[b-hebrew] Hebrew spoken in 1st century

Ken Penner pennerkm at mcmaster.ca
Wed Nov 17 14:38:11 EST 2004

> An ongoing discussion on ANE-list right now had covered the question,
> is Mishnaic Hebrew considered today to have been a living language at
> the time?  Various arguments brought up there (such as the content of 
> the Bar Kokhba documents) seemed to point that Hebrew died out as a
> living language by that time.  I myself don't know but am 
> interested in the opinions voiced either way.

Regarding the views expressed on ANE, I don't question Daniels' scholarship,
but here he was working from memory, in this case faulty memory ("There used
to be discussion as to whether Mishnaic Hebrew represented a living
language, but I think the verdict ended up that it
didn't"). The verdict is quite the opposite (read any recent history of the
Hebrew language such as Saenz-Badillos: "Segal's ... basic thesis [that RH
was a natural, living, vernacular dialect] has received general acceptance
and clearly represents the standard position today," 163f.).

Kilmon asserted that Bar Kokhba legislated a return to Hebrew; his evidence:
poorly written Aramaic, and trained-scribe Hebrew. Interestingly, Kilmon
noted the statement in a letter (P. Yadin 52, though Kilmon got the author
wrong; it was by Soumaios, not Bar Kochba) explaining why a Greek letter was
not written in "Ebraesti", which Kilmon says (correctly, in my view) was
Hebrew. Luke says the same language, Hebraisti, was spoken by Paul to the
Jerusalem crowd in Acts 21-22.

On Monday, I will present a paper at SBL arguing that the Greek words
"Hebrais" and "Hebraisti" consistently refer to Hebrew rather than Aramaic.

We must be careful not to blur the line between separate questions:

In first century Judea / Galilee,
1. Was Hebrew used at all?
2. Was Hebrew spoken at all?
3. Was Hebrew anyone's first language?
4. Was Hebrew spoken by any uneducated people?
5. Was Hebrew the most common vernacular?
6. Was Hebrew the only vernacular?
7. Was Hebrew the only language spoken?

It seems to me that the answers to 1-4 are "yes", and 5-7 are "no". I know
of no view published by an author familiar with Segal's work and the Dead
Sea Scrolls that denies 1 and 2; and also none that affirms 7. To mention a
few secondary sources, I would expect Matthew Black to draw the line between
2 and 3, Seth Schwartz somewhere between 2 and 4, Fitzmyer and Rajak
somewhere between 2 and 5, J. Grintz, A. Tal, and M. Wilcox somewhere
between 4 and 6, Segal and Safrai between 5 and 6, and Harris Birkeland
between 6 and 7.

Ken Penner, McMaster/DSS
Dead Sea Scrolls scholars' list owner,

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