Features of Archaic Biblical Hebrew and the Linguistic Dating Debate
Pat-El, Na'ama, Wilson-Wright, Aren, Hebrew Studies Journal
A review of Dating Archaic Biblical Poetry. Critique of the Linguistic Arguments. By Robyn C. Vern. PHSC 10. Pp. xviii + 282. Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2011. Cloth, $145.30.
As is well known to readers of this journal, some scholars have recently claimed that biblical texts cannot be dated on the basis of their linguistic features. The core of their claims is collected in Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts. (1) 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 Ehrensvard 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. (2)
The first part of Vern's book is an elaborate refutation of Robertson's 1972 book (3) 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. (4) Many others do not mention Robertson at all, and some are critical of his methodology while still offering evidence supporting his conclusions. (5) 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.
2.1. 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. …