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What do we actually know about ancient Hebrew.

1. The Three Stage Theory of the History of Ancient Hebrew

Using the sources available to them, by the end of the nineteenth century scholars had been able to construct an elegant theory of the history of Hebrew in the ancient period. The main evidence that scholars used was the Hebrew Bible. More specifically, for them, as is still the case with language scholars today, "the Bible" meant the traditional Masoretic Text of the books of the Tanach, the one readily available to everyone who has a Hebrew Bible. The Bible was, however, not the only evidence that scholars in the nineteenth century had available to them for ancient Hebrew. They were also aware that early rabbinic works like the Mishnah used a noticeably different sort of Hebrew, which is often called "Mishnaic Hebrew." Third, these early scholars were aware that from the late biblical period on, Hebrew competed in the Jewish homeland with the Aramaic language. Various forms of evidence in rabbinic sources or in other sources like the New Testament Gospels (see, for example Jesus' quoted use of Aramaic in the Greek text of Mark 5:41 and elsewhere) indicated that Hebrew's battle against Aramaic in the Jewish homeland was often a losing one.

According to this scholarly theory, there were three main periods in the history of ancient Hebrew. First, before the exile to Babylon in the sixth century BCE was the "Golden Age" of Hebrew literature. Early works of literature such as the story of King David in the Book of Samuel, or the early parts of the Mosaic Pentateuch were written in pure Classical Hebrew. After the Babylonian exile, however, according to this theory, Hebrew lost ground to Aramaic. Factors such as the rise in non-native speakers of Hebrew, and the breaking of the continuity of the pre-exilic educational system meant that Hebrew declined. Evidence for this was found in the Bible. The books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles, by their contents, are among the books that must have been composed after the return from exile. It happens that each of these books shares a peculiar style of Hebrew, which sets them clearly apart from works of the Golden Age, such as Samuel. The main characteristic of this style is actually simply a greater openness to linguistic variety than is typical of the language of a book like Samuel.

However, since some of the additional linguistic features which these books like to use are found in Aramaic or "Mishnaic Hebrew", and since some passages in these books seem rather difficult to comprehend (try Daniel chapter eight, for example), these books were taken as a symptom that Hebrew in the post-exilic period was in a state of decline. Scholars therefore called this second period the "Silver Age" of Hebrew literature. The idea of decline was also used to explain the third era of the history of ancient Hebrew. Under the influence of Aramaic and other factors, Hebrew continued to decline in the post-exilic period, according to this theory, until by the CE period the Mishnaic Hebrew of the Rabbis represents a thoroughly unclassical form of Hebrew, perhaps an Aramaised form of Hebrew.

The three-stage linear model of the development of ancient Hebrew was a reasonable and logical deduction from the evidence as it was available and understood at that time. The three-stage model, of a pre-exilic Golden Age down to about the sixth century BCE, a post-exilic Silver Age, and a post-biblical, post-classical age, was furthermore of great use to scholars when discussing biblical books. Since Hebrew was understood to have developed in a linear fashion, away from early, pure, classical Hebrew under Aramaic influence towards the form of language found in the Mishnah, it was possible to argue where on that linear development works of uncertain date were to be put. Note the following paragraph on the language of Qoheleth (or Ecclesiastes) from the authoritative Encyclopaedia Biblica, published in 1899, which is a good illustration of the results of nineteenth century scholarship:

[T]he language ... [of] ... Ecclesiastes suggest[s] that it is one of the latest books in the canon. The language has the peculiarities of such late books as Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther. Indeed it belongs to a much more degraded stage of Hebrew than either of these books (1) exhibits; and in the forms of words, in the new senses which older words are used, and in the many new words employed, it has many similarities to the Targums and Syriac [i.e. Aramaic sources, IY (2)], [and] especially to the Mishna (circa 200 A.D.) (Cheyne 1899:1161). (3)

This quote illustrates how books such as Esther which are definitely "late," that is, post-exilic, are considered to exhibit linguistic "peculiarities"; how the language of these silver-age books is "degraded" (note the pejorative term indicating degeneration from a higher state); how books even later than these "late" books exhibit an even more "degraded" form of Hebrew; how the late books are considered to be under Aramaic influence; and how the terminus of (utter?) degradation is considered to be the rabbinic Hebrew of the Mishnah.

Thus, the logic of the theory meant that, even though traditionally Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes has been associated with King Solomon, and hence a very early date, even a very conservative Christian scholar like Franz Delitzsch had to concede in 1877 that such a date was impossible, with the famous statement: "If the Book of Koheleth were of old Solomonic origin, then there is no history of the Hebrew language" (Delitzsch 1877:190).

2. Inscriptions

From the latter part of the nineteenth century, archaeological discoveries meant that scholars of the Hebrew language began to have access to an increasing amount of new evidence for ancient Hebrew. On the one hand, from 1880 significant inscriptions dating from the pre-exilic, monarchic era were uncovered. Then, around 1950, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. It is very common in scholarship of all fields that, when new discoveries are made, scholars naturally view them in line with the prevailing scholarly theories. It usually takes a while before new knowledge leads to radically new reconfigurations of all the evidence. This is no different in the case of the Hebrew language. It is still the case these days that many scholars continue to try to explain all the evidence in terms of the linear, three-stage history of Hebrew that we have just mentioned.

