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.)

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