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Notes from Limmud 2004

The Story of Hebrew

Joel Hoffman

[My notes for this exclude stuff I already know.]

[blah blah blah about the evolution of Canaanite writing from Egyptian hieroglyphics; about how there were squillions of hieroglyphs, making reading and writing a skilled job.]

Three thousand years ago (950? 900? BCE), the Hebrews' innovation was the matres lectionis (the use of consonants as vowel markers - א indicating /a/, י /i/ and ו /w/). This made it possible for the first time for everyone to learn to read and write, not just highly-trained scribes. This resulted in the Hebrews becoming the first largely literate culture. This is partly evidenced by the commandment "You shall write it on the doorposts of your house" - the ordinary person was expected to know writing. (Though part of the reason for this was to spread the religion.)

(Interesting factoid on the development of the letter names: in Aramaic "-a", a suffix, is "the"; hence "ha-alef" became "alpha", the name the Greeks inherited.)

The oldest copy of the Hebrew Bible is only a thousand years old, and was given to us by the Masoretes. They claimed to be preserving the tradition of ancient manuscripts that came to them, but how do we know they weren't making things up? [In the way, I suppose, that Biblical critics claim the Book of Deuteronomy was made up, not found as he claimed, by Hilkiah the High Priest. -- MSG]

How do we know how to pronounce Biblical Hebrew? Name transcriptions into Greek and Latin are little use as we know how Greek and Latin are pronounced due to name transcriptions into each other and Hebrew! [The speaker did not touch upon the subject of deriving pronounciations from modern Romance and Greek languages, or from modern or mediaeval Arabic and Aramaic.]

The system of the Tiberian Masoretes - that we use nowadays - does not match with the Babylonian Masoretes! The סגול to קמץ transformation seen in melech (king) --> malkā (queen) does not occur in the Babylonian system! What does this tell us about how Hebrew was pronounced a thousand years earlier? [Hmm, I'm going to have to look that up in the Encyclopaedia Judaica.]

To what extent does Masoretic Hebrew capture Biblical Hebrew? One can use the Septuagint (300 BCE) to help gauge this. But note again discrepancies arise here, such as even the number of syllables in "Rebekah" (LXX) vs. "Rivka" (Masoretic Hebrew). (There is also the secunda columna - a first century CE transcription of the Bible into Greek (now largely destroyed)- closer to the Massoretic Text than the Septuagint.) An interesting point about the Septuagint is that it rendered the Tetragrammaton as κυριος (pardon my Greek) - backing evidence that at this point "Adonai" was being used to avoid pronouncing the Divine Name.

Other documents that can help us include the Dead Sea Scrolls. Also, the Talmud, and Midrash, because the Dead Sea Scrolls disagree - there's a second Deuteronomy in first person. Also more than one hundred and fifty Psalms - perhaps the canonical version is merely the hundred and fifty best of the psalms. Certainly some of the extra ones don't match the standard of the canonical ones.

But note also that Rashi when quoting Scripture in the eleventh century does not agree with the Masoretic version! You can also find differences within the Masoretic Text, when the same passage occurs twice, e.g. in Kings and Chronicles: the spellings of words disagree. The Dead Sea Scrolls also have many more matres lectionis than the Masoretic Text.

The answer is that the Masoretes really were doing what they told us: transcribing ancient texts (because after all, they were trying to capture the ancient texts) - though where did these manuscripts go? [I wouldn't have thought this was a hard question to answer; time takes its toll.] And why did the Masoretes put the books into a different order to the listing used in the Talmud?
ext_8103: (Default)
From: [identity profile] ewx.livejournal.com
I thought there was more to it than that - e.g. classical descriptions of pronunciation, evidence from poetry, etc. (And the back-tracking from their modern descendants that you already mention.) Still, it seems fair enough to note that using reconstructed ancient pronunciations to reconstruct further ancient pronunciations seems likely to magnify errors.
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
The problem about poetry is that Biblical poetry lacks both rhyme and metre, and in most cases is presented in continuous lines the same as prose. As [livejournal.com profile] livredor pointed out to me, what distinguishes it as different from prose is its use of parallelism, where the second half of each verse repeats the sentiment of the first in different words.

As for classical descriptions of pronounciation, none such exist for Hebrew, and I'm not sure (from what I remember of what the speaker said) that they exist for Latin or Greek either.

Date: 2005-01-04 02:19 pm (UTC)
liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
From: [personal profile] liv
This is confusing: are you talking about using the Masoretic text to infer stuff about how Biblical Hebrew was pronounced, or about whether the Masoretic text is a reliable record of what Torah actually says? Or both? Not the same question.

Also the thing about the earliest Bible being a thousand years old - I think it's closer 1200 - but anyway, the way you say that implies that that is the earliest evidence altogether. Obviously there are manuscripts of individual books of the Bible, plus other sources eg Midrash, Talmud etc quoting Torah. I believe there's a very early manuscript of Isaiah on its own. And a few more of the equivalent of a modern Chumash, plus several books of Neviim bound together as one volume or Ketuvim ditto.

In haste, will expand on this at some point.

Date: 2005-01-09 08:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
are you talking about using the Masoretic text to infer stuff about how Biblical Hebrew was pronounced, or about whether the Masoretic text is a reliable record of what Torah actually says? Or both?

Both, and you're right; it is confusing as I had written it. Apologies.

Date: 2005-01-08 08:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] snjstar.livejournal.com
Just as well I was at the session or would not have understood some of it.

Date: 2005-01-08 11:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Yah; this set of notes leaves out great swathes of stuff I already know, which I was disinclined to put the time into taking down or typing up. (These notes are intended primarily for myself; putting them onto LJ is an added bonus.) Most of my Limmud notes (most of which I have yet to type up) are more full, like the two other sets I have so far put on LJ.


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