However, other scholars, myself among them, argue that the evidence that has been uncovered sheds a completely new light on the history of Hebrew. Most importantly, as we shall discuss below, it makes us return to the sources we have had all along, in particular the Masoretic Text of the Bible, and realise that we have completely misunderstood the nature of that evidence. This article is an attempt to sketch some of the main issues in the debate about the three-stage theory of the development of ancient Hebrew over the last decade of scholarship.

The first Hebrew inscription of any length that was discovered was the Siloam Tunnel inscription, found in 1880 inside a water tunnel in Jerusalem (Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005:499-506). It is a rather amazing Ancient Near Eastern inscription since it focuses exclusively on the achievement of the stone masons in cutting the tunnel deep underground from both ends and managing to successfully meet in the middle with only a tiny dog-leg at the end. This was a great engineering achievement, but what is amazing about the inscription is that that is all it says.
   ... the boring through. And this was the manner of the boring
   through. While [the hewers were wielding] the pick-axe each toward
   his fellow and while three cubits [remained yet] to be bored
   [through, there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his
   fellow--for there was a fissure in the rock on the right hand. And
   when the tunnel was driven through, the hewers struck, each man
   toward his fellow, pick-axe against pick-axe. And the water flowed
   from the spring toward the reservoir for twelve hundred cubits. And
   a hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the head of the

The inscription mentions neither the king (often thought to be King Hezekiah, around 700 BCE), nor does it thank God. A normal ancient Near Eastern monumental inscription would start something like: "I am Hezekiah, king of Judah. The LORD chose me to be king and I cut this tunnel." (4)

In regard to the language of the Siloam Tunnel inscription, it is interesting in hindsight to look at the way scholars have, almost without thinking, assimilated it into the three-stage theory of the development of Hebrew. It is testimony to the way that a theory will shape the way we see the evidence. As I mentioned, the Siloam Tunnel inscription is usually dated to the time of King Hezekiah, around 700 BCE, which would also be the time of prophets like Isaiah and Micah. That date puts it firmly in the first, Golden Age of ancient Hebrew literature. Thus it has usually been understood as being in the same sort of Hebrew as those biblical texts from the Golden Age.

In fact, the argument has been reversed. There was in the 1990s a vigorous discussion about whether some of the biblical compositions which had previously been thought to be early, and were in the Standard, or Classical Biblical Hebrew of the Golden Era, could actually have been composed later (see, for example, Davies 1995). No, said some prominent language scholars, that is impossible. Texts written in Standard Biblical Hebrew could not have been written, say, after the exile, because we know that Standard Biblical Hebrew is early, and later developed into the later Hebrew of the Silver Age. But how do we know that Standard Biblical Hebrew was (only) written early? These scholars argued that we knew this because the language of the pre-exilic inscriptions--and the Siloam Tunnel inscription was one of the first mentioned--is identical to the language of the early books, while post-exilic Hebrew is paralleled by the language of late sources like the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g. Hurvitz 1997:307-311). A text like the Siloam Tunnel inscription, it was explicitly said, was by and large in a form of language identical to that of the early, classical biblical books, and had no features characteristic of the later Hebrew of the post-exilic Silver Age.

In a couple of studies published in the last 10 years, I investigated the evidence of the Hebrew inscriptions to see whether they backed up the assertions scholars were making (Young 2003; Young, Rezetko and Ehrensvard 2008 [henceforth: LDBT], 1:143-200). I came to a very different conclusion. What I found was that it did indeed happen that on occasion the inscriptions had linguistic forms rare in late, Silver Age Hebrew but more common in Golden Age Hebrew. In the Siloam Tunnel, for example, the use of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] for "while, still" is not found in the texts taken as typical of the Silver Age, that is Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. But also, surprisingly often, there were other linguistic forms in the inscriptions which scholars had concluded on the basis of the biblical evidence were characteristic of the late Hebrew of the Silver Age. I will return to them shortly, because what I want to emphasise now is that by far the largest group of significant linguistic forms in the pre-exilic Hebrew inscriptions is not those few characteristic of Golden Age Hebrew, nor those few characteristic of Silver Age Hebrew, but rather the category of forms that are either unattested in any biblical text, or if attested, are extremely rare.

The most significant finding of my studies of the inscriptions was that, although attesting the same general type of Hebrew as the biblical texts, that is, a general literary type of Hebrew, the inscriptions exhibit a large number of linguistic forms which were non-biblical. First, and this was something that scholars had long realised, the spelling of the inscriptions was different to any known biblical text. Thus, for example, there is much less use of waw and yod to mark vowels in the inscriptions (e.g. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "prophet," Bible [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Furthermore, the third person suffixes are a completely different system to all biblical texts. Therefore, it has long been acknowledged that all biblical texts in our possession have a system of spelling that is of a later type to the inscriptions, which cover the period down to the exile, around 600 BCE. All biblical texts are thus written in a form that is no earlier than the post-exilic period. This does not mean that no biblical text was composed earlier than the exile, but it seems to mean that early compositions have had (at least) their spelling updated.

