Unhistorical Hebrew Linguistics: A Cautionary Tale

See Also: A Very Tall "Cautionary Tale": A Response to Ron Hendel

By Ronald Hendel
University of California, Berkeley
September 2011

While prowling around this website, I came across a surprising article on "Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts" by Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd.[1] (It's a potted summary of their two-volume work of the same title.) Now Hebraists have long known that Biblical Hebrew changed over time, from the earliest to the latest biblical books. This was established by Gesenius in his 1815 monograph, Geschichte der hebräischen Sprache und Schrift, and many scholars have contributed to this topic since. But Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd say that this scholarship is incorrect. They argue that "the best model for comprehending the evidence is that 'Early' BH and 'Late' BH, so-called, represent co-existing styles of Hebrew throughout the biblical period." This is a large claim. For a claim this size, one imagines that they have gathered compelling evidence and can marshal strong arguments. Well, nope. Their arguments have as many holes as Swiss cheese, and their evidence falls apart as soon as one looks closely.

I think this is a shame, because it shows that Hebrew linguistics has come to a sad pass. Most biblical scholars don't seem to know how to evaluate linguistic and textual data. This is a bad situation, because these are the tools we need in order to construct any kind of sophisticated literary, historical, or cultural reading of biblical texts. These are the building blocks, and without them the whole structure falls down. As my grandmother would say, Oy vey.

Let me dip into some of the problems here. The authors use the example of the lexical contrast of mamlakah and malkut. According to the standard model, mamlakah is the normal word for "kingdom" in Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH) and was replaced by malkut (from Aramaic) in Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH). This lexical contrast, along with a whole chain of other lexical, morphological, and syntactic contrasts, helps to map the changes from CBH to LBH. The authors contest this model by noting that malkut occurs a few times in books that are not usually considered to be late: "seven of those 91 occurrences in the Hebrew Bible are found in core EBH books like Samuel and Kings." The rightly note that if the word occurs in early texts, then the word cannot be an indicator of late language. Rather, it must be an option at any time. Therefore LBH features aren't necessarily late.

But the evidence belies this argument. The instances where malkut occurs in putatively early texts are problematic in one way or another, and as such cannot bear the argument the authors advance. For instance, they say that it occurs in Samuel. Right, it occurs in MT of 1 Sam 20:31. But the MT is notoriously corrupt in Samuel. They don't tell us (perhaps because they don't know) that 4QSamb has a clearly superior text in this clause, based on criteria other than this word. 4QSamb reads mamlakah, not malkut. So this evidence for the LBH word in Samuel flies away like the wind.

In the MT of Jeremiah, malkut occurs three times. But two of those instances (10:4 and 49:34) are lacking in the LXX, which represents the earlier edition of the book. This means that malkut was used in these verses only in the later edition, which is precisely what one would expect. The third instance (Jer 52:31) is a doublet of 2 Kgs 25:27. The Kings passage reads malko, not malkut. Since the Jeremiah passage is probably a late revision of the Kings passage, this evidence too flies away like the wind.

The one instance of malkut in Kings (malkuto in 1 Kgs 2:12) is also problematic. It is in a formula that is repeated, with variation, in the last verse of the chapter (2:46). The latter verse uses mamlakah. In this context, malkuto in 1 Kgs 2:12 may well be a secondary reading (or possibly a misvocalization of melukato). The solution is unclear, but it's anomaly under any construal.

My point here is that linguistic arguments depend on reliable assessments of the evidence. The authors are playing fast and loose with the evidence. Why are they doing this? Perhaps they don't really understand the evidence, or perhaps they don't care. Maybe making a large argument—however dubious—is its own reward. In this era of publish-or-perish, maybe publishing a spurious argument is enough.

Here's another example. They say that Persian loanwords aren't indicative of texts written after the onset of the Persian period. Their reasoning is as follows: "we argue that it is very likely that the MT intends us to read the Persian words dat in Deuteronomy 33.2, raz ("secret") in Isaiah 24.16, and peladot ("steel") in Nahum 2.4." This is an unobjectionable statement, because the medieval Masoretes did vocalize the words this way. But it does not support their argument. These readings are clearly textual problems. Deut 33:2 can't possibly mean "fire of the law." Isa 24:16 doesn't mean "secrets." Nahum 2:4 doesn't mean "steel." The MT vocalizations are dubious construals of difficult texts. (Deut 33:2 may have suffered a graphic error [resh-dalet], Nahum 2:4 a metathesis [pe-lamed], and the word in Isa 24:16 is from a different root—and in any case is in a late text). In other words, these verses provide no warrant for the authors' argument. It's misleading—or simply untruthful—to assert that Persian loanwords occur in these verses. This dog won't hunt.

There are other ways in which their argument falls flat. We now know that the Septuagint translators and their contemporaries often read CBH words and constructions as if they were LBH.[2] This means that erudite scholars had already forgotten details of CBH by the third century B.C.E. So we're clearly not talking about contemporary literary styles. We're talking about linguistic history. It's a complicated linguistic history, to be sure, and we lack comprehensive documentation of all the changes. But changes there were.

