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.