An Unsettling Divide in Linguistic Dating and Historical Linguistics

See Also: Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts

Unhistorical Hebrew Linguistics: A Cautionary Tale

A Very Tall “Cautionary Tale”: A Response to Ron Hendel

By Martin Ehrensvärd
Associate Professor
Faculty of Theology
University of Copenhagen

Robert Rezetko
Research Associate
Radboud University Nijmegen & University of Sydney

Ian Young
Associate Professor
Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies
University of Sydney
February 2016

Most ancient Hebrew language scholars probably agree broadly about what scholarship and scholarly method are and should be. They agree that scholarship entails dialogue, debate, self-criticism, evaluation, correction, and so on. But when it comes down to how this looks in practice, misunderstandings have become abundant and a very unfortunate situation has developed in the field.

Since the early 2000s there has been substantial and beneficial discussion of the linguistic nature of the Hebrew Bible and the role of language for determining the historical origins of biblical writings. The interaction has taken place at conferences,[1] in authored and edited books,[2] in journals,[3] and in various online venues including The Bible and Interpretation.[4] In our opinion, the ongoing outcome of this recent discussion is that within the field of Biblical Hebrew studies a shift is underway from the outlook and method of linguistic dating as formulated by W. Gesenius, S. R. Driver, A. Kropat, E. Y. Kutscher, A. Bendavid, A. Hurvitz, and so on, with its inherent assumptions and weaknesses, to the more widespread, robust, and descriptive approach of historical linguistics.

This shift is apparent when reviewing conference papers and publications from recent years. Far fewer publications now rely solely on the traditional method, while many (younger) scholars are looking for new ways to take the field forward.[5]

Now, the unfortunate thing is that certain major scholars have started ignoring this recent progress, giving rise to a remarkable and unsettling divide in the study of the Hebrew Bible between old-fashioned linguistic dating and modern-day historical linguistics.

A case in point is the recently published magnum opus of A. Hurvitz, A Concise Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew.[6] In this volume the authors actually state that interaction with different views is pointless:

“...[O]ur Lexicon is, by definition, diachronic in nature and thus constitutes part and parcel of the discipline of Historical Linguistics. Since its basic methodological principles and philological guidelines are largely rejected by the non-diachronic school of BH, as openly revealed in their publications (see especially Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd 2008), the gulf between the two opposing parties is hardly bridgeable. Indeed, no common ground for a potentially meaningful dialogue in this connection seems to be in sight at the moment. Thus, our policy all along was to refrain from futile polemics.... Rather, our goal was to draw attention to, and focus on the actual diachronic analysis of the Biblical data in compliance with the guidelines described above—guidelines that dominate the scholarly work of the leading experts on the linguistic history of BH. Detailed discussions of our general approach or of specific positions regarding individual cases may be found in the scholarly literature (see extensive treatment in Zevit and Miller-Naudé 2012 [sic]) and do not warrant lengthy and often repetitive arguments and counterarguments that would have taken us well beyond the desired framework of this volume.”

Other recent works that hardly reference the debate include books by J. Joosten, O. Cohen, and W. M. A. Schniedewind.[7]

The intention of this policy of omission certainly seems to be friendly and pragmatic, two qualities that we applaud. But referring to our work as “non-diachronic” reveals a deep misunderstanding of the whole point of it. Furthermore, the assertion that their approach is “part and parcel of the discipline of Historical Linguistics” belongs to a different era. Such a view of what constitutes historical linguistics dates from a time when that field was in its infancy and relied more on scholars’ intuition and less on rigorous method. Historical linguistics has developed tremendously since the mid-20th century and now yields much more robust results.[8]

Very recently, another step was taken in the wrong direction. The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel was just published.[9] According to their stated objective, “[t]hese volumes approach the subject in a creative and forward-thinking style, providing a forum in which leading scholars in the field can make their views and research available to a wider audience”.[10] A chapter on “Linguistics and the Dating of Biblical Literature” by O. Cohen is included on pp. 118-130 of this otherwise excellent publication. Cohen’s article would actually also be a really helpful piece of work, were it not for the developments that have taken place in scholarship during these past decades, and which he sidesteps completely. Therefore, in 2016, Cohen’s article comes across as a mere rehash of a conventional worldview, without so much as touching upon the ongoing debate or anything that today could be confidently called historical linguistics, and this in a volume with the aim of being “forward-thinking.”

