How Did Biblical Hebrew Change?

Robert Rezetko has responded to a recent article by Avi Hurvitz in Biblical Archaeology Review on how Biblical Hebrew changed over time. Here’s Robert’s abstract:

s200_robert-rezetkoIn a hot-off-the-press popular article in Biblical Archaeology Review (September/October 2016), Avi Hurvitz discusses “How Biblical Hebrew Changed.” It is certainly true that Biblical Hebrew evolved over time, but the particulars of how that happened are more complex and debated than Hurvitz acknowledges. The example that he discusses, ʾiggeret and sēfer for “letter,” is a case in point.

You can read Robert’s whole article HERE at Bible Interpretation.

This interaction demonstrates yet again how the discussion about the dating of Biblical Hebrew on linguistic grounds is often framed too simplistically. Robert exposes some of the extra issues that are often in a kind of ‘blind spot’ for many participating in the discussion. Yes, Hebrew did develop over time, as every language inevitably does. However, the connection between Standard Biblical Hebrew (aka ‘Classical’ Biblical Hebrew or ‘Early’ Biblical Hebrew) and Late Biblical Hebrew is not one of linear development from one to the other. It isn’t even the standard ‘S’ curve development. These were two styles of Hebrew that were contemporary for quite a long time.

Late Biblical Hebrew is not the child of Standard Biblical Hebrew, but its sibling.



No, those ancient Hebrew ‘sticky notes’ do not necessarily prove the Bible was written early

Christianity Today has published an article that comments on a recent study by the Epigraphic Hebrew Project examining the handwriting on some ancient Hebrew documents through digital technology. The headline reads:

Ancient Sticky Notes Shift Secular Scholars Closer to Evangelicals on Bible’s Age.


The study itself demonstrates that the cache of sixteen documents from the remote desert outpost of Arad on the edge of the Kingdom of Judah in c. 600 BC had six distinct authors. The claim of the Christianity Today article is that this seemingly high rate of literacy in Judah’s monarchic period is forcing secular scholars to acknowledge that the biblical documents were probably written early (that is, before the exilic era). This is certainly the direction in which Walter Kaiser Jr., who is cited in the article, takes the evidence.

Unfortunately, the study that this article is commenting on doesn’t actually shift secular scholars closer to Evangelicals on the Bible’s Age. Indeed, some of the other scholars mentioned in the article (Alan Millard and Christopher Rollston) advise serious caution. There is a plethora of problems with the headline of the Christianity Today article.

First of all, there is no real agreement on the age of the ‘The Bible’ amongst anyone, be they ‘Evangelical’ or so-called ‘secular’ scholars (honestly, the division implied by that terminology is just grating!). After all, we’re talking about a stack of different documents that developed over centuries, with very few overt statements about authorship and time of writing. ‘The Bible’ wasn’t written in one go. It eventually coalesced into the collection we know today as ‘The Bible’, but exactly when the documents began their life is almost impossible to pin down.

Second, the study this article is commenting on simply shows that elite professionals in the monarchic era could write—exactly the kinds of people whom we would expect to be able to write. It doesn’t show that literacy was widespread. On the contrary, one of the documents in this collection includes a man protesting that he could read something for himself, which implies that literacy wasn’t widespread. So six individuals wrote sixteen documents! This does not mean that suddenly most people in ancient Judah could write two or three biblical books! Finding some buttons does not necessarily mean you’ve found an entire tailored suit.

But thirdly, even if literacy in the monarchic era was very widespread, this tells us nothing about when the various biblical documents were written. All it tells us is that people could write. And that’s a very different thing to knowing when these specific biblical documents were written. You see, you only need one person who knows the alphabet, owns some ink and parchment, and has some imagination, and you have yourself a document. This could be at just about any time. Why, it could be early, or it could even be late.

