Thoughts on Schniedewind’s A Social History of Hebrew

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 7.46.53 PM (2)I just completed Bill Schniedewind’s 2013 A Social History of Biblical Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period. It is ostensibly an ambitious sociolinguistic examination of the history of the Hebrew language as it was employed within the cultures of Israel and Judah from the second millennium BCE into to the early centuries of the Common Era, but it touches on some important debates currently ongoing in the study of Biblical Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible with only brief acknowledgment of those debates and the clear ground staked out by his discussion. Perhaps most conspicuously, Schniedewind largely ignores the concerns raised in recent years by a number of scholars regarding the ability to date—even relatively—biblical texts on linguistic grounds. Young and Rezetko’s 2008 Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts, for instance, is briefly cited twice, but quickly dismissed by an appeal to Jan Joosten’s review of the volume. The traditional notions of Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH) and Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) are presupposed with little treatment of the challenges that have been raised.

Another rhetorical theme is the rejection of the so-called minimalists’ Persian-period dating of much of the Hebrew Bible. This case was interesting, and was made in one area by highlighting in the continuity of hapax legomena found in LBH and Rabbinic Hebrew and influenced by Persian, Greek, and Aramaic over and against those found in SBH that are absent from LBH and appear to be influenced by Akkadian and Ugaritic. This discontinuity in linguistic influence between SBH and LBH evinces, for Schniedewind, a disjunction in the use of Hebrew best accounted for through the cultural and political upheavals of the exilic period. There is certainly a strong argument to be made here, but one gets the impression it is being made in a vacuum.

I certainly enjoyed reading Schniedewind’s book and found a great deal of insight regarding the relationship of linguistic change to the social and political dynamics of Israel and Judah, but I felt at times that the discussion could have been benefited from more methodological precision and care, and some more transparency regarding its rhetorical targets. It could just be that the breadth of the examination and/or the target audience left little room for extensive technical engagement of opposing viewpoints.


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