How Old is the Hebrew Bible?

Ronald Hendel and Jan Joosten—

The age of the Hebrew Bible is a complicated and controversial topic. For traditionalists, the age of a book is the age of its author – Moses for the Pentateuch, David for the Psalms, Solomon for the Song of Songs, and so on. For modern scholars, the picture is not so clear. Many of these attributions are not historically credible, since the books refer to circumstances long after the time of its putative authors. Moreover, as scholars have long noticed, the language of the books often belongs to a different era than the traditional authors. So, for instance, Hugo Grotius argued in the seventeenth century that Solomon could not have written Ecclesiastes, due to the book’s late linguistic features, often colored by Aramaic. The history of Hebrew, according to this stream of scholarship, provides our best clue for the age of the biblical books.

In recent decades some scholars have questioned whether Biblical Hebrew has a history at all, arguing that it is a congeries of dialects that could have been available at any period, or that its history is impenetrable due to the absence of usable data. Many scholars, largely  disregarding linguistic data, insist that most or all of the Hebrew Bible was written in the second half of the first millennium BCE, during the Persian and/or Hellenistic periods, and draw the inference that there is little or no historical content that predates this era. The history of ancient Israel from roughly 1200 to 500 BCE, they say, has little or nothing to do with the biblical accounts. The conflicts among the different scholarly positions – often caricatured as minimalists, maximalists, and middle-of-the-road – have become familiar features of the scholarly landscape.

Bringing together different bodies of evidence shows that the age of the Hebrew Bible can be ascertained to a reasonable degree by integrating the fields of historical linguistics, textual criticism, and cultural history. There is a consilience of the historical inferences drawn from these different kinds of inquiry, including the phases of Biblical Hebrew – archaic, classical, transitional, and late – the variant scribal editions of biblical books, and the influence of foreign realia, including language, art, economy, and material culture. The ages of the books of the Hebrew Bible span a vast chronological range, from the early Iron Age to the Greek age, which we can discern at different degrees of focus. There is much that we can know about these topics, more than most scholars are willing to grant. This, at least, is our claim, for which we marshal a mass of detail and close argument. Our aim is to present a clear and reasonably comprehensive account, which – we hope – will establish a new benchmark for future research.

Let us present a brief example. English translations of Exodus 9:16 diverge in interesting ways. The KJV has: “And indeed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power,” but the NRSV: “This is why I have let you live: to show you my power.” In the KJV God practically claims that he created Pharaoh for no other purpose than to annihilate him on the scene of history. Paul, in Romans 9:17, uses the verse as a launching pad for his theory of double predestination:  God creates some humans for perdition, others for salvation. In the NRSV the picture is different: God is like a boxing champion who decides not to cut down his opponent from round one lest he spoil the spectacle. The second interpretation fits the context better. In verse 15 God says indeed: “I could easily have killed you right away”; this forms a good contrast with verse 16: “But I have spared you until now.”

Historical linguistics confirms the second reading. The difference between the translations hinges on the semantics of the Hebrew verb he‘emadtika, a causative form of the root ‘amad “to stand.” Does he‘emadtika mean “I have raised you up” (KJV) or “I have kept you standing” (NRSV)? The latter meaning corresponds to the normal usage of the root in the Pentateuch, the former reflects a later form of Hebrew exemplified in Qumran Hebrew and Rabbinic Hebrew. The meaning of the verbal root ‘amad  evolved over time from “to be in a standing position” to  “to stand up.” The KJV translators (and Paul – though he may be using a Greek version) mix up different types of Hebrew.            

The example illustrates the convergence of various methods. Narrative analysis ties in with the history of religion. The notion that God predestines some of his creatures to perdition hardly developed in the biblical world before the postexilic period; in full-blown form it is unknown before the Dead Sea Scrolls. Diachronic linguistics independently points to a relatively early date. The intersection of independent approaches is impressive. A threefold cord is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12). Even so, one example does not amount to proof. Perhaps Exodus 9:17 is a late verse added to the narrative by an inspired redactor who wished to insert the notion of divine predestination into the text of scripture, and naturally used the language of his day. There is, of course, much more to say.

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.

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