Late Biblical Hebrew (Part 1)

I said in an earlier post that “Standard” Biblical Hebrew (SBH) was the Hebrew that we find in writings from the middle of the biblical period. A good rough guide is to say that it’s the language of the books from Genesis through Kings. By contrast, the latest books in the Bible are written in “Late” Biblical Hebrew (LBH), and I’ve just, at the recent SBL convention in Atlanta, heard Chaim Cohen of Ben Gurion University refer to Hebrew like that of Judges 5 as ABH, Archaic Biblical Hebrew.

You might wonder why anyone except for specialists would care which particular flavor of Hebrew a biblical text is written in. But this is one of the most contentious questions in biblical studies today. The reason is that there are many biblical texts whose dates are uncertain. For a long time now, scholars have attempted to fix the dates of various biblical books or sections within a book—for example, the various chapters of Psalms—by pointing out linguistic features that they call “early” or “late.”

These language features we’re talking about fall into various categories:

Vocabulary. This might be a newly coined word; a word from Aramaic, Akkadian, Persian, or Greek; a new combination of words; or a word used in a new way—e.g., a verb used with a different preposition or a noun taking on a different meaning. English example: “Dude” and “guy” used to refer only to males; now they can refer to either sex.

Morphology. This refers to the various ways in which nouns decline (masculine-feminine, singular-plural) or verbs conjugate (add first, second, or third person to the mix, as well as the much wider variety of verb forms). Off the top of my head, this is a less important category in understanding LBH; by that time the morphology of Hebrew had become fairly standard. In fact, even the morphology of Modern Hebrew is very close to that of Biblical Hebrew. It is from Archaic Biblical Hebrew to Standard Biblical Hebrew that morphology changes most. (Some examples, perhaps, in a later post; for now, I’ll just mention the phrase hay’to-eretz in Gen 1:24.) English example: Except in forms like “I am, you are, he is,” we no longer distinguish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person for English verbs. That also means that words like “dost” and “doeth” have given way to “do” and “does.”

Syntax. This refers to the way that phrases and sentences are put together. English example: I haven’t got a historical example handy, but here’s a difference between English English and American English that undoubtedly has historical roots. In American English we’d say, “The Bears are playing the Eagles today,” but “Chicago is playing Philadelphia today.” English English would use “are” in both sentences, since “Chicago” represents a collective.  [Update:  For a bit more on this, see “The Festival are clear” by Geoffrey Pullum (on Language Log).]

It’s worth remembering, though, that linguistic changes of this kind do not take place all at once. They accumulate gradually. So a single “late” form is not enough to identify a text as late. It might be one of the earlier changes in the language, or it might be something that a single writer actually used quite early in the biblical period that, for one reason or another, didn’t “take” until much later. Scholars have compiled lists of the various changes that make up what we now call Late Biblical Hebrew. But, as far as I’m aware, no one has yet put together a comprehensive chronology of when each of the changes occurred. It may well be that we don’t have enough information to paint more than a very sketchy portrait of the overall history of this change.

At this stage of the game, what we’re most interested in is a very rough estimate of the date of a text: not whether it was written in the 640s, 630s, or 620s BCE, but whether or not it is “late.” But what do biblical scholars mean by “late”? That’s a subject I’ll leave for my next post.

I got some remedial Biblical Hebrew tutoring in my first year at Brandeis University from Mark Rooker, who at the time was finishing his dissertation on Biblical Hebrew in Transition: The Language of the Book of Ezekiel. For those who’d like some more technical discussion on the subject (but not the entire book), here’s a link to his article on the features of Late Biblical Hebrew.

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