Another point – the authors claim that the textual history of the Hebrew Bible makes it impossible to study the history of Biblical Hebrew. They write: "text-critical evidence, therefore, puts a question mark over the whole enterprise of linguistic dating before it has begun." This is nonsense. My examples above demonstrate that textual criticism is entirely compatible with historical linguistics, and, indeed, that the two pursuits are necessary adjuncts. The authors' argument evinces a tenuous grasp of the practice and implications of textual criticism. I think that the opposite of their claim is correct. The textual history of the Hebrew Bible corroborates its linguistic history, as indicated above with the two editions of Jeremiah.[3]

It is obvious that Biblical Hebrew has a history, and if we are patient and respect the data, we can discern the nuances of these changes. Gesenius and his successors (Driver, Kutscher, Hurvitz, Joosten, et al.) weren't wholly wrong. We can date our texts linguistically, with varying degrees of confidence. But the knowledge and skills necessary to do this are ephemeral. If one generation loses them, they may be forever lost. This is my worry. In the long run, bad scholarship plows over the good, until at the end it's all wind and fury. Biblical philology is a delicate thing, which we need to tend with loving care, or else it is lost.



[2] See Jan Joosten, "Pseudo-Classicisms in Late Biblical Hebrew, in Ben Sira, and in Qumran Hebrew," in T. Muraoka and J. F. Elwolde, eds., Sirach, Scrolls and Sages (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 146-159; idem, "Biblical Hebrew as Mirrored in the Septuagint: The Question of Influence from Spoken Hebrew," Textus, 21 (2002), 1-19. See also Joosten's review (in press) of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd, available at www.premiumorange.com/theologie.protestante/enseignants/joosten/rc_Joos….

[3] See further Joosten, "L'excédent massorétique du livre de Jérémie et l'hébreu post-classique," in J. Joosten and J.-S. Rey, eds., Conservatism and Innovation in the Hebrew Language of the Hellenistic Period (Leiden, Brill, 2008), 93-108.


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Comments (30)



"Now Hebraists have long known that Biblical Hebrew changed over time, from the earliest to the latest biblical books." But as Neusner says, "what we can't show we don't know". The only way to show this is by dating biblical books independently of their linguistic features. Otherwise the argument is circular. There are indeed weaknesses in the two-volume work by Young, Rezetko and Ehrensvard. But anyone wanting to demolish their case really ought to deal with the book, not a summary in an article. And the theory of say Hurvitz is certainly full of holes too, which have been pointed out man times. Of course Hebrew changed, but when and how? The dating of biblical texts is still undergoing radical revision; the Qumran texts show that various kinds f Hebrew can coexist and cannot be naively strung on a chronological pearl. What we now need is a long and serious debate about what we might and might not know. I certainly want to see the three scholars whom he attacks reply to this (I assume they have been invited) and then I want to see us all thinking very carefully about what we know and how we know it. Not this nonsense.
#1 - philip davies - 09/23/2011 - 09:35


Whoa, I think I may have hit a nerve. Philip calls my column "nonsense," but he does not take issue with any single point of my critique. It's easy to paint with a broad brush, and it's easy to say that all past scholarship is obsolete. But, as Philip knows, serious scholarship is not easy. I'm happy to engage in a discussion of method and epistemology in the historical linguistics of biblical Hebrew. But I ask that we avoid demagoguery and posturing. This isn't cable TV.

By the way, there are sufficient extra-biblical linguistic data to corroborate at several points the standard model of the history of Hebrew. It strikes me, therefore, that Philip is incorrect to call this inquiry "circular." Unless he wants to grant that all historical inquiry is circular, which I will happily concede. Circles sometimes reinforce themselves, and it's arguable that they're the inevitable shape of all our inquiries.

#2 - Ron Hendel - 09/23/2011 - 16:27


I think Professor Davies misses the point which Professor Hendel nicely articulated. The core problem in this debate is not so much the facts, but rather the lack, or misuse of methodology, primarily of historical linguistics and language contact. The slogan "what we can't show, we don't know" is pithy but completely besides the point. Historical linguistic tools allow us to explain change and its mechanisms. Biblical Hebrew is hardly the first language whose linguistic history is debated; yet, somehow Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd seem to think that the principles of Historical Linguistics do not apply to this particular language. Any debate regarding linguistic dating of biblical texts is welcome, but it cannot be ignorant of both the facts and the theoretical framework(s).
#3 - Na'ama Pat-El - 09/23/2011 - 16:42


Historical linguistics is in need of anchors, established dates of in this case Hebrew texts. As is well known, dating biblical books is a most difficult enterprise and people often end up in circular argumentation.
#4 - Niels Peter Lemche - 09/23/2011 - 18:35


Sorry Na'ama, but understanding the grounds by which we 'know' things is anything but beside the point. It is vitally important to ensuring that we have a solid basis for stating what 'we know' rather than what 'we think we know'. There is a critical difference.

