Sunday, February 7, 2010

NAPH 2010: Diachrony & Biblical Hebrew

I had the privilege to sit in on some of the papers at the 2009 NAPH sessions on Diachrony & Biblical Hebrew. It's a fascinating topic, but it's even more fascinating as an opportunity to observe human behavior in the scholarly back-and-forth on a controversial topic where neither side has a chance at convincing the other because neither has any willingness to compromise their own positions based on any available evidence. Ahh . . . minimalists and maximalists. Scholarly apologetics. (Is that an oxymoron?) Of course, being in the middle - I would get shot at from both sides.

To a point, the historical change in Biblical Hebrew CAN be demonstrated from evidence. Dean Forbes showed that pretty convincingly in New Orleans. But, the underlying uniformity of Biblical Hebrew suggests that actually dating the texts based on the fact that historical change happened is difficult-some would say impossible. I think Ian Young, et. al., have argued a good case at least in the sense that they've drawn awareness to the problems inherent in attempting to date texts based on linguistic variation. (Ironically, my move to the center on this question was influenced by what we learned in a seminar on Linguistics & Biblical Hebrew with Dr. Miller combined with a linguistics class at UW on socio- and historical linguistics.) Below is the official call for papers issued by NAPH for their 2010 sessions.
Subject: NAPH 2010 Session at SBL Meeting: Diachrony and Biblical Hebrew
The NAPH session on Diachrony and Biblical Hebrew organized by Ziony Zevit and Cynthia Miller in 2009 will conclude with three additional sessions at NAPH 2010.  While some of the presenters will be invited, we welcome paper proposals for the 2010 sessions to be held in conjunction with the SBL meeting November 20-23, 2010 in Atlanta.
The proposal should include a description of the aspect of diachrony (or language variation or stylistics) to be examined, the methodology employed, and the language data analyzed.  Please send the proposals to and to no later than February 15, 2010.
We are in conversation with several interested publishers concerning the publication of a volume on Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew with the papers from the 2009 and 2010 sessions, along with some invited papers from leading scholars of historical linguistics and language variation.
Cynthia L. Miller, Professor and Chair, Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies, 1220 Linden Drive, 1344 Van Hise Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53706, (O): 608-262-9785, (F): 608-262-9417,
Ziony Zevit, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90077-1519, (O) 310-440-1266,


  1. Dear Douglas,

    It is always nice to come across posts on this topic. We are happy to know of your own "move to the center" on the question of linguistic dating, and we thank you for your remark that we "have argued a good case," at least in the sense that you mention, that we have "drawn awareness to the problems inherent in attempting to date texts based on linguistic variation." In fact, this is precisely the objective of our book. We have never denied "historical change" in ancient Hebrew (e.g. Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts, vol. 2, p. 94), only that the linguistic data of the Hebrew Bible as we have it can be arranged in any satisfactory chronological scheme, for all the many reasons we discuss in detail in the book. On another matter, we know of many who have changed from "maximalists" to "minimalists" or to "the center" because of our work, though you are probably correct that we have no "chance at convincing the other," if by that you mean other key figures in the debate such as Avi Hurvitz and Gary Rendsburg. On the other hand, I think it is significant and important to point out that all three of us (Ian Young, Martin Ehrensvaerd, Robert Rezetko) used to hold to the traditional chronological model (e.g. Young 1993, Ehrensvaerd 1997), but we were compelled to set that position aside precisely because of our fresh and detailed look at "available evidence," thus e.g. Ehrensvaerd on the post-exilic prophets Haggai-Zechariah-Malachi, Rezetko on synoptic Samuel/Kings vs. Chronicles, and Young on inscriptions (all three in Young 2003). So, it is actually the case that we once "compromised our own position" on the basis of the available evidence, and I can say that we would be willing to move back(wards), but that would require that "maximalists" deal open-mindedly and thoroughly with the vast array of data that we treat in our book, including for example the text-critical problem, but so far all we have seen is more of the same old stuff. We encourage discussions of the linguistic data, and issues related to diachrony of Biblical Hebrew, and we look forward to debating further in Atlanta at the SBL/NAPH meetings later this year.

    Robert Rezetko

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Robert.

    I think it's a common enough story. Some of us start changing positions once we really examine the available evidence with fresh eyes, putting aside the "spin" we were taught the first time around. The irony I noticed from the session I attended in New Orleans was that the papers either assumed historical change based on other core presuppositions OR they demonstrated that historical change happens (something no one was really arguing about anyway) and then confidently rest their case.

    I hope the continued debate will actually move the question forward, but I've been surprised at how little objectivity some of the participants have been able to muster.