Ye Olde Theology Blog: Dating Language and the Road to Source Criticism.
Whenever I want to sound fancy and old, I put on my monocle and start using “ye” in all of my sentences. Because Ye is the old timey way of saying “the” right? Well, not exactly. The y in Ye is actually a substitute for the Old English letter thorn þ, which makes the “th” sound. So “the” has always been “the”, but through the use of typeset where the letter y looked closest to the thorn character, we have the invention of a new old sounding word.
Now, while this little bit of trivia could help should you ever find yourself on Jeopardy, I’m introducing it to talk about something else. The complexity of dating. Dating language that is. I’ll leave any Valentine’s Day dating advice to one of the other expert bloggers.
Instead, I want to start the discussion about source criticism, and this blog is designed to help lay the groundwork. In the simplest terms possible, source criticism is the theory that multiple independent sources were consulted and combined to create the Pentateuch (Gen – Deut) that we have preserved in the Bible.
Now source criticism is a complicated subject that I am barely capable of discussing intelligently, much less being labeled competent to do so. But difficulty notwithstanding, source criticism is also a very important part of Old Testament studies. In fact, Peter Enns listed claiming source criticism is in a state of chaos among the three things he wishes evangelical leaders would quit saying. But before I get to discussing the ins and outs of source criticism, I wanted to start with a more basic question which leads into it: does the preserved Hebrew text actually look old enough for Moses to have written it? I think the answer is probably not.
Hear ye, Hear Ye there be archaic Hebrew here.
So the Hebrew we have recorded in the Bible is not the Hebrew which Abraham spoke. It is not the Hebrew Moses spoke, and it is likely not even the language of David and Solomon. Most of the Hebrew we have recorded in the Bible probably comes from around the time of the divided monarchy, though some is definitely later than that. How can someone make that claim? Two of the indicators that men and women far smarter than me make observations on are grammar and vocabulary.
Hebrew grammar has changed significantly over time. We can look at the other Northwest Semitic languages of the ANE and the sparse epigraphic Hebrew evidence we have to know this. So when a given passage (i.e. The Song of Miriam and other early poetry) has grammatical features which are more aligned to an older form of the language, and which do not match the grammar of the surrounding narrative, one can make an educated guess that the archaic language of the poem hints at its preservation and incorporation into the later text.
Another important indicator of the age of language is vocabulary. Warner Bros released a movie in 1941 called The Gay Parisian. It had nothing to with a homosexual French man running the streets though. At that point, gay simply meant happy. But today, that would be a very different movie. Word use changes over time and that can be one way of determining the relative age of a passage. Another way in which vocabulary can hint at the age of a text is the use of words which more closely resemble Israel’s early neighbors (Ugaritic for example) or its later ones (Aramaic).
Old Hebrew and the Book of Mormon:
When I used the example of Ye above to highlight how someone might mistakenly try to archaize their language, this also serves as a good parallel to what we sometimes find in the scripture. There are times when a later Hebrew author intentionally uses or preserves archaic Hebrew. The rhetorical effect is similar to what Joseph Smith sought to accomplish by writing the Book of Mormon in King James English. Mark Twain said of Smith, “Whenever he found his speech growing too modern, which was about every sentence or two, he labeled in a few such scriptural phrases as, “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc. and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass,” was his pet. If he had left that out, his bible would have been only a pamphlet.”
There are certainly a number of challenges to using only the language to date the text. This tendency to archaize is one of them. Also, the study and knowledge of historical Hebrew grammar is by nature an exercise in reconstruction. The primary witness to ancient Hebrew is the Bible itself, so most grammatical comparisons are based on comparative linguistic studies. This will always be an imperfect science because language is a very fluid thing. Try teaching someone English grammar rules and you’ll quickly realize that! Or let Brain Regan talk you through the “I before E rule.”
But even with these challenges, there are good linguistic reasons to say that the Hebrew text which has been preserved is not the Hebrew of the time of Moses. We know enough about ancient scribal practice to know that scribes felt free to update things like spelling and grammar to reflect their own times, and the evidence within the text itself lets us know that the Hebrew we have is later than the material being discussed.
Now dating the language is only a minor part of the argument for sources making up the Pentateuch. In fact, it is the content of the Pentateuch which drove scholars to believe in multiple sources more than any specific grammatical forms. But I find it helpful when approaching higher criticism to start with an understanding that the preserved text we have does not represent the oldest forms of the language. At the very least, someone arguing for Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch has to allow for significant grammatical updating for the text we have. Otherwise, it would be the equivalent of finding a text which was supposed to be written by George Washington and finding that it had twitter hashtags included. #WoodenTeeth, #CherryTree.
Now most people who dismiss source criticism as a whole readily allow for this idea of updating and later redaction. To say that a later redactor came along and updated some of the Hebrew text, leaving some of it less updated than others is certainly plausible, and is usually accepted even by those with conservative views. In fact, as I believe in the relative antiquity of the sources, I’m completely comfortable with that. However, I think once we recognize that what we have preserved did not come in its present form directly from the Sharpie of Moses, we can then start discussing the features which led scholars to assume multiple sources.
And some of those features are what we can look at together in future blogs.