The thing about the work of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd is that they expose some of the epistemic assumptions that we have been perpetuating with the traditional diachronic model. And this particular article doesn't seem to step outside these. Indeed, it really only analyses a single word, when the two volumes of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd deal with an avalanche of more data. It is well worth engaging with their work in the two published volumes. It exposed the assumptions I had previously worked with and taken for granted. Their methodology is good and they are willing to think through things afresh rather than assume prior theories. Epistemically painful perhaps, but very good for the soul.

#5 - George Athas - 09/24/2011 - 02:47


George Athas, a student of Ian Young, is loyal to his teacher, which is a trait that I can't fault. But he clearly misunderstands Na'ama's point, that the discipline of Historical Linguistics provides the appropriate epistemological and methodological framework for the pursuit of the historical linguistics of biblical Hebrew. A simulacrum of scholarship that plays fast and loose with the evidence and offers disingenuous argumentation doesn't cut it.

In my column I critique virtually all the evidence and arguments advanced in the column by Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd. There's no there there. I'm curious to see if anyone will defend one -- any one -- of their arguments. From their book too.

#6 - Ron Hendel - 09/24/2011 - 06:13


Ronald, with respect, this is not about loyalty to a previous teacher. One of the things I learnt from Ian as his student was to think independently and question assumptions. If that's the legacy you're charging me with upholding, then fine. Otherwise, the caricature fails.

The theoretical framework you've proposed in this article still does not deal with the epistemic and methodological issues raised by Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd. Historical linguistics is, of course, the arena for dealing with historical linguistics. That much is obvious. However, it's the assumptions in historical linguistics as applied to the dating of biblical texts that need to come under scrutiny. And I have not seen much that deals with this here.

Are you basing your analysis here on a reading of the two published volumes and the data therein? The article says no. If not, then the best we can do is take this article as the most preliminary of thoughts. It's fair enough to put forward an opinion, which is what this article is classified as, but it hardly counts as considered critique, given that there are two volumes with weighty evidence out there that have yet to be worked through. I would be reticent about labelling something as bad scholarship before considering its argument in full.

#7 - George Athas - 09/24/2011 - 14:47


I was amused and then annoyed at the comments by Davies printed here. Prof. Davies has published his opinion that the Siloam Tunnel inscription is Hellenistic, a position that is so naïve that, to paraphrase physicist Wolfgang Pauli, it’s not right; it’s not even wrong. I would expect humility, not arrogance, from someone who is demonstrably inexperienced when it comes to dating. So the very idea of his calling Hendel’s complicated article “nonsense” is, well, nonsense.

Granted, I’ve turned to epigraphy when the discussion here is about Bible, but I’m still working with the same tools. The situation isn’t as bleak, Prof. Lemche, as you make it seem. As my colleague Na’ama Pat-El has pointed out, there is such a thing as historical linguistics. Linguists do it in all sorts of fields, not just Hebrew, and there is right and wrong there, too. There are rules, there is a body of knowledge that has grown up over the last century and more; it is a discipline and not simply a guess or a feeling or a combination of ad hoc observations strung together. And it is debated and improved by people in that field, but it is not “nonsense.”

Athas writes as though linguists don’t know what they’re doing, and they need Ian Young to tell them. But that, too, is naïve. Of course we question assumptions all the time. But we do it within an established discipline that, I’ll say again, takes account of languages all over the world and through time. It occurs to me that the scholars I’m questioning are talking about “historical linguistics” as it existed in Hebrew studies half a century ago, that they don’t know how much as been done, that they don’t read the general linguistics journals that have been publishing sophisticated work in the field, from Semitists, Indo-Europeanists, people who specialize in native American languages, and so on. Prof. Pat-El is a good example.

In other words, I don’t think we’re all talking about the same thing. Hendel and Pat-El are working in a field they were trained in, and it’s very hard to criticize specific conclusions when you’re writing from outside the field, as Davies is, and as Young, et al., have done (over and over). A call for debate would be great if we were all starting with the same toolbox, but we’re not.

#8 - Jo Ann Hackett - 09/24/2011 - 18:23


No one is saying that linguists don't know what they're talking about. I'm sorry, Jo Ann, if that's how you understood me, but it was not my point at all. And yet it sounds like we should not be willing to engage with the critiques of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd because they must be wrong. I've mentioned the questioning of assumptions, which is apparently right to do, except for Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd, who must somehow be operating outside the acceptable limits of historical linguistics. Forgive me my objection, but I'm still yet to see any substantial critique of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd. Perhaps this is not the forum for it. But it's unwillingness to do so and the assumption that they are wrong that troubles me.

Of course Hebrew operates as any language methodologically in historical linguistics. But that's their point! One of their points is that we have committed some faux pas because we have assumed things about biblical texts that means we are not being true to the methods of historical linguistics. Assuming conclusions about the dates of biblical books is not methodologically sound, and I'm willing to hear someone who points out where and how we've been doing this.

