Young, Ian, “Late Biblical Hebrew and Hebrew Inscriptions” Pages 276-311 in Biblical Hebrew: Studies in Chronology and Typology. Edited by Ian Young. London: T&T Clark, 2003.

The extra-biblical evidence for the typology and chronology of biblical Hebrew comes largely from two sources – the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hebrew inscriptions. Hurvitz and others have argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls show numerous features in common with Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH), while the inscriptions share much in common with Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH), supporting the chronological distinction between the two and establishing the pre-exilic date of composition for Genesis-2 Kings. Young, however, argues that the fact that SBH has a closer relationship to the Hebrew inscriptions than LBH does not prove that it could not have continued to be written into the post-exilic period. Further, he argues that the links between SBH and the Hebrew inscriptions are not as strong as sometimes suggested.

First, the corpus of inscriptions is limited in several ways. The amount of linguistic material represented is less than one percent of the size of the Hebrew Bible, and the focus of the inscriptions  are altogether different than the biblical material. Thus for the great majority of features contrasted between SBH and LBH, the inscriptions provide no evidence at all. Further, the majority of inscriptions of significant length come from the last half century of the kingdom of Judah (c. 652-586). This would place them during the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Jeremiah is generally considered SBH, but there are early signs of LBH. Ezekiel is generally considered to reflect the transition period between SBH and LBH. Thus we should expect these inscriptions to exhibit a mix of SBH and LBH features. Lastly, Young wonders to what degree the inscriptions, which presumably reflect the administrative language, are relevant to the discussion of biblical Hebrew, a literary language?     

The relevance of the inscriptions is further complicated by the fact that rarely does a feature X occur exclusively in SBH, only to be replaced entirely by another feature Y in LBH. Rooker’s work on Ezekiel identified 37 items that were characteristic of LBH, and only two are complete replacements of the SBH feature. In 10 cases the feature X in SBH is carried into LBH, but augmented by a synonymous feature Y. In the remaining 25 cases, both features X and Y are attested in SBH texts, but in LBH Y becomes proportionately more significant. Thus with such a small corpus, the appearance of X in the inscriptions may not necessarily be an indicator of a link to SBH, nor Y to LBH.

In the bulk of the paper, Young treats 23 features that seem to link the inscriptions to SBH as well as 27 features that may be characteristic of LBH. In the former case, he concludes that the links between the inscriptions and SBH are weak at best. The three strongest are the use of the infinitive absolute as imperative (Arad 1.2; 2.1; 7.2; 11.2), the locative use of זה in מזה (“from this place” = “from there”, Lachish 3.18), and the use of בעוד for “while still” (Siloam Tunnel 2).   However, these are not strong enough to suggest a “self-evident identity between the two corpora  (ie inscriptional Hebrew and SBH).  

As for the links with LBH, Young divides these into two categories – those which have oppositions in SBH and those which do not. Scholars have always admitted that individual LBH features may be found in SBH works, it is the accumulation of such features that marks the language as LBH. No such concentration of LBH features appears in any given inscription. 

Young also devotes a considerable amount of time to features in the inscriptional corpus which are rare or absent from biblical Hebrew. Here there is a significant amount of material which calls into question the simple equation of SBH with the inscriptions. Instead, Young suggests that the inscriptions should be seen as an independent corpus of Hebrew that sometimes shares features with SBH, sometimes with LBH, and sometimes with other types of Hebrew such as Ancient Biblical Hebrew (ABH) and Mishnaic Hebrew (MH).

In conclusion, while it is plausible that the language during the monarchic period was something similar to SBH, it does not prove that SBH could not also have been written in the post-exilic period. Indeed, the orthography of the extant biblical manuscripts implies that no manuscript exists unchanged from before the Persian period. This does not imply that they were composed during the Persian period, but it does raise the question of whether scribal intervention was limited to orthography, or if all features were subject to revision during the Second Temple period. Young notes that features such as whether מן is attached to or separate from a following noun with the definite article is just the sort of thing to be changed during scribal transmission.

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

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