Rezetko and Young are hardworking and prodigious scholars who previously collaborated on a number of historical Hebrew language projects, notably their 2008 volume (with Martin Ehrensvärd, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts: An Introduction to Approaches and Problems [London: Equinox]). In that volume, they argued that the two styles of biblical Hebrew usually referred to as Early Biblical Hebrew (EBH) and Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) are misleading, as is also the case with similar categorizations such as SBH (Standard Biblical Hebrew). They concluded that these supposedly datable styles of Hebrew were not chronologically separate stages at all, but rather co-existing styles of the language employed by biblical authors as well as scribes throughout the entire biblical period. EBH should thus be understood to denote a kind of inclination toward conservatism in linguistic choices, favoring a relatively small core of traditional literary forms which were used throughout the biblical period, not merely in early times (e.g., during the Israelite monarchy). By contrast, so-called LBH represents a more flexible style in which biblical-era authors and scribes felt free to adopt a greater variety of linguistic forms throughout Israel’s history and not merely the exilic or post-exilic period. Masoretic Hebrew, the kind we read in virtually all the usual Hebrew Bibles, is the final result of a process of later editing that applied elements of either EBH or LBH style—or both—in various ways to given portions of the OT. The authors therefore held that EBH and LBH characteristics cannot be used to date biblical texts.
These conclusions in their first volume left not a few scholars (e.g., Ronald Hendel, Jan Joosten) wondering if Young and Rezetko had figured out anything useful about the history of biblical Hebrew, because their conclusions were essentially negative. That is, Young and Rezetko opined that the usual methods and assumptions related to dating OT Hebrew texts would not produce correct results because of the nature of the mixing and combining of styles throughout the OT. It was this pessimism about the usual methods for dating Hebrew that led Young and Rezetko to search elsewhere for a new, more scientific methodological paradigm. That need provided a springboard for the book here reviewed, whose relatively neutral title, Historical Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew, hardly connotes the degree to which they have embarked on a very different direction for addressing the problems of dating biblical Hebrew.
In the main, the authors do six things in this book:
- They accept relatively recent, variation-based studies of the history of selected English, French, and Spanish texts as valid, and seek to apply the same sort of approach to biblical texts.
- They argue against traditional textual criticism on the grounds that text critics are wrongly wedded to the idea that the Masoretic Text represents only a modest deviation from the original text of the various OT books. The authors instead contend that the medieval MT manuscripts are almost certainly vastly different from the originals.
- They introduce and argue for the validity and usefulness of two techniques for approaching the diachronic history of biblical Hebrew. The first of these is “cross-textual variable analysis,” which, in their words, “compares different language versions of the same writing” (p. 7). The idea is to take, say, a book of the Bible and find all the variations (language differences of virtually any sort, from slight differences in morphology to small differences in wording, to major differences in the wording or style) in all the extant manuscripts and editions of that book to determine the history of its linguistic development over time.
- They introduce and argue for the validity and usefulness of a second technique called “variationist analysis” for approaching the diachrony of biblical Hebrew. This is different from cross-textual variable analysis, but closely related. Its objective is “to describe and explain patterns of variation in language as they relate to times and places and individuals and groups” (p. 212). Of necessity it is a “hybrid discipline, which in a chronological framework is connected to historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, variationist sociolinguistics, corpus linguistics, historical sociolinguistics, and quantitative methods” (p. 212).
- They offer a variety of listings, tabulations, calculations, charts, and detailed examples of the initial results that their methods produce when applied to sample OT Hebrew texts.
- They offer suggestions for further research along the same lines, including the need for more digital databases of the variants found within the OT. These databases would make the sort of research they describe in the book more comprehensive and productive.
