Nephi's Written Language and the Standard Biblical Hebrew of 600 BC

It is evident to all who read the King James Version of the Bible that the English language has changed considerably over the last three centuries. And so it was with the Hebrew of the biblical era. Comparison of the Hebrew of the Bible with the Hebrew found in Judea in extrabiblical Hebrew epigraphical sources (such as inscriptions, writing on pottery shards, etc.) reveals a few interesting features of Hebrew usage that appear to have changed between 1000 BC and AD 100.1 Where on this spectrum of linguistic change was the Hebrew that Lehi and Nephi would have written in the Jerusalem of their day?

This question can be answered, in part, by examining the books of the Old Testament that come from that time, particularly 2 Kings, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In addition, the epigraphical sources of that period include the Cave of Lei inscriptions, the Hashavyahu Letter, the Arad Letters, and the Lachish Letters.2 Broadly speaking, the dialect used in these writings is called Standard Biblical Hebrew. More specifically, since the Hebrew texts I will focus on were produced toward the end of this period, I will refer to the dialect as Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late.

This study will identify four elements of Hebrew style and then will examine whether any of those four distinctive features of Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late can be discerned in the English translation of 1 Nephi 1–7, 11–18 and 2 Nephi 25–33 to determine how close to Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late dialect Nephi wrote. This sample of texts from the Book of Mormon covers the span of Nephi’s writings and includes different genres, similar to those noted in the right column of table 1. Since quoted speech has not been studied well in Biblical Hebrew, I will not include examples of speeches in this study. Additionally, several devices used solely to render a reasonable English translation will not be considered, such as the infinitive verb to pass in the clause and it came to pass (since the clause is a translation of a single finite verb in Hebrew) and the word of in construct noun phrases (for which see below).

Relativization
A relative clause is a subordinate clause that adds information about a noun in the main clause. An example is found in the sentence you have just read. The main clause is “A relative clause is a subordinate clause.” The added information that further explains the noun clause is “that adds information about a noun in the main clause.” In general, relative clauses in English tend to be introduced by relative pronouns like which, who, and that. The process that languages use to create relative clauses is called relativization. In linguistics, this topic is widely studied.3 A look at relativization in Hebrew and in the Book of Mormon is revealing.

Relativization is a feature that changed over time in Biblical Hebrew. For example, the percentage of all clauses that were relative gradually rose from none in Archaic Biblical Hebrew until, by the time of Nephi (600 BC), about 18 percent of all clauses were relative clauses (see table 2).

An example from 1 Nephi 1:6 will illustrate how an analysis of relativization is accomplished. The first step is to rearrange the verse so that each line is a clause and then determine which of those lines are relative.

 

Clause Is it relative?
And it came to pass    no
as he Prayed unto the Lord    no
there came a pillar of fire    no
and [it] dwelt upon a rock before him:    no
and he saw    no
and [he] heard much;    no
and because of the things which he saw    yes
and [which he] heard    yes
he did quake    no
and [he did] tremble exceedingly    no

 

This verse contains ten clauses, two of which, or 20 percent, are relative. The 20 percent figure is close to the 18 percent average of the Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late dialect. A similar tally of all the clauses in the twenty-four-chapter sample from the written words of Nephi indicates that 17 percent of his clauses are relative clauses (see table 3). Thus, in this feature, the translation of Nephi reflects the language of the Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late dialect.

As can be seen, 1 Nephi reflects the written Hebrew of about 600 BC, which is referred to as Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late. The dialect of Mormon seems to develop from this dialect and to reflect only features of the Late Biblical Hebrew dialect of Judea. This is not surprising since written languages reflect usages older than the current spoken language. This observation would indicate that though Nephi wrote Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late, he and his people were already speaking a form of Late Biblical Hebrew. This spoken language eventually became the written language in the biblical books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Chronicles, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in Mormon.

Participial Modifiers
Another interesting development in Hebrew at the time of Lehi, one that is first attested in the Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late dialect, is the use of the Hebrew letter hey (h) followed by a participle. Most relative clauses up to this time in the history of the Hebrew language add information only about the nouns at the end of main clauses (in other words, objects of verbs or objects of prepositions). But beginning in late biblical times, the construction hey + participle, though rare, was developed to modify nouns that occur earlier in the main clause (such as subjects). Such a rare construction can be seen in 1 Nephi 2:14, which reads, “my father did speak unto them in the valley of Lemuel, with power, being filled with the Spirit.” The relative clause “being filled with the Spirit” adds information about the subject, “my father,” and not about the other, later nouns (valley and Lemuel) or pronoun (them) in the main clause. In translating this sentence back into Hebrew, I would use a hey + participle construction.

