[b-hebrew] Matres Lectionis and critical analysis

Peter Bekins pbekins at fuse.net
Tue Aug 28 22:36:53 EDT 2007

 >>Do you have a view either way? I'd be interested in
 >>hearing what people think about Dr Davila's claims

Here is my view in short.

Cross and Freedman's book pioneered the study of the vowel letters  
from early inscriptions rather than attempting to analyze the MT.  
Their basic theory is that early NW Semitic orthography was purely  
consonantal. This system was rigorously maintained in Phoenician  
orthography. Hebrew orthography followed consonantalism through the  
period of heavy Phoenician influence until the 10th century. However,  
shortly after they borrowed the alphabet (11th-10th centuries) the  
Aramaeans altered the basic principles of spelling by developing a  
system for the indication of final vowels and later this was extended  
to represent medial vowels.

Now the problem is that we really don't have that many early  
inscriptions. From what we have a linear model is arguable, but how  
do we know that our data is controlling our model and not the other  
way around? Zevit argues in his introduction, as do others, that  
Ugaritic writing used vowel letters beyond the three aleph signs and  
this implies that marking vowels could have already been a part of  
the cultural milieu at an early point. Therefore some scholars have  
challenged the linear "stammbaum" model of orthographic development  
in favor of a wave theory of change. That is, rather than see one  
main type of orthography (Phoenician) which is branching off into  
various developing types (Hebrew, Aramaic, etc), the orthography  
could have diversified widely early, from which point all the various  
national scripts are innovating and cross-pollinating each other.   
One is trying to use more creative vowel marking, one prefers to be  
more consonantal, etc. Phoenician just happens to have the most  
prestige in the early stages and it happens to be consonantal. The  
Tell Fekhariyeh inscription seems to give evidence for this process  
from an epigraphic perspective (see the Kaufman article in your  
bibliography). Werner Weinberg also argues that orthographic  
development was neither linear nor consistent demonstrated by the  
fact that no standard spelling system ever emerges.

Language change in general does not tend to be linear and  
predictable, but it is pushed and pulled by innovation within and  
influence from neighboring language groups. Thus, while on a macro  
level I agree with the general development from consonantal --> final  
vowels --> medial vowels, I think that without text evidence it is  
hard to tell at any given time and in any given community which sort  
of orthography would be practiced.

Now, leave the issue of orthographic development aside, and look at  
text transmission. The earliest texts we have are the DSS which  
leaves us with centuries of undocumented transmission (unless you are  
an extreme minimalist). We don't know what type of orthography was  
preferred in the community where the original texts were compiled,  
but we also don't know to what extent the texts were updated and  
revised spelling-wise until they reached a point of canonization (or  
after for that matter). It is just as possible that that maters were  
removed because they preferred consonantal spelling as it is that  
they were added to because they preferred plene spelling. In Barr's  
study he finds a small set of words with fixed spelling, but for the  
most part there seems to be no rhyme or reason for why a certain word  
gets a certain mater. He concludes that scribes liked to vary spelling.

So I see no way to in general to control our decisions to remove  
maters or to divide words differently unless there is other textual  
evidence or the text just doesn't make sense as is. Sure, the text we  
have could very well be "wrong", but we don't have access to an "ur- 
text" and I don't think pulling off all the vowel letters gives us a  
"pure" text since we don't know for sure that the original text was  
purely consonantal. Now, are pulling off vowel letters and changing  
word division fair game if you do have a good reason? Sure, but they  
should not be seen automatically as secondary developments.

Peter Bekins

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