Workshop on Biblical Hebrew Linguistics and Philology

If you’re in Jerusalem at the end of June, you’re welcome to register and attend.

Website: https://bhlapworkshop2018.wordpress.com/

Below is the poster. What a line-up of presentations!

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The Lord’s Prayer kerfuffle, from a Hebraist’s perspective

Pope Francis has a gift for generating news, even over the nuttiest things. I’m not a big fan (even though I’m Catholic), but I do recognize the genius of his media strategy (assuming it’s a strategy).

His latest news-making comment was an offhand remark about translating the Lord’s Prayer / Our Father, specifically the line “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13). He apparently suggested that, since a father doesn’t lead his children into temptation, nor would God; rather, this is what Satan does. (See here and follow the youtube link for the interview with Pope Francis).

Now, apart from the theological fireworks this engendered (see here or here for basically intelligent discussions, or here for a less intelligent conversation, or google it and read until you drop), it has also raised questions about translation. One might think that this is interesting, but in fact the lack of grammatical thinking about the issues has made it a largely misguided discussion.

But not to fear, a grammarian is here!

The Greek in question is this: μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, in which the verb εἰσφέρω “to bring in” is inflected as a 2nd person singular aorist active subjunctive. But let’s forget this Indo-European language and consider what the Hebrew or Aramaic prayer would have looked like and what that could have meant.

Though I think it entirely plausible that Jesus and disciples spoke Hebrew or perhaps Aramaic, rather than starting with a reconstruction, it’s easier and philologically more defensible to begin with an attested text, in this case the Syriac Peshitta. The relevant text is below:

ܘܠܳܐ ܬ݁ܰܥܠܰܢ ܠܢܶܣܝܽܘܢܳܐ

In the Syriac, the verb used is ܥܠܠ or in square script, עלל, which is functionally equivalent to Hebrew בוא. The form of the verb is a 2ms imperfect in the Aphel, with a 1cp attached pronoun as the object (like Hebrew Hiphil jussive אַל תְּבִיאֵנוּ or in the imperfect לֹא תְּבִיאֶנּוּ), hence “do not cause us to enter” or “do not bring us in” and the following PP is “to trial” or “to testing” (or even, if you really prefer, “to temptation”). So this seems pretty straightforward, no?

No. In Syriac, as in Hebrew, the causative formation can have a modal nuance that indicates permission or toleration; thus, the connotation could also be “do not allow us to enter” or “do not permit us to enter”. And I strongly suspect the Greek can tolerate the same range of nuances (pun intended).

And so Pope Francis’ wild and hairy suggestion may have some real (Semitic) traction. Whether or not Jesus intended this permissive nuance or the more straightforward nuance is almost beside the point (as it often is, really); the absence of any grammatical nuance in the plethora comments about Pope Francis’ suggestion is the real point — why doesn’t anyone study grammar deeply anymore? This whole non-issue has been painful to read about.

As a final thought, concerning the theology of God inducing temptation, what about putting that damnable tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden and then proscribing its juicy fruit? Seems kind of temptation-inducing, doesn’t it? But oops, that’s just the text getting in the way of theology again.

 

On the Syntax of BH Poetry

Saturday morning I presented a paper at the annual Canadian Society for Biblical Studies. In the paper, I addressed some issues of poetic syntax. Why am I studying poetry? I’m not really that poetic or creative or literarily sensitive. (I will confess that much of what passes for poetry mystifies me, but then I’d probably have rebuked E.E. Cummings and told him to take a course in punctuation.)

Why I’m studying poetry is simply that this is the road some recent linguistics research led me down. I wouldn’t be on this road otherwise. Regardless, I’m interested in getting feedback on my notions. To that end, my paper is posted below.

