Philology in the Modern Academy

In my last post, I used satire to address an important issue that has surfaced in Biblical studies in the last few years as well as in the general humanities over the last decade or so. Apparently my satirical send-up was not appreciated by all. Indeed, I was quickly chastised for my bullying, condescending, and misogynist post (and I was also subtly called a racist). Oddly, no one bothered to address the substantive issues: can we say anything useful without using a theory to interpret the data?, and what IS “philology” in contemporary scholarship?

I care about how we do things in biblical studies, not because I give a flip about current scholars (I can simply not read work I don’t think worth my time), but because I am sensitive to what young minds gravitate towards. And if there is one thing that is insidiously attractive to young minds it is easy thinking. And I think any approach that deliberately eschews clear methods for handling data and clear theories for interpreting data is very dangerous. And this is precisely what I sense in the movement to reclaim philology as a useful term in contemporary biblical scholarship.

Below are excerpts from an essay that has its origin in the joint linguistics and philology session at SBL 2018. If anyone was wondering why I wrote my phrenology (I mean, philology) post, this perhaps explains why.

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Posted in Linguistics (theory or typology), Modern Scholarship. Tags: . Comments Off on Philology in the Modern Academy

Philology, Phrenology—What’s the difference?

I first saw an announcement about a movement to retread the worn out tires of philology in biblical studies last spring. It was around April 1 and I honestly wondered at first if it was an April Fool’s joke. Apparently it isn’t. I haven’t stopped shaking my head.

I gave a paper at SBL last year in which I discussed what I thought was the obvious and sensible notion that theory is necessary for analysis. For language, this means some sort of clear and coherent theory of language. The exhumation of philology has problems with theory, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping the grave diggers. Apparently theory avoidance is a malady that is hard to get rid of and spreads easily.

Anyway, I spent about 5 minutes with the announcement, which is also posted here (I shall remain hopeful that it’s not a permanent condition), and had a little Swiftian fun by changing a few words. So read further for some Fall fun.

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Posted in Linguistics (theory or typology), Modern Scholarship. Tags: , . Comments Off on Philology, Phrenology—What’s the difference?

The invention of the alphabet

I’ve written a more popular essay* on the early alphabet over at The Bible and Interpretation. Go there for a bit of light reading.


*Even my popular essays have footnotes. I will not claim that this is some inherently good thing. As I wrote the essay, I began to wonder if I’d lost the ability to write for those who aren’t specialists in my field. Perhaps someday I’ll write a “Biblical Hebrew Grammar for Dummies” without a single footnote. Speaking of which, a departed friend and colleague once told me that best thing about emeritus status was no longer needing to support every idea in an article with footnotes! He showed me his last article, and it didn’t contain a single one. By the way, if you’re wondering, I wrote this footnote simply for the fun of it and for the “meta-ness” of it all (for inspiration, see below, M. Fox, “On Footnotes, Hebrew Studies 1987).


The Alphabet was not Invented by the Hebrews

Note here for the promised link to a related essay on the alphabet.

A review of Douglas Petrovich, The World’s Oldest Alphabet: Hebrew as the Language of the Proto-Consonantal Script, with a contribution by Sarah K. Doherty and introduction by Eugene H. Merrill (Jerusalem: Carta, 2016).

Shortly after Douglas Petrovich’s book on the early alphabetic texts appeared at the end of 2016, I was asked to deliver a guest lecture on the topic during my last sabbatical. Before the request, I wasn’t aware of Petrovich’s monograph, though I had noticed various online comments and essays (even interviews) he’d given on the subject.

I will admit that I found it odd that Petrovich should be weighing in on the discussion since he studied no Hebrew grammar or Northwest Semitic epigraphy with me at the University of Toronto, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on Near Eastern archaeology.

And so the lecture was an opportunity to consider in detail the argument Petrovich mounted about the early alphabetic texts, which I’d not previously given a great deal of thought beyond discussing them during the first week in my Hebrew epigraphy seminars.

My initial impressions of Petrovich’s book were threefold. First, as with most Carta products, the production quality was high. The maps are wonderful, the illustrations clear and useful, and the paper is both heavy and high quality. Second, the amount of research that went into this study was striking. Which brings me to the third impression—it was mind-boggling that all this effort was spent on an argument that was explicitly tied to Petrovich’s assumptions about the Bible as an accurate historical resource and his desire to bolster the traditional chronology for the Patriarchs and Moses.

