Characteristically late spellings in the Hebrew Bible: with special reference to the plene spelling of the o-vowel in the qal infinitive construct.

Author:Hornkohl, Aaron
Position:Critical essay

    The recognition of historical development within Biblical Hebrew is an almost exclusively modern achievement resulting from the historical-critical study of the Bible and the comparative study of Biblical Hebrew vis-a-vis post-biblical Hebrew and other Semitic languages, especially Aramaic. These approaches are products of the Enlightenment, so it is no surprise that as early as 1644 the Dutch humanist Hugo Grotius invoked the language of Ecclesiastes as his chief argument against that book's alleged Solomonic authorship, observing its frequent use of words characteristic of late compositions, like Daniel, Ezra, and the Aramaic targums. (2)

    Be that as it may, explicit pre-modern recognition of diachronic development in Ancient Hebrew, though rare, is not unknown. Indeed, the biblical text itself overtly acknowledges just such a difference between past and current speech habits in 1 Sam. 9.9: "Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he would say, 'Come, let us go to the seer (ha-ro'e),' for the prophet (han- nabi) of today was formerly called the seer (ha-ro'e)."

    Similar differences were observed by Jewish scholars of Talmudic times. For example, they (apparently correctly) explained the transition from the pre-exilic Israelite calendrical systems--referring to months by ordinal numbers or by Canaanite names--to the later Jewish calendar as a result of life in Exile: "the names of the months came up with them [= the exiles returning to Palestine] from Babylonia: originally 'in the month Ethanim' [1 Kings 8.2], ... Originally 'in the month Bui' [1 Kings 6.38].... Originally 'in the month Ziv' [1 Kings 6:1, 37].... Subsequently, 'and it came to pass in the month Nisan' [Neh. 2.1] ...; 'and it came to pass in the month Kislev' [Neh. 1.1] ...; 'in the tenth month, which is the month Tevet' [Est. 2.16]." (3)

    Occasionally, such differences were even exploited for exegetical profit, as with the use of the post-classical abbreviation Yeshua (yesua') instead of classical Joshua (yehosua') in Neh. 8.17: "The whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths--the Israelites had not done so from the days of Yeshua son of Nun to that day--and there was very great rejoicing." The abbreviation is explained in the Palestinian Talmud: "Why Yeshua [not Joshua]? Hillel son of R. Shmuel son of R. Nahman said the Scripture impeached the honor of a righteous man who is in the grave in the face of another righteous man in his day. It compared their coming in the days of Ezra to their coming in the days of Joshua." (4)

    Notwithstanding these sporadic pieces of evidence for early perception of diachronic linguistic change within Biblical Hebrew, a systematic account of its development would not come until 1815, with Wilhelm Gesenius' Geschichte der hebraischen Sprache und Schrift, (5) Later scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who adopted a diachronic approach to BH include some of the greats--Ewald, (6) Delitzsch, (7) Wellhausen, (8) Noldeke, (9) and S. R. Driver (10)--all of whom, notwithstanding differences of opinion on specific (and not insignificant) details, agreed that pre-exilic and post-exilic Hebrew, while remarkably similar, nevertheless differed sufficiently to allow for the relative linguistic dating of biblical compositions.

    For example, there was consensus that the "Golden Age" of Hebrew was exemplified in such pre-exilic works as (the material that eventually came to be known as) the J, E, and D portions of the Pentateuch, the majority of the Former Prophets, First Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea among the Latter Prophets, while the language of Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles was obviously post-exilic, representing something of a decadent "Silver Age." These groupings of classical and post-classical texts are still by and large accepted by scholars today, though, as before, the date of various biblical compositions remains the subject of debate.

