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Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Hebrew as Urlanguage

Dr. Benjamin Merkle posts some reflections on the question of whether or not Hebrew was the original pre-Babelic language on his blog here. To many it is a rather odd conversation, but it is one that has a bit of historical pedigree and which resurfaces from time to time.

I share Dr. Merkle’s cautious opposition to this thesis. There are a number of reasons why, most of which come from a position of honest ignorance. There’s just so much we don’t know. One thing we do know, however, is that the particular kind of Hebrew which we now possess, the language of the overwhelming majority of Hebrew bibles, is itself not the original form of Hebrew. Rather, Paleo-Hebrew would have been the language used prior to the Babylonian exile, and it itself appears to be a daughter language of a broader Phoenician family. One of my Hebrew professors at RTS joked that Isaiah would never have been able to read the Torah in its original Hebrew. Consider the difficulties English speakers have with Chaucer, let alone Beowulf. A similar development is true for the Hebrew.

But I’m also suspicious of the ideological reasons for thinking Hebrew was the original language. Any assumption that we need a pure and undefiled language is immediately problematic, and it contradicts the New Testament teaching about the sanctification of all tribes and tongues. Additionally, I see no reason to suppose that early translations could not have been divinely inspired and superintended, and there is no good way to solve the chicken-or-egg question about wordplay and morphology.

This is, of course, a great topic for real historical study, and I am eager to read the best honest findings as they develop.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.