Hebrew Syntax

Syntax is described as “the scientific study of word usage in clause construction. Syntax considers the ordering and arrangement of works into sentences as well as the linguistic study and analysis of sentence structure.”[1] For Biblical Hebrew (hereafter BH), syntax plays an enormous role in linguistical studies and proper interpretation. Arnold and Choi note the importance of understand BH syntax when they write, “At the heart of biblical interpretation is the need to read the Bible’s syntax, that is, to study the way words, phrases, clauses, and sentences relate to one another in order to create meaning.”[2] Before syntax can be understood a basic knowledge of language structure must be examined.[3] There are five basic levels of “language structure”.[4] The authors of A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar list those levels: phonetic, morphological, syntactical, semantic, and textual.[5] As Choi and Arnold pointed out, the basics of phonetics and morphology cannot provide proper interpretation.[6] However, once these basics of have been understood then the work of examining syntactical structures can begin.[7]

Several grammars for BH are divided into similar categories in dealing with syntactical studies: nominals, verbs, particles, and finally clauses.[8] The basic structure for these grammars is similar. They work through individual words (nominal, verbs, and particles) and then examine the functions of clauses (both dependent and independent). For nominals this includes several aspects: number, gender, or the construct position.[9] Verbs require more examination as they contain more information in single Hebrew words.[10] In fact, the vast majority of grammars spend massive amounts of space dealing with verbals.[11] Particles are dealt with next in grammars, and these words (including prepositions, adverbs, negatives, conjunctions, relative, accusative, and existential particles)have an enormous impact on BH.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for the student of BH to accomplish is to master the ability to comprehend and correlate clauses. A clause is “the most basic form of a complete thought, whether all or part of a complete sentence.”[12] There are three types of clauses (though they can further be divided into even more distinct clauses): main, subordinate, and coordinate clauses.[13] The basic idea behind a clause is “a group of words containing a subject and only one predicate.”[14] The clause marks a unique transition from a single unit (a word such as a noun or verb) into a more complex unit of thought.[15]

Understanding these words and groups of words will enable to the student of BH to analyze and interpret the Bible. It is necessary to move from the basic structure (simply a word) to the more detailed clauses. Students must learn the terms and employ them in their exegetical work.

[1] Todd J. Murphy, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of Biblical Hebrew (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 165.

[2] Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1.

[3] Choi and Arnold note the need for more than a basic knowledge, noting, “Students often learn to discern the elementary phonology and morphology in order to ‘read’ the biblical text.”, 1.

[4] Christo H. J. Merwe, Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 51.

[5] Ibid., 51-52.

[6] Choi and Arnold, 1.

[7] Pratico and Van Pelt spend twenty-two chapters laying the necessary foundation of phonology and morphology before they even touch on syntax. See Gary Davis Pratico, and Miles V. Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001), 271. They write, “Because you have already encountered numerous verbal sentences in your study of the Qal stem, the following discussion should simply make explicit what you  probably already know implicitly. In other words, the point of the following discussion is to organize and clarify many issues of verbal syntax with which you should already be familiar.”

[8] See Arnold and Choi; Merwe; Ronald J. Williams and John C. Beckman, Williams’ Hebrew Syntax (3rd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007); and Malcolm John Albert Horsnell, A Review and Reference Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Hamilton, Ont.: McMaster University Press, 1998).

[9] Williams, 1, 5, and 7. They include additional information though for the sake of brevity the list chosen will remain the same.

[10] For example, the Hebrew word שָׁמַר has within it person (third), number (singular), and gender (masculine). In addition to this there is tense, voice, and mood.

[11] Perhaps the most detail is given in Horsnell’s work, on pages 286-307; Williams covers pages 56-95; and Arnold and Choi cover pages 36-92.

[12] Murphy, 41.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Choi and Arnold, 162.

[15] Ibid., 163. They write, “Thus, sentences combine to create texts, which may be further analyzed in terms of text-linguistic conventions of cohesion and rhetorical organization. So the grammatical hierarchy moves from word to phrase to clause to sentence to discourse.”

Textual Criticism

Textual Criticism has been defined as “the study of copies of any written work of which the autograph (the original) is unknown, with the purpose of ascertaining the original text.”[1] Some scholars question the ability to recover the original text because of the absence of those autographs.[2] However, this should not alarm the student of textual criticism, for in the case of the Hebrew Bible (hereafter HB) there is a 90% agreement rate; the Greek New Testament (hereafter GNT) enjoys a variation rate of less than 7%.[3]

An understanding of the basics of Textual Criticism (both for the HB and the GNT) will enable the student to have a greater appreciation for the Scripture that believers now hold in their hands, “When holding the modern Old Testament text in our hands, it is difficult to comprehend all the lives and talent dedicated to preparing it for more than three thousand years.”[4] In addition, the student of the HB must have an understanding of the variations found within as well as the ability to examine those variations in order to determine the original text (or, in some cases, the final text).[5] To begin with, textual criticism, specifically that of the HB, has a greater difficulty than that of the GNT. For one, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (here after DSS) there were only a “few extant, early manuscripts or fragments of the Old Testament…”[6] The oldest extant manuscript was from “the ninth century A.D.”[7] With the discovery of the DSS scholars had a wealth of new manuscripts, both complete and incomplete.[8]