#9 - George Athas - 09/24/2011 - 22:26


George, were you at the SBL meeting last November? There was a lot of substantial critique of Young, et al. And what about this article we're supposedly responding to? You don't think Hendel has made any substantial points?
#10 - Jo Ann Hackett - 09/25/2011 - 00:47


This is a minor point (and off topic with the rest of the discussion), but one need not read Nah 2.4 as textually corrupt (and Prof. Hendel does) or read "peladot" as a Persian loan word (how most scholars understand it). There is an Arabic word ("fulad") which means steal that is a possible source for Nahum's "peladot" (See HALOT, 929-932). In his recent contribution to the Anchor Bible Commentary, Duane Christensen argues that the Persian of Nahum’s day (either Avestic or Achaemenian Persian) had different words for steel (Christensen, 271).
#11 - Justin King - 09/25/2011 - 04:22


Hi Jo Ann! Yes, I was at SBL last year. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to catch all of the session where much of the discussion took place. Of course Hendel has some good points here, but I do not think they scuttle the thesis of YR&E. In fairness, in an article of this size, it would be ambitious to think it could.

As I understand it, YR&E are arguing that linguistics cannot be used as a firm basis for dating biblical texts, not because historical linguistics cannot say anything meaningful about the development of language, but because the data do not give us a clear picture of that when it comes specifically to the biblical documents. The data do not quite match up with the traditional diachronic development model that has reigned for so long in the field. Some of the variables have not been taken fully into account in the past, and there has often been an assumption of the dating of texts that has been used to confirm the traditional diachrony, which is then used to date texts. There is often an epistemic circularity, which YR&E are attempting to break. Add to this the probability of multi-layered redactions and editions, and the picture is quite complicated. The theory that seems to fit the data best is concurrent style, though the dating of these styles still needs to be figured out. One can appreciate the situation, for example, by considering Qumran, where they are able to write things like Serek haYahad alongside of the Habbakuk Pesher.

I'm sure YR&E will respond to Hendel's article here. I'll let them take up other specifics.

#12 - George Athas - 09/25/2011 - 05:34


Questioning arguments is what scholars do. But I don't think the condescending tone of this article is appropriate. Furthermore, questioning the academic integrity of those being criticized is nearly libelous. Very disappointing.
#13 - Alan Lenzi - 09/25/2011 - 05:50


We have written a response to Ron Hendel’s op-ed and we are told that it will be on the website next week.

Robert, Ian and Martin

#14 - Robert Rezetko - 09/25/2011 - 08:43


Professor Athas in his comment writes "Perhaps this is not the forum for it." We wonder why not? Should this discussion take place at a conference where most of us cannot attend, or in a journal many of us do not read? We suggest that Professor Athas and others take advantage of the internet and use its potential for rapidly disseminating their ideas. Naturally, at a conference we can come together and meet, discuss our ideas, have some good food, do some sightseeing, but this is no longer the vehicle for timely discussion of scholarly ideas. A room of 40 to 50 people listening to papers is a bit archaic for truly imparting our ideas to a wider audience. We are unaware of any harm to scholars writing articles on our site for a public that is interested in biblical topics.


#15 - Editors - 09/25/2011 - 17:33


A virtual conference like this and one in reality are not mutually exclusive.

I would suggest--because the SBL National this year is already too late; maybe next year--that possibilities a looked for, e.g., in combination with the EABS/SBL/SOTS combined meeting in Amsterdam next summer. It will be a major event, bringing together scholars from all over the world. If I see Martin Ehrensvärd next week, I will air my proposal to him.

Another thing: Historical lingvistics still need anchors, whatever Jo Ann Hacket and other people may say. without such fixed dates of texts (not all but some), it is nothing but guesswork. As I already said, the argument becomes circular: We date a text because of its lingvistic content, and then we start dating lingvistic features on the basis of this text.

So, provide such anchors from, say Iron II, the Persian Period and the Hellenistic Period. We probably need more than the few lines of the Siloam inscription (which I do not date to the Hellenistic Period--I do not think that Philip does it anymore. We got at him during a conference in Jerudalem in 1995, with Knauf as his severest critic).

The we can begin to discuss the peculiarities of biblical Hebrew via-à-vis other textual remains, such as the use of the relative particle 'asher which is also found in some cases in material from Iron II, e.g., the Lachish letters. As a matter of fact, the she particle looks more "antique", like the sha in Akkadian, not to speak of Phoenician and other W. semitic dialects (v. Hoftijzer), the feminine ending in -h instead of common Semitic -t, etc. etc.

Important should also be morphology, indeed more important than single words. Only dead languages do not develop, like Latin today. However, what are the morphological differences between "J" and "P", although formerly believed to be divided by several hundred years (something that made Johannes Pedersen wonder if the source division of higher criticism is really relevant--he wrote about it in XAW back in the 1930s).

These are only stray notes which say that I would not deny that there are possibilities, but you will have to establish an anchor in the Iron II based on non-biblical texts (to escape circularity) and another anchor in the biblical text, not dated. And, bitte, fangen sie an!

