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.)

2014 summary, with a new article posted

After a very crazy year (not all of it academics-induced), I can at least say two positive things: First, I had a wonderful year teaching (I am teaching through our BH textbook this year, which is very fun, and I taught a graduate course on Ezekiel, which was challenging and deeply satisfying). And second, though I have not blogged much at all, I have been productive (as has John, but he’ll have to tell you in his own post). Last year witnessed the appearance of my article with my doctoral student, Andrew Jones (see the post here), a just released article on the grammar of זֶה (more on that below), and a soon to appear article on “edge constituents” (i.e., left and right dislocation, topicalization, and extraposition).

The article on זֶה appeared in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures last week and represents one of the last little puzzles I needed to solve before finishing my book on the relative clause (almost done!). This was a very satisfying article to write, since I both solved my problem to my satisfaction and used both sets of skills sets I received in my academic training — linguistics with C.L. Miller-Naudé and close textual reading with M. F. Fox. You can get the article at the JHS site, or I’ve posted it right below.

Holmstedt, Robert D. 2014. Analyzing זֶה Grammar and Reading זֶה Texts of Ps 68:9 and Judg 5:5. The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 14, no. 8: 1-26. (PDF link)

The article on edge constituents represents the fruits of many years labor. I first addressed left dislocation and topicalization for a regional SBL paper way back in 1999. My conclusions back then were not entirely adequate, so I left the issues simmer for over a decade before picking them back up in 2013 and 2014. Though the nearly 50 pages of the KUSATU article (which should appear very soon) do not say *everything* about these issues that should be said, I provide what I consider to be an accurate framework for understanding the syntax and function of the constructions in BH. I will post the article here (as well as to my page) when it appears.

Holmstedt, Robert D. 2014. Constituents at the Edge in Biblical Hebrew. KUSATU: Kleine Untersuchungen zur Sprache des Alten Testaments und seiner Umwelt 17, 109-156.

Additionally, I have begun drafting a descriptive grammar of the War Scroll (1QM) with another doctoral student in our program, John Screnock. I will post a few of the spin-off articles here, when they are further along in the press cycle.

Finally, John Screnock and I finished and submitted our Baylor Handbook on the Book of Esther! Phew.

All things considered, 2014 was a busy year. Mostly good, some frustrating. I hope 2015 is more of the good and less of the frustrating.

New Article in the Journal of Semitic Studies

The latest issue of the Journal of Semitic Studies (2014; 59/1) is out and has an article that I wrote with my doctoral student, Andrew Jones.

Robert D. Holmstedt and Andrew R. Jones. 2014. “The Pronoun in Tripartite Verbless Clauses in Biblical Hebrew: Resumption for Left-Dislocation or Pronominal Copula?” Journal of Semitic Studies. 59(1): 53-89.

This article is related to this earlier post, as well as this JBL article that came out last Fall.

For the full article, see here and scroll down.

A Linguistic Profile of the Book of Esther (SBL 2013)

A doctoral student in my department, John Screnock, and I are co-presenting a paper in the SBL Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew section in Baltimore on Sunday. The paper is a much shortened version of a large section of our introductory chapter in the Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible volume on Esther that we are writing (the volume is now 99% drafted).

Since we have finished the paper much sooner than I typically do, I have posted the paper and handout below. (It’s a relief to anticipate a flight without finishing my paper—what an odd feeling.)

See you in Baltimore!



My Entries in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics

Brill sent out the offprints from the EHLL to authors last week. They expressly asked in the email that authors not post their offprints to That’s too bad, since it is a very useful way to share articles. I will acquiesce, though, and refrain from posting my offprints there. Instead, I will post them here (which they fully allow).

Holmstedt, Robert D., and B. Elan Dresher.
2013. Clitics: Pre-Modern Hebrew. Pp. 458-63 in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, Volume 1: A‒F, ed. Geoffrey Khan. Boston/Leiden: Brill. (PDF)

Holmstedt, Robert D.
2013. Hypotaxis. Pp. 220-22 in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, Volume 2: G‒O, ed. Geoffrey Khan. Boston/Leiden: Brill. (PDF)

2013. Pro-drop. Pp. 265-67 in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, Volume 3: P‒Z, ed. Geoffrey Khan. Boston/Leiden: Brill. (PDF)

2013. Relative Clause: Biblical Hebrew. Pp. 350-57 in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, Volume 3: P‒Z, ed. Geoffrey Khan. Boston/Leiden: Brill. (PDF)

Recycling . . . its not just about the environment!

Perhaps it is the combined effect of information explosion beginning the end of last century combined with the unending pressure to publish or perish, but too often scholars find themselves covering the same old ground that has already been well-covered by past scholars. It is not simply that we are engaged in the same sorts of debates (Indeed, my work on the verb admittedly focuses on one of the most longstanding debates in Hebrew grammar!), it is that we too quickly forget the ideas that earlier scholars have advanced—usually unsuccessfully, which explains their forgotten state. Unfortunately, the rapid digitization of these old resources makes such absent-minded recycling even more egregious.

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Posted in Hebrew Semantics, Hebrew Syntax, Historical linguistics, Linguistics (theory or typology), Verbal System, Word Order. Comments Off on Recycling . . . its not just about the environment!

A little Phoenician

Phoenician is a close relative of ancient Hebrew, so …

I’m happy to announce the imminent release of a collection of articles that I’ve co-edited with Aaron Schade (BYU-Hawaii). The volume is dedicated to the memory of J. Brian Peckham, who taught NWS epigraphy at U of T for 30 years. Aaron wrote his doctoral thesis under Peckham at U of T and had the privilege of knowing Brian a few more years than I did. But even during the all-too-brief three years I knew him, I came to understand just how encouraging and inspiring this scholar-teacher was — he was warm, welcoming, witty, and more than happy to share his considerable knowledge and wisdom. Indeed, on one our first meetings when I came to U of T, he shared his many class notes with me; after he passed, I learned from his executor that Brian had specified that I was to get first choice of anything in his extensive library. For these and many more reasons, I will also be indebted to J. Brian Peckham.

Although Brian passed away (September 2008) before the contributions to the volume in his honor were finished, the project had already taken shape by the summer of 2008 and I was able to tell him about during our last beer-and-burger lunch together in  August, just weeks before his final hospitalization. Surprised delight is the only way to describe his reaction. While Brian loved Phoenician and it was both the topic of his doctoral thesis and a subject he taught his entire career, it seems to me that he didn’t realize how much he contributed to the field. But, that was Brian — humble and self-effacing.

Eisenbrauns is running a sale of Phoenician right now, including pre-orders for our book. Take a look!

Also, take a look at Peckham’s final work — his history of Phoenicia, which will be published posthumously by Eisenbrauns.