Holmstedt_Syntax of Hebrew Poetry_CSBS2017

In a small nutshell, I’m attempting to reduce the syntactic options that an ancient Hebrew poetic faced when concluding a poetic line. My argument is that it can be described as a binary choice, between apposition and non-apposition, rather than the six tropes that Michael O’Connor described in his magisterial Hebrew Verse Structure. I see all uses of language through a grammatical lens. My first question when I encounter some conventional use of language is always, “How does that work syntactically?” I take the position that no matter the convention (of prose, poetry, epistolary, etc.), they are always bound by grammar.

So, let me know if I’ve convinced you, even in part.

Reviewing a review of my The Relative Clause in Biblical Hebrew

*edited on May 30 due to a copyright challenge of my posting the PDF of the RBL review for non-SBL members; see here for more discussion*

Writing a book review, especially of a technical monograph, is not an easy task (I wrote on this topic over 6 years ago, here). This is why I have until now hesitated to address Frank Polak’s RBL review (here; no longer posted here for those without subscription–sorry, see my newer post on this change) of my book on the relative clause (Eisenbrauns link). Actually, I had decided not to respond at all until I saw Larry Hurtado’s blog post in which he discussed John Kloppenborg’s review of Hurtado’s book Destroy of the Gods. Since some of Hurtado’s problems with the review of his book are similar to my thoughts about Polak’s review of mine, reading Hurtado’s post prompted me to write this post (which I’ve now finally found the time to do).

I really do appreciate Frank’s deep engagement with my book and I read the review as mostly positive. The first three pages present a good summary of my chapters and his last paragraph is encouraging. If it were not for a major methodological point on p. 4 of the review, I would not be writing this brief post. In the first full paragraph on p. 4, where Polak begins his criticism, he laments that “more place has [not] been given to functional linguistics, in particular in the tradition of Michael Halliday” and he also calls my discussion of what “(a) language” is (pp. 33-35, where I introduced a philosophy of language discussion by Trevor Pateman) “misleading.” Since I can not post the PDF for those without SBL memberships, I quote below from the relevant paragraph:

There can be no doubt regarding the value of Holmstedt’s study. Treatment along similar lines of other phenomena will advance our knowledge of Biblical Hebrew and other Semitic languages most considerably. Still, some details are slightly disappointing. On a general level, it is to be regretted that no more place has been given to functional linguistics, in particular in the tradition of Michael Halliday. I say this in order to underline the importance of a general observation in the opening of Holmstedt’s study (1) concerning the general human preference for expanded phrases and expressions, a tendency to which Halliday has paid much attention in his treatment of expansion and enhancement as general features of syntax. By the same token, the definition of language as a social fact (33–35) seems slightly misleading. Is not language a social semiotic system used in communication by means of audial, grammatical, and lexical entities? Holmstedt finds the foundations of language usage in the personal idiolect, but this assumption is undermined by the communicative context. By contrast, Biblical Hebrew has lost its immediate social context and thus is no more than a “grapholect,” in the terms of Walter Ong. (Polak, review of Holmstedt’s Relative Clause in BH, RBL 04/2017, p. 4)

These criticisms betray a linguistic naivete, in the first place, and a faulty reading of my argument, in the second.

On the use of functional linguistics, I make it clear in my outline of linguistic theory that, while I adopt the data-richness of typological linguistics, I do not adopt the often underlying functional paradigm; rather, I adhere to the generative theory of language. This is an important point in my book (and all my research) because it is a deeply flawed notion I have encountered again and again in Biblical Hebrew studies that one can simply mix and match linguistic theories. This is not so. Linguistic theories are almost always the outworking of very different notions of what human language is and how it works and how linguistic research should be carried out. The assumption behind Polak’s criticism, that I could have easily included functional linguistics, is horribly wrong-headed. (Would that I never encounter it again in Biblical Hebrew studies!—though the realist within me suggests I will have to suffer it again and more than once).

