This past November’s NAPH annual meeting brought a close to several years of discussions about linguistic dating of biblical texts that will be preserved in a volume of the papers being being edited by Ziony Zevit and Cynthia L. Miller and published by Eisenbrauns. Both of us have papers appearing in that volume that we have posted here (Cook) and here (Holmstedt).
Participating in the meetings has helped clarify the arguments in the debate. Perhaps the foremost of these is the claim that linguistics cannot independently date biblical texts (see Young 2005; 2010; see Cook’s paper for bibliography). We both drew on Hale’s (2007) recent work on historical linguistics to clarify what is really at issue here: the artifact texts and the language represented in those artifacts are distinct and only the latter falls within the purview of the linguistic enterprise (see further in our papers). Thus, it is certainly true that linguistics cannot date the biblical text, because that is a philological task. However, the continued protests misleadingly suggest that linguistics has nothing to contribute to the philological task; this seems to be the point Young (2010) driving at in response to Cook’s paper: “We claim instead that the nature of the biblical texts is such that this chronology, however, is not visible in any way that makes linguistic dating of biblical texts possible.” Given their calls to reevaluate the traditional chronological model of the biblical text from the ground up, claiming that no relevant diachronic data is “visible” in the text is nothing less than prejudging of the data. Regardless of how much the biblical texts may be in disarray due to scribal activities, every author, redactor, and scribe contributes linguistic data that linguistics may legitimately be used to analyze.
Their preclusion of any role for diachronic linguistics in the analysis of biblical texts is evident in the many and varied protests that share the view that the biblical texts are simply not a legitimate source of linguistic data (e.g., there is an “unbridgeable gap” between the artifact text and the “original text”; as a literary text the Bible yields not usable diachronic data because the rate of diffusion differs from that of spoken language, etc.). Such arguments lay bare the real agenda of those that make them: linguistics must refrain from making any diachronic statements about the biblical text. To admit that “there is still a history of the Hebrew language” but then to preclude from the database the major textual artifact of that language is astonishingly illogical.
A second issue also involves prejudgments. Following the work of C.-J. Bailey, A. Kroch, and S. Pintzuk (see esp. Holmstedt’s bibliography), we invoked the “S-curve” of diachronic change. Without getting into particulars (for that, see our papers), diachronic changes in languages show a pattern, whereby the older feature is replaced by the newer feature in a way that reflects the Sigmoid function (hence, the S-curve). Those who are unshakeably opposed to seeing any connection between the linguistic data in biblical texts and the (relative) dating of those texts have served up an odd counter-argument. It goes like this (and we are sincerely attempting to avoid making straw man of the argument): “The results of Holmstedt’s and Cook’s S-curves are so different than what we’d expect, it would require those in biblical studies to engage in wholesale re-evaluation of the dates typically assigned to the book. Ergo, their S-curves cannot be valid.”
Do you see what we see? We have a bit of a problem with this line of argumentation. With our S-curves (which are based on single features and are thus only a starting point for such research), we are proposing that the linguistic data be taken seriously, even if it suggests some radical changes to the dates commonly assigned to books—-or better, since we eschew absolute dating, to the relative order of reflected in the dates commonly assigned to books. We suggest that numerous S-curves could be overlaid, resulting in a relative order of books that reflects a truly methodologically sound approach to the linguistic variation we can all see in the biblical (and extra-biblical) texts. To dismiss our S-curve proposal by judging the results against pre-assigned dates for the books is patently unscientific.
JAC & RDH