And as I continued the book, I was deeply disappointed that a work with so many flawed notions of Hebrew grammar would have been published. (And, as I soon discovered, the analysis of Egyptian was equally problematic.) Moreover, Petrovich’s writing style often reads more like a set of course lectures and he often cites sources in an exaggerated way if he wants to impress the reader with their authority.

Petrovich’s argument has been responded to by Alan Millard, Christopher Rollston, and on Rollston’s blog also the Egyptologist Thomas Schneider (links provided further below). I will also soon be addressing the topic on another online forum (and when it appears I will insert a link here). But none of these responses address the serious flaws of Hebrew in Petrovich’s analysis. This is what I will cover in this post.

See my review below …

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Eclecticism: a final thought

One more issue has been bouncing around in my head, though I didn’t work it into my essay. Though I’ve been in academic biblical studies for nearly 30 years, I have long wondered about the real purpose of eclectic texts.

First, from a religious perspective, the only reason for reconstructing some previous version of the text is if a community’s doctrine of Scripture places the authority in the “autographs”. But for those communities that consider tradition authoritative, there is really no religious motivation for finding an earlier layer, since it would deny the authority of the development. So does all this effort derive from serving the conservative Protestant community?

Second, from an academic historical perspective, producing an eclectic text boils down to an interesting intellectual exercise. But what more? Only the most arrogant would present their reconstructions are sure (and these I would run from the fastest). For the rest of us, eclectic texts present few research uses. I’ve already made the linguist’s argument. And the historian’s argument would differ only in a few particulars. And even then, the thought of a responsible historian using an eclectic text is a horror.

I think of a student’s accepted JBL article on the use of בית ישׂראל in Ezekiel. He notes that the 11 occurrences of the slightly different phrase בני ישׂראל in Ezekiel are typically understood to be the product of later redaction. Now, if this is accurate, it helps the historian reconstruct the development of ideas in the reception and transmission of the Book of Ezekiel. But if, in the pursuit of some earlier stage of the text of Ezekiel, a text critic were to deem these insertions late enough to not be part of the “the earliest inferable textual state of a book” (Hendel 2016: 50) and so omit them in the reconstructed text, because they are, in fact, later “convolutions” to the text (and especially if an eclectic text were removed from the extensive commentary), then the historian using said reconstructed text is at risk of missing important historical information.

And to anticipate the refrain that all reconstructions will be clearly marked, if text critics cannot trust the non-specialist to avoid naivete with regard to the historical sources, then they certainly can’t be trusted to note the in-text markings of reconstructions and look down or around for the critical notes. Consider the horrible ways that BHK and BHS have been used by students and scholars alike! If the users are dumb, they’re dumb regardless of the tool. We should simply have higher expectations for scholarly work. I deplore dumbing things down. I, for one, refuse to have any text critic treat me like a dumb user.

So, to bring it back around: aside from being an interesting intellectual exercise (such things can indeed be justified), what other point does a reconstructed “text edition” serve?

Eclecticism: an additional thought

I knew my position on eclecticism (and the way I articulated it) was provocative. But I had received some excellent feedback during the process from trusted readers (at least one of whom is writing a HBCE volume — by the way, why is the list of contributors not freely available?), so besides being confident that I was representing the HBCE project and presenting the problems with eclectic texts fairly, I was hoping that the essay (which will take various forms in more than one publication) would engender thoughtful reflection.

But the negative assessment of this post surprised me (even after it was edited to remove some of the more egregious language). Initially I considered responding to the points seriatim, but I waited and slept on it (some wisdom does come with age) and concluded that it wasn’t a wise use of my time, since the post reflects a knee-jerk reaction, not a substantive engagement with my ideas. (And only later, with a little searching, did I discover that the author had written an MA thesis on the feasibility of eclectic editions of the Hebrew Bible, so in hindsight his reaction is not surprising.) I would ask other readers to step outside their well worn paths of thought and engage with the principles of my essay.

I do, however, want to point out one element in the critical blog post that is worth considering: the attitude of superiority that I’ve seen among some text critics, that the text critic is a “special sort of person.” It is presumptuous and arrogant to imply that “advanced competence in 5-10 ancient languages” makes such a scholar any more philologically rigorous or sophisticated than one who has achieved expertise in 1, 2, or 4 languages. It is also dangerously false to assume that learning numerous languages entails methodological and theoretical sophistication. Finally, “linguistically competent” is such a fuzzy phrase, it should be avoided. The blogger’s use can only refer to being able to “access” ancient languages (at some varying level of competence). He cannot (accurately, at least) be referring to the education it requires to engage the field of linguistics and carry out informed linguistic analysis.