However, more cleam would be to use the Iron II material as a kind of terminus a quo, and the DSS Hebrew as a terminus ante quem. Most of what we have in the Hebrew Bible can be dated in between these extremes. At least then we have some kind of starter.

#16 - Niels Peter Lemche - 09/26/2011 - 07:19


The discussion points to very important issues. I think we have to divide between two questions: 1. can biblical texts be dated only by the historical linguistic method? 2. is the biblical Hebrew historical linguistics legitimate? Perhaps most scholars will agree that the historical linguistics can not be an exclusive method of dating biblical texts and one has to involve other data, as archaeology, history of religion etc. Cut actually the claim of Young et al goes far beyond this and they deny the legitimacy of biblical Hebrew historical linguistics as a field. The reason for this is the fact that we deal with a corpus with vague chronological frames. Albeit the vague chronology, the scholars have to explain the extremely rich data of linguistic diversity with the biblical corpus. Theoretically, the linguistic diversity can be explained in different terms; historical linguistic and literary-conventional approaches are two possible solutions. The historical linguistic hypothesis that explains two main branches within biblical Hebrew corpus in terms of chronologically different layers in the language development is much more solid scholarly: it is based on generally proved methodology, external sources, and wide elaboration of extra-linguistic data. The literary-conventional hypothesis, as it was formulated by Young et al brings NO positive proofs. The only method of argumentation they use is to show apparent holes in Hurvitz's argumentation. They bring no external evidences of the existence of two scribal schools in Persian period: one using CBH, the other LBH. These two schools are an absolutely virtual reality, the fruit of the authors' imagination. The literary-conventional hypothesis fails because of the total lack of evidences.
#17 - Tania Notarius - 09/26/2011 - 07:21


Tania, I think many of the assumed conclusions that biblical scholars have been working under are being challenged and I have not been bashful that I share the critique that Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvard have put forward. However, I have approached it from a different angle--that is, arguing that DtrH and Chr are contemporary historiographies. See the currently "featured article" on this website, which is a summary of my monograph _The Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles: Scribal Works in an Oral World_. I directly challenge your assumption about the scribal schools that produced these works.
#18 - Ray Person - 09/26/2011 - 16:04


I wish to thank Ron Hendel for incisive critique of YR&E (to use George Athas' abbreviation). To be sure, YR&E do make useful methodological observations, but they often don't apply them in ways that advance our understanding of Hebrew. Let me rehash an example that Hendel generously gives, namely, the LBH malkut. Hendel grants, "They rightly note that if the word occurs in early texts, then the word cannot be an indicator of late language. Rather, it must be an option at any time." Yes, sort of. But a major pillar of Hurvitz's methodological was the accumulation of data along the the total picture of the distribution. Even if YR&E's analysis of the distribution weren't incorrect, it would still point to malkut as LBH. Moreover, they fail to note the important of examples like 1Sam 20:31, for which Hendel rightly takes Young to task. These examples point to the tendency of later scribes to update language, but they don't undermine the diachronic distinction--in fact, they underscore it. Does 1QIs-a undermine the diachronic history of Hebrew, or does it illustrate it? I would appreciate more the methodological observations of YR&E if they weren't in a fruitless attempt to flatten the Hebrew language diachronically.
#19 - Bill Schniedewind - 09/26/2011 - 18:38


I appreciate all these comments, which have taken a very constructive direction. As George rightly urged, I have read the book and now have a clearer sense of the methodological problems. In my view there are two salient ones: (1) The principle that for the purpose of linguistic analysis of biblical Hebrew, the evidentiary base consists solely of the textus receptus (MT), with no consideration given to textual problems, variant readings, or multiple editions; and (2) The assumption that if two scholars disagree about an issue then the issue is unsolved or unsolvable, or, to put it differently, a lack of consensus signifies a lack of knowledge. I submit that both of these are unwarranted.

The formulation of their principle of sola MT is odd, since they assert that this is a universal principle among Hebraists: “A third presupposition that underlies all linguistic dating work is that the MT forms of the books faithfully reflect the language of the original authors” (vol. 2, p. 88). This is a wholly untenable statement, particularly in the post-Qumran era. Nor does not characterize the methodology of most Hebrew linguists, past or present.

The view that a lack of unanimity among scholars indicates that all arguments are null leads to some strange decisions, such as the avoidance of considering the verbal systems in CBH and LBH. This is the most far-reaching set of changes between these language phases. But since, as they write, “the BH system is difficult to classify, and it has so far been impossible for scholars to reach any kind of consensus,” they exclude it from consideration (vol. 2, p. 158). I submit that it’s not difficult to describe the CBH and LHB systems according to the normal categories of tense and aspect as understood in the discipline of General Linguistics. The classical system is organized by relative tense and aspect, and changes in LBH to absolute tense, with many aspectual distinctions taken up by temporal adverbs and periphrastic constructions. (See, that wasn’t so hard!)* But even if one disagrees with this description, it’s easy to tell that the CBH waw-conversive system of verbal sequences breaks down in LBH. One doesn’t have to understand everything to catalogue the obvious differences of verbal syntax. A lack of consensus does not warrant exclusion of significant data.

