[b-hebrew] Hebrew as a Spoken Language vs. Aramaic

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Sat Oct 27 13:17:25 EDT 2007

On 10/26/07, Dave Washburn wrote in reply to Yishmor:

> > Moses Segal, Hebrew lexicographer, winner of the Isra'el Prize for
> > Jewish Studies, and co-translator of the Talmud concluded purely on
> > linguistic analysis:
> >    In earlier Mishnaic [rabbinic] literature no distinction is
> >    drawn between Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew.
> >    The two idioms are known as Leshon Hagadesh, the
> >    Holy Tongue, as contrasted with other languages ...
> >    *What was the language of ordinary life* of educated
> >    native Jews in Jerusalem and Judaea in the period
> >    from 400BCE to 150CE?  The evidence presented
> >    by Mishnaic Hebrew and its literature leaves no
> >    doubt that *that language was Mishnaic Hebrew*.
> Once again, a citation would  be nice, but I would also suggest that this
> conclusion has not been widely accepted by the scholarly community.

and later in reply to Ken:

> > The first two sentences above are true, but that is because the
> > majority of NT scholars are not up-to-date with their study of the
> > history of Hebrew. They generally perpetuate theories developed over a
> > hundred years ago (largely by Dalman, using the best data and research
> > available at that time), i.e., before Segal's study, and before the
> > discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
> Fair enough, but to the best of my knowledge these theories have not been
> firmly displaced.  Again, I suggest that the DSS tell us nothing about Hebrew
> as a common language of the era.

What is the evidence that these theories "have not been firmly
displaced" or that
it is not widely accepted by the scholarly community.

Here is Richard Steiner in his encyclopedic article on Hebrew in "The Semitic
Languages," ed. by Hetzron, 1997, p. 146:
"Mishnaic (or Middle) Hebrew (MH) used to be viewed as an artificial scholastic
jargon, but the prevailing view today is that MH was a colloquial idiom spoken
until c. 200 CE and that it was descended from an older colloquial idiom
(hereafter: Pre-MH) spoken in the biblical period.  According to this view, LBH
(Late Biblical Hebrew) is a purel literary language whose non-SBH (Standard
Biblical Hebrew) features come from Pre-MH.
"MH frequently exhibits the culmination of developments begun in SBH and
continued in LBH.  Thus, the work ?ykh 'how' in the archaic poetic dialect
changes to 'yk in SBH, then to hyk in LBH, and finally to hy?k in MH.
Similarly, the perfective <> habitual opposition could be expressed in Proto-
NWS only in the past tense.  In SBH, we find a new habitual future, in LBH,
a new habitual infinitive, and in MH, a new habitual imperative."

P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. in his encyclopedic article on Hebrew in the Cambridge
Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages, 2005, p. 320-321:
"Although Biblical Hebrew, Late Biblical Hebrew, and teh Hebrew of the literary
manuscripts from Qumran constitute a unilinearly evolving dialect, descended
from the language of pre-exilic Judah, Rabbinic Hebrew exhibits features that
set it apart from this development.  Since most of the literature of Rabbinic
Hebrew is highly technical in character, it was once supposed that it was a
language spoken only by scholars or even an artificially confected language
that was never spoken at all.  But the discovery and linguistic analysis of
the nonliterary or quasi-literary documents from Qumran -- especially the
Copper Scroll and the Halakhic Letter (MMT) -- and of the Bar Kochba
correspondence from the Wadi Murabba(at and the Nahal Hever show that
Rabbinic Hebrew was a popularly spoken language in the early centuries
of the Common Era.  Although many of the feature of Rabbinic Hebrew that
diverge from Biblical Hebrew can be traced to contemporary influences, such
as the prevalence of Aramaic and Greek, many others can be traced to
dialectical survivals from a much earlier period, when an ancestral form of
Rabbinic Hebrew existed alongside Biblical Hebrew.  The beginning of the
demise of Rabbinic Hebrew as a spoken language is probably to be traced
to the Roman suppression of the Second Jewish Revolt in AD 135 and the
accompanying depredations, including the deportation and the flight of others
into the Aramaic-speaking Galilee.  Even under these conditions, Hebrew
continued to be heard in some circles, ..."

Furthermore, see this article: http://www.ctsfw.edu/library/files/pb/1360 (pdf)
especially pages 82-84 (pages 3-5 in the pdf)
Note that Pinchas Lapide's opinion which is described as if a conclusion or
culmination of previous research is in fact one opinion amongst the variety
of opinions (see footnotes 11-19), and not necessarily representative of
the consensus amongst scholars of Mishnaic Hebrew.

Some of the references (as well as additional references) can be seen
here: http://www.sharesong.org/JESUSSPOKEHEBREW.htm
although I remain non-committal as to the content of the web page, due to
its only quasi-scholarly presentation and discussion.  The references,
however, are mostly scholarly.

So, where is your evidence that this previous view has not been "firmly
displaced" or that it is not widely accepted by the scholarly community
that Mishnaic Hebrew was a colloquial idiom?

Saenz-Badillos in p. 52 does suggest just your position.  But this only
forms a "second strike" for me against Saenz-Badillos who similarly
misrepresents the view of genetic classification of Semitic languages.
A more appropriate discussion of the topic is in The Semitic Languages,
by Alice Faber, published just 4 years after Saenz-Badillos.  (In defense
of Saenz Badillos, it is a translation from Spanish published in 1988, and
this might have used sources that were at best 7 years old, and usually
10 years or older.  In this view, Saenz-Badillos does not represent really
scholarship as it is in the 1990s but more like the end of the 1970s, and
these are two examples where this becomes especially obvious and

Yitzhak Sapir

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