Biblical Languages,  Old Testament

Development of the Hebrew Language from Past to Present

photo of reading Hebrew language

The Hebrew language is beloved by many Christians because it is the original language of the Old Testament. Thus, the Hebrew language makes up the majority of God’s revelation! The Hebrew language is often viewed as a divine language to some. Others think Hebrew contains specialized codes from God. However, the history of the Hebrew language shows that it is a real language which has had real development over time.

Abraham and Origin of the Hebrew Language

Although some would argue Adam and Even spoke Hebrew, that is unlikely. The first time we see the word “Hebrew” used is in reference to Abram in Genesis 14:13. Abram (later Abraham) was a sojourner from Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11:31). Ur was a bustling Sumerian city-state, and during Abram’s time there he would have grown up fluent in Sumerian and Akkadian. Akkadian is the oldest Semitic language that we know of and is often very helpful in comparative Hebrew language studies.

Abraham and his family sojourned in the land of Canaan for about 100 years. It is obvious that Abraham and his family were recognized as outsiders by those native to the land of Canaan (Gen 23:1-9). It seems likely that during these 100 years of sojourning Abraham and his family began to develop slight deviations from the native Akkadian, factoring in the influence of the common Canaanite languages as well. Additionally, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, spent about 20 years in Haran (northern Levant), where Jacob likely was influenced considerably by Amorite or a primitive form of Aramaic (cf. Gen 28–33).

Egyptian Slavery and Hebrew Incubation

Toward the end of Jacob’s life, Israel located to Egypt to find food during a devastating seven-year famine. Although originally being favored by the Egyptians, the Israelites were still viewed as outsiders, and could not even eat with the Egyptians (Gen 43:32). Eventually, the Egyptians refused to acknowledge the once-meaningful relationship with the Israelites, and enslaved them (Exod 1:8-12). Overall, Israel spent about 400 years in Egypt essentially in isolation. It was no doubt during this time that the Hebrew language continued to develop among the descendants of Abraham.

The Time of the Judges and the Hebrew Accents

If we take Scripture at face value, it is shortly after the time of the Exodus (1446 BC) and wilderness wanderings when Moses writes the five books of the Law in the Hebrew language. By the time Israel is established in the land, they have spread out geographically, with two and a half of the tribes of Israel on the trans-Jordan side of the Jordan river. There is biblical evidence that the accent between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites was readily discernible during the time of the Judges (Judg 12:5-6).

The Development of the Written Hebrew Language

Up to this point we have discussed how the Hebrew language likely developed among the other Semitic languages of the ancient Near East. During Abraham’s sojourn in Canaan, and especially during the incubation period in Egypt, it is likely that the Hebrew language developed more and more unique characteristics. Interestingly, the actual evidence we have indicates three major developments in the Hebrew language before the time of Christ

The Paleo Hebrew Script

photo of Hebrew language in Paleo script
11Q paleoLeviticus a
Digital Dead Sea Scrolls

The earliest evidence we have shows that Hebrew was originally written without vowels, and in an older script called Paleo Hebrew (which was used til after 587 BC). This alphabet script looks quite different than today’s Hebrew, but would have been more likely the alphabet script that the prophets utilized to write the Old Testament.

Matres Lectionis

Matres Lectionis is a latin phrase which means, “mothers of reading.” It is a phrase to describe the addition of certain full vowel letters. At some point during the 9th or 8th century BC, the consonantal text added some full vowel letters to help aid the reading of the text.

photo of matres lectionis in Hebrew
1QIsaa: Isa 53:9, showing two Matres Lectionis of a ו
Digital Dead Sea Scrolls

 Aramaic Square Script

Sometime after the destruction of the Temple in 587 BC by the Babylonians, the Hebrew language stopped using the Paleo Hebrew script and began using an Aramaic square script. This is the script that is used still today. Interestingly, some of the Dead Sea scrolls are written in Aramaic square script, while the name of Yahweh is left in Paleo script out of reverence.

photo of Hebrew language in Aramaic square script
11Q Psalms a
Digital Dead Sea Scrolls

The Hebrew Language from 70 AD to the 1000 AD

After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, many of those who spoke Hebrew were scattered around the known world to join with their diaspora brethren. As the years passed, the Hebrew language was utilized less by the lay person, and kept alive primarily by the scholars and Rabbis of Judaism.

It was around 500 AD that in a special effort to preserve the vocalization of the Hebrew text a group of scribes called the Masoretes developed a system of vowel pointings which were inserted within and below the consonantal text. This system was refined and developed over the next 300-400 years, and became known as the Masoretic Text (MT). Not only did the vowel pointings help in reading Hebrew, but the Masoretes also added textual commentary in the margins of the texts, giving important information about word forms and usage.

The Revival of the Hebrew Language

Although the next 800 years continued much in the same way, where the Hebrew language was largely preserved by the Jewish academics and rabbis, this all changed at the end of the 19th century. Due to a strong Jewish unity, a movement known as Zionism gained traction and pushed for the Jews to return to the land of Palestine.

In the beginning stages, it was recognized that in order to unify a resettlement effort, there needed to be a national language among the Jews as they resettled the land. Originally there was a push to make German the national language, but in the end, Hebrew was chosen for revivification.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is often regarded as the individual who spearheaded the movement to revive the Hebrew language. Although there were others that were involved in the process, his involvement was instrumental in pushing for the resettled Jews to speak a revived Hebrew language. Ben-Yehuda appears to be the first one (that we have record of at least) to raise up his son as a native Hebrew speaker in over a thousand years.

Today if one visits the land of Israel he would find 6 million Jews, many of whom are completely fluent in the Hebrew language. The story of the Hebrew language is one of the most fascinating historical journeys that exist. The fact that the Hebrew language exists today is testament to the uniqueness of the Jewish people and their strong national identity. And I would also add, that it is a testimony of God’s sweet and glorious providence.  

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

One Comment

  • Adam Lambdin

    Wow. That is fascinating, Dr. Goeman. I just failed my recent Hebrew course in post-graduate school, and I was using Dr. Futato’s textbook, certainly no discredit to his genius for the language, but I bought the new textbook by Kutz and Josberger, and I am working through it anticipating next January when I will take another hack at it. Honestly, part if the reason I failed was because I am currently working overtime every week in a factory, but that is neither here nor there. This was a fascinating blog post for sure. Thanks.

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