There’s more to say, but I note that these two general methodological problems affect YR&E's arguments and analyses throughout.

*See R. Hendel, “In the Margins of the Hebrew Verbal System: Situation, Tense, Aspect, Mood,” ZAH 9 (1996) 152-81; PDF at sites.google.com/site/rshendel/

#20 - Ron Hendel - 09/27/2011 - 04:02


comment, part 1:

Dear Ron,

Our response article to your op-ed was sent to The Bible and Interpretation before you wrote your comment #20. We understand that our main response will appear tomorrow. We decided to add a brief comment today on one of the issues you mention below, textual issues and the MT. (We also discuss textual criticism in tomorrow’s response article. At a later point we will remark on the verbal system[s] of biblical Hebrew, the second issue mentioned in your comment #20.)

We think the conversation is being obstructed by confusion about our actual views as we have expressed them in
writing, in LDBT (= “YR&E”) and elsewhere.

In your recent comment #20 you say:

[You say that we say] “(1) The principle that for the purpose of linguistic analysis of biblical Hebrew, the evidentiary base consists solely of the textus receptus (MT), with no consideration given to textual problems, variant readings, or multiple editions”
“The formulation of their (YR&E) principle of sola MT is odd, since they assert that this is a universal principle among Hebraists: “A third presupposition that underlies all linguistic dating work is that the MT forms of the books faithfully reflect the language of the original authors” (vol. 2, p. 88). This is a wholly untenable statement, particularly in the post-Qumran era. Nor does not [sic - ‘it’] characterize the methodology of most Hebrew linguists, past or present.”

The preceding remarks assert that we (YR&E) deal primarily or only with the MT and minimize or discard text-related issues. Did you read the entire synthesis of our argument from which you took the above quotation, “A third presupposition...original authors” (vol. 2, p. 88)? We ask because that single sentence, in vol. 2, p. 88, footnote 9, ends by referring to a later section in the synthesis (2.8; pp. 100-102) in which we summarize (positively) the important and related matters of textual criticism and literary criticism. Indeed, we devote an entire chapter to these issues in vol. 1 (ch. 13), which discusses in detail the matters of textual fluidity and pluriformity and textual and linguistic modification. In fact, we routinely discuss literary-critical and text-critical issues throughout LDBT (see the analytical index of subjects, vol. 2, p. 285, point 4) and in other publications.

The fact is that we explicitly highlight and then criticize the MT-only methodology that you describe. Simply stated, your remarks, as expressed above, do not apply to us. However, your remarks do apply to many others who in recent decades have been writing on linguistic diachrony in biblical Hebrew. For example:

Hurvitz, A Linguistic Study of the Relationship Between the Priestly Source and the Book of Ezekiel: A New Approach to an Old Problem: “[I]n the framework of this discussion we seek to deal exclusively with biblical texts [= MT] in the way in which they have crystallized and in the form in which they now stand––regardless of textual alterations, literary developments and editorial activities which they may or may not have undergone during their long transmission” (Hurvitz 1982a: 21; cf. 18–21 for the rationale; 1967: 117a; 1972a: 67; cf. 182–84; 1972c: 21; 1973: 74; 1974a: 17; 1974b: 54–56; 1999a: 31*; 2006b: 210 n. 69).

comment continued in part 2

#21 - Robert Rezetko - 09/27/2011 - 14:32


comment, continued, part 2:

Rooker, Biblical Hebrew in Transition: The Language of the Book of Ezekiel: “Another premise adopted by modern researchers in diachronic study is the accepted postulate that the Massoretic Text be accepted in toto in this kind of linguistic analysis. This is not to affirm that the Massoretic Text is free from corruptions, but to acknowledge both the possibility that difficult readings may be incongruous due to lack of additional information, and our lack of certainty in correctly restoring readings that are corrupt. In essence, it is to affirm that linguists must treat literature as texts” (Rooker 1990a: 57).

Rendsburg, Linguistic Evidence for the Northern Origin of Selected Psalms: “One additional issue needs to be raised before proceeding with our investigation. That issue is the trustworthiness of MT, not only its consonantal text but its vocalization as well. Here I wish to echo once more Hurvitz’s opinion. He correctly stated that “a linguistic study whose central purpose is to seek facts and avoid conjectures, should base itself on actual texts–difficult though they may be–rather than depend on reconstructed texts.” As far as the vocalization is concerned, here I would direct the reader to the writings of J. Barr and S. Morag, whose opinions I accept wholeheartedly” (Rendsburg 1990b: 16–17).

Wright, Linguistic Evidence for the Pre-exilic Date of the Yahwistic Source: “This study will follow certain guidelines in approaching the biblical evidence. First, it will make use of the unemended Masoretic Text (MT) of the Hebrew Bible. This is not because the MT contains no errors or because widely held principles of textual criticism are faulty, but because a linguistic investigation must base itself upon actual rather than reconstructed texts which may or may not have existed. Furthermore, it is not always certain whether a textual difficulty represents a corruption or a lack of information on our part. Nor is it always certain whether we can accurately restore the original text” (Wright 2005: 13–15).