There is, however, much more than spelling involved in the difference between the language of the pre-exilic inscriptions and all biblical texts. In the Siloam Tunnel, I count 48 preserved words or "graphic units". Of them, 12 are linguistic forms (not counting spelling variants) that differ from what we would normally find in the Hebrew of the Bible. In other words, 25%, or a quarter of the Hebrew words in the Siloam Tunnel inscription, are linguistic forms not paralleled in the Bible. For example, over 100 times in the Bible we have the expression [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "a man to his neighbour." We have the same expression in the Siloam Tunnel inscription, but there the suffixed form of "his neighbour" is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] but apparently [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] possibly even meaning "his neighbours" (plural). So, our only texts actually from the pre-exilic, monarchic era, are in a form of Classical Hebrew that is independent of any of the sorts of Hebrew found in the Bible, even if it has some important links with them.

The next two major inscriptions found after the Siloam Tunnel inscription fit in even less well with what had previously been known about Hebrew. In 1908 a small limestone tablet was discovered in the excavations of Gezer, and is called the Gezer Calendar since it talks of the agricultural activities of the year (Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005:155-165):
   Months of harvest, months of sowing, months of spring pasture,
   month of flax pulling, month of barley harvest, month of (wheat)
   harvest and measuring, months of pruning, month of summer fruit.

The question arises what this tablet is for, since in traditional agricultural societies farmers usually cannot read, and in any case, they hardly need to read a text to remind them when to plant and harvest things. If they do, they are in real trouble! One plausible explanation, based on other similar tablets, is that it is intended as a blessing tablet, a sort of talisman, to ensure that the agricultural seasons run their course and are blessed with fertility (Wirgin 1960; see also Young 1992:367). This would explain why it was found near the city granary. In regard to its language, it exhibits a number of archaic and dialect forms unattested in the Bible, or it turns out, even unattested in other inscriptions as well. If it is Hebrew, it is our oldest Hebrew inscription with a connected sense, dating to the tenth century BCE, but scholars debate whether, for example, Gezer was an Israelite site at that time (see LDBT 1:187), and so we either have a weird sort of Hebrew, or a weird sort of not-Hebrew!

The next inscriptions that were found were definitely from Israelite territory. Excavations at the site of ancient Samaria in 1910 discovered 63 inscribed ostraca, potsherds written on in ink, and more were found later (Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005:423-497). Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom, Israel, that broke away from the southern kingdom, Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, after the time of David and Solomon according to the biblical story (1 Kings 12). The texts themselves were probably about as boring as possible in their day. They seem to be brief dockets recording deliveries to the royal palace in Samaria. They would probably have had their information transferred to a general ledger, and then have been thrown out. Ironically, the throw-away ostraca survived, whereas the important general ledger, probably written on papyrus, perished. Now scholars pore over these temporary records trying to fill in the gaps. We could compare this to finding someone's list thrown in the garbage and trying to work out what it was used for. All the texts are along the lines of this one, ostracon 6 with questions that scholars debate added below in square brackets:
   In the ninth year [of some king--but who? We think nowadays that
   the texts date to around 780 BCE], from Qoseh [a town in the
   region of Samaria], to Gaddiyaw [sent to? Is he a tax officer? Or
   someone in the palace getting materials from his estates? Or does
   it mean "for" his personal use?]. A jar of old wine.

There are only about eight different words used in the texts originally discovered, plus prepositions, place names, and personal names. However, several of the words are different from Biblical Hebrew, or indeed different from what we get in inscriptions from the southern kingdom. This confirms what we would already expect, that ancient Hebrew had regional dialects. Thus in the northern Hebrew of the Samaria Ostraca, the word for "year" is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], whereas in the Bible it is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. We also saw the contracted divine element in the name Gaddiyaw, as opposed to what is found in southern inscriptions and the Bible, Gaddiyahu. Most scholars have thought that there are compositions in the Bible that either came from the northern kingdom (like the book of the northern prophet Hosea) or were based on sources, some of which came from the north, such as the stories of northern judges, prophets and kings in the Books of Judges, Samuel and Kings. The question, which we shall leave for the moment, is: If there are northern compositions in the Bible, why do the specific, distinct features of our northern inscriptions never turn up in any biblical text?

After the weirdness of the Gezer Calendar--and the Samaria Ostraca, and to be honest, the Siloam Tunnel--things settled down (a bit) for Hebrew language scholars with some (relatively) substantial discoveries during the course of the twentieth century. The two most substantial are the Lachish Ostraca, discovered in the 1930s (Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005:299-347), and the Arad Ostraca, found in the 1960s (Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005:5-108). These are both relatively substantial collections of ostraca emanating from military bases at Lachish and Arad. Mostly, the texts come from the last years of the kingdom of Judah before the Babylonian exile, around 600 BCE. A large proportion of the texts are letters, or the drafts of letters, which perhaps would have been transferred onto papyrus in the final draft. Perhaps since they come from late in the history of the southern kingdom Judah, they are not as weird linguistically as texts like the Samaria Ostraca, but they do exhibit a good selection of linguistic forms unparalleled in biblical texts.

In addition, as I mentioned earlier, considering the expectations created by the three-stage history of Hebrew, the inscriptions, texts actually from stage one, the Golden Age, have a surprising number of linguistic forms considered characteristic of stage two, the post-exilic Silver Age. For example, among the various biblical words for "to gather," [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is quite rare and generally its occurrences are restricted to those five books which are considered to typify the post-exilic Silver Age of Hebrew: Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. Despite this, a recently published inscription from Jerusalem dating to the early period uses that supposedly exclusively "late" word (Young 2003:193).

