Dating the Bible

15 11 2006

Having now completed my thesis, I figure that the best way to get back into writing for pleasure is to start by writing about my thesis. Go figure. In any case, a word or two might be in order by way of justifying the relevance of what appears to be a rather convoluted and obscure topic: the prevalence of locative-heh suffix forms within the book of Chronicles.

It all comes down to dating. For decades, a particular consensus has existed amongst scholars: Biblical Hebrew, as all languages, had a history. Nobody, so far as I am aware, disputes this salient fact today; what they argue about is its application. Should we argue that the Bible was written over the course of a great deal of time (we do; it was) then surely the Hebrew in earlier books of the Bible should be different to the Hebrew in later books of the Bible. All we need to do is take books that we know are early, compare them to books that we know are late, and we can arrive at all sorts of conclusions that may enable us to diachronically chart the evolution of the Hebrew language. A massive practical upshot of this is that we can then gain some idea as to when those grey-area books were also composed.

This idea, while appealing on many levels, has certain flaws. We also know that the Bible was edited (how much, of course, is disputed). Cannot a later editor have updated any of the language? Even should we argue that the text was untouched (and the comparative evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, amongst other places, would belie the possibility of this), we still know precious little about alternative regional dialects. Can we be certain that differing syntactic forms owe their dissimilarity to purely chronological concerns? Could there not have been a dialect that simply looked similar to that which existed elsewhere at a different time? And who’s to say that a later author might not deliberately employ archaic language?

In any case, it is into this general trend of questioning that my Honours thesis takes its humble stand. One of the many syntactic items that has been used to date texts is the locative-heh. I mentioned in a recent post that this constituted the addition of a long /a/ vowel and a heh to the ends of certain nouns and adverbs, denoting the meaning of motion towards (sometimes motion away from, or even the location of an event). Claiming that the feature dropped away over time, scholars have often pointed to the fact that it is vastly reduced within the book of Chronicles. Everybody knows that Chronicles is late (it is), so this should certainly come as no surprise.

The surprise comes in the fact that very few scholars have actually bothered to check this claim. A cursory statistical analysis indicates that they are correct, and many have simply been content to leave it at that. Knowing full well that these claims often turn out to be false (thanks to the perspicacity of my excellent supervisor, Dr Ian Young), I conducted a rather thorough statistical analysis of several of the instances in which the suffix both turns up and fails to turn up within the relevant text. Analysing the specific nouns with which it did not occur (the so-called “zero instances”), I found that time and again these were nouns with which the suffix either never occurs within the Bible, or only occurs very rarely. Once we take into account the change of terminology exhibited in the book (terminology that may be due more to a desire to be different from its source-texts in Samuel and Kings, rather than due to its lateness), the frequency of locative-heh suffix forms evens out quite considerably. In fact, there are many instances where the author of Chronicles favours the preposition over its corresponding suffix moreso than the authors of definitively older texts like Joshua and Judges.

In recent years, such has been the content of a great deal of critical scholarship and, as a result, the entrenched position regarding the possibility of charting the Hebrew language over time (and using that to date texts) has been shaken to the core. Scholarship in this area is a little like the long-necked dinosaur that might receive a mortal blow yet take a while to have that information relayed to its brain. Once the many problems settle in, the school of thought that proposes linguistic dating will ultimately keel over and die; they’ve already been hit, but such things take a little while.




6 responses

15 11 2006
Tyler Williams

Sounds like an interesting study. Did you differentiate between synoptic and non-synoptic portions of Chronicles? If you did, did you find much of a difference?

15 11 2006

I did note those sections that were synoptic, but I generally found that there were still enough differences between them to indicate that the author of Chronicles could have eschewed the suffix had he wished. I kept both synoptic and non-synoptic verses within the same tables although, had I the time, then that may have been a further differentiation that I would have placed on my results. The only real differentiation that I did place upon them, in the limited time with which I was working, was between those clauses that simply lacked the suffix and those that lacked both the suffix and the corresponding preposition. Such verses were often taken to be symbolic of the breakdown of this syntactic item, but they turn out to be equally (if not moreso) common in Early Biblical Hebrew texts as well.

10 01 2007
Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Biblical Studies Carnival - Best of 2006

[…] a few), Chris Heard’s post on When did Yahweh and El merge?, Simon Holloway on the linguistic dating of the Bible, Mark Goodacre on the question of whether or not the Galatians were already circumcised (Part 1, […]

10 03 2008
A Recovered Post: Biblical Studies Carnival XII « Dr Jim West

[…] to me) authored by one Simon (though I couldn’t find his name on his blog anywhere) titled “Dating The Bible” is certainly worth taking a look at.  He thinks that the entrenched position regarding the […]

23 02 2009
Yoel Lerner

I found this fascinating for two very good reasons: I had arrived at the conclusion that linguistic features can be used to date books of the Bible independently of any other scholars, with one important aspect that I need not go into here. Anyway, I conducted a study (back in the eighties of the past century) of the use of the hebrew preposition “eth” (the marker of the definite direct object), and found distinctly positive results. My findings were published in the Hebrew-language quarterly of the Israeli “Hebrew Language Academy”, “Leshonenu”. The other reason is that I am looking into the question of the locative (not in Chronicles) at the present time, and preparing to bring out a volume of my findings (on a number of points, some of which will have a bearing on the question of dating Bible texts on the basis of linguistic phenomena) hopefully within the next 12 months.

1 01 2010

I feel like to express my appreciation of your writing talent and ability to make reader to read the while thing to the end. I feel like to read more of your blog posts and to distribute my outlook with you. I will be your frequent visitor, that is for sure.

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