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Wednesday, 18 January 2006

The "Original Language" of The Hebrew Scriptures


I'm working on a journal article that examines the historic sound shifts in languages and the implications on ancient genealogies. More on that anon, but for now I'll examine the implications for the concept of the "original languages of scripture."

Leaving aside the New Testament, for which manuscript evidence is overwhelming, I focus here on the Old Testament, known as the Hebrew Scriptures. Our oldest copies of the entire OT date to the 10th century or so, meaning that they are many centuries removed from the time Hebrew was last used as a living language. The Dead Sea Scrolls evince a different script, but essentially the same vocabulary from a millennium earlier. Although some books (such as Job) do contain some words that are considered more archaic then what is in other books, nevertheless the 39 (officially 22) books of the OT--excepting the few Aramaic quotations, phrases, and names--are all in the language we now call Biblical Hebrew.

Is this possible? Can a series of books put into writing over a period of several thousand years all be in the same language?

The rationalistic answer is clearly No. All living languages change, and the Hebrew spoken by Ezra must have differed markedly  from the Hebrew spoken by Abraham. So different, in fact, that they would today be considered totally different languages, akin to the difference between the modern languages spoken by Abraham's descendants--the Jews and Arabs.

But what if the OT was written in a classical Hebrew that originated with Moses? No, even classical languages change. Latin evolved even after it ceased to be a spoken language, going through Late Latin and Medieval Latin stages, until we now have the Latin that forms the base for the International Scientific Vocabulary. Take Arabic, for instance. The Qur'an was put in writing some 1400 years ago, and is still the basis for written Arabic. Yet nowhere in the Qur'an will one find the common Arabic word for language: lughah (from the Latin lingua, 'tongue'). This, along with other classical Arabic words that form important primitive roots in that language (like jins, from genus), is a word imported from Latin some two millennia ago. The original (Koranic) word lisan is not used in written Arabic any more than is its English counterpart tongue, except as the name of a body part. So languages continue to change in little ways, even if their original religious form is kept intact.

This is the sort of change we should find as we read the Hebrew Scriptures from Genesis and Job down through Chronicles and Nehemiah. But it isn't there. The implication is that Biblical Hebrew is NOT the original language of much of the OT. Some earlier form of or ancestor to Hebrew was, and of it now no trace remains. All we have left is a translation.

UPDATE July 2012:
The Scriptures themselves give hints at how language usage evolved over the centuries. Here are a few:

- "Shibboleth" had lost some of its aspiration by Judges chapter 12.
- "Seer" was falling out of use by 1 Samuel chapter  9.
- Some Hebrew words are only found in Chronicles, where they had replaced older words in parallel passages of Samuel and Kings.

Wednesday, 4 January 2006

Internal Evidence for The Pericope Adulterae

This blog is, of course, about whatever interests me. My three favorite subjects, when closely examined, all have a common theme: Resurrecting the past. They are Genealogy, Ancient History, and Ancient Manuscripts. I haven't written on Genealogy here, and perhaps never will; My postings on that subject will be found in other forums. I've touched on Ancient History, and will no doubt go back to it; but today's blog is on Ancient Manuscripts.

I have come to this interest rather late in life, having not studied it seriously until middle age, when the advent of the Internet opened up to me the vast store of knowledge which could formerly be acquired only at great cost. Indeed, by an informed use of the Internet, I am able not only to keep abreast of the latest developments in the comparison and evaluation of ancient manuscripts (technically known as 'textual criticism'), but also to actually add my own contributions.

This is the case in the study before us today, which evaluates the assertion, now assumed to be valid by the majority and most eminent of textual critics, that:
The Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11), while demonstrably ancient, could not have been present in John's Gospel as he wrote it.
In defending this assertion, Bruce Metzger marshals both External (manuscript) and Internal (stylistic) evidence. Perhaps the best online compilation of external evidence (on the affirming side) is by Wieland Wilker, published here. He alludes to what will no doubt be the best compilation (from the dissenting side) as a work still in progress by Maurice A. Robinson. Unfortunately for the layman, Wilker leaves tantalizing portions of his textual commentary out of reach of anyone not proficient in both Latin and Koine Greek.

The best online compilation of internal evidence (from the dissenting side) is probably by Andrew W. Wilson, who devotes to the Pericope an entire chapter of his online book to The adulteress and her accusers. Inasmuch as he makes statements on intrinsic probability which stand at loggerheads to comments made by Wieland Wilker, I've chosen to devote this blog to comparing the two where their opinions divide.

The first question to be considered concerns Authorship. Here the assertion would be stated as follows:
Internal Considerations point to an author other than the Apostle John.
Wilson devastates this assertion with one telling blow after another, but in so doing he makes no specific refutations of any of the finer points of detail from the affirming side. For instance, Wilker shows Luke to be a possible author, both from external (e.g. nearly a dozen manuscripts place it in Luke's Gospel) and internal considerations (he cites a dozen 'Lucan' words or phrases). Wilson doesn't address these examples directly, but in a general way shows the external arguments to be dismissible, and the internal arguments to be specious. I will not directly address this assertion, but what follows should add a little to the discussion.

The internal question is very much related to the external one. Certainly when the same passages is found in so many different locations within the gospels (a total of 9 different places, with further complications considering the extent to which the entire Pericope is represented), the question arises as to what was its original location--if there was one--and why it didn't stay there. Wilson makes the case for the Pericope belonging right where it is still found in the overwhelming majority of manuscripts, where it is far better suited to the context, and its absence would be more keenly felt, then in any of the locations where it has been apparently inserted.

This argues for a scenario in which the Pericope was unique to John 7-8, but very early on in the transmission stream (certainly by the beginning of the 3rd century), it was dropped from the text of John's gospel in a growing number of manuscripts. Perhaps as early as 100 or so years later, it began to be re-inserted. The haphazard nature in which this was done indicates that the scribes of these later manuscripts were themselves in doubt as to its correct location; perhaps they were going by an independently circulating copy of the Pericope, or more likely (given the wide textual variation of the Pericope wherever it is located), from oral transmission.

The implications of this may at first be startling: over 300 Greek manuscripts--including all extant monolinguals prior to the 8th century--as well as all Italic, Bohairic, and Gothic manuscripts, along with a considerable number of manuscripts in Georgian, Armenian, Syriac, and Sahidic, are all guilty of a major omission.

But actually, what is startling to me is only that the patristic evidence for the Pericope predates the earliest manuscript evidence by two centuries. That says more to the quality of the oldest manuscripts than to that of the earliest fathers.

ALL of the earliest manuscripts exhibit excessive omission or transposition, so the absence of the Pericope in any one of them carries very little weight in my book. Its absence in all of them is significant, but it is not a foregone conclusion that such indicates that the Pericope could not have been in the original Gospel--any more than the apparent absence of KAINAM from Luke 3:36 in P75 leads to the foregone conclusion it is an early 3rd century addition to the text.

It is apparent that, as time went on, manuscripts became less erratic and more in tune with some standard. Whether that standard was an artifice of theological orthodoxy, or simply the closest to the original that could be determined at the time, is hard to prove. Suffice it to say that critical editions of the Scriptures date back nearly as far as the earliest manuscripts, and the critics of ancient times had access to considerably more--one could say dozens or even hundreds of times more--early manuscripts than we do today. And those who did, came to the overwhelming conclusion that the Pericope was canonical. The only confusion (exhibited in a small minority of even the earliest texts where it is found) was over where it belonged, and how exactly it should be worded.

UPDATE: I address this issue again in this post.