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An Unsettling Divide in Linguistic Dating and Historical Linguistics

See Also: Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts

Unhistorical Hebrew Linguistics: A Cautionary Tale

A Very Tall “Cautionary Tale”: A Response to Ron Hendel

By Martin Ehrensvärd
Associate Professor
Faculty of Theology
University of Copenhagen

Robert Rezetko
Research Associate
Radboud University Nijmegen & University of Sydney

Ian Young
Associate Professor
Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies
University of Sydney
February 2016

Most ancient Hebrew language scholars probably agree broadly about what scholarship and scholarly method are and should be. They agree that scholarship entails dialogue, debate, self-criticism, evaluation, correction, and so on. But when it comes down to how this looks in practice, misunderstandings have become abundant and a very unfortunate situation has developed in the field.

Since the early 2000s there has been substantial and beneficial discussion of the linguistic nature of the Hebrew Bible and the role of language for determining the historical origins of biblical writings. The interaction has taken place at conferences,[1] in authored and edited books,[2] in journals,[3] and in various online venues including The Bible and Interpretation.[4] In our opinion, the ongoing outcome of this recent discussion is that within the field of Biblical Hebrew studies a shift is underway from the outlook and method of linguistic dating as formulated by W. Gesenius, S. R. Driver, A. Kropat, E. Y. Kutscher, A. Bendavid, A. Hurvitz, and so on, with its inherent assumptions and weaknesses, to the more widespread, robust, and descriptive approach of historical linguistics.

This shift is apparent when reviewing conference papers and publications from recent years. Far fewer publications now rely solely on the traditional method, while many (younger) scholars are looking for new ways to take the field forward.[5]

Now, the unfortunate thing is that certain major scholars have started ignoring this recent progress, giving rise to a remarkable and unsettling divide in the study of the Hebrew Bible between old-fashioned linguistic dating and modern-day historical linguistics.

A case in point is the recently published magnum opus of A. Hurvitz, A Concise Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew.[6] In this volume the authors actually state that interaction with different views is pointless:

“...[O]ur Lexicon is, by definition, diachronic in nature and thus constitutes part and parcel of the discipline of Historical Linguistics. Since its basic methodological principles and philological guidelines are largely rejected by the non-diachronic school of BH, as openly revealed in their publications (see especially Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd 2008), the gulf between the two opposing parties is hardly bridgeable. Indeed, no common ground for a potentially meaningful dialogue in this connection seems to be in sight at the moment. Thus, our policy all along was to refrain from futile polemics.... Rather, our goal was to draw attention to, and focus on the actual diachronic analysis of the Biblical data in compliance with the guidelines described above—guidelines that dominate the scholarly work of the leading experts on the linguistic history of BH. Detailed discussions of our general approach or of specific positions regarding individual cases may be found in the scholarly literature (see extensive treatment in Zevit and Miller-Naudé 2012 [sic]) and do not warrant lengthy and often repetitive arguments and counterarguments that would have taken us well beyond the desired framework of this volume.”

Other recent works that hardly reference the debate include books by J. Joosten, O. Cohen, and W. M. A. Schniedewind.[7]

The intention of this policy of omission certainly seems to be friendly and pragmatic, two qualities that we applaud. But referring to our work as “non-diachronic” reveals a deep misunderstanding of the whole point of it. Furthermore, the assertion that their approach is “part and parcel of the discipline of Historical Linguistics” belongs to a different era. Such a view of what constitutes historical linguistics dates from a time when that field was in its infancy and relied more on scholars’ intuition and less on rigorous method. Historical linguistics has developed tremendously since the mid-20th century and now yields much more robust results.[8]

Very recently, another step was taken in the wrong direction. The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel was just published.[9] According to their stated objective, “[t]hese volumes approach the subject in a creative and forward-thinking style, providing a forum in which leading scholars in the field can make their views and research available to a wider audience”.[10] A chapter on “Linguistics and the Dating of Biblical Literature” by O. Cohen is included on pp. 118-130 of this otherwise excellent publication. Cohen’s article would actually also be a really helpful piece of work, were it not for the developments that have taken place in scholarship during these past decades, and which he sidesteps completely. Therefore, in 2016, Cohen’s article comes across as a mere rehash of a conventional worldview, without so much as touching upon the ongoing debate or anything that today could be confidently called historical linguistics, and this in a volume with the aim of being “forward-thinking.”

In our opinion, such publications fail to adhere to the rigors of scholarly method, and they are a setback to otherwise cordial and constructive interaction between scholars who follow old and/or new methods and who seek to explain the contours and significance of the same linguistic data.

Martin Ehrensvärd, Robert Rezetko, and Ian Young


[1] Sessions of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2001 (Rome), 2004 (San Antonio), 2005 (Philadelphia), 2007 (Vienna), 2009 (New Orleans), 2010 (Atlanta), and 2015 (Atlanta), plus many additional conference papers.

