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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