This short list of quotations is easily expanded to include many other authors and publications over the past several decades (cf. LDBT, vol. 1, pp. 16-18). This is not only a matter of quotation, however, but represents a deeply-embedded and very problematic methodological posture. Indeed, the vast majority of discussions of linguistic dating and historical linguistics of biblical Hebrew adopt this methodology, usually citing Hurvitz’ discussions as a justification. Therefore, insofar as linguistic dating and historical linguistics are concerned, until we are convinced otherwise, we directly challenge your remark that “Nor does [the sola MT principle of YR&E] characterize the methodology of most Hebrew linguists, past or present.” It is not *our* principle, but it does characterize the methodology of many *other* scholars working in the field.

We can talk more about the persons who are exceptions to this “rule,” the incongruence of the MT-only methodology with general historical linguistic theory and, of course, malkut, after our response article is posted tomorrow.

Robert, Ian and Martin

#22 - Robert Rezetko - 09/27/2011 - 14:33


I’m a little confused. If I understand their comment, YR&E now say that they do textual criticism in their linguistic work. But in their book and their column they say and do the opposite. For example, in their analysis of 2 Samuel 6, they write:

“In the following remarks we do not give text-critical data or differentiate primary and secondary LBH features in MT 2 Samuel 6. An MT-only approach is advocated by most proponents of the chronological model of EBH and LBH (see This means that LBH features in EBH books should be taken as original to those books” (vol. 1, p. 104)

One cannot generate data and arguments by not doing textual criticism and then claim that one is doing it. There is a sense of unreality here. I think they adopt the “MT-only approach” in their analyses of the biblical text, and then turn around and say that since MT has textual problems, the whole enterprise is pointless. In any case, whether or not my construal of their overall strategy is correct, their analyses of particular texts adopt an “MT-only approach,” hence these analyses are susceptible to my criticisms.

#23 - Ron Hendel - 09/27/2011 - 18:25


Dear Ron,

You say: “The view that a lack of unanimity among scholars indicates that all arguments are null leads to some strange decisions, such as the avoidance of considering the verbal systems in CBH and LBH. This is the most far-reaching set of changes between these language phases. But since, as they write, “the BH [sic - add “verbal”] system is [sic - add “very”] difficult to classify, and it has so far been impossible for scholars to reach any kind of consensus [add - “that extends beyond the most superficial descriptions of the uses of the verb forms”],” they exclude it from consideration (vol. 2, p. 158).”

We are unsure as to what you mean by saying that we exclude it from consideration. In fact, we deal extensively with the verbal system in LDBT and in other publications. In LDBT, vol. 2, pp. 289-290, in the “Analytical Outline of Subjects,” there are two complete pages of references to discussions of “Verb syntax” in LDBT (relative frequencies of consecutive, copulative and simple verbs; introductory wyhy / whyh; iterative weqatalti; etc.). We discuss many different verb forms and uses throughout the entirety of LDBT, with ample illustrations and citations of secondary literature. Then, in vol. 2, ch. 3, we included a series of longer linguistic case studies, and there too we discussed some issues related to verb syntax: object of infinitive clause before the predicate; imperatival infinitive absolute; paronomastic infinitive absolute; verb forms in the apodosis of conditional clauses introduced by )M or KY; and verb syntax in 2 Kings 21–25. In other publications too we have looked at a variety of issues (see the bibliography in LDBT, and forthcoming), including the view “that the CBH waw-conversive system of verbal sequences breaks down in LBH.”

With all due respect to you, and to Jan Joosten’s and Mats Eskhult’s many incisive publications on this topic, there are still a lot of facts related to verb syntax in biblical and early post-biblical Hebrew that have not yet been thoroughly researched or adequately explained, and unfortunately many published studies are hampered by the same methodological inadequacies, including literary-linguistic circularity, that we describe in LDBT. In any case, we by no means “exclude [the verbal system] from consideration."

Martin, Ian and Robert

#24 - Martin Ehrensvärd - 09/28/2011 - 05:43


Dear Ron,

If there are two oranges in a basket of apples that does not mean that all the apples are oranges! Please be careful of using random statements from LDBT out of context, which will lead you to misconstrue our overall arguments.

The statement preceding that discussion of 2 Samuel 6, cited by you, is made precisely because we are aware of the editorial and textual complexity of that passage and the book of Samuel (cf. vol. 2, pp. 27-30; and Rezetko, Source and Revision [2008], which is a monograph on the versions of the ark transfer story).

But, as our longer response article also shows, our first aim in writing LDBT was to adopt (for the sake of argument, so to speak), the same MT-only methodology that predominates in recent scholarship (e.g. Hurvitz; see quotes in comments 21-22, below), and from within that same approach to show that the standard two-stage model (EBH, LBH) unravels.

