Kutscher, EY. The Language and Linguistic Background of the Isaiah Scroll (I Q Isaa), Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, 6. Leiden: Brill, 1974.

Among the original scrolls found at Qumran, the Isaiah scroll 1QIsaa may have been the most remarkable. This scroll, containing all 66 chapters of Isaiah (along with a fragmentary version 1QIsab) dates from the last few centuries before the Common Era, while the earliest known manuscripts of the Prophets were from 916 and 895 CE. Thus there was considerable enthusiasm that a text much earlier than the MT had been found. Kutscher, however, argues that a comprehensive linguistic analysis of the scroll shows that it is actually of a later text type than that reflected in the MT. Analyzing the linguistic anomalies in the scroll, Kutscher concludes that they reflect the Hebrew and Aramaic spoken in Palestine towards the end of the Second Commonwealth. From this he suggests that the Isaiah Scroll is actually a popularized text whose language has been emended for the semi-literate masses. Further, this language seems to reflect a situation of diglossia in the Hebrew of this time period, where a “standard” dialect used for liturgical reading coexisted with a “substandard” dialect reflecting more colloquial use.

The first clues that the text is of a later type than the MT come from the orthography. One indicator is the spelling of proper names. For example, Damascus is always spelled דרמשק in the scroll, in contrast to דמשק in the MT. External sources confirm that the MT spelling is the more ancient, while the scroll’s spelling can date no earlier than the last few centuries BCE. A second indicator of a late date is the increase of plene spelling with ו and to a lesser extent י.

In this period knowledge of Hebrew seems to have been decreasing as Aramaic became the colloquial language in Palestine. Knowledge of Classical Hebrew had already begun to wane at the beginning of the Second Temple period as reflected in the language of the later biblical books and the complaint by Nehemiah (13:24) that “their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language…” In its place a new dialect was developing which by the 2nd century CE had become Mishnaic Hebrew.

Aramaic seems to have been the lingua franca of the Ancient Near East from an early point, however based on 2 Kg 18:26 (= Is 36:11) in the 8th century Aramaic was not yet understood by the average Judaean. Over time, Aramaic influence grew and ultimately it became the official language of the Persian Empire. In Syria and Palestine, Aramaic seems to have also become the language of the common people, displacing Hebrew and the other local dialects. This dialect is not Imperial Aramaic, however, but Middle Western Aramaic, which branched into Galilean Aramaic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, and Samaritan Aramaic. Aramaic seems to have finally replaced Hebrew as the common tongue by the days of R. Judah the Prince (2nd century CE). Mishnaic Hebrew seems to continue as a spoken language during this period, but it had already become a “classical” language. The period of the Dead Sea Scrolls must reflect a time in which Hebrew and Aramaic were still competing for supremacy as the common tongue.

This situation seems to be reflected in the language of the scroll. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the scribe has updated the classical language to reflect the contemporary Hebrew dialect by replacing rare words and archaic forms. The plene spelling seems to be used to aid pronunciation, especially by differentiating Hebrew from Aramaic when confusion might arise. At the same time, heavy influence of Aramaic can still be detected. Thus the scroll seems to have been produced for an audience who still had some knowledge of Hebrew, but whose primary language was Aramaic.

The scribe seems to have often substituted more familiar roots for rare words. Kutscher acknowledges that in some cases the Scroll’s reading may be superior to the MT, but in general the comparative evidence suggests that the MT is most often the earlier. For instance, in Is 13:10 he emends הלל to אור ‘shine’. The root הלל is not known in either Aramaic or Mishnaic Hebrew with the meaning ‘to shine’. In Is 33:7 and 42:2 the root צעק is amended to זעק. This is somewhat surprising since both appear in the Bible with relatively the same frequency, but their distribution is not equal. While in the Pentateuch צעק is used almost exclusively, in Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Esther, it is זעק which is much more common. Thus זעק seems to have been much more common during the Second Temple Period.

The scribe also avoids archaic morphological forms. For instance in Is 22:2 the form הַחֹ֣מֹתַ֔יִם occurs with both a feminine and dual ending which the scribe emends to simply חומות. In Is 41:2 the nifal participle נִדָּ֖ף “driven away” is emended to נודף, the more common form in Mishnaic Hebrew for פ”נ verbs. The scribe often writes the hiphil infinitive without ה, as is common in Qumran Hebrew, such as לחיות for MT להחיות in Is 57:15. All the later dialects tend to substitute /o/ for /a/ in the imperfect forms of intransitive verbs, thus we have אפעולה for MT אֶפְעַ֖ל “I will work” (Is 43:13). This form also reflects the spread of the lengthened form of the imperfect from being strictly a cohortative to being used as a normal imperfect. This seems to have begun already in the later books such as Ezra, Daniel, and Nehemiah. Note, however, that this form did not continue into Mishnaic Hebrew.