The word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is in fact an unusual example of a "late," Silver Age linguistic form, since it is never found even once in one of the main texts that are considered typical of the early, Golden Age Hebrew literature, such as the Pentateuch or Former Prophets. One amazing fact that my co-researchers and I discovered was that there are almost no well-attested features supposedly characteristic of late, Silver Age Hebrew which are not also found in texts considered to represent early, Golden Age Hebrew (LDBT 1:83-87, 111-119). This is connected to another remarkable fact, namely that no biblical text of any type or supposed era, is without supposedly "late" Hebrew features (LDBT 1:132-136). So, we have the situation that in fact, contrary to what might have been expected from the three-stage model of Hebrew, all biblical texts, whether considered "early" or "late," use the same linguistic forms. This phenomenon raises some interesting questions, such as: If the supposedly "late" linguistic features are (almost) all found in supposedly "early" texts, in what sense are they late? Another amazing discovery is that the corpus of pre-exilic inscriptions from Arad, when I investigated them, had a higher proportion of supposedly "late," post-exilic, Silver Age linguistic forms than most biblical books whether usually dated to the pre-exilic or post-exilic period (LDBT 1:129-139; 163-168). This includes texts of uncertain date which language scholars had considered must be post-exilic because they had, in their opinion, such a significant proportion of "late" linguistic forms in them.

To summarise where we are so far in our discussion: The three-stage model of ancient Hebrew has difficulty coping with the evidence of the Hebrew inscriptions, texts contemporary with the period when biblical compositions of the Golden Age are generally considered to have been written. The inscriptions evidence rather a high number of linguistic features supposedly characteristic of a later period. They are distinguished from all biblical texts in quite a significant number of linguistic features. Even though scholars have suggested that there are northern texts among the biblical texts of the Golden Era, there is no trace of any of the distinctive features of the northern inscriptions in any biblical text.

However, there is still hope for the three-stage theory where Hebrew degenerates from the Golden, pre-exilic Age to the Silver, post-exilic Age, to the post-biblical Mishnaic Age. This is because it is still the case that our five core "late" texts, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, do definitely have much higher concentrations of these late features than any Hebrew inscriptions or other biblical texts. If they diffuse at all, it is normal for new linguistic forms to steadily increase in prominence in a language. Even if the inscriptions demonstrate that the late linguistic forms were a lot earlier, and a lot more frequent earlier than was thought, we could still trace a growth in their use from the pre-exilic period to those five books of the post-exilic era, and on to the ultimate degeneration in Mishnaic Hebrew. The fact that we cannot accept this solution is due to the other new source of linguistic evidence, from the end of the biblical period, the Dead Sea Scrolls.

3. The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves at Qumran in the Judean wilderness in the late 1940s and in the 1950s. It took a long time, but since the 1990s, all the scrolls have been available to everyone. With the scrolls, as is typical of new discoveries, scholars initially attempted to place what was found within the existing models in scholarship. Now, 60 years later, it can be definitely stated that the Scrolls have utterly revolutionised our understanding of the Hebrew Bible, ancient Judaism, and the Hebrew language. (5)

The Qumran scrolls are fragments--usually very, very fragmentary--of over 900 scrolls, all or almost all of them literary texts. This means that Qumran is a very unusual find, both for the number of manuscripts discovered, and for the predominance of literary-meaning religious--texts in it. In regard to date, the earliest manuscripts are considered to date to the third century BCE, although of course the compositions represented in the manuscripts could have been written much earlier than that. Our earliest physical attestation of biblical texts--regardless of when they were written--is these manuscripts from the third century BCE and following centuries.

According to most scholars, the scrolls were put in the caves during the revolt against Rome around 68 CE. A small number of scholars, myself included, think this is wrong, and that the scrolls were deposited in the first century BCE not CE (Young 2002; 2005; 2013, building on Doudna 2001; 2004; 2006; Hutchesson 1999). One strong indication for this dating is the fact that while there is a clustering of historical references and allusions to people and events from the first half of the first century BCE, there are no references to anything or anyone after a certain point, around 40 BCE. The most obvious explanation of that striking fact is that the scrolls were put in the caves somewhere around 40 BCE. Another strong piece of evidence for the early dating is the utter contrast between the sort of biblical texts at Qumran (which I will discuss shortly) and all other Hebrew biblical texts deposited in the first or early second centuries CE, the supposed date of the Qumran scrolls, such as the scrolls found at Masada.

Even more disputed is the question of who owned these scrolls. It is still common these days to find scholars who agree with the earlier dominant theory that the scrolls belonged to a Jewish group called the Essenes, and that the Essenes had an important base at Qumran. However, even those committed to this theory have abandoned a number of ideas that were fashionable among older scholars. Older scholars sometimes gave the impression that the scrolls were all documents produced by a sectarian community of Essene monks at Qumran. Nowadays it is accepted that the majority (at least) of the scrolls were not actually produced at Qumran, but were brought there from outside. Also, it is widely believed these days that even if Qumran was an Essene settlement, it was just one of a number of such settlements. Other scholars, of course, such as the late Alan Crown, deny the whole theory that the scrolls were connected with the Essenes, or produced in relation to the Qumran settlement at all (Crown 2005). In the face of this scholarly turmoil, I was led to remark: "The only really certain thing about the Qumran texts is that some people put some scrolls into some caves" (LDBT 1:250).

