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The Evolution of Biblical Hebrew


Megan Sauter
1-800-221-4644 ext. 242


WASHINGTON, D.C. (September 21, 2016)—Biblical Hebrew is often seen as the universal language of the Hebrew Bible. In the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, however, Professor Avi Hurvitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem argues that there are three distinct forms of Biblical Hebrew, each one corresponding to certain parts of the Bible and other ancient texts.

According to Hurvitz, Biblical Hebrew can be divided into three historical categories: (1) Archaic Biblical Hebrew, (2) Standard (or Classical) Biblical Hebrew and (3) Late (or post-Classical) Biblical Hebrew. Although linguists and philologists of Biblical Hebrew widely accept these general categories, they debate the dates to which the categories are assigned.

Archaic Biblical Hebrew can be found in the Bible, particularly in the poetic parts of the Pentateuch and in the Early Prophets (such as the well-known Song of the Sea [Exodus 15] and Song of Deborah [Judges 5]), as well as in hymns from the Book of Psalms.

Standard (or Classical) Biblical Hebrew, widely dated to the First Temple Period, is documented in the prose sections of the Pentateuch and the Early Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and in the Classical prophecies of the Later Prophets like Hosea, Amos and Micah.

Late (or post-Classical) Biblical Hebrew, usually dated to the Second Temple Period, is found in such Hebrew Bible books as Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. Late Biblical Hebrew is marked by the influence of Aramaic, the common tongue of the time.

Hurvitz emphasizes the importance of examining extra-Biblical sources in studying the evolution of Biblical Hebrew due to the limited size and scope of the Hebrew Bible. For example, writings from Ugarit in Syria, which date to the mid-second millennium B.C.E., provide an invaluable comparison for understanding archaic Biblical poetry.