The greatest difference between Mishnaic and Biblical Hebrew is the simplification of the verbal system. Mishnaic Hebrew no longer uses the infinitive absolute, and the infinitive construct is only used when preceded by ל. Accordingly, there is a marked tendency in the scroll to add ל to infinitives. Further, in Mishnaic Hebrew the preterite יקטל form as well as the wayyiqtol and weqatal forms have disappeared. Instead the יקטל form serves as modal and subjunctive, the קטל as the perfect, and the participle is used for the present and future. The language of Chronicles seems to already reflect this development. Note that literary Hebrew, however, preserved the waw-consecutive as late as the Maccabean Era.

Accordingly, in the scroll we often see the later verbal system. For instance, in Is 11:8 the MT וְשִֽׁעֲשַׁ֥ע יוֹנֵ֖ק is emended to וישעשע יונק, the weqatal being replaced by waw + imperfect. In Is 12:2 וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י is emended to היהא לי, the wayyiqtol being replaced by the perfect. Sometimes the so-called prophetic perfect is emended with an imperfect as in Is 11:9 where כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ is changed to כי תמלאה הארץ. Is 6:4 contains an imperfect to indicate continued concomitant action, but the first part of the verse establishes the time reference as past, וַיָּנֻ֙עוּ֙ אַמּ֣וֹת הַסִּפִּ֔ים מִקּ֖וֹל הַקּוֹרֵ֑א וְהַבַּ֖יִת יִמָּלֵ֥א עָשָֽׁן “Then the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of the one calling, while the house filled with smoke”. Here the scroll uses a nifal perfect והבית נמלא עשן.

While the language is updated, the scribe also seems to have attempted to avoid ambiguity between Hebrew and Aramaic features in order to aid the reader. For instance, we constantly find the spelling לוא rather than לא for the negative particle to emphasize the Hebrew // against Aramaic //. Similarly is the spelling יואמר to indicate Hebrew /yōmar/ against Aramaic /yēmar/, etc. We also find cases where the scribe seems to have avoided genuinely Hebrew roots because of their similarity to Aramaic roots. For example, in Hebrew both הן and הנה are presentative particles, but in Aramaic הן = אם ‘if’. Thus the scribe has consciously avoided the use of הן to limit confusion.

However, the influence of Aramaic on the language is impossible to avoid completely. Aramaic influence is particularly strong with nouns and pronouns. For example עלוהי for עליו “upon him”, and Aramaic גופן /guwpnā/ for Hebrew גפן /gεfεn/ “vine”. Influence is also seen in the verbs, for example מהסיר for Hebrew מסיר reflects Imperial Aramaic in which the ה of the hafel appeared in the participle.

Another example is the 2fs form קטלתי instead of קטלת. This form appears in the Bible as a Ketib and perhaps once in the Song of Deborah where it is usually taken as an archaism. Kutscher argues, however, that here the form is an Aramaism. In fact, it occurs primarily in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, two late books under Aramaic influence. This seems to be an interesting phenomenon that is somewhat regular, early forms that were common to Hebrew and Aramaic have fallen out of Hebrew, only to be reintroduced at a later stage from Aramaic, where they have been conserved. This seems to hold true for the 2fs pronominal suffix כי- as well.

Lastly, there are several features which suggest a situation of diglossia in the Hebrew of the time period. A higher “standard” dialect seems to have been maintained for the liturgical reading concurrent with a colloquial “substandard” dialect. For instance, the scroll has several cases of the imperfect pausal form when the position in the clause does not warrant it, such as אכרותה for וְאֶכְרֹת in Is 37:24, etc. Such “pausal” forms are also found in good Rabbinical manuscripts as well as the transliterations of Origen and Hieronymus, and Palestinian Christian Aramaic where it must be a result of Hebrew influence. This suggests that forms such as תקתולו were actually accented penultimately in the colloquial Hebrew of the Second Temple period. Thus, while the synagogue readings retained the ultimate accent, it was gradually replaced by penultimate in the colloquial speech.