The 900 manuscripts found at Qumran can be conveniently sorted into three groups. First, there are copies of books found in the Hebrew Bible. These account for over 200 of the manuscripts. Second, there are copies of books we knew previously, but which are not in the Hebrew Bible, about 100 of them. Thus, for example, there are several copies of the Book of Tobit, found in the larger traditional Christian Old Testament. Third, there are copies of compositions that we did not know before they were found at Qumran. These include rules of communities, biblically-inspired rewrites, calendrical texts, poetic texts, wisdom literature, commentaries on prophetic books, and so on.

In regard to language, Qumran was a complete surprise for the three-stage theory of the development of Hebrew. The overwhelming number of the 900 manuscripts from Qumran are in Hebrew. There are only about 120 manuscripts in Aramaic and about 20 in Greek; the rest are in Hebrew. That already is an interesting observation in light of the three-stage theory of ancient Hebrew. We might have expected Aramaic to be in a position of dominance.

The next question is: What sort of Hebrew are the Dead Sea Scrolls in? Let us remind ourselves what the three-stage theory would predict as the answer to that question. We think the large majority of previously unknown compositions from Qumran were actually composed in the last couple of centuries BCE. Thus, for example, we are sure that the Pesher commentary on Habakkuk is from that period, since it refers to the Roman intervention in Jewish affairs in the first century BCE. The three-stage theory of Hebrew, we recall, saw Hebrew degenerating from a Golden Age before the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE, to a Silver Age in the post-exilic period, exemplified by the Hebrew of Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles, getting progressively more degenerate until you get monstrosities like the books of Qoheleth and Song of Songs, which are just a step away from the utter degeneration that is Mishnaic Hebrew. So if a text like the Pesher on Habakkuk dates to the first century BCE, it would evidently be expected to be the linguistic equivalent of a two-headed monster. It should be even more full of late Hebrew forms than Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, which are all earlier in date; should be more "degenerated" than Qoheleth or Song of Songs, since it is later than them, and hence closer to "degenerating" into Mishnaic Hebrew; and should be in a non-classical form of Hebrew, full of Aramaic, Mishnaic Hebrew and other late features.

The first generations of scholars did, in fact, try to fit the evidence of Qumran into the old three-stage model. They were of course constrained in that it is blindingly obvious that regular Qumran Hebrew is nothing like the language of books like Qoheleth and Song of Songs: the Qumran texts are in a very classical form of Hebrew. (6) Nevertheless, the most common way that Qumran Hebrew is described was as a development of Late Biblical Hebrew, meaning a development of the language of those books considered typical of Silver Age Hebrew (Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles). This continuity was demonstrated by citing odd forms here and there which were typical of those five books. However, we recall that we found out earlier that all biblical texts, even those representing the Golden Age, have a few of these supposedly late forms. All biblical texts, whether classified as early or late, use the same linguistic forms. What sets the core "late" books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles apart is their greatly increased proportion and preference for these forms. It is not enough, therefore, to point out that Qumran texts have occasional supposedly "late" linguistic forms. If there really is a development, if Qumran Hebrew really is a later development of the five late books' language, it should show the same or more likely a larger proportion of the late forms than the five late books.

I have investigated a number of Qumran texts, including a detailed study of the Pesher Commentary on Habakkuk (Young 2008; LDBT 1:250-279). What I found was that, for example, the Pesher commentary on Habakkuk had no greater proportion of "late" linguistic forms than a typical composition from the early, pre-exilic Golden Age of biblical literature. The author(s) of Pesher Habakkuk clearly had a mastery of Classical Hebrew style that was supposed to have died out 600 years before his time. It is clear that the author was not struggling, and for example, relying on the biblical text of Habakkuk for his classical linguistic forms. I found places where in his commentary the author of Pesher Habakkuk decided not to use the perfectly good Classical Hebrew form in the Habakkuk passage he was commenting on, but instead chose to use a sometimes even more typically Golden Age synonym to express what he wanted to say (Young 2008:34-35). (7)

We recall that the corpus of pre-exilic inscriptions from Arad that I investigated caused problems for the theory of Hebrew's degeneration by having too many supposedly late forms too early. A composition like Pesher Habakkuk causes problems by having far too few "late" forms when it should be full of them and its Hebrew should be in an advanced stage of degeneration. Yet another amazing observation is that the corpus of pre-exilic inscriptions from Arad (dated around 600 BCE) has more supposedly post-exilic late Hebrew linguistic features than Pesher Habakkuk, a work from the first century BCE. So much for a progressive degeneration of Hebrew! No Qumran work that I have looked at has the concentration of "late" linguistic features found in the supposedly typical late books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles.

These observations make us come back and ask: What made us think that these five books were typical, normal, or indeed represented the only sort of Hebrew in the post-exilic period? These books share a distinctive style in that they all have a stylistic preference for certain linguistic forms which are generally, but not totally, avoided by other Hebrew texts. In other words they are characterised stylistically by a greater openness to linguistic variety than other Hebrew literary texts. The fact is that no other Hebrew literary text shares the style of these five books. There are in fact a number of other biblical compositions which scholars date to the post-exilic period, for example prophets like Haggai, Zechariah or Joel. None of them are in the same style as the five books, not even close, in fact. In the second century BCE a Wisdom writer in Jerusalem whom we refer to as Ben Sira wrote a massive work of Wisdom, preserved in Greek in the traditional Christian Old Testament (where it is often referred to as Ecclesiasticus or Sirach). Fragments were found at Qumran, but a much more substantial section of the Hebrew text was found at Masada. Ben Sira is also very short on these supposedly characteristic "late" Hebrew elements.