In our opinion, such publications fail to adhere to the rigors of scholarly method, and they are a setback to otherwise cordial and constructive interaction between scholars who follow old and/or new methods and who seek to explain the contours and significance of the same linguistic data.

Martin Ehrensvärd, Robert Rezetko, and Ian Young


[1] Sessions of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2001 (Rome), 2004 (San Antonio), 2005 (Philadelphia), 2007 (Vienna), 2009 (New Orleans), 2010 (Atlanta), and 2015 (Atlanta), plus many additional conference papers.

[2] For example: I. Young (ed.), Biblical Hebrew: Studies in Chronology and Typology (JSOTSup 369; London: T&T Clark, 2003); I. Young, R. Rezetko, and M. Ehrensvärd, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts, Volume 1: An Introduction to Approaches and Problems, Volume 2: A Survey of Scholarship, a New Synthesis and a Comprehensive Bibliography(BibleWorld; London: Equinox, 2008); E. Ben Zvi, D. V. Edelman, and F. H. Polak (eds.), A Palimpsest: Rhetoric, Ideology, Stylistics and Language Relating to Persian Israel (Perspectives on Hebrew Scriptures and Its Contexts 5; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2009); F. Zanella, The Lexical Field of the Substantives of “Gift” in Ancient Hebrew (SSN 54; Leiden: Brill, 2010); R. C. Vern, Dating Archaic Biblical Hebrew Poetry: A Critique of the Linguistic Arguments (Perspectives on Hebrew Scriptures and Its Contexts 10; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2011); C. Miller-Naudé and Z. Zevit (eds.), Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (LSAWS 8; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012); G. Khan (ed.), Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (4 vols; Leiden: Brill, 2013) (minimal dialogue in the following articles: Biblical Hebrew, Archaic; Biblical Hebrew, Late; Biblical Hebrew: Periodization; Collectives: Biblical Hebrew; Lexicon: Biblical Hebrew; Orality: Biblical Hebrew; Pentateuch, Linguistic Layers in the); D.-H. Kim, Early Biblical Hebrew, Late Biblical Hebrew, and Linguistic Variability: A Sociolinguistic Evaluation of the Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (VTSup 156; Leiden: Brill, 2013); T. Notarius, The Verb in Archaic Biblical Poetry: A Discursive, Typological, and Historical Investigation of the Tense System (SSLL 68; Leiden: Brill, 2013); A. D. Hornkohl, Ancient Hebrew Periodization and the Language of the Book of Jeremiah: The Case for a Sixth-Century Date of Composition (SSLL 74; Leiden: Brill, 2014); R. Rezetko and I. Young, Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew: Steps Toward an Integrated Approach (ANEM 9; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014); and various forthcoming volumes cited in note 8.

[3] Hebrew Studies 46 (2005): 321-376; 47 (2006): 83-210; Journal for Semitics forthcoming.

[4] R. Hendel, “Unhistorical Hebrew Linguistics: A Cautionary Tale,” The Bible and Interpretation (September 2011;; R. Rezetko, I. Young, and M. Ehrensvärd, “A Very Tall ‘Cautionary Tale’: A Response to Ron Hendel,” The Bible and Interpretation (September 2011; http://www.bibleinterp

[5] See the works cited in notes 2 and 8.

[6] A. Hurvitz, in collaboration with L. Gottlieb, A. Hornkohl, and E. Mastéy, A Concise Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Innovations in the Writings of the Second Temple Period (VTSup 160; Leiden: Brill, 2014). See the forthcoming review article by R. Rezetko and M. Naaijer in JHS, and M. Ehrensvärd’s forthcoming book review in SJOT.

[7] J. Joosten, The Verbal System of Biblical Hebrew: A New Synthesis Elaborated on the Basis of Classical Prose (Jerusalem Biblical Studies 10; Jerusalem: Simor, 2012) (references to debate in chapter 11 on LBH: p. 377 n. 3); O. Cohen, The Verbal System in Late Biblical Hebrew (trans. A. Aronsky; HSS; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013) (references to debate: none); W. M. A. Schniedewind, Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins through the Rabbinic Period (AYBRL; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) (references to debate: p. 225 n. 67; p. 228 n. 70).