Given that my essay began life as one section in an article about James Barr’s legacy, I think it fitting to conclude with a few a propos thoughts from his Comparative Philology [note that I have inserted “biblical” for “Semitic” in every case below]:

Our arguments here have some effect on priorities in education for biblical scholarship. The strong influence of comparative philological method may have produced an unfortunate overemphasis on comparative study in the training of students. The prestige and fashionableness of the philological approach often cause students to study a larger number of [biblical] languages than they can master. These languages are not mastered properly and all the effort does not lead to a thorough knowledge of the texts. … To observe this, unfortunately, is not enough to put a stop to the tendency. The intellectual prestige of the philological approach is reinforced by the apparent social prestige of linguistic polymathy. It continues to be widely supposed that study of a large number of [biblical] languages is the gateway to competence in biblical studies.

… In spite of our debt to comparative philology, Hebrew does remain a teachable subject in its own right; and, while the student must now always be aware of the contributions of cognate languages, he will, unless he is ready to study these languages thoroughly, be best employed not in gaining a smattering of them but in learning how to evaluate, in relation to his Hebrew knowledge, the suggestions made on the basis of them. This means that eventually adequate modes of communication and co-operation have to be built up between two kinds of scholar: (a) those who really know the cognate languages or some of them (can any now really know them all?) and ( b) those who only assimilate this knowledge within their own grasp of Hebrew. But we can at least do something to depreciate the false prestige which has attached to the polyglot ideal, and rebuild the picture of the Hebraist. The polyglot ideal, we may remind ourselves, by no means obtains in the Indo-European field; no one supposes that to appreciate Greek literature one must study all the Indo-European languages. (1968: 295-296, 298, emphases added)

Barr is here typically acerbic. And while his point was aimed at what he saw as the undue emphasis on comparative Semitic education in Hebrew studies, I obviously think the principles apply to all language study associated with biblical studies. Knowing one thing well is preferable to knowing many things moderately. And even knowing many things well does not mark a particular scholar as someone better or “more special” than those who have chosen to focus their time and skills elsewhere, such as in the equally complex task of reconstructing ancient Israelite history, or the bewildering complex world of archaeology, with its ever increasing technological sophistication. Regardless the number of languages or non-language research tools learnt, the point should always be the methodological rigor, the theoretical sophistication, and the consistent application of logic.

Note that I do not think that this criticism applies to those whose works (and persons) I have personally encountered, such as Michael Fox, whose Proverbs HBCE volume I have unfortunately criticized (I wish other volumes had been released!). It has not been my experience that Michael, for instance, ever considered himself superior to scholars working along different intellectual paths, such as historians of ancient Israel,  BH linguists, or literary critics. He simply set out do perform the highest level of scholarship with the tools he already had or those he committed himself to add to his arsenal. May Michael’s sense of humour and humility, combined with a commitment to the best possible scholarship, be an example to us all.

Eclecticism and the Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition (HBCE) project, Part 4

The final installment to the first, second, and third posts on this topic.


Part 4: Specific Objections, Part Two (and a Conclusion)
Unfortunately, Fox’s HBCE commentary leaves unaddressed at least two significant questions that arise about how the decision to emend was reached. First, the poetic judgment against repetition is not justified (by either Fox or Hendel). Two poetic lines in Proverbs often have overlapping or even identical items; for instance, verbs identical in root if not also inflection, are used in enough cases to establish it as acceptable poetic style (see, for example, see Prov 8:5 [הָבִינוּ//הָבינוּ‎], 11:7 [תֹּאבַד//אָבְדָה‎]‎, 11:16 [תִּתְמֹךְ//יִתְמְכוּ]‎, 18:20 [תִּשְׂבַּע//יִשְׂבָּע)]). If we added examples of other parts of speech as well as the other poetic corpora, it would become clear that ancient Hebrew poets were not so averse to what modern scholars may consider to be “pointless” or “banal” repetition between poetic line pairs (on the essentially “repetitive” syntax and semantics of poetic line relations, see Holmstedt f.c).

