Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda

By William Horbury, ed.
Edinburgh : T&T Clark (1999). xiv + 337 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
11.2 (Fall 2000) : 252-254

Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda is a collection of papers which were read at the 1996 meeting of the British Association for Jewish Studies. Horbury himself is Professor of Jewish and Early Christian Studies in the University of Cambridge. Of the 22 contributors to the volume, only two are from outside the U. K. (Jan Willem van Henten and Peter van Rooden, both of the University of Amsterdam). Nine of the 22 are from the University of Cambridge.

Front material includes a helpful section entitled “Notes on Contributors” (ix-xi) and an “Introduction” by the editor involving a detailed survey of the contents and contributions of the various essays (1-12). The body of the volume is divided into six parts arranged chronologically: Part I, “The Second Temple Period” (13-68, four essays); Part II, “Rabbinic and Early Christian Hebraists” (69-131, four essays); Part III, “Rome and Byzantium” (133-61, two essays); Part IV, “The Karaites” (163- 203, two essays); Part V, “Christian Hebraists in Mediaeval and Early Modern Europe” (205-67, five essays); and, Part VI, “The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries” (269-317, five essays). Back material includes a “Select Bibliography” (319-20) and a full set of valuable indexes for authors, proper names, places, and subjects (321-37).

Three themes run through a majority of the essays: (1) Many Jews studied Hebrew as an acquired second or even third language, accessing it through either their mother tongue or yet another language. (2) The primary focus of Hebrew studies has been the biblical texts. (3) The acquisition of Hebrew has been dependent upon what aids and tools were available (viz., translations, transliterations, grammars, and lexicons). Essays representative of these three foci are, respectively: (1) Judith Olszowy-Schlanger’s “The Knowledge of Hebrew Among Early Karaites, and Its Use in Karaite Legal Contracts” (165-85), (2) Geoffrey Khan’s “The Karaite Tradition of Hebrew Grammatical Thought” (186-203), and (3) Philip S. Alexander’s “How Did the Rabbis Learn Hebrew?” (71-89).

Joachim Schaper’s “Hebrew and Its Study in the Persian Period” (15-26) will be of interest to students of the post-exilic period. In “Hebrew and Its Study at Qumran” (38-52), Jonathan Campbell agrees with Schaper that the language situation among Palestinian Jews in the Second Temple period was complex. Hebrew definitely had a leading role at Qumran among the religious (48). Schaper believes that “the use of Aramaic was probably restricted to the upper classes” (16) while the common people spoke Hebrew (17). At the conclusion of Campbell’s essay, he provides a categorized listing of 130 scrolls from Qumran (49-52). Alexander concludes that Hebrew had “effectively disappeared as a vernacular” by A.D. 200 (73), but agrees with Schaper and Campbell concerning the complexities of language usage from the Babylonian exile to the NT period (74). In “The Hebrew Matthew and Hebrew Study” (122-31), William Horbury takes a slightly different view: “Despite the discovery of Hebrew texts at Qumran and among the Bar Kokhba letters, and of some Hebrew inscriptions, Aramaic was probably the principal language even of Jewish biblical study” (129-30).

Hebrew teachers and students will be intrigued by Alexander’s description of the rabbinic employment of literal translations as a crib or crutch in learning classical Hebrew (80-82). The technique may even account for the dual nature (i.e., awkward but learned) of Aquila’s Greek translation of the Hebrew OT (82-84). Horbury’s essay on the Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew (122-31) describes the part that this translation played in reviving the study of biblical Hebrew.

Anyone studying the priestly garments in the OT will find Robert Hayward’s essay (“St Jerome and the Meaning of the High-Priestly Vestments,” 90- 105) very informative. Jerome’s use of Hebrew “to display his knowledge of the Hebrew language” (91) bears an uncomfortable similarity to some modern preachers’ display of biblical language knowledge in the pulpit. Jerome’s study of biblical Hebrew in the 5th century A.D. was followed by a dearth of Christian Hebraists throughout the Byzantine Empire (discussed in Nicholas de Lange’s essay, “A Thousand Years of Hebrew in Byzantium,” 147-61). The end of that era of darkness corresponded with the reappearance of Christian Hebraists (the topic of the five essays in Part V).

“Some Points of Interest in Sixteenth-Century Translations of Exodus 15" by Graham Davies (249-56) aims at identifying issues that 16th-century translators were facing in the study of Hebrew, links between the various English versions of that time, and sources for the renderings those translators introduced (250). Gareth Lloyd Jones’s essay, “Robert Wakefield (d. 1537): The Father of English Hebraists?” (234-48), opens with a thank-you letter to Henry VIII from students at Cambridge. King Henry had fulfilled their greatest desire—to “have a most learned and industrious person to teach” Hebrew. They explained that without Hebrew “divinely inspired literature cannot be thoroughly investigated or correctly interpreted” (234). May their tribe increase!

This volume of essays will prove to be a valuable library resource in any educational institution offering course work in Hebrew. Hebrew professors should read it and inform colleagues and students about essays pertinent to a variety of disciplines represented in their school’s curriculum.