However, as much information was provided for scholars and academics, the discovery also generated questions that have created debates.[9] The discussion centers around the evidence of that there existed families of texts from which the HB has developed throughout its history. Wegner describes the situation, “It is fairly well accepted among scholars that the Dead Sea Scrolls give evidence that at least three textual traditions were prevalent about the third century B.C…”[10] The manner of how many families (or textual traditions) and how they came to be is debated.[11] Regardless, this information makes it difficult for the textual critic to determine which variance should be favored over the other. The other aspect of the HB that creates difficulty is determining if the text was corrected at a later point of its creation (e.g., the book of Genesis and the added gloss of “Dan”) or whether the original was lost through transmission and scribal errors.[12] For example, Wegner writes, “In Genesis 14:14, the city of Laish (Judg 18:29), or Leshem (Josh 19:47), is called ‘Dan’ before its name was ever changed to ‘Dan,’ and no manuscript evidence suggests a different reading. It is most likely that an editor later changed it so that his readers would understand which city was being indicated.”[13] Wegner provides two additional examples of how scribes have apparently added information that would clear up the confusion that might have occurred in the original.[14] These glosses that were added seem, as Wegner notes, to have been a part of the original text.[15] The reason that this causes trouble for the textual critic is that it seems one of two things are possible: either the original text was not complete, in the sense that the additional gloss was necessary for proper understanding; or the original text was complete but somehow the gloss made its way into what would come to be defined as the authoritative text.

Added to the difficulty of the HB textual critic’s work is the proposed goal. There are many goals that textual critics hope to achieve, and while space does not allow a thorough treatment of these goals, a summary of them should provide the student with a basic knowledge of them. There are three main divisions of goals that Wegner further divides into six.[16] The first division attempts to find the original text. The second division attempts to restore the original texts, i.e. several authorized texts. The final goal attempts to publish all variants of the HB.[17]

Once the understanding of the extant materials has been gained (at least in part) and the goal has been established, the textual critic must then work through the available evidence, determine the most accurate reading, and then supply the necessary reasons for the proposed change.[18] The steps are incredibly meticulous and must be constantly reexamined in order to determine what would be the most plausible original reading.[19]

The last thing the textual critic must do in order to properly execute this most sacred work is to understand the materials available. This requires a great deal of work, as the evidence available is large and complex.[20] The terms primary source and secondary source delineate what type of evidence it is. Primary sources are those that contain parts of the HB.[21] The secondary sources are those that may be translations, commentaries, etc.[22]

Textual criticism, specifically that of the HB, requires work, scholarly integrity, and an understanding of several areas of research. But the goal of attempting “to establish the most reliable reading of the text” is a high one, and one that the textual critic must attain.[23]

[1] J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament, Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 1.

[2] Jason Sexton, “NT Textual Criticism and Inerrancy.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 17, no. 1 (2006), 51

[3] Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods & Results (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic/InterVarsity Press, 2006), 24-25.

[4] For an extensive treatment of the subject, see: Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods & Results (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic/InterVarsity Press, 2006), 89; Bruce M. Metzger, New Testament Textual Criticism: Its Significance for Exegesis : Essays in Honour of Bruce M. Metzger (Oxford: Clarendon Press ; 1981).

[5] The transmissions, development, and variations found in the HB are detailed in Wegner, 58-78.

[6] Wegner, 26.

[7] Ibid., 89.

[8] Ibid., 27-28; see also Thatcher, Tom, Mary L. Coloe, and Society of Biblical Literature. John, Qumran, and the Dead Sea Scrolls : Sixty Years of Discovery and Debate. Society of Biblical Literature: Early Judaism and Its Literature. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011)

[9] Wegner, 90-92.

[10] Ibid., 90.

[11] Ibid., 63-70. Table 3.1, Figures 3.5 and 3.6 are extremely helpful in provided an illustration in how these families are believed to have come down through time.

[12] More information about the errors that occur in transmission can be found in Wegner, 44-57.

[13] Ibid., 30.

[14] Ibid., 30-31. Wegner interestingly notes, “Since these parts appear in all the extant Hebrew manuscripts and ancient versions, they must have been put into the text fairly early and apparently were part of the authoritative text maintained by the scribes. Thus our understanding of the final form of the text must include at least these types of modifications of the text.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 31.

[17] Wegner breaks them down the following ways: Restore the original composition; restore the final form of the text; restore the earliest attested form; restore accepted texts; restore final texts; restore all various “literary editions” of the Old Testament. See Wegner, 31.

[18] Wegner provides a detailed treatment of the topic, 120-135.

[19] See specifically Wegner, 127-129.

[20] Ibid., 140-201.

[21] The primary sources are: the Silver Amulets, DSS, and the Nash Papyrus. Wegner, 140-161.

[22] The main secondary sources are: the Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, and the Targums. Ibid., 166-200.

[23] Ibid., 24.