How Was the Bible Written During and After the Exile?

Biblical Hebrew in a changing world


Holding on to Biblical Hebrew: Even during the Babylonian Exile, Jewish exiles continued to use the Hebrew language. This promissory note from Al-Yahudu, also known as Judahtown, in Babylonia is inscribed with a Yahwistic name, Shelemyah, which is written in paleo-Hebrew script. Photo: Cindy and David Sofer Collection, Al-Yahudu No. 010.

The Hebrew language has evolved over time. Even during the course of writing the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), Biblical Hebrew changed, which is apparent when you compare early Biblical texts with late ones.

How was the Bible written during and after the Babylonian Exile? Did the Biblical authors continue to use the Hebrew language even though they were living in lands where Hebrew was no longer the common language? In his article “How Hebrew Became a Holy Language,” published in the January/February 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan Joosten explains that Biblical Hebrew did not go out of use. Rather the Jewish population continued to use it—and even attached a new reverence to it.

After Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and deported Judahite captives to Babylonia, he settled them in cities and villages, such as Al-Yahudu (also known as Judahtown), around the River Chebar. The official language of the Babylonian Empire was Aramaic. Although the Jewish deportees communicated in Aramaic with their new neighbors, they continued to write and speak the Hebrew language in their communities, which helped them preserve a distinct identity. An archive from Al-Yahudu demonstrates this. For example, a promissory note from Al-Yahudu (see above) is inscribed with the Hebrew name Shelemyah, which contains the element “yah” that connects the name holder to his deity, Yahweh. The note is written in paleo-Hebrew script, not Aramaic cuneiform.

The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.

While living in foreign lands—and after returning to Palestine—how was the Bible written? Although some of the late books of the Bible were written in Aramaic, most of them were still written in Hebrew. However, this Hebrew is distinct from that found in earlier Biblical texts. Joosten elaborates, “In the late books of the Bible—Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther—an archaic form of Hebrew is reused in a way that indicates it was ‘lifted’ from the earlier text and revivified on the basis of exegesis.”

The Biblical authors of this period studied the Hebrew of earlier books and intentionally incorporated it into their writings. In this process, some words took on different meanings. For example, in earlier Biblical texts, the Hebrew word torah denotes “writing” or “direction,” but in later texts, this word usually signifies “the book in which Jewish law is written down.” The authors’ conscientious choice to continue writing in Hebrew set it apart almost as a sacred language.

Of course, the exiles in Babylon do not represent the only surviving Jewish community at this time. Joosten also notes that “there was a western exile and diaspora, exemplified by the prophet Jeremiah, who fled with a group of exiles to Egypt (see Jeremiah 43–44). As the elite of Jerusalem was led by the Babylonians to the East, other Judahites fled to the West. A sizable colony of Jews was settled in Elephantine, a Nile island in upper Egypt, in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E.”

Both groups of exiles revered the Hebrew Bible and committed to preserve and transmit it faithfully. However, they did this in very different ways. While the Jews in Babylon—and later Palestine—studied and continued to use Biblical Hebrew, the Jews in Egypt decided to translate the Hebrew Bible into the common tongue, which for them was Greek.

In the Hellenistic period, the western diaspora produced the Septuagint, a full translation of Israel’s Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek. The translation of Scripture, as in Egypt, and the classicizing continuation of Hebrew, as in the East, are in a way polar opposites. In the face of Scriptures written in an ancestral idiom that is on the verge of becoming obsolete, one can opt for translation, transferring the meaning of the text into one’s own world—as in the West. But another option is possible too—to turn one’s back on one’s own world and to project oneself into the world of the ancient texts. The second option is the one taken by the Judahites of the Babylonian Exile and followed after them by Judaism of all hues, as it developed in Palestine. The first option, that of translation, was exercised by the Jews of Egypt, who thus followed a distinct path.

From revivification to translation, the Hebrew language was adapted to a changing world. To learn more about the development of Biblical Hebrew, read Jan Joosten’s article “How Hebrew Became a Holy Language” in the January/February 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library members: Read the full article “How Hebrew Became a Holy Language” by Jan Joosten in the January/February 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?