The study itself states that the kind of literacy levels that the Arad documents demonstrate only occurs again in c. 200 BC. The implication seems to be that it’s unlikely the biblical documents were written in the intervening period (600–200 BC) when literacy levels were lower. But there are so many problems with this inference. First, the claim relates only to the region of Judah. It says nothing about literacy levels outside of Judah. Second, the claim uses blank evidence (little apparent writing in 600–200 BC) as a warrant for reaching a positive inference (it’s unlikely the biblical documents could have been written in this period). But logically this is unwarranted. To state it another way, a lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence of lack. It could be that we just haven’t found all the other document caches like the one from Arad that date to this period. We just don’t know! Third, you don’t need most of the elite, let alone most of the population, to be reading and writing to create conditions conducive to the writing of texts like the ones in the Bible. You just need one competent literate person who can ‘put pen to paper’. And that person could write for themselves, or even for a whole group of people. One person can pen the imagination of hundreds! And fourth, since there evidently were biblical texts that were written in Judah between 600 and 200 BC (e.g. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra, Nehemiah), the very low literacy levels actually count for nothing.

So, just because a few army officials in Judah could read and write in 600 BC does not mean biblical authors wrote all the biblical documents very early on. At best, it helps establish a terminus a quo for mundane Hebrew writing in the region of Judah (which in this case is only c. 600 BC), but not an actual date for writing biblical texts. Using the same logic employed in the article’s headline, we could just as easily say that Evangelicals must shift closer to secular scholars who argue for late dates (c. 200 BC), because the evidence this study is based on is about mundane literacy at the very end of the monarchic era, and surely fine literature takes longer to develop than mundane ‘sticky notes’.

In actual fact, the literacy levels do not contribute all that much to the discussion about the dating of biblical text. That depends on numerous complex criteria. Literacy is important—you need it in order to have documents! But there are so many other criteria to consider, such as references to historical persons and events, form and genre, theological development, purpose, possible influences and their direction, redaction, transmission, preservation, manuscripts, etc. The list goes on!

Unfortunately, headlines like this one given by Christianity Today are misleading. They promote a sense of tribalism as well as wishful thinking amongst Christians, which in turn leaves Christians grasping at air but thinking they’ve grabbed something solid. It’s just not constructive. And even the headline is at odds with the comments of the two main experts cited in the article.

Surely we can serve the Christian public better than this!


Remains of the ancient fortified outpost of Arad, Judah, where the cache of documents was found.



My good friend and colleague, Prof. Ian Young (University of Sydney), has also written a brief response to the study on the Arad documents for the Huffington Post. It’s well worth reading and can be found HERE.

Christopher Rollston’s blog article on the study can be read HERE.


Ken Penner on the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Ken Penner talks about his recent research on Qumranic Hebrew—that very specific type of Hebrew that sits between the various styles of Biblical Hebrew and later Mishnaic Hebrew. This is one for the die hard Hebrew nerds.

The full interview can be found here:

Brian W. Davidson Interviews Ken Penner on the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls — CACS.

‘Why should I study Hebrew?’

I’m often asked by people going to theological college or seminary, “Why should I study Hebrew?’ Less often, they ask, “Why should I study Greek?”

They’re good questions. Vital questions.

To answer, I want you to imagine this scenario.

You’ve just arrived at university, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You’re there to study French literature. In fact, it’s been your dream for a few years now to study French literature. You love French culture. You’ve travelled to Paris and fallen in love with the place. You adore French cuisine. Now you want to sink your teeth into the masterpieces that French authors have produced. So you’ve enrolled in the course, bought all the books, and checked your timetable. You’re ready to begin.

And so the day finally arrives. You find the classroom. You walk in, find a seat, and try to get comfortable. But you find yourself shuffling in your seat with nervous anticipation.

Then the Professor walks in.

Your excitement piques even more. At last, you’re actually fulfilling that long-held desire to immerse yourself in French literature.

Bonjour!’ says the Professor.

Bonjour!’ you respond, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.

The Professor proceeds to hand out a schedule for the semester. As you scan down the list, you see that each class is a feast of French classics: Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Gaston Leroux, Paul Verlaine… C’est formidable!

The wide smile on your face grows even wider. This is going to be such a treat!

Once all the schedules have been handed out, the Professor gathers everyone’s attention. He clears his throat, and begins to address you all.