It turns out, therefore, that Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles, far from representing the key examples of post-exilic Hebrew, are in fact isolated in their linguistic style. They were not written in the normal style of literary Hebrew in the post-exilic period, which remained throughout a form of Classical Hebrew much closer to the Hebrew of the Golden Age than them. Far from representing the inevitable decline and degeneration of Hebrew in the late period, the authors of these books must have chosen to write in that distinctive style. (8) Work is only now just beginning to figure out the reasons for that stylistic choice, such as geographical or ideological distance from the other works (for some preliminary thoughts see Young 2009). The Dead Sea Scrolls tell us, therefore, what we could already have inferred from the biblical texts themselves, that there was no degeneration in literary Hebrew in the post-exilic period, but that forms of Hebrew with a recognisable similarity to Hebrew of the Golden Age continued until the end of the Second Temple period.

4. Mishnaic Hebrew

We now turn to the final stage in the three-stage theory of Hebrew: Is Mishnaic Hebrew a degeneration of Biblical Hebrew? Scholars have in fact moved well away from that position. The current consensus is that the roots of Mishnaic Hebrew are in a colloquial dialect from the biblical period. Indeed, it is the consensus that Mishnaic Hebrew is not descended from Biblical Hebrew at all, but from a related dialect (or dialects) whose roots can be traced back to the pre-exilic period (on Mishnaic Hebrew see LDBT 1:223-249). Thus Mishnaic Hebrew is not a degeneration of Biblical Hebrew, it is simply a different dialect that co-existed with it throughout the biblical period. It did not achieve literary status until the rabbinic period, but it did have a sporadic impact on earlier literary texts. What this means is that just because a text has sporadic Mishnaic Hebrew features, or even those texts that reflect a Mishnaic-like dialect, such as Qoheleth or Song of Songs, are not thereby placed in a late period. Mishnaic Hebrew or its ancestor was always around, and authors could make a stylistic choice in any period to use Mishnaic Hebrew forms in literary Hebrew.

5. Linguistic Fluidity

The three-stage model of ancient Hebrew's degeneration is at odds with the extra-biblical evidence for ancient Hebrew. More than this, however, the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided the key for a total rethink of the nature of the Hebrew of the Bible. It seems blindingly obvious that if a biblical book was written early, it is an example of early language. If a book was written late, it reflects the language of the late period in which it was written. If the prophet Micah wrote around 700 BCE, then the language of the book of Micah is the Hebrew of 700 BCE. These blindingly obvious statements are presupposed by almost all scholars of the Hebrew language. More particularly the Masoretic Text (MT) of the Hebrew Bible is taken as reflecting in detail the language that left the pens of the original authors of the biblical texts. But these blindingly obvious presuppositions of the language scholars are diametrically opposed to the current consensus of most mainstream Bible scholars as to the composition history of the Hebrew Bible.

Scholars note that when we place the Qumran biblical scrolls, the Old Greek translations, and the Samaritan Pentateuch alongside the MT, we are faced with a rather startling variety of biblical texts. Despite the very fragmentary nature of our evidence for the text of the Hebrew Bible, we nevertheless have in our possession radically different texts of most books of the Hebrew Bible. A classic example is the shorter and longer editions of the book of Jeremiah (Tov 2012:286-294). The shorter version, attested in the Greek Septuagint and the Qumran scrolls is a sixth (17%) shorter than the longer (MT) edition, which is also attested among the Qumran scrolls. This means that over 3,500 words of the MT Jeremiah are not represented in the shorter version. Differences involve the presence or absence of some whole sections, but most commonly there is just simply more material in the parallel sections of the MT. In addition, common material appears in different places in the book, most notably the oracles against the foreign nations which are at the end (Chapters 46-51) of the MT, but are in the middle of the other version (Chapter 25).

Language scholars assume that the MT provides detailed evidence of the linguistic forms used by the original authors of biblical compositions. In his authoritative handbook on the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Emanuel Tov says, in contrast:

[T]he textual evidence does not point to a single "original" text, but a series of subsequent authoritative texts produced by the same or different authors ... the original texts(s) remain(s) an evasive entity that cannot be reconstructed ... Some biblical books, such as Jeremiah, reached a final state more than once ... the original text is far removed and can never be reconstructed ... the Judean Desert scrolls [our earliest biblical manuscripts] reflect a relatively late stage of the textual development (Tov 2012:167-169).