[2] For example: I. Young (ed.), Biblical Hebrew: Studies in Chronology and Typology (JSOTSup 369; London: T&T Clark, 2003); I. Young, R. Rezetko, and M. Ehrensvärd, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts, Volume 1: An Introduction to Approaches and Problems, Volume 2: A Survey of Scholarship, a New Synthesis and a Comprehensive Bibliography(BibleWorld; London: Equinox, 2008); E. Ben Zvi, D. V. Edelman, and F. H. Polak (eds.), A Palimpsest: Rhetoric, Ideology, Stylistics and Language Relating to Persian Israel (Perspectives on Hebrew Scriptures and Its Contexts 5; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2009); F. Zanella, The Lexical Field of the Substantives of “Gift” in Ancient Hebrew (SSN 54; Leiden: Brill, 2010); R. C. Vern, Dating Archaic Biblical Hebrew Poetry: A Critique of the Linguistic Arguments (Perspectives on Hebrew Scriptures and Its Contexts 10; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2011); C. Miller-Naudé and Z. Zevit (eds.), Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (LSAWS 8; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012); G. Khan (ed.), Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (4 vols; Leiden: Brill, 2013) (minimal dialogue in the following articles: Biblical Hebrew, Archaic; Biblical Hebrew, Late; Biblical Hebrew: Periodization; Collectives: Biblical Hebrew; Lexicon: Biblical Hebrew; Orality: Biblical Hebrew; Pentateuch, Linguistic Layers in the); D.-H. Kim, Early Biblical Hebrew, Late Biblical Hebrew, and Linguistic Variability: A Sociolinguistic Evaluation of the Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (VTSup 156; Leiden: Brill, 2013); T. Notarius, The Verb in Archaic Biblical Poetry: A Discursive, Typological, and Historical Investigation of the Tense System (SSLL 68; Leiden: Brill, 2013); A. D. Hornkohl, Ancient Hebrew Periodization and the Language of the Book of Jeremiah: The Case for a Sixth-Century Date of Composition (SSLL 74; Leiden: Brill, 2014); R. Rezetko and I. Young, Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew: Steps Toward an Integrated Approach (ANEM 9; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014); and various forthcoming volumes cited in note 8.

[3] Hebrew Studies 46 (2005): 321-376; 47 (2006): 83-210; Journal for Semitics forthcoming.

[4] R. Hendel, “Unhistorical Hebrew Linguistics: A Cautionary Tale,” The Bible and Interpretation (September 2011;; R. Rezetko, I. Young, and M. Ehrensvärd, “A Very Tall ‘Cautionary Tale’: A Response to Ron Hendel,” The Bible and Interpretation (September 2011; http://www.bibleinterp

[5] See the works cited in notes 2 and 8.

[6] A. Hurvitz, in collaboration with L. Gottlieb, A. Hornkohl, and E. Mastéy, A Concise Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Innovations in the Writings of the Second Temple Period (VTSup 160; Leiden: Brill, 2014). See the forthcoming review article by R. Rezetko and M. Naaijer in JHS, and M. Ehrensvärd’s forthcoming book review in SJOT.

[7] J. Joosten, The Verbal System of Biblical Hebrew: A New Synthesis Elaborated on the Basis of Classical Prose (Jerusalem Biblical Studies 10; Jerusalem: Simor, 2012) (references to debate in chapter 11 on LBH: p. 377 n. 3); O. Cohen, The Verbal System in Late Biblical Hebrew (trans. A. Aronsky; HSS; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013) (references to debate: none); W. M. A. Schniedewind, Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins through the Rabbinic Period (AYBRL; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) (references to debate: p. 225 n. 67; p. 228 n. 70).

[8] For examples of what a methodologically rigorous historical linguistic treatment of features of Biblical Hebrew can look like, see Rezetko and Young, Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew, cited in note 2, and available free of charge at See also: J. T. Jacobs, Statistics, Linguistics, and the “Biblical” Dead Sea Scrolls (JSSSup; Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming); B. J. Noonan, Foreign Words in the Hebrew Bible: Linguistic Evidence for Foreign Contact in Ancient Israel (LSAWS; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming); and various projects of M. Naaijer, including M. Naaijer, “The Common Nouns in the Book of Esther: A New Quantitative Approach to the Linguistic Relationships of Biblical Books” (M.A. thesis, Radboud University Nijmegen, 2012); D. Roorda, G. Kalkman, M. Naaijer, and A. van Cranenburgh, “LAF-Fabric: A Data Analysis Tool for Linguistic Annotation Framework with an Application to the Hebrew Bible,” Computational Linguistics in the Netherlands Journal 4 (2014): 105-120 (; R. Rezetko and M. Naaijer, “An Alternative Approach to the Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew,” forthcoming in JHS (separate from the review article cited in note 6); and Naaijer’s and others’ work as part of the project, “Does Syntactic Variation reflect Language Change? Tracing Syntactic Diversity in Biblical Hebrew Texts” (

[9] Edited by S. Niditch (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2016).

[10] Here is the context of this quote, from the general description of the series: “The Wiley Blackwell Companions to Religion series presents a collection of the most recent scholarship and knowledge about world religions. Each volume draws together newly-commissioned essays by distinguished authors in the field, and is presented in a style which is accessible to undergraduate students, as well as scholars and the interested general reader. These volumes approach the subject in a creative and forward-thinking style, providing a forum in which leading scholars in the field can make their views and research available to a wider audience.” In particular, the volume “The Companion to Ancient Israel offers a multifaceted entry into ancient Israelite culture. The orientation of the Companion is rooted in several approaches: the history of religion with its interests in worldviews, symbol systems, paradigms, and the benefits of comparative, cross-cultural study; the study of religion as lived, an approach that asks about the everyday lives of ordinary people, the material culture that they shape and experience, and the relationships between individuals and tradition; and cultural studies, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary work and methodological questions about our own assumptions as scholars.”