How Old is the Hebrew Bible?

A Linguistic, Textual, and Historical Study

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Ronald Hendel, Jan Joosten
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Can a diachronic analysis of Biblical Hebrew’s evolution help us date the various writings comprising the biblical corpus? In How Old Is the Hebrew Bible? A Linguistic, Textual, and Historical Study, Ronald Hendel and Jan Joosten answer this question in the affirmative. The authors recognize that applying Hebrew linguistic analysis to the dating of biblical writings is not new. However, they seek to provide a comprehensive overview of new research into Hebrew linguistic development as well as argue that Hebrew linguistic study should be focused squarely within the field of biblical studies. 

Hendel and Joosten begin with a summary of the types—including phonological, lexical, and morphosyntactic—and causes of linguistic change, as well as the influences of contact with other languages. They then consider forms of synchronic variation that should not be attributed to Hebrew’s diachronic development. This latter point is especially important when it comes to text-critical work, for scribes may have engaged in the linguistic modernization or archaizing of the texts they copied, a point demonstrated by a linguistic analysis of the Great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran (1QIsa) which modernizes the earlier form of Hebrew found in the Masoretic Text.

Having established the reality of diachronic change in Biblical Hebrew and its characteristic features, how can we use this knowledge to date biblical texts? Can we anchor a specific form of Hebrew in a specific historical period? To answer this, Hendel and Joosten consider the linguistic features of inscriptional Hebrew as it occurs in inscriptions widely accepted as pre-exilic in origin. This leads to the conclusion that the Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH) found in the corpus from Genesis to 2 Kings dates these texts to the late monarchic (Neo-Assyrian) period. Moreover, the existence of Aramaic and Persian loanwords in the books Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, Daniel, and Ecclesiastes marks these texts as representing Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH). In between, Hendel and Joosten pose the existence of a Transitional Biblical Hebrew (TBH) characteristic of texts such as Ezekiel, Lamentations, Jeremiah, Second Isaiah, Job, Jonah, Haggai, and Zechariah 1-8. They date TBH to the Neo-Babylonian period. It is unclear why this period of Hebrew is labeled “transitional” while CBH and LBH are not. If languages develop continuously, are not all stages in the evolution of Hebrew essentially transitional?

Having laid out their argument in detail, complete with many examples from the biblical writings to illustrate their points, Hendel and Joosten finish with two important appendixes. Appendix 1 provides a bibliographic survey of sources dealing with historical linguistics and the writings of the Hebrew Bible. Appendix 2 provides a response to work by Ian Young and Robert Rezetko, who argue that linguistic variability in Biblical Hebrew results not from its diachronic development but from co-existing styles of literary Hebrew. Given the evidence laid out by Hendel and Joosten, it is hard to explain linguistic variation as a purely synchronic phenomenon. Hendel and Joosten provide a convincing case for the reality of diachronic development. After all, overwhelming evidence supports the view that all languages change over time. So why would Biblical Hebrew be any different? Despite a basic agreement with Hendel and Joosten’s argument, this reviewer still has a few questions. 

Hendel and Joosten date the Pentateuch to the monarchic period based on its CBH style of language. What, then, should be made of the apparent influence of Babylonian traditions on the Pentateuch, such as the Enuma Elish, Epic of Gilgamesh, Code of Hammurabi, and the Legend of Sargon? There is clearly pre-exilic writing in the Pentateuch in the form of old epic poetry such as the Song of Moses in Exodus 15. But standard biblical scholarship continues to treat the Pentateuch as a multi-source composition including a clearly exilic or post-exilic priestly source (which Hendel and Joosten do make reference to). Therefore, it would have been helpful for Hendel and Joosten to engage source-critical theories about the Pentateuch more directly in light of their linguistic analysis.

There is also a question about the title of the book. While the book is ostensibly about using an understanding of Hebrew’s diachronic development to date biblical writings, it was not always clear that this was the force of Hendel and Joosten’s argument. In their concluding chapter they write, “We have shown in the textual samples in this chapter that a variety of historical evidence—from the early Iron Age to the Greek era—is consilient with the linguistic model that we have advanced … They confirm that the typologically distinctive phases of CBH, TBH, and LBH are chronolects, not contemporary dialects or registers” (121). So is the book about the dating of biblical writings, as the title suggests, or an argument in favor of a diachronic understanding of linguistic variation (the inclusion of Appendix 2 suggests the latter). This confusion of purpose could lead to a certain circularity of argument, where the dating of a book might be based on the existence within it of CBH linguistic features, while at the same time the earlier dating of these linguistic features is based on their appearance in a book written in CBH style.

To be fair, Hendel and Joosten do attempt to anchor the date of linguistic features by external evidence, such as the use of inscriptional Hebrew to demonstrate the earlier date of CBH or the existence of Persian loanwords to demonstrate the later dating of LBH. But the structure of their argument still appears to switch between these two modes, which betrays a certain ambiguity about the true purpose of the book. 

That said, Hendel and Joosten have produced a very useful summary of the phenomenon of linguistic variation in Biblical Hebrew, complete with many detailed examples. This book should be on the shelf of any scholar or student of the Hebrew Bible or Biblical Hebrew.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert F. Shedinger is Professor of Religion at Luther College.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and general editor of The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition.

Jan Joosten is Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford and editor-in-chief of Vetus Testamentum.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.