If biblical books had been composed like modern books, at one time, and thereafter remained basically the same, it is obvious that we might expect to detect a chronology in the way language is used in various books. But in light of the evidence that texts were written and rewritten over centuries, the idea that there is a "date" when a biblical book was written is anachronistic. So, too, since every biblical text contains within it a chronology of earlier and later composition, the idea that biblical books or chunks of books represent the language of one particular time and place appears to be extremely unlikely. We in fact find that language is one of the most peripheral and hence most changeable aspects of the biblical texts. (9)

Numerous examples of systematic linguistic differences can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls biblical texts, or in the Samaritan Pentateuch (LDBT 1:341-360; documented in detail in Rezetko and Young, forthcoming). As just one example, the preposition [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "from" normally stands separate before the definite article, hence:[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. However, the MT book of Samuel stands out by around 50% of the time preferring the very rare assimilated form--[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] for this case study see also Young, forthcoming). Is that a peculiarity of the original author of Samuel or just a scribe in the tradition of the MT? That we do not know, and the changeable nature of linguistic evidence in textual transmission, is underlined by the fact that the Qumran Samuel manuscript 4Q[Sam.sup.a] always has the standard form--[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], even in cases where the MT parallel has the unusual--[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

Rather than dwell at further length on the massive amount of evidence for linguistic fluidity in non-MT manuscripts, I would like to move on and suggest that we already, in the MT itself, had all the evidence we needed on the question of how fluidly the linguistic forms were copied. In the MT we have several parallel passages, in other words cases where we consider we have the same composition in two different places. It is interesting to look at how "less common" linguistic forms, the sort of ones that are considered significant evidence of linguistic peculiarities of the "authors" of biblical texts, are treated in these parallel texts. What I mean by "less common" linguistic forms are those forms that are synonymous with another form, and which are the less commonly attested one of the synonyms in the MT Bible as a whole. These forms are not necessarily rare, and may be attested frequently in the MT Bible. One example is the use of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] plus suffix to mark the object of a verb (e.g. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "and they brought him up": 2 Kings 25:6 // Jeremiah 52:9), which is nevertheless less common than attaching the object suffix directly to the verb ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "and they brought him up": Jeremiah 39:5). Yet even taking such frequent forms into account, the results are striking (for the full study see Rezetko and Young, forthcoming).

One of the texts I have investigated is the poem in 2 Samuel 22 and its parallel in Psalm 18. What I found is that the poetic section of these parallel texts contains 30 of these less common linguistic forms, but that only two (or about 7%) are found in both texts. In other words, about fourteen out of every fifteen of the less common linguistic forms--the sort of forms that are taken as decisive evidence of the linguistic peculiarities of the original author--have either been added or removed during the scribal transmission of the composition in its two versions. A similar picture, if not quite so dramatic, emerges from the other case studies I have done. For example, there is 2 Kings 24-25 where it parallels Jeremiah 52. It is commonly thought that the passage was taken from Kings at a fairly late stage to form a sort of historical appendix to Jeremiah, so they are very closely related texts. Here my study identified 37 less common linguistic forms, and only ten are shared between both texts, that is, about 27%. In other words, even in these closely related texts, nearly three out of every four of the less common linguistic forms have been added or removed in scribal transmission. When we introduce a further parallel to part of the passage, in Jeremiah 39, this proportion of shared forms drops to about 20%, or just one in every five. The more texts we have, the less of these linguistic forms they share in common, so that if we had more than the very meagre textual evidence for the Hebrew Bible that we have now, it is quite likely that the proportion of shared less common linguistic forms could approach zero, as it does with 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18. The MT itself, therefore, provides all the evidence we need (never mind the non-MT manuscripts) that the language of the biblical texts was transmitted very fluidly.

Every book of the Hebrew Bible, in whatever manuscript we have it, is therefore a linguistically composite text reflecting language from different layers of composition, redaction and transmission. No detail or collection of linguistic details in our biblical manuscripts is likely to represent the language of the "original author" or earliest stage of composition, except in very large-scale and exceptional circumstances, such as the overall peculiarity of Qoheleth's language, or perhaps the stylistic openness to variety of the five so-called "late" books. So we are left with a lot of linguistic evidence in the Hebrew Bible, but we are often unable to work out what to do with it. For example, we will not be able to unravel any linguistic chronology out of the Hebrew Bible (i.e. what is early and late) until we have sufficient dated extra-biblical sources to independently establish such a chronology. The inscriptions I discussed are important and provide some datable and localised samples of language. However, all told, the corpus of inscriptions is not quite 2% of the size of the Hebrew Bible (Clines 2011:9-10). So it turns out that the answer to the question of what we actually know about ancient Hebrew is: Quite a lot, but perhaps a lot less for certain than we previously thought.


I would like to thank the organizing committee of the AAJS 2013 conference, in particular Michael Abrahams-Sprod, Anna Huenecke and Suzanne Rutland for inviting to me to deliver the keynote address on which this article is based.


Cheyne, T.K. 1899. "Ecclesiastes," in T.K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black (eds.), Encyclopaedia Biblica. London: Watts & Co.: col. 1155-1164.

Clines, David J.A. 2011. The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, VIII Sin-Taw. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Crown, Alan David. 2005. "An Alternative View of Qumran," in Moshe Bar-Asher and Moshe Florentin (eds.), Samaritan, Hebrew and Aramaic Studies: Presented to Professor Abraham Tal. Jerusalem: Bialik:1*-24*.

Davies, Philip R. 1995. In Search of "Ancient Israel". Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement, 148. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic. 2nd edn.

Delitzsch, F. 1877. Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. Trans. M. G. Easton. Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark.

Driver, S.R. 1913. An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament. Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark. 9th edn.

