[b-hebrew] Hebrew - dead, living?

Will Parsons wbparsons at alum.mit.edu
Wed Dec 29 22:03:53 EST 2010

George has indicated that participants on this thread are allowed one final
post, and I find myself in the position of wishing to respond to two sub-
threads.  So, the following is a compound response to two completely
different issues, one to Uri's response to Yodan/Rivka's post, and one to
Karl's response to Fred's post.

First, Uri:

On Wed, 29 Dec 2010 15:53:50 -0800 (PST), Uri Hurwitz <uhurwitz at yahoo.com> wrote:
>    Rivka,
>    Please understand that the good people here are
>  discussing a subject about which they hardly know
>  anything. And why should they? This list deals with
>  biblical Hebrew. 

This is a bit dismissive.  My impression is that quite a lot of people
on this list know more than "hardly anything".

>    No one argues here that Hebrew was the normal day
>  to day discourse of people. Nevertheless, it is little
>  realized that this language served as means of
>  communications when Jews from different countries who
>  spoke different languages met.

Was it really used as a lingua franca in such circumstances?  (This is
not a rhetorical question - I really haven't seen evidence about the use
of Hebrew as a means of oral communication in late antiquity/mediaeval

>    It served as a means of communications about daily
>  matters  such as in the very rich Responsa literature;
>  it served in the middle ages as the means of creating
>   masterpieces of literature that have not lost their
>  freshness to this day. Sonnets were written in Hebrew
>  before they were in English.

I, and I think most others on this list, are aware of the use of Hebrew
for creative purposes in the middle ages.

>   This is not the venue for a detailed dicussion of
>  the subject. Let me end it with a citation of Shlomoh
>  Ben Maimon, who in the late 1700 wrote in Heb. on
>  the margin of something he studied: "I have a terrible
>  toothache". 
>   I don't think anyone would use a dead language to
>  express this.

When I was a graduate student in Mathematics, I took notes in Latin.
I also at one time kept a dream diary in Latin.  I don't find it hard
to believe that one conversant in Hebrew as a literary language would
find it strange to express mundane matters in Hebrew.

>   So whether this was a completely dead language, or
>  a somewhat dead language, or whatever, is of course
>  for Wikipedia to decide.

I know *I* don't regard Wikipedia as authoritative in any matters, and
in case I have given the impression that I'm a defender of the "Hebrew as
a dead language" position, I would like to emphasize once again that I
dislike labelling Hebrew after its cessation as a spoken language "dead"
precisely because of its continuing productivity, but unless there's
agreement on what constitutes a "dead" language, we are left with a
Monty-Python argument of the "Yes it is!"/"No it isn't!" type.


Karl & Fred:

> > The third rate greek grammar of the latter one third of this document, and
> > its brute resemblance to hebrew sentence word order, was the last straw for
> > me; and impelled my conclusion that the document was created in hebrew and
> > deliberately translated into poor quality greek as a message marker of its
> > original language.
> I’ve forgotten what this fallacy is called in logic, but you come to a
> conclusion without considering all options. The option recorded in history
> is that it was written by people who did not know Greek language that well,
> yet wrote in Greek. There is no historical evidence that the New Testament
> was written in Hebrew, other than Matthew. Until you find such evidence,
> your claim is baseless speculation, not worth the paper it is written on.

I've forgotten too, but I find the claim that the NT was originally written
in Hebrew because the Greek isn't good enough utterly extraordinary and
completely preposterous.  It's perhaps just as well this thread is terminated
since any further discussion would take us well beyond the proper purview of
this mailing list.

Will Parsons

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