Along these same lines are the form of the 2ms perfect and 2ms pronominal suffix. The transcriptions in Origen’s Secunda reflect the Hebrew forms קָטַלְתְּ and דִּבָרָךְ in contrast to the MT forms קָטַלְתָּ and דִּבָרֶךָ. Kahle argued that the former are the original Palestinian forms, the latter the creation of the Tiberian Masoretes under Arabic influence. However, Bergsträsser pointed out that we must differentiate between Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew in this regard, as the suffix /-āk/ is only found in Mishnaic texts. Kutscher suggests that the two types of Hebrew existed side by side. The standard form was /-kā/ which was carefully preserved in the liturgy, while the colloquial form was /-āk/ (apparently influenced by Aramaic). Like Qumran Hebrew in general, the scroll shows many cases of the כה- personal suffix and תה- verbal ending, demonstrating its age. It would not be surprising, however, that the Jews who read for Origen’s transcription did not use (and perhaps did not even know) the standard pronunciation.

A final example comes from the segholates, particularly the *qutl forms which become qitol in Tiberian Hebrew. The LXX transliterations reflect either qotel or qotol, which also seems to be the pronunciation in the scribe’s dialect. In contrast, the Secunda (3rd century CE) reflects the form qotl exclusively without an epenthetic vowel, while Hieronymus (4th -5th century CE) reflects only a form qotel. The chain qutl > qotol > qotl > qotel hardly seems possible. In fact, the Secunda form qotl is barely different than the original *qutl. Thus Kutscher suggests that again we are dealing with different dialects. The form in the Secunda is more ancient than that in the LXX, even though it is chronologically later. It is hard to tell which was the standard form, but most likely it was the LXX – Hieronymus – TH form qotel > qitol.

The linguistic structure of the scroll clearly points to the end of the Second Temple Period. The most telling characteristic is the use of ה in the hifil participle. Since this is a feature of Imperial Aramaic that has fallen out of use in all the later dialects the scroll seems to date no later than the 1st Century BCE. Since the main purpose of the plene spelling seems to be differentiating the Hebrew pronunciation and forms for an audience who primarily spoke Aramaic, and since this seems to be the overall character of the scroll, Kutscher suggests that this is a “popular” version of Isaiah meant for the semi-literate masses. As such, it must date from a time when Hebrew was still more or less understood by said masses, which best fits the period before the destruction of the Second Temple. Interestingly, the Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint also seem to be “popular” texts.

How then can the MT, a much later text, be superior to the LXX, Sam P, and Isaiah Scroll? Kutscher argues that the same distinction is found between the Greek papyrii found in Egypt and the Medieval manuscripts. The difference is between popular texts used for home study and the standard text carefully preserved in the Temple and centers of learning. The MT is a descendent of the standard text in contrast to these popularized versions.

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

6 Comments on “Kutscher, EY. The Language and Linguistic Background of the Isaiah Scroll (I Q Isaa), Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, 6. Leiden: Brill, 1974.”

  1. Mike Aubrey Says:

    Kutscher argues that the same distinction is found between the Greek papyrii found in Egypt and the Medieval manuscripts.

    Granted his focus in on the Hebrew text, but in drawing this particular parallel, does Kutscher also believe the later Byz Greek manuscripts are superior to the so-called Alexandrian text?

  2. Peter Bekins Says:

    I left an important word out, it should be Greek literary papyri, he is not referring to biblical manuscripts and he does not discuss the relation of Byzantine to Alexandrian texts.


  3. Mike Aubrey Says:

    Ah… That makes a lot more sense! Thanks.

  4. I assume that when you say the 2ms form in -ti, you really mean the *feminine*, as the masculine ends consistently in -ta, often reflected in the orthography as well. The -ti in the feminine also shows up in the vocalization in Song of Songs 4:9 (presumably the vowel survived because it isn’t at the end of the word).

    It might be worth noting that the Samaritan pronunciation of these suffixes is also -ta for masculine and -ti for feminine, and also inconsistently shown in the orthography, though the vocalizations are carefully preserved. The ך suffix, however, is -ak (or -ek, e.g. in words like אליך) for both genders; I believe the Samaritan Pentateuch always has ך on those occasions where the Masoretic has כה.

    You may be interested in looking at my arrangement of a Samaritan Pentateuch opposite the Masoretic Pentateuch with the differences highlighted; it can be useful in noticing some of these differences; links are on my website.

  5. Peter Bekins Says:

    Whoops, good catch. Yes it should be 2fs of course. Kutscher notes that this form also occurs in the Samaritan Pentateuch and he attributes this to Aramaic influence there as well.

  6. Ralph Victa Says:

    Is 1QIsaiah^b (The Hebrew University Isaiah Scroll) superior to 1QIsaiah^a (The Great Isaiah Scroll)?

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