Review of “Evidences for the Inspiration of the Hebrew Vowel Points” I

As I simply don’t have the time to keep writing long posts like the last one, I am going to chop it up a bit, and do my responses in many short, hard hitting posts. I am going to be reviewing the paper Evidences for the Inspiration of the Hebrew Vowel Points [hereafter “Evidences”] by Thomas D. Ross, an Ecclesiastical Text Theorist. This paper is fifty pages long, and looks scholarly, but I hope to demonstrate that the author is quite reductionistic in his thinking.

Mr. Ross is going to be arguing from Matthew 5:28 that the Greek term kerai,a refers to the Hebrew term Hireq [qr,yxi], which is one of the vowel pointings in Hebrew. I have presented my position in the last post that the Greek term kerai,a refers to the distinguishing characteristics of individual letters. I will cite his criticism of that first:

The view of the TMT that the keraia of Matthew 5:18 and Luke 16:17 refers to the strokes that differentiate Hebrew consonants such as r and d possesses certain objections.24 While BDAG states that the word can refer to a “part of a letter, a serif,” it does not provide any unambiguous examples of this category of usage. The lexicon gives references from the Sibylline Oracles25 where keraia refers to a complete letter and places all other listed examples in the category “accents and breathings.” If the keraia in Matthew 5:18 and Luke 16:17 really refers to parts of the Hebrew consonants in the Old Testament, rather than to the vocalization of the text, the vowels and accents, why does BDAG, the standard lexicon for Koiné Greek, not reference a single instance of keraia as part of a letter in the Koiné?26 This fact would support the IV view that the references by the Son of God to the keraia would be to the vowels and accents of the Hebrew Bible. The IV advocate would affirm that to equate the keraia of the Gospels with part of a Hebrew consonant appears to be a way to avoid the natural evidence of the text for both the existence and inspiration of the Hebrew vowels.27 [Evidences, pgs. 9-10]

Now, I want to take a look at the entry from BDAG, to see if what he is saying is accurate.

Thu. et al.; SIG 374, 14; PMagd 11, 4 of a sailyard; Jos., Bell. 3, 419) lit. ‘horn’, then anything that projects like a horn, projection, hook as part of a letter, a serif (of letters, SibOr 5, 21; 24; 25 al.; of accents and breathings in IG II, 4321, 10; Apollon. Dysc.; Plut., Numa 13, 9, Mor. 1100a. In the last-named pass. in the sense of someth. quite insignificant:[From Bibleworks electronic edition]

BDAG does not seem to be basing their definition on the Sibylline Oracles alone, but, rather on the meaning of the term which can refer to anything that projects. That definition is simply being taken, and applied to Hebrew letters. Now, as far as no unambiguous example being found for this definition, I would argue that there is no unambiguous example for *any* definition. All the definitions he cites from Dio Chrystostom, Plutarch, etc. [Evidences, pgs. 5-6] do not prove his case, and can all be taken to mean “the distinguishing characteristics of a letter.” The meaning of the term itself is simply unknown, and, while we do have examples outside of the New Testament, they are inconclusive. Not only that, but the places where the meaning “accents and breathings” are used is clearly in reference to *Greek* accents and breathings, as Hebrew has no breathings. Hence, none of this is evidence for Mr. Ross’ view.

Now, he does try to bring an argument forward in order to substantiate his claim that the Greek term kerai,a is etymologically related to the Hebrew term qr,yxi (which is a name for one of the vowel pointings in Hebrew), but, in so doing, he really makes some terrible mistakes in philology. He tries to argue that the kappa is related to the chet, and the rho is related to the the resh. So far so good. However, I would add that there is a possibility that a chet can be simply related to a rough breathing, as the name Hezekiah is spelled simply with a rough breathing in Matthew 1:9-10. However, it is possible for a chet to be represented by a kappa in transliteration.

However, where he runs into trouble is trying to deal with why the final qoph is not represented in the Greek term. He cites John Gill in order to try to deal with that problem:

[Having already equated] the first and principle syllable in the word ker [then] there is only q at the end of the word to be accounted for: and that and h, in some languages, are used promiscuously: as in Behek and Behah. Besides, in the Chaldee or Syro-Chaldean language, used in Christ’s time, and before, the same word, which ends in aq, ka has the termination of ky, aa, or aia. Thus araka is read araa in the same verse, Jeremiah 10:11, and then, put all together, and you have the word keraa or keraia.20 [Evidences pgs. 7-8]

He then comments on Gill’s statement as follows:

Gill’s point is verified in the Aramaic of Jeremiah 10:11, where the words rendered the earth, aq’r.a; in the first instance of this English phrase in the verse but a[‘r.a; in both cases in exact parallel to aY’m;v., form an exact parallel and demonstrate the equation of the sounds in question. Gill’s contention is also consistent with modern studies in the development of the Aramaic language. The standard lexicon for Biblical Hebrew21 discusses the interplay in the Hebrew form #r,a, and the Aramaic forms [r;a] and qr;a] in Old, Egyptian, Imperial, Jewish, and Christian Palestinian Aramaic and other cognate tongues.[Evidences, p.8]

He then concludes:

Gill’s argument concerning the vowels could be extended to the accents as well. Thus, an etymological derivation of kerai,a from qr,yxi gives evidence for the existence of the Hebrew vowels at the time of Christ.[Evidences, p.8]

The main problem with this argument is that it assumes that you can take the same rules in Aramaic, and apply them to Hebrew. You just simply cannot. The reason is because the Semitic languages did not develop along the same lines. There is a reason why Aramaic can end this particular term in a qoph or an ayin, but Hebrew must end it in a tsade. It has to do with the different ways in which Hebrew and Aramaic developed from proto-Semitic. You see, When Aramaic uses the Qoph and ayin to represent what is a tsade in Hebrew, they are reflecting an emphatic voiced interdental fricative sound in Proto-Semitic. However, Hebrew only represents this proto-Semitic sound with a tsade. When Hebrew uses the qoph, it is representing a totally different sound, namely, an emphatic velar consonant in Proto-Semitic. Hence, Hebrew uses a qoph to represent one sound, while Aramaic uses a Qoph to represent one of two possible Proto-Semitic sounds. Perhaps it would help to see this development from Proto-Semitic:

Proto-Semitic: ð̣ → Hebrew:c → Aramaic: q or [
Proto-Semitic: ḳ → Hebrew: q → Aramaic: q

Notice that Hebrew does not represent the Proto-Semitic consonant ð̣ in the same way that Aramaic does. Hebrew represents this consonant with a c, while Aramaic represents it with a q or an [. Hence, the only way for Ross’ argument to work is if the Hebrew term qr,yxi were #r,yxi! However, because the last letter of the Hebrew term is a q, it can only be traced back to the ḳ, but not the ð̣ as the second line shows. Because it cannot be traced back to the ð̣, you cannot use Aramaic to say that it might have originally been written by an ayin, and thus, left out of the etymology in Greek.

There are some even more devastating problems with this position. First of all, in terms of meaning, one cannot use etymology. For example, the English term “understand” is etymologically broken down into “under” and “stand.” However, are we really suggesting that when we understand something we have the idea of “standing under” it in our heads? Second, related to this point, the two words do not have the same base meaning. As we saw from BDAG, the base meaning of kerai,a is “horn, something that protrudes.” However, the base meaning of qr,yxi is “small opening.” They clearly have no semantic overlap, and hence, trying to come up with a relationship that is relevant to exegesis is entirely misguided.

Finally, Mr. Ross does try to defend the unusual suggestion that the authors of the Hebrew Bible such as Isaiah and Jeremiah used the modern square script that you find in a modern Hebrew Bible. His arguments are…interesting. They are extremely selective, and do not prove what he is seeking to prove. Let me show you what I mean:

It should be noted that the teaching by the Lord Jesus that the yod is the smallest Hebrew
consonant also validates the traditional square Hebrew letters found in the Masoretic text. The Samaritan
letters, which much of modern scholarship erroneously affirms are older than the square script, contain a
large yod, not a diminutive one. Matthew 5:18 only makes sense if the Son of God refers to the square
character. [Evidences, p.4 n.7]

A couple of errors must be pointed out to begin with. First of all, Mr. Ross calls the script in which the Pre-exilic books were written “the Samaritan letters.” That is grossly outdated. The Samaritans did use it, but so did the Hebrews, so did the Phoenicians, so did the Moabites, so did the Ammonites, so did the Philistines, and so did the Arameans. That is why we no longer call this script the “Samaritan script,” but rather, we call it either the “Canaanite script,” since it was used by all the Canaanite dialects, or the “Paleo-Hebrew” script, since it was the writing system in use in Israel during the time period before the exile. However, there are other problems with this line of reasoning. The first is obviously that Jesus’ topic is not which script the Hebrew Bible was written in. As I mentioned in my last post, he is using the smallest parts of the script in use in his day as a metonymy for “the smallest commandment of the law.” Thus, this passage cannot be used to tell us anything more than that this square script was in use in Jesus’ day, a truth which is confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls. He continues:

One notes that in Isaiah 9:6 the word “increase,” hbr~l, has a final mem in the middle of the word. The Masorites noted hbyt [cmab hmwts m that is, “Shut Mem in the middle of the word” (see Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, vol. 1, John Calvin, on Isaiah 9:6, trans. William Pringle, footnote #135, elec. acc. Albany, OR: AGES Digital Software Library, 1998.) Since Samaritan characters do not have final letter forms, this text provides evidence that the square Hebrew characters are original.[Evidences, p.4 n.7]

