The Evolution of Biblical Hebrew

How did Biblical Hebrew change over time?


The Temple Scroll (11Q19) was likely discovered in 1956 in Cave 11. The manuscript is written in the square Herodian Hebrew script of the late Second Temple period. Measuring about 27 feet long, the scroll is written on very thin animal skin (no thicker than one-tenth of a millimeter), making it the thinnest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The work claims to provide the details of God’s instructions regarding the construction and operation of a temple that was never built, along with extensive regulations about sacrifices and temple practices. Photo: The Shrine of the Book, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem/© The Israel Museum/by Ardon Bar Hama.

Was the Bible written from beginning to end in an unchanging language called Biblical Hebrew, or did this language evolve over time? In “How Biblical Hebrew Changed” in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, 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.

According to Hurvitz, Biblical Hebrew can be divided into three historical categories:

1. Archaic Biblical Hebrew is documented in the Bible, particularly in the poetic parts of the Pentateuch and in the Early Prophets (e.g., the well-known Song of the Sea [Exodus 15] and Song of Deborah [Judges 5]), as well as in hymns from the Book of Psalms.

2. Standard (or Classical) Biblical Hebrew is found in the prose sections of the Pentateuch and the Early Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and in the Classical prophecies of the Later Prophets like Hosea, Amos and Micah.

3. Late (or post-Classical) Biblical Hebrew is found primarily in the late compositions included in the third section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Writings—in such books as Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles.

While many linguists and philologists accept these divisions, they debate the dates to which the categories are assigned—especially the dates of Archaic Biblical Hebrew. It is more generally accepted that Standard Biblical Hebrew and Late Biblical Hebrew correspond to the First and Second Temple periods, respectively.

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Hurvitz notes that it is important to examine extra-Biblical texts in studying the evolution of Biblical Hebrew due to the limited size and scope of the Hebrew Bible. For example, writings from Ugarit in Syria, which date to the mid-second millennium B.C.E., provide an invaluable comparison for understanding archaic Biblical poetry.

“Documents and texts in Aramaic and Hebrew from the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature, dating from the second half of the first century B.C.E. until the first centuries C.E., enable us to identify the linguistic features of the Bible’s post-Classical stratum,” explains Hurvitz.

Explore the evolution of Biblical Hebrew throughout the Biblical period by reading the full article “How Biblical Hebrew Changed” by Avi Hurvitz in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “How Biblical Hebrew Changed” by Avi Hurvitz in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

How Was the Bible Written During and After the Exile?
What Is the Oldest Hebrew Bible?
Errors in the Masoretes’ “Original” Hebrew Manuscripts of the Bible?
Comparing Ancient Biblical Manuscripts


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