Biblical Archaeology Review 46:1, January/February 2020

Epistles: How Old Is the Hebrew Bible?

By Ronald S. HendelJan Joosten

Biblical Archaeology Review

The Age of the Hebrew Bible is difficult to determine. Its books may contain strata and fragments composed in wholly different periods.

Many books are projected into a distant past, written down on the basis of oral traditions and cultural memory that may span centuries, with details revealing little about the age of the account. The history of ideas (e.g., monotheism), institutions (e.g., the monarchy, sacrifice, and festivals), or power struggles (e.g., priestly rivalries and anti-Samaritan polemics) might give useful hints—if it weren’t for the fact that most of these historical realities are supported exclusively by the biblical text itself.

Many scholars argue that we should drop the whole issue and concentrate only on the final form of the text or its reception. Isn’t the life of the Bible independent of its time of composition? Perhaps in many respects it is. But it is also shaped by its history, even as it shapes later history.

Its central narrative relates to tribal, national, and cultural history from end to end. Its history-like narrative is neither a parable nor an atemporal myth. If we could only place it in its historical context, even approximately, we would understand its nuanced meanings better. But this means taking on the challenge of dating the texts. So how do we date biblical texts?

In many cases the best evidence—sometimes the only evidence—is language. Language evolves; its sounds, semantics, and syntax change through time. This makes it possible, in theory, to determine a chronology for individual writings. Dating texts by their language is a well-established practice, if not always as precise as one could wish.

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