Actually, I would say just the opposite, since the Qere reading does *not* have the final mem in the middle of the word! If this final letter existed from the beginning, it is difficult to see why you would have confusion here. Here is what probably happened. While Hebrew was not written in a scripta continua, we do know that there are many instances in which Hebrew scribes would bunch letters together in order to save space, and thus, word divisions could become blurred. What probably happened was that a scribe who was transferring the script from the Paleo-Hebrew script to the square script had difficulty knowing where the word division was, and ended up making it after the mem. It is also possible that a scribe had difficulty knowing where the word division was, and he included the mem in with the entirety of the word. Whichever way the confusion happened, this text in Isaiah 9:7 [9:6 Heb] is easily, and I would say, most efficiently explained with the understanding that the square script was not the script in which the Hebrew Bible was originally written.

One notes as well that Nehemiah 2:13 has an open m at the end of a word. [Evidences, p.4 n.7]

Well, here is the Hebrew text of Nehemiah 2:13:

r[;v;Þ-la,w. !yNIëT;h; !y[eä ‘ynEP.-la,w. hl’y.l;ª ayG:÷h;-r[;v;(b. ha’’c.aew”
Î~heäÐ ¿~yciw”rpom.h;À-rv,a] ‘~Øil;’v’Wry. tmoÜAxB. rbeøfo yhi’a/w” tPo+v.a;h’
`vae(b’ Wlï h’yr,Þ[‘v.W Î~yciêWrP.Ð

Needless to say, I have no clue what he is talking about.

One notes also that only a “few Qumran manuscripts are in . . . Paleo-Hebrew [the Samaritan character], but the majority of biblical texts from Qumran and later are in the Jewish [traditional square] script” (An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Bruce Waltke & M. O’Connor. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990; 1.5.3d). Specifically, there are 190-1 texts in the traditional square character and only 12 in the Samaritan script (pgs. 104-105, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Tov). Furthermore, “the texts written in the paleo-Hebrew [Samaritan] script do not belong to the earliest group of the Qumran scrolls” (pg. 106, ibid.). Both the most ancient extant Hebrew MSS, and the overwhelming majority of the oldest MSS, are in the traditional Hebrew square script. Thus, the actual evidence of Biblical MSS is consistent with the Scriptural data affirming the originality of the traditional square Hebrew script, and the affirmation of the originality of the Samaritan letters is based upon the unproven assumptions of theological liberalism. [Evidences, p.4 n.7]

Again, I really wish these folks would cut it out with the “theological liberalism” rhetoric, especially since this is a gross oversimplification. The reason that you cannot rely on Qumran to decide the original script of the Hebrew Bible is because Qumran is 400-500 years after the change in script took place! The Jews did not change to the square script until after the exile, and by the time of Qumran, yes, it was rare to write sacred texts in the earlier Paleo-Hebrew script.

That brings me to the things that were selectively left out by Mr. Ross. First of all, every single Hebrew text we have found that was written before the exile is written in Paleo-Hebrew. There is no evidence of a square script in Israel until after the exile. Worse than that, we actually have sections of the Biblical text that were written on silver amulets from Ketef Hinnom dating from around 600BC, probably not long before the exile. Those Biblical texts are written in a Paleo-Hebrew script.

Now, aside from that, there are several letters that are confused in the manuscripts that we have, that could never be confused in a square script, but are easily confused in a Paleo-Hebrew script. Ellis Brotzman gives several examples of this in his work Old Testament Textual Criticism on page 109. The examples he gives are:

Confusion between a bet and a dalet [Gen. 9:7]
bet and resh [1 Kings 22:32]
Kaph and Mem [2 Kings 22:4]
Yod and Tsade [Isa. 11:15]
Mem and Shin [Num. 24:9]
Aleph and Dalet [1 Chron. 11:37 c.f. 2 Sam. 23:35]
Gimel and Pe [1 Chron. 11:37 c.f. 2 Sam. 23:35]

Brotzman, Ellis R. Old Testament Textual Criticism, A Practical Introduction. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1994. p.109

Again, these letters are not easily confused at all in the square script. One has to ask, if the text were never passed down in a Paleo-Hebrew script, then how could these copy errors have occurred?

Even worse, is the fact that we know how the square script developed. Aramaic is fairly well attested, and one can trace the development of Aramaic from the Phoenician script all of the way to the square script, which the Jews then borrowed after the exile to write their own texts. Hence, there is a reason why we are certain that the Hebrew Bible was originally written in a Paleo-Hebrew script.

Amazing how he ignores all of that, and then says that those of us who say that the Hebrew text was not originally written in a square script are “theological liberals.”

Continued in Part II


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