Concerning the mistaken reading of my language argument, I had simply summarized Pateman’s conclusions before moving to the well-trod discussion that the formal notion of “a language” to use in linguistic study is the idiolect (and at this point I used a lengthy and insightful quotation from Jacobus Naudé). [Addition: Note that in generative theory, the idiolect is a formal concept, the “I-language,” that relates to the competence vs. performance distinction. As for the “grapholect” nature of the biblical data, I address this at length in the book and quoting Ong does nothing to address my arguments.] So, in fact, I never asserted anywhere in my book that language is a social fact. I’m not sure why Polak picked up on this issue and made an inaccurate point of it in the review. But it stands out, and I think it’s worth clarifying.

Finally, as a smaller point, Polak misreads my reconstruction of the history of אֲשֶׁר, and actually cites a study by Faist and Vita on the Akkadian ašar used in the Emar texts against me, even though I use that very study as support in building my argument! (I could point out similar issues I have with his comments on שׁ relatives and ה relatives, but I’ll let my book do the work it’s supposed to do).

Again, I thank Frank Polak for the substantive engagement with my admittedly technical, dense, and probably-not-too-fun-to-read study of the Hebrew relative clause. Frank and I disagree on many things related to Biblical Hebrew grammar, but since we met a decade or so ago, we have been able to do so amicably. I am grateful for this.

As a postscript to this review of a review, I will add a few meta comments. I find things like the use of the same data or source by two scholars to criticize each other’s argument ironic and humorous. When I read or experience this, it often provokes a bit of reflection—for a least the duration of a good cup of coffee—about the nature of debate in academia: is it about discovering truth or scoring rhetorical points? Of course, it does not escape me that this post can be accused of engaging in the rhetorical combat! I can only forestall such a conclusion by noting that this post reflects what I have said or written many times, that a clear methodology and a theoretical (self-)awareness are critical if we are to push forward in seeking the truth (on BH grammar, or any other topic). My adamant stance on this, as well as high expectations that arguments and counter-arguments are logical and sensible (two slightly different notions, in my opinion), are undoubtedly at the heart of why I have gained a reputation in some circles as … ahem … someone hard to get along with. I have clearly stepped on a few (dozen) toes (or feet) over the last decade or so. I make no apology for this, since what I have said or written has never been ad hominem or intentionally negative; however blunt my responses have been, they have had the singular goal of sorting out Hebrew grammar better. (And my wife and seven children know I’m actually nice.)

My SBL papers—abstracts and handouts

In a rare occurrence, this year I am actually finished with both my papers and the handouts before I fly to the annual meeting. To celebrate this oddity, I’m posting my handouts here for interested folks, along with the abstracts and the meeting information (for those going to San Antonio). After the conference, I’ll follow-up with summaries of how the papers were received.

#1) Ugaritic and Northwest Semitics unit

Sunday (Nov 20) morning, 9am, Mission A (2nd Level) – Grand Hyatt (GH)

Clarifying Apposition in Ugaritic // The Displacement of “Parallelism”

The juxtaposition of two constituents of the same category, such as noun apposition (e.g., Niqmaddu, the king) or noun-numeral apposition (e.g., thirty (shekels), lapis lazuli), is a fundamental noun modification strategy, alongside adjectival modification, noun cliticization (the bound relationship), and relativization. Though studies of Ugaritic grammar have long noted the use of apposition, particularly with numerals, the distribution and semantics of apposition are worthy of a focused analysis, which I will undertake in this study. Moreover, I will provide an initial investigation into the possible relationship between verb phrase or clausal apposition (types of apposition rarely recognized in Ugaritic or Hebrew studies) and the use of parallelism in poetic texts.

Handout here.

