James Barr on Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek

I started The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Hellenistic Age.  In this post, I’ll write some about James Barr’s contribution to the volume, “Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in the Hellenistic age”.  This was an important article for me to read, for a variety of reasons.  I’ll list three:

First of all, I needed to refresh my memory about certain characteristics of these three languages, for they are very important in my field of study, namely, the History of Biblical Interpretation.  Over the past year or so, I have read the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint for the Book of Psalms for my weekly quiet time, and, even then, my focus has not been on syntax but rather on word-studies—-though I have noticed grammatical irregularities and have seen how ancient (and some modern) exegetes have addressed them.  That’s been the extent of my interaction with languages.  Although I took a lot of Aramaic at Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College, I have not done much with Aramaic this past year.  The same is true of rabbinic Hebrew.  I’m not saying this to beat up on myself or to invite others to beat up on me.  I’m just making this point to highlight why it was important for me to read Barr’s article and to refresh my memory on some things.

On pages 85-87, Barr talks about Middle Hebrew, which was the stage of Hebrew after Biblical and late Biblical Hebrew.  (Scholars have debated the classifications for Biblical Hebrew, however: see here.)  The Mishnah is an example of a document that is in Middle Hebrew.  Some examples of the differences between Biblical and Middle Hebrew: Biblical Hebrew uses asher (“which” or “who”), whereas Middle Hebrew uses she; in Middle Hebrew, shel functions as the possessive “of”; Middle Hebrew lacks the waw-consecutive, which is prominent in Biblical Hebrew; the “imperfect, which in Biblical Hebrew has a subtle and varied group of functions, including actions lying in the past or present, comes to be basically a modal form denoting intentions, wishes, and prayers”; the participle is more frequent in Middle Hebrew, and it can be a present tense but also it can express what is customary for people to do; haya (“be”) is often attached to the participle to “mark repeated, usual, or concurrent action” (e.g., “he used to say”)—-and this occurred some in Late Biblical Hebrew and also took place in Aramaic; and atid+le occurs in Middle Hebrew to express the future.  I’ve seen a lot of this phenomena, but, like I said, it was good for me to review it!

Barr also discusses the influence of Aramaic on Middle Hebrew.  As Barr notes, M.H. Segal “argued that Middle Hebrew derived to a very great extent from true Hebrew sources, and he pointed to the quite limited degree of Aramaic influence upon its lexical stock.”  According to Barr, Segal was looking at “the manuscript tradition of the Mishnah [which] carried out an operation of purification and standardization”, but more reliable manuscripts of the Mishnah reveal greater Aramaic influence.  Examples that Barr lists include: “the use of le as a direct object marker; the form ‘att for the masculine pronoun ‘thou’; the pronoun suffixes -ak, -ik (Masoretic -eka, -ek).  Another striking feature was the tendency for final -m to become -n, and this not only in familiar cases like the masculine plural ending -in but in uninflected words like that for ‘man’, ‘adan, which writing was later ‘corrected’ out of existence by the scribes.  Similarly the pronoun endings -m and -n (in Biblical Hebrew masculine and feminine) tended to merge.”

There was also diversity within Aramaic, as Barr mentions.  For the relative-possessive particle (“which” or “of”), imperial Aramaic has zy, but Biblical Aramaic has di, and Genesis Apocryphon has variations—-de and di.  Biblical Aramaic often has dn’ (dena) for a demonstrative masculine singular (“this”) and uses the haphel, whereas the Job Targum has dn (den), and the Genesis Apocryphon uses the aphel instead of the haphel.

Second, the article mentioned some things that I should have known but did not.  For example, what exactly is “Attic Greek”?  I’ve translated it a lot, but what is it?  According to Barr, in the fifth-fourth centuries B.C.E., Attic Greek was prominent due to the “political and cultural centrality of Athens”, so Attic Greek must have been associated with Athens.  Koine Greek was common Greek, and Barr states that its beginning can be traced back to the fifth century B.C.E.  Barr says that the Septuagint “mirrors the contemporary usage of the Ptolemaic papyri and other ‘non-literary’ koine writers” (page 105).  Attic Greek was used for literary documents, whereas koine Greek was for more practical matters.  While there are Jewish works that have a lot of Attic features—-4 Maccabees, for instances, often uses the optative, which is far less frequent in koine Greek—-the Bible tends to stick with koine.  Barr does mention, however, a first-second century C.E. movement towards Atticism, as there were attempts to weed out “from the vocabulary [what] failed to meet the ‘Attic’ norms.”  According to Barr, scribes sought to improve the Septuagint by making it more Attic (i.e., substituting the Attic eipon—-“they said”—-for the koine eipan).  Atticism also had an influence on parts of Josephus’ work.

Third, the article mentioned debates of which I was unaware.  I had long assumed that the targumim were vocal Aramaic translations of the Hebrew text that were made in ancient Jewish houses of worship.  On page 92, Barr indicates that the issue is more complex than that: “works like Genesis Apocryphon and Job Targum belong to a literary stratum of Aramaic, built upon the older Official Aramaic of the Persian empire, while a Targum of a Neofiti type represents actual spoken Aramaic, a text read to the people in the synagogue, where popular comprehension was essential.”   So there were targumim that were literary, as opposed to spoken. I guess I assumed that targumim were spoken in a house of worship and were later written down, and so they were both spoken and also literary.  Could there be truth to that?

Barr also refers to the scholarly debate over where the practice of Targum originated—-in Babylon, or in Palestine?  I do not have any opinions on this myself, but I have often been puzzled about why much of Tannaitic rabbinic literature is in Hebrew, when there were targumim that needed to render the Bible into Aramaic so that the people could understand it.  One could say that Tannaitic rabbinic literature is just that—-literary—-and thus was not for popular consumption, but there are scholars who have presented parts of rabbinic literature as oral homilies delivered in synagogues.  Why would oral homilies be in Hebrew, when the people spoke Aramaic?  Barr says on page 112 that Aramaic was prominent in Galilee, whereas spoken Hebrew was more common in Judea, but Barr then goes on to say that there were “pockets of Hebrew everywhere, and a considerable representation of Aramaic even in the South.”  But, if that is the case, why is rabbinic literature that is located in Galilee—-such as Leviticus Rabbah—-in Hebrew?  Barr does not think that the rabbis stuck with Hebrew for ideological reasons, for he notes on page 113 that “the main rabbinic language switched in the end from Hebrew to Aramaic.”

I’ll stop here.  I was glad to review old information, learn new things, and see what I still don’t know.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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