The Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Oct 7, 2011 by

In the previous posting, I discussed the discovery and significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, five of which have recently been digitized and made available online. But the Dead Sea Scrolls are an important archaeological find not only for historical and Biblical studies, but for the study of the Hebrew language as well. In particular, as discussed in detail in an excellent book by my friend and colleague Joel Hoffman In the Beginning. A Short History of the Hebrew Language, a linguistic analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls sheds new light on the work of the Masorete scholars, who aimed to record how Biblical Hebrew was pronounced (since the original Hebrew writing system does not represent the pronunciation precisely enough).

The crucial thing to keep in mind is that the Masoretes, a collective term for several groups of scholars based primarily in present-day Israel in the cities of Tiberias and Jerusalem, as well as in Iraq (Babylonia), worked between the 7th and 11th centuries CE. Therefore, despite the facts that the Masoretes attempted to record and annotate the “authentic” version of the Bible and that the version of the Hebrew Bible produced by the Masoretes from Tiberias is considred authentic in religious circles, it is hardly surprising that the Masoretes were not completely historically accurate: after all, a gap of nearly 2,000 years separates them from the time of Biblical Hebrew (8th-7th century BCE). In fact, while the Masoretes tried to preserve the ancient pronunciation and interpretation of the Bible, what they actually did do was more likely capturing their own way of speaking. According to Joel Hoffman:

“This conclusion, while tentative, is based on the differences we see in the various Masoretic systems as well as on the linguistic fact that untrained people cannot generally reproduce foreign accents especially well.

So what aspects of “Biblical Hebrew” did the Masoretes get wrong (or simply invent)? There are several respects in which the original Hebrew script leaves the pronunciation of words ambiguous. Some of these discrepancies between writing and pronunciation involve vowels, others — consonants. Here we’ll focus on the problem of vowels only.

As a widely-known saying goes, “Hebrew has no vowels”, in the sense that the Hebrew script does not represent vowel sounds in writing. This is not entirely correct though, since even the original, pre-Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible involved the use of the so-called matres lectiones (from the Latin for ‘mothers of reading’). These are consonant symbols used to represent vowels: for example, the Hebrew letter “vav” (written ו) represents the consonant sound [w] or the vowel sounds [o] and [u]. Similarly, the Hebrew letter “heh” (written ה) represents the consonant [h] or the vowel [a], while the Hebrew letter “yud” (written י) represents the consonant [j] (as in you) or the vowel [i]. However, matres lectiones were used in the original Hebrew script inconsistently, for the most part only for disambiguation and not for all vowels (note also that there were no consonant symbols used for [e] or [ɛ]). For example, without the matres lectiones the spelling kaf, heh, nun, mem (khnm) could represent either of the two words: [kohanam] meaning ‘their priest’ (singular!) or [kohanim] ‘priests’ (plural but no possessive!). To disambiguate, the spelling of the second version often involves an additional yud (khnym), while the spelling khnm is reserved for ‘their priest’.

The Masoretes introduced a set of vowel marks known as “nikkud” (from the Hebrew word nekkuda for ‘dot’) to represent vowel sounds consistently. But in adding these marks to the original texts, they often added their own views on how the Biblical Hebrew was (or should be) pronounced. There are several ways to find such inconsistencies between the Masoretic pronunciation and what the authentic pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew must have been. One way is to look for internal inconsistencies in the Masoretic system, or aspects of their system that go beyond what is generally possible in a human language (this is where modern linguistic science is particularly helpful). Another way is to look for discrepancies between the Masoretic system and other available sources — and that’s where the Dead Sea Scrolls come in handy!

As mentioned earlier, in some respects the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm the Masoretic interpretation of the Biblical Hebrew pronunciation. For example, take the Hebrew suffix meaning ‘you’ or ‘yours’: it appears that it had two forms — masculine and feminine — though in the Bible both are spelled the same way, as kaf (generally speaking, Hebrew distinguishes masculine and feminine genders in the second and third persons, both in the singular and the plural, although in Modern Hebrew some of these forms are falling out of use). In spite of the two forms being spelled the same way, the Masoretes recorded them as being pronounced -xa for the masculine (where “x” stands for the middle consonant in the German pronunciation of Kuchen ‘cake’) and -ax or -ex for the feminine. For example, the Hebrew word for ‘hand’ is yad, so the Masoretic system has yadxa for ‘your hand’ (masculine) and yadex (feminine), though in the Bible both forms are spelled the same: yud, dalet, kaf.

