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.



Thinking better about linguistic dating of Biblical Hebrew

Here’s one for the Hebrews and Shebrews.

51i9zzm-zbl-_sx331_bo1204203200_51ooyvykrsl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Conventional wisdom says that Early Biblical Hebrew (aka Standard Biblical Hebrew or Classical Biblical Hebrew) came first, and then Late Biblical Hebrew. But when you actually analyse the evidence, this view starts to unravel. Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd have argued very convincingly that Early Biblical Hebrew and Late Biblical Hebrew were not linear diachronic developments, but rather contemporaneous styles of Hebrew in antiquity. This means that it’s practically impossible to date a biblical text based solely on linguistic criteria. Their compelling argument can found in their two volume work, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts, and their more recent Historical Linguistics and Biblical HebrewOnce you “see” their argument, you can’t “unsee” it. They look at the evidence in such a logical way that it makes you wonder why it has taken Hebraists so long to see what is so obvious.

Yet many Hebraists still don’t see it. It almost feels like they’re looking at one of those pictures that have a “hidden” 3D shape (a stereogram, like this). They claim to be finding the 3D shape. And if you can’t see it, it’s because you’re not looking at the right way. Try squinting or staring beyond the page. But the irony is that the picture isn’t one of those 3D shapes! It’s just a normal 2D picture. They’ve been looking at it all wrong, and yet the real picture is there staring them in the face.

So the old and disproven paradigm persists. It seems to be dying a slow death, as evidenced by a few recent articles.


Robert Rezteko

Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd have clarified their position in a paper titled “Do We Really Think That Ancient Hebrew Had No Chronology“.

Robert Rezetko has also put together a few responses to recent studies working with the old paradigm. They are well worth the read:

I hope scholars, especially the younger ones, start just looking plainly at the evidence instead of squinting and forcing a particular paradigm onto 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.

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.