    Since the 1950s, arguably the most influential practitioners of the diachronic approach have been Kutscher, (11) Polzin, (12) and Hurvitz, the last of whom has for some years now been considered its leading proponent. (13) Hurvitz' reputation is due in part to the large number of studies that he has published and to the fact that they deal with a wide array of linguistic features, texts, corpora, genres, and issues. No less important, though, has been his development and consistent application of what is today accepted as the standard procedure for identifying distinctively late linguistic elements and for distinguishing between classical and postclassical biblical (and extra-biblical) compositions on the basis of their linguistic profiles. (14)

    According to this procedure, post-classical linguistic features especially characteristic of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) must satisfy three requirements:

    1. Late distribution--the feature in question must have a distribution limited exclusively (or predominately (15)) to compositions of the post-exilic period. This is a prerequisite for consideration as a distinctive feature of LBH.

    2. Linguistic contrast--the feature in question must have a synonymous counterpart that occurs in similar contexts in material generally assumed to be pre-exilic. This shows the alleged late feature's absence from classical material to be diachronically meaningful, i.e., not the result of mere chance.

    3. Extra-biblical confirmation--in addition to late biblical attestation, the feature in question must also occur in late, extra-biblical material. This ensures that it is characteristic of the language of the late period in general, and not merely idiosyncratic of an individual writer or especially typical of the jargon of a specific literary school or genre.

      Finally, the post-exilic provenance of a text of unknown date can be established only on the basis of the criterion of

    4. Accumulation of late linguistic features--only if a given composition contains a significant number of late linguistic features relative to its length can it be considered post-classical. In other words, the sporadic appearance of characteristically late features in a work of unknown date is not sufficient to demonstrate its lateness. Conversely, the relative absence of a significant accumulation of late linguistic features may be interpreted as evidence of a date of composition prior to the late period. (16)

      Significantly, while not ignoring text-critical issues where their discussion is relevant, (17) scholars who favor the diachronic approach outlined above usually base their analyses on the standard Masoretic Text (MT) of the Bible. (18) For purposes of the present study, the adjective "biblical" refers to the MT, so that the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls are defined as extra-biblical.

      In recent years a few scholars have challenged the validity of the diachronic paradigm in general and its relevance for the dating of biblical texts more specifically. Among the various criticisms leveled, a recurring refrain is the claim that the biblical texts represented in the extant manuscripts (whether the MT or other Hebrew witnesses, e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls) were undoubtedly altered to some extent in the years between their original composition and the production of the surviving copies, so that in the extant manuscripts it is no longer possible to distinguish between linguistic features representative of the language of the original authors and those representative of subsequent editors, compilers, and copyists. (19)

      If any part of the biblical text is to be considered pre-exilic, then a comparison of biblical and early extra-biblical spelling practices, i.e., inscriptional orthography, makes necessary the assumption that at least some portion of the biblical text underwent a late orthographic revision. This is clear, since Hebrew orthography of First Temple Period inscriptions is very defective, i.e., uses very few matres lectionis (consonants that mark vowel sounds), whereas all biblical texts, even those considered archaic, exhibit degrees of plene spelling that, while varying in their fullness, are unknown in extra-biblical Hebrew sources prior to the Second Temple Period. (20) For classical biblical texts to be spelled as they are in the MT, they must have been subjected to a process of orthographical revision, presumably around the time that the late biblical books were written. (21) There is consensus among scholars that just such a revision, likely a gradual one, led to alterations in spelling, including, but not limited to, the insertion of matres lectionis into classical texts that had formerly exhibited more defective spelling. (22) Consensus is lacking, however, on the question of whether or not the textual modifications extended beyond orthography, so that elements of morphology, syntax, and lexicon--not to mention content--were also altered. Obviously, if the revision was even remotely comprehensive, then the language of the original writers must be considered effectively obscured. (23)

      The alternative approach, according to which no such orthographical revision took place, is to interpret the universal--though by no means uniform--use of plene spelling in the Hebrew Bible as evidence of the post-exilic origin of the entire corpus. However, this view is incompatible with a great deal of linguistic (and non-linguistic) evidence, including evidence of an orthographic nature (see below), and is rightly rejected by the majority of scholars. (24)

      It is clear then that biblical texts were altered during the process of transmission, but it is not clear that they have been so extensively modified that the language of the original authors has become irretrievable and that meaningful diachronic analysis has therefore been rendered impossible. Indeed, despite the modifications acknowledged above, numerous cases of linguistic development can be detected not only in the...

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