The writing in the Dead Sea Scrolls confirms the pronunciation of the masculine (but not the feminine) form of this suffix as -xa since the final [a] is represented by the letter “heh”. When the suffix for ‘your’ in ‘your hand’ refers to a man, the Dead Sea Scrolls spell it yud, dalet, kaf, heh! In other words, the authors of the Dead See Scrolls unwittingly support the later Masoretic work (recall that Masoretes worked at least a millennium before the Dead Sea Scrolls were rediscovered).

However, other discrepancies between the Masoretic system and the spelling in the Dead Sea Scrolls diminish the credibility of the Masoretes’ work. For example, according to the Masoretes, the name of the Biblical city was pronounced [s’dom],whereas the Dead Sea Scrolls spell it with two additional “vav” letters, the first of which records either an [o] or, less likely, an [u], making the word’s likeliest pronunciation [sodom]. This pronunciation is further confirmed by the version from the Septuagint, which also records “Sodom” (Σοδομ).

Similarly, the word ’embroidery’ is recorded by the Masoretes as pronounced [rikma], but the Dead Sea Scrolls spell it not with a “yud” (for [i]) but with a “vav” (for either [o] or [u]); hence, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls must have pronounced it either [rokma] or [rukma].

These discrepancies can be interpreted in several different ways:

  • the Masoretic system represents the authentic pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew when (parts of) the Bible was (were) written (8th-7th century BCE), while the Dead Sea Scrolls represent the pronunciation current at a later time (1st century BCE – 1st century CE);
  • the Masoretic system represents the authentic pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew as it was spoken by the groups that wrote the original Hebrew Bible, while the Dead Sea Scrolls represent the pronunciation of a different dialect of Biblical Hebrew (recall that the authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls is often associated with a sectarian group of Jews, the Essenes);
  • the Masoretic system represents the pronunciation current in the time of the Masoretes themselves (7th-11th century CE), while the Dead Sea Scrolls represent the more authentic Biblical Hebrew pronunciation.

Thus, at least one interpretation sheds doubt on the validity of the Masoretes’ work.

To recap, the Dead Sea Scrolls, in conjunction with other sources, provide an invaluable window into the workings of the Hebrew language in antiquity, as well as on later Hebrew scholarship.

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  • John Cowan

    It's matres lectionis: the second word is genitive singular, not a plural agreeing with matres. In any event, the Latin is a calque of the Hebrew אֵם קְרִיאָה (which uses the construct state) not a normal Latin expression.

    A fourth possibility is that the Masoretic system represents the best efforts of the Masoretes to reconstruct the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew based on tradition and internal evidence.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @John Cowan: Thank you for the correction about "matres lectionis" — you are right! Funny, I did write it two different ways in the draft and then corrected all instances to "lectiones": I must have second guessed my initial spelling…

    And I agree with you that "the Masoretic system represents the best efforts of the Masoretes to reconstruct the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew based on tradition and internal evidence": they certainly gave it their best shot. I am not accusing them of conscious falsification, only point out that based on the evidence they had and the state of knowledge about languages in general available at the time, they couldn't reconstruct the authentic Biblical Hebrew precisely. I am not even sure we can do that now, although we know a great deal more!

  • Anita

    Hi there! I'm an avid reader of this blog and thought I'd mention for anyone in the UK (or anyone who's got access to the BBC) that the Dead Sea Scrolls have a little cameo appearance in the latest episode of Stephen Fry's "Planet Word"!
    Thanks for many interesting reads!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thank you, Anita! 🙂

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  • חסד

    Great article. The MT may not only be a reconstruction, it may be an attempt to fit Semitic thought and linguistics into a Japhetic (Indo-European) paradigm. The way of organizing and explaining Modern Hebrew (e.g. masculine/feminine, verb tenses, etc) is European, but there are others ways of categorizing things and explaining syntax. DSS Hebrew must be looked at through non -Indo-European eyes for new breakthroughs. The vowels of the MT seems extremely Japhetic to me.

    • Can you be more specific? What’s “Japhetic” about the vowels? What does it mean to be “Japhetic” in this context? Same about the other claims you’ve made: what are the “other ways of categorizing things and explaining syntax”? presumably better ways that work better to explain the observed phenomena—otherwise, they are useless…

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