The second question raised by Fox’s choice to emend is whether an error of dittography is really suggested by the Septuagint’s κάθῃ. A brief survey of the Greek evidence in Proverbs will illustrate the issue. Throughout the Septuagint, the Hebrew שׁכב is overwhelmingly rendered by Greek κοιμάομαι (middle of κοιμάω) ‘to fall asleep, go or lie abed’. But this Greek verb is used only once in Proverbs, in 4:16, where the MT does not have שׁכב but כשׁל.FN1 Thus, there is already a departure by the Greek Proverbs translator from patterns established outside Proverbs. Moreover, of the eight times that שׁכב is used in Proverbs, the Septuagint translates with an interesting variety of terms: κάθῃ (> κάθημαι ‘to sit, sit down, sit quiet, lie’) in 3:24a for תִּשְׁכַּ֥ב; καθεύδῃς (> καθεύδω ‘to lie down to sleep’) in 3:24b for וְשָׁכַבְתָּ֗; κατάκεισαι (> κατάκειμαι ‘to lie down’) in 6:9 for תִּשְׁכָּ֑ב; καθεύδῃς (> καθεύδω ‘to lie down to sleep’) in 6:22 for the infinitive in ‏בְּֽשָׁכְבְּךָ; κατακείσῃ (> κατάκειμαι ‘to lie down’) in 23:34a for שֹׁכֵ֣ב; and for the forms of שׁכב in 6:10, 23:34b, and 24:33, the Septuagint offers no gloss and appears to render the text quite differently.2 Concerning the proposed change to ישׁב, the Greek translator is more consistent: in all but one of its occurrences κάθημαι renders ישׁב (with the sole exception outside Proverbs: the use of a form of κάθημαι to translate the participle רֹכֵ֨ב in Isa 19:1).

To what end does this brief study bring us? Fox himself characterizes the translation technique of the Greek Proverbs translator as “flexible” and he favorably quotes Peter Gentry’s assessment that “The problem of the relationship between LXX and MT Proverbs is notorious and vexing” (2015: 36). Fox is certain that the Septuagint Proverbs reflects a different edition of Proverbs than the Masoretic edition and avers that, “[s]ometimes [the Septuagint translator] maps his source closely, sometimes paraphrases, sometimes expands the quantitative representation of Hebrew words, sometimes reduces it, and sometimes just guesses at meaning” (40). He goes on to say that the lack of an isomorphic translation at one place simply illustrates “the kinds of things the translator can do.” In light of both the general character of the Septuagint Provers, as described by Fox, and the variety of glosses given to Hebrew שׁכב in Proverbs, it becomes clear that the case of תשׁכב in 3:24 is not nearly as simple as Fox (and Hendel) suggest. On the one hand, the poetically acceptable use of repetition of verbal roots in associated poetic lines and, and other hand, the reasonable possibility that the Greek translator paraphrased the תשׁכב (perhaps due to the same impulse that motivated Fox’s emendation, to see a sequence of actions) or the translator used a Hebrew text that had תשׁב (which also may have reflected an inner Hebrew change from תשׁכב for the impulse already mention) together suggest that that the Septuagintal evidence does not strongly support emendation.

The point of these two examples is that decisions to emend must reflect a deep sophistication that is often beyond the time and abilities of a single scholar (as I have admitted for myself in handling the Septuagint). For 5:22, any statement about the “syntactic integration” (or lack thereof) must be grounded in both a thorough knowledge of Hebrew grammar and an awareness of how the Versions, especially the non-Semitic Septuagint, deals with acceptable but uncommon Hebrew syntax. Fox’s own argument for the similar syntax of Prov 13:4 and the omission by the Greek of נפשׁו provides a reasonable argument for keeping the את הרשׁע of MT 5:22a. For Prov 3:24, we have seen that the Greek does not present a rigid profile for rendering the Hebrew שׁכב and the juxtaposition of poetic lines with the same root or form is not uncommon in Hebrew poetic style. Thus, two other options are linguistically just as likely as Fox’s choice to emend: the Greek translator may have rendered תִּשְׁכַּ֥ב with a minority but semantically acceptable choice, or a copyist wrote תשׁב for תשׁכב by accidentally skipping the כ (haplography).

This discussion is in no way meant to detract from the scholarship of Michael Fox, who was one of my mentors. Rather, the problems I have noted in the first volume of HBCE, produced by a scholar of high repute, who has spent an entire career working on Proverbs, suggest that if such a text-critical project is even feasible the volumes cannot be accomplished by individuals. In the absence of the kind of extraordinary skill set rarely found among scholars in our age of compartmentalization, a highly reconstructive project requires a text-critical and linguistic partnership for each volume, with both kinds of scholars in continuous conversation as they reconstruct the philological text and linguistic text.