However, we then take one more step: “In fact, the chronological model is in profound tension with the consensus views in an array of other fields in biblical studies. We give here the examples of textual criticism and literary criticism” (vol. 2, p. 100). Our brief remarks there (pp. 100-101) are explained and illustrated at much greater length at many places in LDBT, notably vol. 1, ch. 13 (cf. the many discussions of literary-critical and text-critical issues that are indexed in vol. 2, p. 285, point 4), and we will develop this topic further and in much more detail in our forthcoming book which moves beyond a response to previous scholarship to propose a more integrated way to approaching the historical linguistics of biblical Hebrew in the context of biblical studies (literary criticism, textual criticism, etc).

Ian, Robert and Martin

#25 - Ian Young - 09/28/2011 - 11:45


Very interesting and useful discussion. I salute Young et al for challenging the 'traditional' approach to dating texts, but I do think they go over board with their criticism.

However, I believe Lambdin was right that in our field "we are working with no data."

And that is a serious problem for the dating of most texts (of course we can date Haggai late etc) and for the building of any history of the Hebrew language.

Excuse my ignorance (I admit that I have not kept up with this field for about 15 yrs) - but could you please list a few EXTERNAL sources from the 8th century BCE (I won't even go earlier) that we could use to help us date the biblical books?

More specifically - how many actual 'pages' of external sources do we have from the external sources (some said that our history of the language is based also on external sources), and how close is their genre to that of the Bible?

It seems to me that "we are working with no data," [unless someone can produce the requested external data requested and of which I am ignorant] and it would help if we were a bit humbler when we 'date' most biblical texts.

#26 - Cristian Rata - 11/01/2011 - 00:37


I too hope to be excused for my ignorance as I have not kept up with this field of Biblical studies, since as a student I wrote a paper on the language of Daniel (in the early 2000s). The paper addressed the issue of whether the criteria defined in R. Polzin, "Late Biblical Hebrew: Toward an Historical Typology of Biblical Hebrew Prose" (only the A’s) were in fact supported by a) the pre-exilic Hebrew inscriptions, the Mesha Stele, the DSS etc., and b) whether these criteria were also true for the Hebrew parts of the book of Daniel.

Of course one might argue that in fact I was comparing apples and oranges as the Biblical material and the inscriptions are in fact not of the same genre and literary type. And such an objection would certainly be substantial. However, if one gives up on the pre-exilic inscriptions it becomes rather difficult to show that, the book of Genesis, for example, is written in pre-exilic Hebrew.

At any rate, I found in my study, only that the first of Polzin’s criteria, (reduced use of ‘et with pronominal suffix) was clearly supported by the inscriptions, and that the book of Daniel conversely preferred to attach pronominal suffixes to the verb.

Most other criteria were not supported by the inscriptions and/or Hebrew Daniel, though I admit that a few criteria fell in a gray area. I should, for the record, state that the paper was not particularly positively evaluated.

#27 - Leeroy Malacinski - 11/01/2011 - 22:14


Anybody out there?

WHERE are the external sources used to date the earlier biblical books? How close are they to the genre (of course there are many genres in the Bible) that they are being compared with?

NOTE: I do not contest that there IS a history of the Hebrew language and that Samuel-Kings are earlier than Chronicles (for example)etc....but I do contest that it is possible to date Proverbs (as an example) because there is no adequate external data to compare with and the genre is significantly different than that of narrative!

#28 - Cristian Rata - 11/04/2011 - 03:33


Hi Cristian

The pre-exilic epigraphic sources in Hebrew are relatively meagre, though by no means negligible.

We do, for example, have the Arad ostraca and Lachish letters. In addition we have some further epigraphic material of various kinds (you may for example have heard of the Ketef Hinom silver scrolls).

Then we have epigraphic material which is not in Hebrew but in related languages, which may be used for comparative linguistics. The Mesha stele, for example, seems close to the biblical world (the language is very close to Hebrew if it is not simply a form of Hebrew).

We do not have any grand narrative or epic, as you have in say, Gen.-Kings (or say Gilgamesh) nor is it clear (at least to me) to what extent the epigraphic material we do have is comparable to the biblical material for purposes of dating.

When I wrote my paper on the language of the Hebrew parts of Daniel, as a student, I was, as mentioned previously, comparing criteria for dating with the epigraphic material. I bypassed the question of genre, since as I mentioned previously, if we give up on the inscriptions, we have can not way of dating the material from an empirically based linguistic methodology (my opinion).

At the time I wrote I was not aware of any existing attempt to examine the material from this angle. Perhaps in the meantime studies with a more empirical focus have appeared, though as I said, I have not kept up with this field since early 2000s.

#29 - Leeroy Malacinski - 11/04/2011 - 12:41


Thanks a lot Leeroy. Just as I suspected (and remembered from graduate studies), the pre-exilic material is meager and given the very different genre I think they are of limited use for dating most biblical texts.

Unless I see more external evidence to help with dating texts I prefer to take a more cautious approach and say that it is not very easy to date certain books (especially the wisdom literature).

Thanks again for your response!

#30 - Cristian Rata - 12/01/2011 - 08:07

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