Egyptian Papyrus Reveals Israelite Psalms

The Evolution of Biblical Hebrew

What Is the Oldest Hebrew Bible?

Errors in the Masoretes’ “Original” Hebrew Manuscripts of the Bible?

Comparing Ancient Biblical Manuscripts

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on January 9, 2017.


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  • Justin says

    I do not understand at all why you are calling the area Palestine. The writers of the Bible never called it Palestine and would’ve been confused had you told them they were Palestinians. Had you asked them where they were from, they’d have responded Judah.

    If you’re afraid this lends credence to Zionism, it doesn’t. It’s just a fact that it wasn’t called Palestine. If I called 9th century Palestine something other than Palestine, then I’m wrong. If I called it 9th century Israel CE, then that’s just anachronistic, plain and simple. It’s just bizarre otherwise, and your scholarship only suffers because of it.

  • Pauline says

    Why does this author refer to Judea, or the Jewish exiles return to their land as “returning to Palestine?” Palestine was established by the Romans over the Jewish and other inhabitants of this region only around the first century. However, the Jews returned to this region (ancient Israel) from Babylon well before that. Accordingly, referring to a return to “Palestine” is historically incorrect unless discussing the 1st century BCE.

  • Wes says

    Your post brings up something that was very much on the back of my mind as well as many other correspondents. While the current article examines the relation of books written early (pre Exile ) and late ( after), searching for clues about vocabulary and script, the issue of early alphabets and literature is out there, somewhere.

    And sometimes it appears to be addressed by other BAR articles. In the midst of mulling this issue over off line, I came across this one:

    “Texts from Ugarit Solve Biblical Puzzles”, by Edward Greenstein, Nov/Dec 2010.

    It begins:
    Hebrew is a “language of Canaan,” says the prophet (Isaiah 19:18), a conclusion amply confirmed by archaeologically recovered inscriptions. In scholarly terms, Hebrew is a south Canaanite dialect.

    As with the language, so with the alphabet: From its earliest appearance until the Babylonian destruction, Hebrew was written in the Canaanite alphabet.

    As with language and the alphabet, so with culture generally: Ancient Israelite culture was in many respects a subset of Canaanite culture.

    The most powerful and extensive demonstration of this last statement comes from the body of literature uncovered at the site of Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.

    Let’s put a hold for a moment right there. Because you mentioned above that the Phoenician alphabet is a close relative of the early Hebrew alphabet and possibly from what it was derived. But from my quick survey, there appears to be a lack of literature in the Phoenician or Punic world that was passed on to us.

    On the other hand, up the coast at Ugarit, there are plenty of stories and a significant vocabulary, but they wrote in a cuneiform based alphabet limited to about 30 symbols. And some of it, as Greenstein indicates, was probably available to Ezekiel several hundred years after Ugarit was wiped off the Earth ( near the start of the 12th century BC).

    If that is the case, that Ezekiel in (Ezekiel 14:13–14, 16) is referring Dan’el of the Ugaritic epic, the Death of Aqhat (Dan’el’s son), then this passage connects Biblical
    text to Ugarit’s “alphabetic” cuneiform literature dating to somewhere amid the 2nd millenium BC. Greenstein suggests that other expressions such as found in Samuel could be of Ugaritic origin as well.

    Ugarit and Ebla both caused sensations in the archeological community decades ago as newly discovered excavation sites. And as an dilettante in these matters, I got the two sites often confused. I am not aware of literature recovered from Ebla, but Ugarit with its simple form of cuneiform appears as a relative goldmine. In searching for more information about Ugaritic, I discover that many Biblical study institutions have already incorporated Ugaritic into their study programs ( publishing grammar texts). Its vocabulary and the stories the language relates are significant.

  • David says

    for Paul: perhaps the language the Hebrews were using WAS based on the Ancient Phoenician language. The question seems to be WHEN did they use it and when did they START using it. We seem to get more and more evidence every year, that this ancient Hebrew (or whatever) was in use very early at the time of the earliest Hebrew kingdom. Some of it with scriptural interest – like names, places aor even Biblical quotes.

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