Scholarly partnerships aside, in light of a reconstructed text’s (lack of) linguistic value, a text critical project like the HBCE should always and only be considered a commentary series, never a text edition. Such an eclectic text (or better, in Fox’s words, a “construct”) should never be used as a classroom text or for exegetical scholarship. It has no historical reality and, as such, has no direct value for historical or linguistic research. Unfortunately, since Fox’s Proverbs text is printed a second time at the back of the volume—apart from the commentary— it appears that eventually creating a separate, stand-alone volume of the reconstructed texts is precisely what is intended. But hiving off the text part of the commentary for an eclectic text edition would undermine Hendel’s statement that the “decisions and analyses will then be available for discussion, refinement, and refutation—the normal process of scholarship” (2016:16). Divorcing the final product apart from the commentary would not only gut the reconstructed text of any pedagogical value, it would cast a darkly elitist shadow over Hendel’s argument that the HBCE project will protecting those “who may be innocent of the discipline of textual criticism,” that is, “those least qualified, ” from making “important text-critical judgments” (ibid).

1. Fox (2015:111) suggests that either “a copyist duplicated ישׁנו from 4:16a” which the Septuagint translator rendered differently in 16b for the sake of variety (16a renders ישׁנו by ὑπνώσωσιν]), or a scribe accidentally flipped the שׁכ to כשׁ (metathesis), which the Greek translator then, presumably, read as שׁכב (how the ל of כשׁל was read as a ב in שׁכב is not explained).

2. Strangely, Fox does not discuss the Septuagint’s omission of לִשְׁכָּֽב in 6:10 (130-131) or 24:33 (330-31). And he describes the lack of a gloss for כְשֹׁכֵ֗ב in 23:34b as “semantically superfluous” (319).


Works Cited

Brooke, George J.
2013 The Qumran Scrolls and the Demise of the Distinction between Higher and Lower Criticism. Pp. 1-17 in Reading the Dead Sea Scrolls: Essays in Method, EJL 39; Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Brotzman, Ellis R. and Eric J. Tully
2016 Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Fox, Michael V.
2000 Proverbs 1-9: A New Translations with Introduction and Commentary. AB 18A. New York: Doubleday.
2009 Proverbs 10-31: A New Translations with Introduction and Commentary. AB 18B. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
2015 Proverbs: An Eclectic Edition with Introduction and Textual Commentary. HBCE 1. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press.

Friedman, Matti
2012 The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Goshen-Gottstein, Moshe H.
1979 The Aleppo Codex and the Rise of the Massoretic Bible Text. BA 42 (3): 145–63.

Hendel, Ronald S.
1998 The Text of Genesis 1-11: Textual Studies and Critical Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2008 The Oxford Hebrew Bible: Prologue to a New Critical Edition. VT 58: 324-351.
2016 Steps to a New Edition of the Hebrew Bible. Text Critical Studies 10. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press.

Holmstedt, Robert D.
2013 The Nexus between Text Criticism and Linguistics: A Case Study from Leviticus. JBL 132 (3): 473-94.
f.c. Biblical Hebrew: and the Appositive Style: ‘Parallelism’, requiescat in pace. To appear in Vetus Testamentum

Holmstedt, Robert D. and Andrew R. Jones
2017 Apposition in Biblical Hebrew—Its Structure and Function.” KUSATU 22: 21-51

Tov, Emanuel
2000 The Textual Basis of Modern Translations of the Hebrew Bible: The Argument against Eclecticism. Textus 20: 193 – 211. (Revised version, Pp. 92-106 in E. Tov, Hebrew Bible, Greek Bible, and Qumran: Collected Essays; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008)
2006 Hebrew Scripture Editions: Philosophy and Praxis. Pp. 281-312 in From 4QMMT to Resurrection: Mélanges qumraniens en hommage à Émile Puech; ed. F. García Martínez et al.; STDJ 61; Leiden: Brill. (Revised version, Pp. 247-70 E. Tov, Hebrew Bible, Greek Bible, and Qumran: Collected Essays; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008)
2011 Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. 3rd ed., revised and expanded. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.
2014 New Editions of the Hebrew Scriptures: A Response. HeBAI 3: 375 – 383.

Williamson, Hugh G.M.
2009 Do We Need A New Bible? Reflections on the Proposed Oxford Hebrew Bible. Biblica 90: 153-175.