#2) Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew unit

Tuesday (Nov 22) morning, 9a, 303C (3rd Level) – Convention Center (CC)

Parenthesis in Biblical Hebrew

Like other interruptive structures, such as vocatives, exclamatives, and even non-restrictive relatives and appositives, parentheses pose challenges for linguistic analysis. In general linguistics, the terms “parenthesis” and “parenthetical” are used for a wide range of phenomena, which may or may not represent a single linguistic construction (Burton-Roberts 2006). It is thus not surprising that there has emerged no consensus on how parentheticals relate to their the adjacent or surrounding clause with which they share an apparent connection. This general state of confusion is well-represented in the only full study of parentheticals in Biblical Hebrew (Zewi 2007)—parenthesis is described as simultaneously “syntactically unattached” and “maintain[ing] a certain syntactic connection”, and a wide range of arguably disparate Hebrew constructions are cited as varieties of parenthesis. The current study is an attempt to bring some order to the relative chaos and so present a coherent analysis of parenthesis in Biblical Hebrew.

Handout here.

Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew SBL program unit

Dear Colleagues,

We want to share with you our disappointment and concern over the recent downgrading of  the Linguistic and Biblical Hebrew program unit from a section to a seminar (on the distinction, see here) by the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting Program Committee. We are sharing this development with as many of our colleagues as possible, because it is deeply concerning in several respects and we think it deserves a response from the scholarly community.

First, it is concerning that the decision is being made by a committee as to what are in the interests of the scholarly community, rather than by the community itself. The very structure of program units (consultations, seminars, and sections) suggests that the community is the primary determiner of where its own scholarly interests lie. The Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew section has been an active and well-attended participant in the annual meeting for 30 years, contributing to biblical scholarship through its educative aims (see description of the program unit below) and the numerous publications that have emerged from the sessions.

Description of Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew program unit: The goals of this section include: (1) to provide a unique, cross-disciplinary forum for the application of modern linguistic theory and methodology to the study of biblical Hebrew; (2) to encourage interest in linguistics and its advantages for biblical exegesis and interpretation among biblical scholars who do not have prior training in linguistic theory; (3) to promote publication of scholarly works which apply linguistics to biblical Hebrew.

Second, we found the process of renewal to be confused and unprofessional. The decision was dragged out for almost half a year, during which time the steering committee worked to put together the sessions for 2016 without any certainty that the section would be allowed to continue.

The below links are intended to document the process and outcome of our renewal attempt. We thought it important to share all of these with our colleagues before asking that you share your support for the Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew program unit and concern over the decision making process and outcome of the SBL Annual Meeting Program Committee. We ask you to share your views and ideas about the future direction of the study of Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew by writing to Prof Jacobus Naude, the program unit chair of LBH at naudej@ufs.ac.za.*

*Note: An earlier version of this post mentioned a petition. The committee has one “waiting in the wings,” and may yet utilize it. For now, we think it is prudent to begin with a call that support be expressed to the steering committee chair, Jacobus Naudé at the above e-mail address (see the open letter for list of option being contemplated).

Sincerely,
Jacobus Naudé, chair
Tania Notarius
Adina Moshavi
John A. Cook

Initial Proposal (October 2015)

Response to Initial Proposal (2015/10/20)

Revised Proposal (2015/11/10)

Response to Revised Proposal (2015/12/21)

Final Decision (2016/03/02)

Letter to John Kutsko (2016/04/15)

SBL Resolution Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew (2016/05/10)

Clarification e-mail to John Kutsko & Response (2016/07/03)

Email exchanges

אשׁר and שׁ in Jonah — a new article in Vetus Testamentum

As part of my long-term research on the relative clause in Hebrew (see my book in the sidebar), I mulled over the variation of אשׁר and שׁ in the book many, many times. I felt like I had most of the pieces, but there was a critical perspective missing (communication accommodation theory — thanks, Alex!). This is perhaps the most wonderful benefit of teaching—learning from a sharp student. My co-author studied with me at U of T for only a year, but in that time he not only provided me with the key to sorting out the Jonah problem, he wrote an excellent paper on Ezekiel, which is also in press as a joint article with another excellent young scholar, Peter Bekins.

Anyway, Alex’s and my article on Jonah just came out in VT and here it is.