ron Hendel taking to task Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd for a summary of their work in Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts. This week, Bible Interpretation has published a response to Hendel’s article by Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd. Here is just a little of what they say:

There are weaknesses in our books, and there are things we wish we had emphasized more or stated differently but, honestly, we are becoming tired of knee-jerk reactions to our work that reflect a superficial understanding of its content and purpose. For example, we have seen the claim repeated that the aim of our arguments is to prove a late date of all biblical literature. This is a truly bizarre claim. We are pretty clear that we are saying that all linguistic dating arguments, both for early or late dates, don’t work.

You’ll find the article by clicking here. Ron Hendel has also posted a couple of responses in the comments.

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.

Book Review: A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew

I recently reviewed a new introductory Hebrew grammar by Prof. Jo Ann Hackett of the University of Texas at Austin. Prof. Hackett is perhaps best known for her work on the Balaam texts from Deir Alla. My review of her grammar book, A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (Hendrickson, 2010) is now up at Review of Biblical Literature, along with reviews by two others (Bernard Levinson and James Robson).

In short, I think this new grammar is a marked improvement on other older texts, especially in its attempt to be a true introductory grammar, rather than an undercover reference grammar. However, Prof. Hackett does make some choices that I do question.

Just after it became publicly available, Prof. Hackett contacted me about the review. With her permission, I’ve made some of her comments available here. As far as I know, no journal actually publishes an author’s response to reviews, so I’m glad to provide her with a public right of reply here. It’s best to read the review first, and then her comments below.

Jo Ann Hackett: I have just read your review of my textbook, and I must say that most of your negative reactions have been mirrored by others.  And I remain unconvinced, of course!  I do want to question, however, your suggestion that I treat what you call the “vav consecutive” as if it simply reverses the tense of the verb, because that is something I most certainly do not do, and I’m not quite sure how you could assume that I do.  I would suggest you read 15.3, where I specifically reject that point of view, and 15.4, which I hope shows that I think the historical explanation is correct.

In 16.8, where I say that some people believe that the vav of the ve-qatal form exists as an imitation of the wayyiqtol vav, I suppose you might read it the way you did, but even there, the explanation depends to a certain extent on the historical explanation of the wayyiqtol form.  So I don’t understand that part of the review, and to be honest, I really hate it that such a thing is out there about me, being read by people who don’t know any better.

Let me add a less serious aside.  The objections I’ve gotten to the fact that we call the verb by the 3ms SC form, even though I don’t start there, have all come from teachers.  I’ve taught this to all sorts of students, and I’ve yet to have a single one confused by it.  The same goes for the 1st-person first decision.  Teachers often hate it because we all learned it the other way.  Students, who don’t know any better, never even notice.  I have to admit that it’s hard for me, too, because I have them recite the paradigms and have to remember that they’re doing it in the way I taught them, not the way I learned it.

As you will see in her first paragraph, Prof. Hackett takes me to task for misrepresenting her on the ‘vav consecutive’. Having had my own arguments misrepresented in reviews, I can understand the frustration this can cause an author. However, in this case, I think there is some ambiguity inherent in the wording used within the grammar book that explains why I received the apparently wrong impression. In the review I state that it is unfortunate that Hackett opts for viewing the waw (or ‘vav‘) prefix of the wayyiqtol as a ‘waw conversive’—that is, an element that somehow converts or reverses tense. I quote §15.3 (p.90) of the book in its entirety:

15.3 Other Names For the Consecutive Preterite

The form we are calling the consecutive preterite is usually called “converted imperfect,” as if the addition of the וַ somehow “converted” a future-tense verb into a past-tense verb. It is also called the “imperfect with vav consecutive,” a better choice, but also misleading, since the basic verb is not the “imperfect” (our prefix conjugation) but rather the jussive.