Construct Noun Phrases
Most languages have devices for joining nouns together. For example, in English one can put “man” and “book” together as “the man’s book.” In Hebrew the phrase is turned around to read “the book of the man.” Another English example would be “We improvised a garbage can lid handle.” The Biblical Hebrew word order would be “handle lid can garbage,” which would be translated smoothly as “a handle for the lid of the can for garbage.” (The words for and of are not there in the Hebrew but are devices to create a reasonable English translation.) Nouns so conjoined in Hebrew are called construct noun phrases. In the epigraphical sources used in this study (see table 1), the number of nouns that could be constructed together continually increases so that by the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls used in this study (about 100 BC; see table 1), as many as five nouns could be so linked. At the time of Nephi, construct noun phrases could (1) have as many as three nouns, (2) with the last noun being definite, proper, or genitive, and (3) be preceded by prepositions (see tables 2 and 3).

These possibilities can be seen in the following examples: 1 Nephi 3:16 reads “to the land of our father’s inheritance.” In Hebrew the word order would be “to the land of inheritance of our father.” The whole phrase begins with a preposition to; it includes three nouns (“land,” “inheritance,” and “father”) in the phrase, and the last noun has a genitive pronoun, “our.” Another example is 2 Nephi 25:19, which reads “according to . . . the word of the angel of God.” The Hebrew word order would be “according to word of angel of God.” This example has three nouns, begins with a preposition, and ends with a proper noun. Thus, the translation of Nephi reflects the elements expected for constructing nouns together in the Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late dialect.

Infinitive Verbs
Infinitives were just beginning to appear in the Hebrew of the epigraphical sources by the time of Nephi (see table 2). Only about 6 percent of verbs in those texts are infinitives. The function of infinitives, reflected in Nephi’s writing, is to join several sentences into one. For example, 1 Nephi 1:18 reads, “Behold he went forth among the people, and [he] began to prophesy and to declare unto them.” In the older levels of Biblical Hebrew this example would read “and he went forth among the people, and he began, and he prophesied, and he declared unto them.” But with the use of infinitives, the last two independent clauses from the older Hebrew are expressed as part of the second independent clause in 1 Nephi 1:18. Counts in 1 and 2 Nephi indicate that 5 percent (see table 3) of the verbs are infinitives, which is close to the 6 percent found in the Hebrew epigraphical sources of this era.

Infinitive verbs, which are noted in the far right column of table 2, appear most frequently in the text with decision making. Since the primary source for Late Biblical Hebrew is the Dead Sea Scrolls Manual of Discipline, which encourages righteous decision making, it is not surprising to see such a high percentage of infinitive verbs. The Bar Kokhba Letters, in Mishnaic Hebrew, issue instructions, but since there are no responses to these instructions recorded, there are no infinitive verbs.

It is also interesting that infinitive verbs in Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late tend to come in pairs and to denote a point of pivot in narrative (or, in other words, a change in behavior). Similarly, two infinitives appear in 1 Nephi 1:18: “behold he went forth among the people, and began to prophesy and to declare.” Another example is found in 1 Nephi 3:14: “to be” and “to return.”

Prepositions
The use of prepositions is another feature of Biblical Hebrew that changed with time (see table 2). This is true of English also. Consider the following translations of Mark 9:2 in various periods of English:8

 

Source Translation
West Saxon Gospels (about AD 1000) and laede hig on-sundron on aene heahne munt
Wycliffe version (about 1382) and ledde hem asydis in to an hizh hill
King James Version (1611) and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart

 

As can be seen, the prepositions preceding “an high mountain” became increasingly more wordy or lengthy.

In the earliest inscriptions of Biblical Hebrew, only four prefixes are used for prepositions in a way that would be most similar to the West Saxon Gospels example above. But by AD 100 the Hebrew language had developed a long list of freestanding prepositions, some of which were formed by conjoining prepositions, such as “up into” in the King James example above. In this developmental respect, the Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late of Nephi’s time would be on a par with the example from Wycliffe.

The most frequent preposition in Nephi is of. However, in almost all incidences, of is an English device for translating the Hebrew grammatical feature called a “construct noun phrase” and will not be counted here. One verse in which of is not a translation of a construct noun phrase is found in 1 Nephi 3:12. Here, of has the sense of “from,” which could be translated by the Hebrew prefix preposition m-.

The most frequently used prepositions in the sample from Nephi are listed in table 4. Those of greatest frequency are the prepositions that are less wordy or shorter, though some of the more wordy or longer prepositions are also used. In this aspect, it appears that Nephi chose from a pool of simple prepositions, comparable to that which was available to writers of the Standard Biblical Hebrew–Late dialect.