Dobbs-Allsopp, F.W., J.J.M. Roberts, C.L. Seow, R.E. Whitaker. 2005. Hebrew Inscriptions: Texts from the Biblical Period of the Monarchy with Concordance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Doudna, Gregory L. 2006. "The Legacy of an Error in Archaeological Interpretation: The Dating of the Qumran Cave Scroll Deposits," in Katharina Galor, Jean-Baptiste Humbert and Jurgen Zangenberg (eds.), Qumran The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates-Proceedings of a conference held at Brown University, November 17-19, 2002. Leiden: Brill:147-157.

2004. "Redating the Deposits at Qumran: the Legacy of an Error in Archaeological Interpretation," [http://www.bibleinterp. com/articles/Doudna_Scroll_Deposits_1 .htm].

2001. 4Q Pesher Nahum: A Critical Edition. Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Supplement, 35. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Hurvitz, Avi. 1997. 'The Historical Quest for 'Ancient Israel' and the Linguistic Evidence of the Hebrew Bible: Some Methodological Observations," Vetus Testamentum, 47:301-315.

Hutchesson, Ian. 1999. "63 BCE: A Revised Dating for the Depositation of the Dead Sea Scrolls." The Qumran Chronicle, 8:3:177-194.

LDBT see Young, Rezetko and Ehrensvard 2008.

Rezetko, Robert, and Ian Young. Forthcoming. Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew: Steps Toward an Integrated Approach. Society of Biblical Literature Ancient Near Eastern Monographs. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Tzoref, Shani. 2013. "Qumran Communities--Past and Present," in Shani Tzoref and Ian Young (eds.), Keter Shem Tov: Collected Essays on the Dead Sea Scrolls in Memory of Alan Crown. Piscataway: Gorgias Press:17-55.

VanderKam, James C. 201 0. The Dead Sea Scrolls Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2nd edn.

Wirgin, Wolf. 1960. "The Calendar Tablet from Gezer." Eretz Israel 6:9*-12*.

Young, Ian. forthcoming. "Patterns Of Linguistic Forms In The Masoretic Text: The Preposition p 'From'," in James K. Aitken, Christl Maier and Jeremy Clines (eds.), Interested Readers (Clines Festschrift). Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature:385-400.

2013. "The Contrast Between The Qumran And Masada Biblical Scrolls In The Light Of New Data. A Note In Light Of The Alan Crown Festschrift," in Shani Tzoref and Ian Young (eds.), Keter Shem Tov: Collected Essays on the Dead Sea Scrolls in Memory of Alan Crown. Piscataway: Gorgias Press:113-119.

2009. "What is 'Late Biblical Hebrew'?" in Ehud Ben Zvi, Diana Edelman, and Frank Polak (eds.), A Palimpsest: Rhetoric, Ideology, Stylistics, and Language Relating to Persian Israel. Perspectives on Hebrew Scriptures and its Contexts, 5. Piscataway: Gorgias:265-280.

2008. "Late Biblical Hebrew and the Qumran Pesher Habakkuk." Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 8, Article 25 []:1-38.

2005. "The Biblical Scrolls from Qumran and the Masoretic Text: A Statistical Approach," in Marianne Dacy, Jennifer Dowling and Suzanne Faigan (eds.), Feasts and Fasts. A Festschrift in Honour of Alan David Crown. Mandelbaum Studies in Judaica, 11. Sydney: Mandelbaum Publishing, University of Sydney: 81-139.

2003. "Late Biblical Hebrew and Hebrew Inscriptions," in Ian Young (ed.), Biblical Hebrew: Chronology and Typology. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement, 369. London: T.&T. Clark:276-311.

2002. "The Stabilization of the Biblical Text in the Light of Qumran and Masada: A Challenge for Conventional Qumran Chronology?" Dead Sea Discoveries, 9:364-390.

1992. "The Style of the Gezer Calendar and Some 'Archaic Biblical Hebrew' Passages." Vetus Testamentum, 42:362-375.

Young, Ian, Robert Rezetko and Martin Ehrensvard. 2008. Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts. 2 vols. Bible World. London: Equinox.


(1.) The author reflects a common scholarly idea of the time that Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah comprised one composition.

(2.) IY--The author of this article, Ian Young.

(3.) For a classic work applying the three-stage theory of the development of ancient Hebrew to the books of the Bible see Driver 1913.

(4.) Perhaps the stone cutters banked on the fact that since the inscription was inside the tunnel, the king wasn't going to risk getting the royal feet wet to look at it.

(5.) There are a number of reliable scholarly introductions to the Scrolls, such as VanderKam 2010. For an excellent recent survey of scholarship see Tzoref 2013.

(6.) Two compositions, MMT and the Copper Scroll are exceptions (see LDBT, 1:237-41).

(7.) I am not claiming that the language of a text like Pesher Habakkuk is identical in all respects with that of earlier biblical books. I made this clear in my article (Young 2008:38). The main point being made was the failure of these texts to conform to the expectations of what normal "late" Hebrew should look like according to the predictions of the three-stage model of ancient Hebrew.

(8.) Another possibility to be considered, however, is that their linguistic features are solely due to the scribal histories of those works (see section 5).

(9.) This would seem to be the most likely explanation for why there are no traces of the northern linguistic forms found in the inscriptions in the current (late) manuscripts of the biblical books, see section 2, above.
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Author:Young, Ian
Publication:The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies
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Date:Jan 1, 2013
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