[8] For examples of what a methodologically rigorous historical linguistic treatment of features of Biblical Hebrew can look like, see Rezetko and Young, Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew, cited in note 2, and available free of charge at See also: J. T. Jacobs, Statistics, Linguistics, and the “Biblical” Dead Sea Scrolls (JSSSup; Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming); B. J. Noonan, Foreign Words in the Hebrew Bible: Linguistic Evidence for Foreign Contact in Ancient Israel (LSAWS; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming); and various projects of M. Naaijer, including M. Naaijer, “The Common Nouns in the Book of Esther: A New Quantitative Approach to the Linguistic Relationships of Biblical Books” (M.A. thesis, Radboud University Nijmegen, 2012); D. Roorda, G. Kalkman, M. Naaijer, and A. van Cranenburgh, “LAF-Fabric: A Data Analysis Tool for Linguistic Annotation Framework with an Application to the Hebrew Bible,” Computational Linguistics in the Netherlands Journal 4 (2014): 105-120 (; R. Rezetko and M. Naaijer, “An Alternative Approach to the Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew,” forthcoming in JHS (separate from the review article cited in note 6); and Naaijer’s and others’ work as part of the project, “Does Syntactic Variation reflect Language Change? Tracing Syntactic Diversity in Biblical Hebrew Texts” (

[9] Edited by S. Niditch (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2016).

[10] Here is the context of this quote, from the general description of the series: “The Wiley Blackwell Companions to Religion series presents a collection of the most recent scholarship and knowledge about world religions. Each volume draws together newly-commissioned essays by distinguished authors in the field, and is presented in a style which is accessible to undergraduate students, as well as scholars and the interested general reader. These volumes approach the subject in a creative and forward-thinking style, providing a forum in which leading scholars in the field can make their views and research available to a wider audience.” In particular, the volume “The Companion to Ancient Israel offers a multifaceted entry into ancient Israelite culture. The orientation of the Companion is rooted in several approaches: the history of religion with its interests in worldviews, symbol systems, paradigms, and the benefits of comparative, cross-cultural study; the study of religion as lived, an approach that asks about the everyday lives of ordinary people, the material culture that they shape and experience, and the relationships between individuals and tradition; and cultural studies, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary work and methodological questions about our own assumptions as scholars.”

Comments (9)
Thank you for the important reminder that scholarship is often broader and more interesting than it is often portrayed to be. And thank you for your really most helpful work on the subject.
#1 - Jim West - 02/24/2016 - 17:30


I offer two small responses to this column. First, the linguistic arguments of E, R & Y have received considerable attention in recent scholarly literature (see their fn. 2), so the complaint that their views have not received a fair hearing is unwarranted. Second, in my view the most salient “setback to otherwise cordial and constructive interaction between scholars” is their unfortunate tendency to respond to critics by characterizing them as (in their words) “old” scholars who practice “old-fashioned” methods and cling to a “conventional worldview.” Criticism by such oldsters “belongs to a different era.” I would aver that it is this kind of rhetoric – and not the ample engagement that their views have received – that goes against the normal standards of scholarly discourse. But, alas, I am growing old, and perhaps my worldview is graying too.
#2 - Ron Hendel - 02/25/2016 - 16:22


Is it possible to outline the points at issue for the benefit of 'those without'?
#3 - Martin Hughes - 02/25/2016 - 17:15



We suggest that you read the previous B&I articles cited at the top of this article, and pp. 1-7 of our book, Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew, cited in notes 2 and 8 (with link to PDF download in n. 8). In a nutshell, though, the main issue is prescriptive linguistic dating versus descriptive historical linguistics. Avi Hurvitz and some others have been the main proponents of the former, that is, linguistic dating of biblical writings, but the field is rapidly changing, and more inclusive and descriptive approaches are developing. It is interesting, we think, that until recently, even the phrase “historical linguistics” appeared rarely, or never, in many writings on change in (or on the linguistic dating of) Biblical Hebrew.

(Because we are on three different continents, there will sometimes be delays in our replies to comments as we discuss them between us.)

