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Features of Archaic Biblical Hebrew and the Linguistic Dating Debate

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 54, 2013
pp. 387-410 | 10.1353/hbr.2013.0021

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Features of Archaic Biblical Hebrew and the Linguistic Dating Debate This book primarily challenges the linguistic distinction between Classical or Standard Biblical Hebrew and Late Biblical Hebrew, which a number of prominent scholars, such as Robert Polzin, Avi Hurvitz, and Jan Joosten have advocated. The crux of their argument is that linguistic differences between texts can be attributed to non-historical factors, such as differences of style and dialect.

Recently, Robyn Vern has published another book based on a dissertation supervised by Ian Young denying the possibility of linguistic dating, this time concentrating specifically on the alleged linguistic distinction between archaic poetry and standard poetry. She offers arguments against the methodology used for linguistic dating and eventually concludes that style is a more likely explanation for the difference between “archaic” and “standard poetry.” While she deals with a different genre and time frame than Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd do, she suggests that her conclusions, namely that dating is untenable, are representative of the methodology as a whole. In the following we will review and evaluate Vern’s arguments. We will then suggest a number of features which we believe are characteristic of archaic poetry. The methodology underlying linguistic dating will not be discussed here at length since it has already been elaborated in many places, such as Hurvitz’s 2006 article, a work not quoted in the book under review.

The first part of Vern’s book is an elaborate refutation of Robertson’s 1972 book and the second is a lengthy review of three linguistic features: the case system, the 3mp verbal prefix in t-, and the 3fs verbal suffix in -at. The book concludes with an analysis of these three features and with a more general methodological conclusion. In the first part of her book, Vern sets out to prove that Robertson’s 1972 study, based on his 1966 Yale dissertation, is at best inconclusive. It is worth asking at the outset why a forty year old book would need such extensive examination when more up-to-date studies stand unchallenged and unquoted? Vern claims that Robertson is regarded “as the most outstanding work in this area” and that he is cited uncritically by many (p. 1). This is not the case, however. Watson, for example, discusses dating poetry and offers numerous works which he considers authoritative; he only mentions Robertson in passing. Many others do not mention Robertson at all, and some are critical of his methodology while still offering evidence supporting his conclusions. To be perfectly clear, we do not consider Robertson’s work to be inherently flawed or subpar; indeed, it is an impressively erudite endeavor. It is, however, outdated. Attacking Robertson, a book which was at the forefront of scholarship when it came out but is rarely used or mentioned today in the literature outside of Young, is essentially tilting at windmills. Thus, even if Vern does have some good points in her discussion of his work, they are over forty years too late. Nonetheless, we find her discussion methodologically and logically flawed and therefore in need of comment.

Our criticism concentrates on two aspects: methodological criticism and critical evaluation of the evidence.

2. Methodology

2.1. Lack of Scholarly Consensus

In a number of places, Vern argues that since there is no scholarly consensus on a certain issue, no conclusion can be reached. She also concludes that biblical texts cannot be dated linguistically (pp. 14, 15, 16, etc.), since there is no consensus on the results of linguistic dating. For example, the dating of Psalm 78 has been hotly debated and widely divergent dates have been proposed for this text (p. 61). This, according to Vern, goes against “Robertson’s hypothesis,” although she has not shown that any of the scholars she cites use linguistic dating or are even aware of Robertson’s hypothesis. Her discussion of the dating of Exodus 15 (pp. 33–34) is also telling. Vern notes that different scholars have suggested different dates for the Crossing of the Sea (the event, not the text). The variety of opinions leads her to conclude that Robertson...

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