Typology and Chronology

Reading through my comprehensive exam bibliography, I have come to Ian Young’s (editor) volume on chronology and typology in Biblical Hebrew (BH). I have already posted a summary of one article by Avi Hurvitz, but I realize that my “readership” (if you can call it that) is broadening, so perhaps I should give some context explaining the importance of the book.

Although we tend to learn it as such at first, BH, defined loosely as all the Hebrew found in the Bible :), is not a uniform language. Across the books there are differences in the lexicon used, morphological features, syntax, etc. For instance, we often encounter archaic language in biblical poetry (such as the use of the yiqtol preterite or in prepositions such as לָֽמוֹ instead of לוֹ).  Differences can also be seen in prose, most obviously comparing the language of Chronicles to Samuel-Kings.

Languages are always changing, however the exile is just the type of event that could accelerate such change by dispersing a people group and shifting them from majority to minority status (and then bringing some of them back together in the restoration period). Thus the exile seems to be an important turning point in the description of the development of Hebrew. Books such as Chronicles, Esther, and Ezra-Nehemiah bear internal witness to the fact that they were written in the post-exilic period. In contrast, books like Samuel-Kings generally had been taken to be pre-exilic (more on this later). Thus scholars attempted to isolate linguistic features of the late books from those that were earlier in order to describe the changes that had occurred. Hebrew inscriptions also provided control data for the earlier language. Further, this linguistic typology was then used in the attempt to date problematic passages, such as Pentateuchal sources.

Scholars generally divide Hebrew into three stages following Kutscher (see Young’s introdution): Archaic Biblical Hebrew (ABH), Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH), and Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH). ABH is represented in early poetry and the early prophets. SBH is also called ‘classical Hebrew’ and is considered to reflect the language of the monarchic period. SBH covers the main historiographical books from Genesis to 2 Kings as well as some Psalms and pre-exilic prophets. LBH is also called ‘post-classical Hebrew’, and is represented by the above-mentioned books as well as Daniel, Qohelet, and some Psalms. The book of Ezekiel seems to represent a transition period between SBH and LBH (see Rooker, Biblical Hebrew in transition: the language of the book of Ezekiel. JSOTSup 90).

However, in more recent scholarship there has been a trend toward pushing the composition of books later and later, to the extent that some scholars consider all the Bible to be a product of the Persian and/or Hellenistic Period. This has had the effect of flipping the purpose of linguistic typology. No longer is it descriptive of the contrasts between later and earlier works, but instead it has become a point of contention in establishing the chronology of the biblical texts. This has raised the question, “To what extent can linguistic typology be used as evidence for the date of a text?”

Here is where establishing precise methodology is important. Typology in itself is a-historical. That is, it merely describes sets of features that are similar or different without implying any cause for those similarities or differences. Only in the case where the thing being studied is undergoing consistent irreversible change do typology and chronology line up naturally. Of course, language is not such a thing. It is neither consistent nor irreversible, and to add another dimension, differences in language are not only dependent on time but also geography, social class, etc.  The problem is that multiple dialect groups can exist for any given language at any given time. For instance, it is quite common for more formal, higher register language to be typologically older than the less formal spoken language. There also tend to be cultural centers of language diffusion (trendsetters so to speak). The farther you wander from their influence, the ‘older’ the language.

In a sense, it seems that the deck is stacked against those arguing typologically for an earlier date of composition since it is always possible for typologically older language to be used by a more recent author. What these scholars need to establish are external, historical controls that tie certain linguistic features to one (and only one) period. On the other hand, there is also a limit on how archaic of language an author can (and will) use. Scholars arguing for a late date for the biblical texts must demonstrate to some extent how such archaic language was preserved (ie what type of dialect does it represent, are late authors using it without interference from their standard dialect? How?), and why it was used. Why would a contemporary author write in King James or Shakespearian English? Is it only to create an appearance of age and/or hyper-formality?

These (and more) are the questions taken up in the volume from both sides of the issue. I also anxiously await Young, et al’s forthcoming Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts which looks to delve more deeply into these methodological issues.

Explore posts in the same categories: Language Contact, Text Criticism, Uncategorized

2 Comments on “Typology and Chronology”

  1. Robert Rezetko Says:

    Hi Pete,

    Ian Young, Martin Ehrensvärd and I just finished a two week colloquium on http://groups.yahoo.com/group/biblical-studies/. The position summary in PDF and subsequent discussion will give you a good idea what we argue in our forthcoming Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (http://www.equinoxpub.com/books/showbook.asp?bkid=139). Our views have evolved significantly since Young’s edited volume, Biblical Hebrew…

    Robert Rezetko

  2. Peter Bekins Says:


    Thanks for the comment, unfortunately it got caught in my spam filter so I just noticed it now. As you can see, I have already linked to the colloquium in another post. Yes, I have gathered that your views have evolved since the volume on Biblical Hebrew, but it is still on my comp bibliography :). I hope to summarize the more important papers from that book and then discuss the evolution in your positions when I can get my hands on the new book. I am very interested to see some of the details worked out.


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