Late Biblical Hebrew (Part 4)

Now that we have a baseline to start with — the books of Daniel, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, in which, if anywhere, we can expect to find Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) — we can look more closely at the method by which to determine whether any particular linguistic feature is indeed representative of LBH.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that the scholar who has done this kind of work most carefully is Avi Hurvitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This time, we’ll look at the method he uses. It depends on a combination of three types of arguments:

Distribution. The word’s distribution within the Bible should show a significant pattern of usage in books otherwise known to be late. If a vocabulary item or a particular grammatical feature occurs in the Persian-period books, but also occurs many times in Genesis or Jeremiah or Judges, it is simply a carry-over from the standard language (SBH, Standard Biblical Hebrew). But let’s say it occurs 18 times in the Bible: 16 times in the late books, and twice in the psalms, where the dating is quite uncertain. This would be a good candidate for study as an LBH feature.

Attestation outside Biblical Hebrew. It should be possible to trace how the expression entered Biblical Hebrew and continued into Mishnaic Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic. If a linguistic feature is new to Biblical Hebrew in the Persian period, we would like to know how the “biography” of that feature brought it into the Hebrew language at that point in history; this calls for looking into its source. But we’d also like to be confident that it continued to be a feature in the writings of the rabbinic era. This increases our confidence that the story we are telling of how this feature entered the language is a correct one.

Standard Equivalents. It should be possible to point to an equivalent for the expression in Standard Biblical Hebrew. How would a pre-exilic text have said this? If we cannot find an equivalent, it might simply be that the earlier biblical texts provided no occasion to use our feature. That would mean that its appearance only in late books is simply a coincidence.

If (and only if) all three aspects point to a late date for our word or expression can we have a certain amount of confidence in declaring that it’s a feature of LBH. To declare that a particular text is late, we want something more: an accumulation of late features. Otherwise we might be dealing with coincidence or with a late gloss to a text that was mostly early.

The method is especially important for figuring out the dates of biblical texts that are otherwise “unmoored” chronologically. Books that describe historical personages or include references to historical events give us other evidence for dates. But the Hurvitz method can help us date texts that don’t have a historical context, such as Proverbs, Psalms, and Job.

In my next couple of posts, we’ll look at an example from Psalms and also at one from Job to see how the combination of (1) distribution, (2) attestation outside Biblical Hebrew, and (3) standard equivalents is applied to actual biblical texts.


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