You will see from this paragraph that there is no specific denial of the concept of a converted imperfect. The first sentence is stated without challenge. It is most likely that Prof. Hackett intended the ‘also’ in the phrase ‘but also misleading’ (second sentence) to signify a denial of the veracity of both the ‘converted imperfect’ and ‘imperfect with vav consecutive’ terminologies. However, since the concept of a ‘converted imperfect’ is not labelled misleading immediately after it is described, the impression I gained was that ‘also misleading’ applied only to the use of the word ‘imperfect’ in the terminology. In other words, I read the paragraph as saying that the wayyiqtol (or ‘consecutive preterite’ as Hackett terms it) can also be conceptualised as a ‘converted imperfect’ or, even better as an ‘imperfect with vav consecutive’, even though the wayyiqtol happens to be using the jussive, rather than the imperfect (yiqtol). Thus, although Prof. Hackett meant to put these other terms forward so as to deny their veracity or usefulness, there is no specific and unambiguous statement to that effect, and the paragraph can plausibly be read as though it were a mild endorsement (albeit with slight correction) of these conceptualities.

I am quite relieved to learn from Prof. Hackett that she does not endorse the ‘waw conversive’ or ‘consecutive imperfect’ views of the wayyiqtol. Yet, that makes the ambiguity inherent in the wording of §15.3 all the more unfortunate. I’m quite glad, however, that this issue could be raised and clarified here, and hope that instructors using the book are aware of the ambiguity and can take action to ensure a proper understanding of this particular section the way Prof. Hackett intended it.

Can we date biblical texts on linguistic grounds?

It’s an interesting question: Do the linguistic features of Biblical Hebrew allow us to figure out the date of biblical texts? Traditionally, the answer has been ‘yes’. And so Hebrew has been divided into ‘Early Biblical Hebrew’ (‘EBH’ — a.k.a. ‘Standard Biblical Hebrew’, or ‘SBH’) and ‘Late Biblical Hebrew (‘LBH’). As the terms suggest, EBH was viewed as an earlier stage of the language, usually dated to the pre-exilic era (i.e. before 587 BC), while LBH became more prevalent after this time.

Recently, however, a two-volume study, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008), by Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd, has called this hypothesis into question.

The hypothesis of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd is that the data usually shown as evidence for a linguistic transition from an early form of Hebrew to a later form can and should be reinterpreted. They argue that instead of being a linear development, both EBH and LBH were concurrent ‘styles’ of Hebrew that coexisted. As a result of this, biblical texts can’t really be dated in the manner previously done. In other words, it is a mistake to think that a text written in EBH is necessarily earlier than a text written in LBH. That would have to be established on other grounds beyond linguistics.

The ramifications of this for our study of Hebrew language and biblical texts are actually quite significant. For starters, if Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd are correct, then we would need to privilege non-linguistic data in determining (or at least trying to determine) the date of particular texts.

But are they correct?

Significant debate has ensued since the publication of LDBT in 2008. Some of it has been carried out in journals and academic conferences. But some of it has been conducted through online forums and blogs. You can find one such exchange being carried out between the authors of LDBT and two critics of their new take, John Cook and Robert Holmstedt. You will find the exchange on the Ancient Hebrew Grammar blog of John Cook and Robert Holmstedt, here:

Cook and Holmstedt disagree with the method and conclusions in LDBT. The discussion is quite heated at times, but that at least makes for interesting reading. You’ll also find John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry weighing critically into the debate.

For my part, let me lay my cards on the table in this debate. I was one of the proof readers for LDBT, and I have to say I found the arguments logically convincing. The critique of the linguistic approach of Avi Hurvitz was, especially, quite persuasive. I agree with Young (who was my PhD supervisor), Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd that too much has been made of linguistic data in the past, and that we cannot really date biblical texts based solely on linguistic grounds. I also agree that building a history of the language based on biblical texts is seriously undermined by the difficulties of thinking about redaction and scribal transmission.

However, there are numerous other questions that arise. If EBH and LBH are not successive stages of the Hebrew language, but rather concurrent ‘styles’, what exactly do they represent? Are they purely dialectal? Was ancient Israel/Judah/Samaria/Yehud a place where diglossia occurred? Is the linguistic divide between LBH and EBH based on geographic, social, or literary grounds—or even other grounds entirely? Do we need new terms to describe these two ‘styles’ of Hebrew?

It will be interesting to see how discussion develops.