[b-hebrew] High Registers of Post-Exilic Hebrew and the Languages of Government and Administration

David Steinberg david.l.steinberg at rogers.com
Wed Nov 30 13:52:04 EST 2011

During the Second Temple period there were two major administrative 
centers relating to Judea - the Temple administration and the center of 
political power.

About the language(s) Temple administration we have virtually no 
evidence. However, it is possible to surmise that administrative 
documents would have been kept in their best Biblical Hebrew and/or 
perhaps a dialect similar to Qumran Hebrew and/or in an Aramaic perhaps 
similar to Qumran Aramaic. The little evidence at hand suggests that 
Aramaic was the normal spoken language in the Temple.

Regarding the center of political power the situation is clearer i.e.

Persian - late sixth to late fourth centuries BCE.Administrative 
language Imperial Aramaic.

Hellenistic rule - late fourth to mid-second centuries BCE. 
Administrative language Greek.

Hasmonean - mid-second century to late first century BCE (see below)

Herodian - late first century CE.Administrative language(s) probably 
Aramaic and Greek.

Roman - early first second century BCE until the destruction of the 
Second Temple in 70 CE. Administrative language Greek.

Of the Hasmonean court and administration we know very little. It is 
clear that at court and in administrative offices Greek and Aramaic 
would be heard and used for many documents. However, it is conceivable 
that, for nationalist reasons, the court may have promoted the use of 
Hebrew as a written language and possible for the conduct of court 
business (cf. "Qumran Hebrew as an Antilanguage", by William M. 
Schniedewind,/Journal of Biblical Literature/, Vol. 118, No. 2. (Summer, 
1999), pp. 235-252.) If this was the case, it would be likely that 
different forms of Hebrew would have been used in writing and speaking. 
It may well have been the case that something like Qumran Hebrew may 
have been used for writing while the spoken Hebrew may have been closer 
to a form of Proto-Mishnaic Hebrew.

David Steinberg
Ottawa, Canada

For the linguistic complexity of Judea during the period 500 BCE-70 CE ( 
see http://www.adath-shalom.ca/history_of_hebrew.htm#PostExH ; 
http://www.houseofdavid.ca/anc_heb_diglossia.htm#koine_PMH ).

The first thing that should be said is that the culture was overall oral 
with real literacy, in the sense of being able to express oneself in 
writing, being as low as in contemporary Greece (say 10 percent of the 
population) - see Karel van der Toorn, /Scribal Culture and the Making 
of the Hebrew Bible /(Harvard University

Press, 2009)

There can be no question, given the evidence at hand, that in Judea -

a) many, almost certainly most, Jews spoke Palestinian Jewish Western 
Aramaic. A descendant of a similar northern dialect is found in e.g. 
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Targum_Pseudo-Jonathan> ( 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Targum_Pseudo-Jonathan ).

b) many Jews spoke Greek either as a first or second language and wrote 
in Greek. ( Although a bit later and further north the evidence of Beit 
She'arim may be relevant. At Beit She'arim (burial place of the 
Sanhedrin in the 2-3 centuries CE) the dominant language of 
inscriptions, presumably written by and for the family is Greek. The 
following is from /Beth She'arim, vol III The Excavations 1953-1/958 by 
N. Avigad (Rutgers U Press, 1976) -

The most prominent feature is the profusion of Greek inscriptions in 
contrast to the paucityof Hebrew inscriptions. It emerges that Greek was 
the tongue spoken by many Palestinian Jews.... Another interesting fact 
is noteworthy: all the men referred to in the Hebrew inscriptions have 
Hebrew names (except for one whose name is Greek in form...); whereas 
all the women have Greco-Roman names....

c) in many inland localities, peasant and small town Jews spoke a Hebrew 
dialect or dialects that later became the new rabbinic literary language 
called by the rabbis  leshon Hakhamim and now called in English Mishnaic 
Hebrew or Rabbinic Hebrew or Middle Hebrew.

At this time it is clear that several written languages were in use -

a) the Aramaic of Daniel ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Aramaic 
) consciously modeled on the already ancient Imperial Aramaic 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_Aramaic#Imperial_Aramaic%20> ). 
This would probably have been as incomprehensible to the Aramaic speaker 
on the street in 100 BCE as Chaucer's English is to an English speaker 
on the street today. We must assume that texts like Daniel were written 
by trained scribes for trained scribes. The Archaic language would have 
given a patina of ancient truth (see van der Toorn re. scribes writing 
for scribes);

b) the Middle Aramaic best represented by Qumran Aramaic (See the 
relevant items in my bibliography ( 
http://www.houseofdavid.ca/anc_heb.htm ) under Cook, Koller, Muraoka.) 
Also relevant is the consonantal text of Targum Onkolos. These forms of 
Aramaic may be seen as archaizing literary dialects, still 
comprehensible to the Aramaic speaker on the street in the same way that 
the English of the Authorized Version is still comprehensible to a 
reasonably literate modern English speaker;

c) Post-classical Biblical Hebrew ( 
<http://www.houseofdavid.ca/anc_heb_abb_dia.htm#PCBH>) which slowly 
developed into the sort of Hebrew we find in most of the Qumran 
documents ( http://www.houseofdavid.ca/anc_heb_abb_dia.htm#QH 
<http://www.houseofdavid.ca/anc_heb_abb_dia.htm#QH>). This would have 
been difficult for a Proto-Mishnaic Hebrew speaking peasant to 
comprehend though exposure to Torah reading would have given him some 
grasp of simple prose Biblical Hebrew. To see how different the two 
forms of Hebrew are see Bendavid, Abba,/Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic 
Hebrew/(in Hebrew), Dvir 1967 (2 volumes) - vol 1. pp. 331-382; vol. 2 
pp. 882-924)

d) Proto-Mishnaic Hebrew - we have evidence of this only from the copper 
scroll in the period before 70 CE. However, it is likely that it was 
used for non-literary, business or personal, documents by Hebrew 
speakers writing on materials that would not survive (wood, waxed wooden 
tablets) or if the material survives the writing does not (potsherds 
with water soluble ink).

e) Greek (see above).

It is also very likely that in written form, spoken Aramaic was widely 
used for non-literary, business or personal, documentsby Aramaic 
speakers again writing on materials that would not survive (wood, waxed 
wooden tablets) or if the material survives the writing does not 
(potshards with water soluble ink).

David Steinberg
Ottawa, Canada

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