Robert, Martin, and Ian

#4 - Robert Rezetko - 02/25/2016 - 19:32



With all due respect, we do not think the issue is old vs. young scholars, but rather old vs. new ways of doing things. You speak about the past, “have received,” “have not received,” and “have received,” which helps to make our point, because the field of linguistic dating/historical linguistics continues to evolve, there is an ongoing discussion, and there are many publications recently published or forthcoming, and hardly by us alone. Avi Hurvitz, Ohad Cohen (younger than us!), and some others may continue to discuss among themselves, even sidestep pertinent discussions of general historical linguistic theory and method, or specific linguistic and, very importantly, textual and literary data, but scholarship will continue to debate, and advance.

Robert, Martin, and Ian

#5 - Robert Rezetko - 02/26/2016 - 00:57


I do recall some of the earlier exchanges here, though a new summation of the crucial questions would help. Do things work as the following analogy might suggest?
Astronauts have recently, as you know, discovered a treasure trove of Plutonian documents. Many are financial documents which can be dated by references to known Governors of the Plutonian Central Bank, the others romantic novels and theological speculations. In the dated documents of the second century and earlier the word 'higgamus' often occurs, almost always replaced in the third century and later by 'hoggamus'. The Descriotive linguists merely record this fact. The Prescriptivists, as is their wont, prescribe that the other documents which contain 'higgamus' to the early period, those that contain 'hoggamus' to the later. But this prescription is resisted on the grounds that a) the same usage might not have prevailed across all genres, so the datable documents may not be typical b) there was nothing to stop second century Plutonian scribes who wanted to appear trendy from using 'hoggamus', then a neologism, and nothing to stop third century scribes who wanted to give their stories a patina of antiquity from using the now archaic 'higgamus'? Are some of the points at issue along these lines?
#6 - Martin Hughes - 02/27/2016 - 16:54



Your analogy is to the point. The type of linguistic dating you describe actually does occur, but linguists find very few corpora of texts where this is feasible. A good amount of dated and localised original manuscripts of the same genre are required to confidently date and localise manuscripts. A good example is medieval French plays (see Runnalls, G. A., 1976, ‘The Linguistic Dating of Middle French Texts with Special Reference to the Theatre’, The Modern Language Review 71: 757–65). For biblical Hebrew we don't have that kind of material. No original manuscripts of biblical texts are of course extant, let alone dated or localised. The textual data that we do have is highly fluid in terms of the features usually used to date biblical texts. Furthermore, you point to the key issue of continuity and replacement. Replacement in late biblical Hebrew, as a corpus, is unknown, and indeed it usually features sporadic use of a new item alongside the frequent use of an old one. So in terms of your analogy: I'm sorry to have to tell you that your Plutonian documents are almost all romantic novels and theological speculations. From what we know about Plutonian literature and history, we can make some educated guesses about the dates of their initial composition. But we also know that Plutonians kept rewriting their literature and that, crucially, they were not concerned to preserve distinctive linguistic features. Thus Plutonian literary texts are mixtures of language from a variety of periods. Because our actual dated texts are so insignificant, we have very few clues as to which features are early or late, north Plutonian or south Plutonian etc. So our cache of Plutionian documents is a great help in sketching the common linguistic features of the language, but not much help at all in tying unusual features and the documents that contain them to specific times and places.

Martin, Ian, and Robert

#7 - Martin Ehrensvärd - 02/28/2016 - 14:39


I certainly agree that modern historical linguistics and general linguistics are necessary features in the discussion. These are prominent in the Diachrony volume by Miller-Naudé and Zevit, and elsewhere too. But "old-fashioned" philology is not to be despised, rather it's the basis for all our work. I'm sure that at some level we agree on this.
#8 - Ron Hendel - 02/28/2016 - 20:36



Yes, we agree with you that in BH historical linguistic research "old-fashioned" philology is very important, in fact essential, and like you, we believe, it should include at a minimum textual and literary criticism alongside linguistic analysis (not to mention historical reconstruction, and so on). This in fact is a major message of our recent book, Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew (e.g., pp. 26-45). Unfortunately, though, as we also have argued there (pp. 83-110) and elsewhere, very few of the contributors to Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew actually give much thought to such philological issues. Nevertheless, your comment is well taken.

Robert, Ian, and Martin

#9 - Robert Rezetko - 02/28/2016 - 23:31

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