BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Linguistic Hints to the Age of the Hebrew Bible

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.


What is the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Why are they so important to our understanding of the Bible, Christianity and Judaism? In our free eBook The Dead Sea Scrolls: Discovery and Meaning, find out what the scrolls tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism.

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.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Evolution of Biblical Hebrew Did the language of the Bible—Biblical Hebrew—evolve over time? Professor Avi Hurvitz argues there are three distinct forms of Biblical Hebrew, each one corresponding to certain parts of the Bible and other ancient texts.

When Was the Hebrew Bible Written? When was the Hebrew Bible written? Ostraca with Hebrew inscriptions excavated from the Iron Age fortress at Arad in Israel may provide clues, say researchers from Tel Aviv University.

What Is the Oldest Hebrew Bible? The oldest Hebrew Bible texts are the Dead Sea Scrolls (c. 250 B.C.E.–115 C.E.), but the most nearly complete copies of the Hebrew Bible are codices from a thousand years ago. What happened in the period between these two discoveries? The Ashkar-Gilson Manuscript fills the gap in our knowledge of this interim period.

Errors in the Masoretes’ “Original” Hebrew Manuscripts of the Bible? The Hebrew Bible today differs from the Bible manuscripts of the first millennium B.C.E. How do we identify alterations? Learn why critical editions of the Bible are essential.

Who Tells the Truth—the Bible or Archaeology? Is the Hebrew Bible a bunch of tales with no value to a historian? Does archaeology hold the keys to truth instead? What are the limitations of both sources of information? Is it even possible to write a comprehensive and honest history of ancient Israel? Eminent archaeologist William G. Dever attempts to marry archaeology and the Bible.


Become a Member of Biblical Archaeology Society Now and Get More Than Half Off the Regular Price of the All-Access Pass!

Explore the world’s most intriguing Biblical scholarship

Dig into more than 9,000 articles in the Biblical Archaeology Society’s vast library plus much more with an All-Access pass.

access

Related Posts


1 Responses

  1. Arleine von Wagner says:

    You might want to check out Patterns of Evidence

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


1 Responses

  1. Arleine von Wagner says:

    You might want to check out Patterns of Evidence

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Send this to a friend