Tuesday, 19 March 2019

How Old is the Hebrew Bible?

I've been reading through Hendel and Joosten's How Old is the Hebrew Bible?, and thought I'd post some thoughts on the book. Now, a caveat as I do so: this book is largely concerned with arguing that historical linguistics offers an important set of data when it comes to dating the Hebrew bible, and it should be noted that I am very far from being a historical linguist. But I do know a thing or two about how one goes about thinking about the date of biblical texts, and it's on that basis that I write here.

Hendel and Joosten's basic hypothesis is that if a text is predominantly written in Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH), then it likely was composed when Classical Biblical Hebrew was predominant; if a text is predominantly written in Transitional Biblical Hebrew, then it likely was composed when Transitional Biblical Hebrew (TBH) was predominant; and if a text is predominantly written in Late Biblical Hebrew, then it likely was composed when Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) was predominant. It is difficult to argue with the basic supposition underlying this hypothesis, namely that all things being equal (a term that they themselves use, quite rightly), there is good reason to think that a text likely dates from the period in which its language seems most fully to have flourished. In terms that I use, this is a form of contextualization, and one that is almost unusable in New Testament studies due to the much shorter span in which that corpus was written. In Hebrew Bible however, it can potentially be used to good effect.

By comparing the biblical literature with extant extra-biblical inscriptions, Hendel and Joosten suggest that CBH flourished in the eighth through sixth centuries BCE, TBH in the sixth, and LBH from the fifth onward (note the overlap between CBH and TBH; this is probably inevitable, given that TBH is transitional). They also rightly note that as we do not know how long before the earliest extant inscriptions CBH emerged, we cannot exclude the possibility that texts written in this "chronolect" predate the eighth century. Hendel and Joosten argue that Genesis through 2 Kings is written predominantly in CBH, Ezekiel, Lamentations, Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Job, Jonah, Haggai, and Zechariah 1-8 in TBH, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Daniel in LBH. This leads to the other plank of their argument, regarding what they call "consilience." Consilience in their usage is virtually synonymous with what I call "convergence," a term that I prefer only because its meaning is more intuitively obvious to most readers; that terminological difference however does not even rise to the level of a quibble. By these terms we all mean simply that the preferred date for a given text is that upon which the greatest amount of data converges. So, without going into the details of Hendel and Joosten's argument here, one might note that those texts which they conclude are written in CBH are concerned largely with life in pre-monarchic and monarchic Israel (i.e. the late sixth century and earlier); those which they conclude are written in TBH are concerned largely with life in the last days of the Judean monarchy through the exile (i.e. the sixth century); and those which they conclude are written in LBH are concerned largely with life in the Persian and Greek periods (i.e. the fifth through second centuries). In other words, there is significant convergence between the temporal "home" of the language utilized by these texts and the periods in which they are interested.

If the arguments from historical linguistics are granted, then this is a strong cumulative case for a broad periodization of the Hebrew Bible, although certainly other forms of work would be necessary to find more precise dates for any given biblical text (Hendel and Joosten are of course quite aware that what they do in this book is just one part of a larger strategy towards establishing such dates; they simply want to make clear that it is an indispensable part). Having said this, I do want to register one caveat and one criticism. The caveat returns to the beginning of this post, and reminds the reader that I am not a historical linguist and thus my capacity to evaluate their empirical argumentation is limited; my conditional statement about the affirmation of their arguments from historical linguistics is thus rooted in the limitations of my own expertise, rather than any difficulties that I detect in their work. The one criticism that I would register has to do with user-friendliness. Even a simple chart summarizing their findings would make this book far more readable. Instead, one has to flip from chapter to chapter to find summary statements embedded in (typically, but not invariably) introductions and conclusions. That criticism however is secondary to the strength of the book, which is that even if one or more of their particular empirical arguments should fall it remains a model of how to go about thinking about the dates of biblical literature.

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