This is a book neither for generalists, nor for beginning or intermediate Hebrew students. It might work, however, as part of the reading for an advanced Hebrew language seminar or the like. The book is essentially a technical, fairly complex, 699-page progress report of research. The authors are trying to put diachronic Hebrew linguistics on a careful scientific footing, which is a worthy enterprise. But as all of us in biblical studies know all too well, there have been and continue to be a great many ideas about what constitute “scientific” biblical studies. No matter how objective and ideologically neutral such approaches may claim to be, they are always based on a range of assumptions and biases that can pile up in such a way as to challenge anyone’s findings.
Permit me an illustrative anecdote. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1960s, the discipline known as symbolic logic was hot stuff. It was “the future” for philosophy, many claimed, because it would enable rigorous, “scientific” rules for human language and reasoning. In symbolic logic, both language and logic were reduced to strict formulas and semi-mathematical descriptions, with the expectation that the way people reasoned could be corrected and advanced by measurable, testable, mathematically checkable language analysis. Eager to be on the cutting edge, I took a course on symbolic logic from W. V. Quine, a guru of the method in those days. Unfortunately, students found out by the end of the course that we really couldn’t think any more clearly or reason any more persuasively than when the course began. Today, symbolic logic is no longer held out to be a guarantor of clear thinking. I could have predicted that in 1963, but nobody would have listened then.
Similarly, I’m not entirely optimistic that Rezetko and Young will end up being persuasive. There are several reasons for this doubt. First, their methods treat the Bible as a strictly human book like any other. Its contents are assumed to have evolved over multiple and complex stages of composition, redaction, and re-redaction, both major and minor, until they reached the stage called the Masoretic Text as exemplified in the Leningrad Codex—the basis for all modern editions of the Hebrew Bible. To cite an example of their skepticism, the authors argue that “neither the Masoretic Text nor any other biblical text is likely to preserve the authentic details of the language of any biblical author” (p. 406). That’s a pretty radical conclusion, as much pre-suppositional as it is empirical.
Second, they assume that the process of linguistic change within biblical books was so constant and substantial over the centuries that anyone who claims that ancient compilers and scribes preserved biblical texts well enough to keep them essentially the same over generations and centuries is naïve. Yet, the electronic-penetration reading of the Ein-Gedi Leviticus Synagogue scroll, just announced in September 2016, is relevant here. No less a text specialist than Emanuel Tov notes that the wording of that scroll, dated to the third century AD or earlier, is “100 percent identical” to the medieval MT version. That’s proof of nearly a millennium of accurate copying, recopying, and lack of change, whether purposeful or accidental. As Tov goes on to note, “This is quite amazing for us. In 2,000 years, this text has not changed” (as cited in Daniel Estrin, “Scanning software deciphers ancient biblical scroll,” AP News Report, 21 September 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/60785bb2031a478cb71ce9278782c320/scanning-software-deciphers-ancient-biblical-scroll). Rezetko and Young take the opposite approach that precise transmission of biblical texts over such a long time didn’t occur before the invention of the printing press. In fact, it did.
Third, they place great faith in the analogy between the history of transmission of certain English, French, and Spanish texts and the methods used to analyze them, and the history of the transmission of the Hebrew Bible and the methods that should be used to analyze its texts. They assume that biblical authors, compilers and scribes were just as willing to reword, reshape, rephrase, and modernize texts to suit themselves and their contemporaries, and just as unconcerned to preserve the original wordings, as were the tradents of other types of literature, including relatively modern European literature. Additionally, they hold that “the surviving texts of the Hebrew Bible do not provide evidence even for the original shape of the biblical compositions, and much less for the linguistic features used by any original authors” (p. 407). Rezetko and Young hope that they have offered up good evidence, though initial and partial, for such conclusions.
My own sense is that, in spite of many interesting and potentially useful statistics of diverse types of variations in the Hebrew Bible, it is more likely that the authors may have too often allowed their presuppositions to lead them to their conclusions, albeit in a very complicated, not easily noticeable way. The majority view of how biblical Hebrew came to be remains for the time being, despite this latest challenge by Rezetko and Young.