“Everybody,” he says, “I want you to know that I actually don’t know any French. I do know bonjour, of course, and how to say escargot properly,” he chuckles, “as well as a handful of other words I’ve picked up here and there. But I don’t actually know the language. Nevertheless, we’re going to have a great time together studying French literature.”

The smile that had beamed across your face now flees.

“This is the ‘Professor?'” you ask yourself. “How is he going to teach us French literature if he doesn’t even know French? He’s not an expert! How are we supposed to trust him if he can’t even read the French for himself? Is this what I signed up for?”


The moral of the story?

If you’re going to be teaching people from a pulpit, interpreting the word of God for them, unpacking its meaning, its significance, and ensuring its positive impact on them, then do the responsible thing and learn the word of God in its original languages. Congregations will be looking to you as their expert who is not just willing but also able to read rightly and teach tightly the Scriptures. Do not sell them short!

For some reason seminary students often don’t need convincing about the value of learning Greek for New Testament study, and yet they do need substantial persuasion to learn Hebrew for the benefit of Old Testament study, not to mention Aramaic for the small portions of it in the Old Testament. 

A friend of mine who pastors a congregation told me of a young man in his church who was heading off to study at a theological college. This young man approached my friend for advice on making a choice: should he study Greek when he got to college, or should he study Hebrew? My friend’s response was legendary: “Well,” he said, “when you finish college and get up into your pulpit, do you want to be wearing only your shirt, or only your pants?”

It is incumbent on those who would be teachers to give their best efforts to the task, so as to honour the God whose Scriptures they are handling, as well as the congregations they are serving. Yes, we have the Bible translated into English and other languages, but there is always some loss in translation. If there weren’t, we might not ever need to hear another sermon again: we could just read our English translations all by ourselves, and never have to meet up regularly. But God has appointed some to be teachers in his Church as a means of blessing his Church with the full measure of the knowledge of the Son of God. This is why not all people are encouraged to be teachers, but also why we go on meeting together with teachers to lead us.

No one who reads from a translation of the Bible is somehow less faithful for doing so than someone who reads from the original languages. The suggestion is preposterous! I want to say, “Thank God for our Bible translators!” But the fact that we need translators tells us just how important it is to have people who do know the original languages. Without them, people are missing out.

I’ve heard some ministers who took Hebrew at seminary say they no longer use it, see no ongoing value for it in their ministry, or in hindsight think that learning Hebrew was too much effort for too little return—that it was time they could have spent better studying other things. But that makes me wonder whether they’re continuing to give the Scriptures their all. The Scriptures are the basis of all theological endeavour. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn Hebrew or Greek, but knowing them allows the teacher to weigh up the decisions made by others about the meaning of Scripture—be they other Bible translators, theologians, other ministers, the leaders of their Bible study groups, the TV documentary host, or the person on the street. And this is an ongoing task that is never finished. While the Scriptures don’t change, the situations we find ourselves in do. And so we need to continue understanding and interpreting the Scriptures for these new situations. One of the mottos of the Reformation captures this need nicely: semper reformanda (‘always reforming’). If a teacher is not actively examining and weighing up the Scriptures against ever changing situations, relying instead on what others say or translate, then they have fallen into a false sense of security. They have actually begun to congeal in a tradition. Teachers should be capable of continual, close examination of the Scriptures. Knowing ‘Shalom’, ‘Hallelujah!’, and the meaning of ‘Yom Kippur’ doesn’t cut it.

“I can still have a fruitful ministry without the original languages,” you might say. True. But which doctor would you go to: the one who has a full waiting room, a soothing voice, and gives you a jellybean at the end of the consultation, or the one who has all the paraphernalia to diagnose you and write you a correct prescription?

For the sake of your future congregations and the God whose Scriptures you will authoritatively interpret for them, give the original languages your best shot and don’t give them up once you’ve graduated. That’s when you’ll use them the most! Knowing the original languages won’t guarantee you’ll be a better speaker, but it will mean you know the Scriptures better. By all means, polish up your speaking skills, but for God’s sake make sure you know what you’re talking about. Know it well! God demands much of his teachers, so you should demand much of yourself, too.

