Can language analysis determine the initial date of the ancient Hebrew manuscripts?
Establishing when the Hebrew Bible was written, remains a great challenge. Some of its books purport to tell the story of a distant past, and are the written recordings based on oral traditions that might be centuries old. Some of the Hebrew Bible may contain different fragments that originated in different periods.
Other, lesser works can often be dated by the history, or even the cultural ideas, that they contain. The Hebrew Bible is rich in that regard: monotheism, monarchy, sacrifice, priestly rivalries, momentous wars, and more. Unfortunately, so much of that history is exclusively known to us from the Bible itself. Many clues can’t be anchored to an independent, definitive source.
Ronald S. Hendel and Jan Joosten explain all of the above in their article, “How Old Is the Hebrew Bible” (Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February, 2020). They contend that, in the absence of other grounding, language provides the best evidence of when the Hebrew Bible was put to papyrus. “Language evolves; its sounds, semantics, and syntax change through time. This makes it possible, in theory, to determine a chronology for individual writings.” They acknowledge this is generally not a straightforward process: dialects, style, literary allusion, and professional jargon can all muddle dating of texts based on language alone.
The limitations of diachronic study might be too great, except that the linguistic data align particularly well. The biblical books dated to the Persian period or later, because of the stories they recount, are written in Late Biblical Hebrew, with borrowed words from Aramaic and Persian. Other books written in Late Biblical Hebrew that tell of earlier history include allusions to later events such as the Maccabean wars, so must have been written later. On the other hand, the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is written in Classical Biblical Hebrew, with very few borrowed words.
Given the different forms of ancient Hebrew that mark the books of the Hebrew Bible, Hendel and Joosten conclude it was written over a thousand-year period. For more explanation, and to learn other linguistic clues they followed, read the full article “How Old Is the Hebrew Bible” by Ronald S. Hendel and Jan Joosten in the January/February, 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.Not a subscriber yet? Join today.
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