Late Biblical Hebrew (Part 2)

I’ve invested a lot of electrons in explaining the background to the study of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH). Now, at last, it’s time to discuss what biblical scholars mean when we say “late.”

The answer is simple—“late” means “post-exilic.” If you don’t consider that answer a simple one … read on, for a quick outline of Israelite history as the Bible describes it:

• 1st half of the 2nd millennium BCE (Genesis) — the four generations from Abraham to the 12 sons of Jacob

• 13th c. BCE (Exodus-Deuteronomy) — the exodus from Egypt

• ca. 1200 (Joshua) — the return to Canaan

• 1200-1000 (Judges) — Israel is a loose confederation of tribes, with the leader of one or another tribe taking a leading role in each generation

• 1000-950 (Samuel) — a period of struggle leads to the selection of Israel’s first king, Saul, and then to his replacement by David, founder of a long-lived dynasty in Jerusalem

• 950-700 (Kings) — David is followed by Solomon, after which the northern tribes split off, leaving Solomon’s descendants as kings of Judah, while a succession of rulers from different families are kings of Israel. Israel is conquered by Assyria in 722, and many of its people are exiled to the far reaches of the Assyrian empire, where their ethnic identity disappears into that of the people among whom they settle. The Assyrians besiege Jerusalem in 701 but do not conquer it.

This brings us to the crucial moment in history for understanding Late Biblical Hebrew: the Babylonian exile.

• 586 — The Babylonians, who have conquered the Assyrians and become the major power north and east of Judah (balancing Egypt on the south and west) conquer Jerusalem and take (some of) the people of Judah into exile.

In the land of Israel itself, the archaeologists tell us, there’s little cultural change as a result of the fall of Jerusalem—even though the Temple in Jerusalem has been burnt down! But the Bible is not the book of those who remained in Judah. It’s the book of those who were taken to Babylonia in captivity and whose descendants then returned to Israel after Cyrus the Mede, emperor of Persia, conquered the Babylonians in 538.

For this group, there was tremendous cultural change. They were immersed in a different civilization from the one they’d known, and (most importantly for our question) a different linguistic environment. The language of Babylonia was Akkadian, a Semitic language somewhat distantly related to Hebrew, but the lingua franca of the Babylonian empire was Aramaic, a much more closely related language. This situation inevitably affected the way the exiles used Hebrew, and it was this “modern” variety of Hebrew that they brought back with them to Israel.

Archaeological remains show us that the material culture of Israel was quite different once it became part of the Persian empire, and it seems that language change also accelerated during this period. It’s the severe break caused by the exile that makes it both possible and worthwhile to determine which biblical texts are “late”—that is, which texts were written only after the return from exile. That’s the scholarly issue behind the question of Late Biblical Hebrew.

As you might guess, this is an issue that is politically and emotionally charged as well. I’ll return to this subject, and to a more serious look at the history of the biblical period, in a later series of posts. For now, since we’ve discussed when “late” is, we’ll turn to a discussion of how to decide whether a biblical text really is late or not.

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