Late Biblical Hebrew (Part 3)

Now that we know what the “Late” part of “Late Biblical Hebrew” (LBH) means, how do we decide whether a biblical text is “late”? That is, how can we decide what linguistic features are found only in LBH, and whether the presence of certain features shows that a text was written after the return from Babylonian exile? That’s the question I’ll begin to discuss in this post.

The first thing to do is to establish a baseline, by looking at the language of the books that must unquestionably have been written after the exile. The books that describe the Persian empire running things are obviously the books that fall into this category: Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Daniel, you’ll remember, actually has a number of words in Greek (see the lists of musical instruments in Dan 3:5, 10, and 15; see below), so we know that this book was not complete until after the Persian period was ended by the conquests of Alexander the Great:

Now if you are ready to fall down and worship the statue that I have made when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither [קיטרוס], lyre, psaltery [פסנתרין], and bagpipe [סומפניה], and all other types of instruments, well and good. (Dan 3:15)

Chronicles falls into this category, too, as we see from the very end of the book:

22 And in the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the LORD roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing, as follows: 23 “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all His people, the LORD his God be with him and let him go up.” (2 Chr 36:22-23)

(You may recognize that the end of Chronicles is actually the same as the beginning of the book of Ezra, something I mentioned in my post on “The Old Testament” and will discuss more fully in a future post.)

Chronicles actually gives us a special kind of help in our project. Large parts of Chronicles tell us the same things we learn from the books of Samuel and Kings, and in almost the same language. Indeed, most scholars assume that the Chronicler (as we call the author of that book) used Samuel and Kings as sources for his work. So when there are linguistic differences between two versions of the “same” sentence, we can often attribute them to the effect of Late Biblical Hebrew. (As we’ll see when we turn to our discussion of Israelite history, there are other important differences between these two versions of the story as well.)

Now that we’ve identified five books that must have been written in the Persian period or later, how do we use that knowledge?

If a particular linguistic feature is found only (or overwhelmingly) in any or all of these five books, we can be reasonably confident that it is a feature of LBH. Even if it is found once or twice in texts that we are confident were written before the exile, it is probably safe to assume that (1) it is in a phrase or a verse that was added later to the earlier text, or (2) though used once by this particular author, it did not catch on as a regular feature of the language until after the exile.

That means that an LBH feature is not like a fingerprint. A single linguistic feature that can be described as late does not automatically provide a “smoking gun” to identify a text as post-exilic. Instead, we would only call a text late (by means of this method) if there is an accumulation of LBH features, giving us a text that is full of “late” language.

The scholar who has worked most consistently and most carefully at identifying late texts by analyzing their linguistic features is Avi Hurvitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In my next post we’ll look at his method in detail.

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