So if you’re heading to theological college and have the opportunity to study Hebrew and Greek, please have a very good reason for not doing so. “It’s not for everybody,” or “It’s not really necessary,” just aren’t really good enough for would-be teachers. Both God and his flock, whom you will shepherd, deserve your best efforts.

Related: Why Learn Biblical Hebrew?

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.

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.

What language did Jesus speak?

Today witnessed a very minor verbal exchange between Pope Francis and Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, over the language Jesus spoke. Reuters reports the incident on the final day of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East:

During his comments about a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity and tolerance towards Christians in Israel, Netanyahu told the [sic!] Francis: “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.

“Aramaic,” the pontiff interjected.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu shot back.

The difference of opinion reignites a historic debate about the language Jesus spoke two millennia ago.

“Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker,” Israeli linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann told Reuters. “But he would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew.”

Zuckermann added that during Jesus’ time, Hebrew was spoken by the lower classes – “the kind of people he ministered to.”

Pope Francis (R) meets Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem May 26, 2014 (Photo courtesy of Reuters / Alex Kolomoisky).

Jesus was evidently a native Aramaic speaker. The quotation in Mark 5.41 has Jesus address Jairus’ daughter with the words Talitha koum—an Aramaic phrase meaning, ‘Kid, get up!’ He would also have been very familiar with Hebrew, the language of most of the Jewish Scriptures. His references to the Scriptures on numerous occasions within the Gospels suggests this.

However, Jesus would also have been conversant with Greek. Galilee had one of the highest concentrations of Greek speakers in the Roman Empire outside of the Greek heartland of the Aegean. In fact, within short walking distance of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was the city of Sepphoris—a large Greek polis in the heart of Galilee. There is every chance that Jesus not only visited the city multiple times, but he may well have worked there in his profession as a carpenter. It was, after all, one of the largest economic centres in Galilee, and it was in the immediate vicinity of Nazareth.

The Apostle Peter?

Jesus’ disciples were also probably familiar with Greek. The hometown of apostles Simon Peter, Andrew, and Philip, was the town of Bethsaida at the northernmost point of the Sea of Galilee. In c. 2 BC it was granted status as a Greek polis and renamed Julias. Thus these three disciples, two of whom (Andrew and Philip) bore Greek names, grew up in a Greek-speaking environment. It also helps explain how Peter attained the name ‘Peter’. His original name was Simon, a good Hebrew/Aramaic name. Jesus, however, gave him the nickname ‘Kephas’, which is Aramaic for ‘Rocky’ <cue theme music to Rocky>. Paul refers to him as Kephas (or Cephas in modern English versions) in his correspondence with the Galatians and Corinthians. However, elsewhere, his name is easily translated into the Greek equivalent for ‘rock’, Peter (Greek: Petros).

There is a possibility that some of Jesus’ ministry was conducted in Greek. For example, there is good reason to suggest that Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words in John 3.3 is dependent on an ambiguity in Greek, but not in Aramaic or Hebrew. Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘Unless someone is born over, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ The relevant term used in the Gospel here is ἄνωθεν (anōthen) Nicodemus hears this as ‘born again’, while it seems from the rest of the discussion that Jesus meant ‘born from above’. The rendering ‘born over’ captures something of this ambiguity in English.

Jesus also seems to have conversations with Greek speakers throughout the Gospels. He chats with a Greek woman from Syro-Phoencia (Mark 7.24–30), a Roman centurion (Mark 8.5–13), and the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. On each occasion he might have made use of an interpreter. However, it is more likely that Jesus was able to conduct the conversation personally without an interpreter.

There is even the possibility that the famous ‘camel through the eye of a needle’ saying (Mark 10.25) is a misunderstanding of a saying in Greek. The word for ‘camel’ in Greek is κάμηλος (kamēlos), but the word for thick ‘rope’ (the type used to moor a ship to port) is κάμiλος (kamilos). There is virtually no difference in pronunciation between the two. Did Jesus perhaps say, ‘It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’? If he originally made the statement in Greek, he may well have. If, however, he made the statement in Aramaic, there would be no such ambiguity. I guess we’ll never know.

But all this is to say that Jesus was almost definitely a comfortable speaker of Greek, in addition to his native Aramaic, and the Hebrew of the Jewish Scriptures.