In table 4, the prepositions above the dotted line are the less wordy or shorter prepositions, and the prepositions below the dotted line are the more wordy or longer prepositions. Since the less wordy or shorter prepositions in Mormon 1–4 tend to be used less frequently, we can assume that they are being replaced by more wordy or longer prepositions since the more wordy or longer prepositions are used almost twice as frequently in Mormon 1–4 as compared to the sample from Nephi.

Changed Features in the Language of Mormon
From Mormon 9:33 it is clear that the Hebrew language used by the Nephites changed over the centuries: “The Hebrew hath been altered by us also.” Although it exceeds the purposes of this study, it is worth mentioning that in certain respects the Hebrew of the Nephites changed over time in the New World in a fashion similar to the Hebrew in the Old World. For example, in the Old World after Lehi’s time, the usage of relative clauses in Hebrew increased to 35 percent of all clauses by the time of the Bar Kokhba letters of AD 100 (tables 1 and 2). Counts in Mormon 1–4 reveal that 30 percent of clauses are relative (table 3). Likewise, the previously most frequent prepositions were “in,” “unto,” “with,” and “into,” but they are considerably less frequent in Mormon. The increased use of the more wordy prepositions suggests that the Hebrew of Mormon reflects the Late Biblical Hebrew dialect. For further data along these lines, see table 4.

Conclusion
In the history of most languages, change is to be expected. In the Book of Mormon, the Mulekites had allowed their Hebrew language to become “corrupted” (Omni 1:17; written about 270 BC). Likewise, the language of Italy during the Roman Empire was Latin, which became the official language of church, government, science, and letters during the Middle Ages. In the meantime, the language of the people of Italy continued to change. As a result, Italians today must learn Latin as a foreign language. The same is true of modern Israelis who speak modern Hebrew but need to learn biblical Hebrew.

Amid such changes, however, measurements may be taken. Based on this examination of four language features that are known to have changed over time in Hebrew usage in Judea, the English translation of the writings of Nephi manifests usages of a Hebrew writer in 600 BC. This corroborates the statement made by Nephi in 1 Nephi 1:2 (written about 580 BC) that he makes “a record in the language of my father.” This statement has been variously interpreted, but from the research reported in this study, it appears that Nephi wrote in the standard written Hebrew used in Judea around 600 BC.

Notes

  1. William J. Adams Jr., “An Investigation into the Diachronic Distribution of Morphological Forms and Semantic Features of Extra-Biblical Hebrew Sources” (Ph.D. diss., University of Utah Middle East Center, 1987).
  2. See further the article by Dana Pike, “Israelite Inscriptions from the Time of Lehi and Jeremiah,” in this volume, pages 193–244.
  3. See, for example, Bernard Comrie, Language Universals and Linguistic Typology: Syntax and Morphology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 131–57; 2nd ed. (London: Blackwell, 1989), 138–64.
  4. The titles of these diachronic dialects listed in table 1 follow Eduard Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language, ed. Raphael Kutscher (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1982), 12, although I made distinctions within Standard Biblical Hebrew that he does not and added the Mishnaic Hebrew dialect. If a source covers a range of dates (such as seventh century BC), the date in the table above represents the mean (such as 650 BC for the seventh century). The Hebrew linguistic character of the three texts above the dotted line is debated. The double line represents the time of the Babylonian conquest.
  5. The references for the texts are Francis I. Andersen, “Moabite Syntax,” Orientalia 35 (1966): 81–120; Nahman Avigad, “The Epitaph of a Royal Steward from Siloam Village,” Israel Exploration Journal 3 (1953): 137–43; Millar Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls of St. Mark’s Monastery, 2 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: American School of Oriental Research, 1950–51); Frank M. Cross Jr. and David N. Freedman, Early Hebrew Orthography: A Study of Epigraphic Evidence (New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1952); Graham I. Davies, Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions: Corpus and Concordance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); William G. Dever, “Iron Age Epigraphic Material from the Area of Khirbet el-Kom,” Hebrew Union College Annual 40 (1969–70): 139–89; Ruth Hestrin et al., Inscriptions Reveal: Documents from the Time of the Bible, the Mishna and the Talmud (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, Catalog 100, 1973); Zeev Meshel, Kuntillet ‘Ajrud: A Religious Centre from the Time of the Judaean Monarchy on the Border of Sinai [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, Catalog 175, 1978); J. Naveh, “Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” Israel Exploration Journal 13 (1963): 74–92; Dennis Pardee et al., Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Letters: A Study Edition (Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1982); and Stanislav Segert, “Die Sprache der moabitischen Königsinschrift,” Archiv Orientální 29 (1961): 197–267.
  6. For the dates, see the sources in note 4 above.
  7. The definitions of the discourse structure follow Robert E. Longacre, The Grammar of Discourse, 2nd ed. (New York: Plenum, 1983).
  8. From Martyn Wakelin, The Archaeology of English (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1988), 15–16.