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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Christopher Rollston about the origins of the Hebrew language as they explore the following questions:

  • Can we tell which texts were written last in the Hebrew Bible?
  • What does “epigraphic” mean?
  • How do scholars date books of the Bible?
  • What is Ugaritic? 
  • How old are the oldest biblical manuscripts we have?
  • What kind of writing system does biblical Hebrew utilize?
  • What is significant about the Siloam Tunnel inscription?
  • What Hebrew Bible texts were written in the Second Temple Period?
  • How do we know what Hebrew looked like through time?
  • How does the study of Hebrew contribute to source criticism?
  • What is Late Biblical Hebrew?
  • What other clues besides language do we find in the biblical text that help us date it?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Christopher Rollston you can share. 

  • “We have no portion of the Bible, it seems, from the First Temple period. So, all of the texts which we have are actually, which are biblical, come from what we call the Second Temple period.” — Christopher Rollston
  • “If you’re looking at Egyptian writing or Sumerian and Acadian writing, the sign, the symbol represented not a single letter, but an entire word.” — Christopher Rollston
  • “When we open up Genesis, we’re basically seeing Hebrew as it was spoken during the period of the monarchy.” — Christopher Rollston
  • “Inscriptional data gives us the comparative material we need to be able to say, this is, this biblical text, is from the period of the monarchy.” — Christopher Rollston
  • “Even when we look at the Bible itself, there are chronological linchpins in it as well. So, it was clearly, even according to the Bible itself, written at different time periods and that’s clear.” — Christopher Rollston
  • “We can compare the language of inscriptions, quite often, with the language of the Bible and that gives us a separate way of attempting to date things as well.” — Christopher Rollston

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript


Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music]

Jared: Today, we’re talking about the question “where does Hebrew come from?,” with Christopher Rolston.

Pete: Yeah, Chris is a linguist, you know. He teaches at George Washington University.

Jared: Which you think would be extremely boring, by the way –

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: As a linguist.

Pete: It’s, it’s not.

Jared: But it’s not.

Pete: Because you start actually reading texts in the language in which they were written and the more you get into it, it’s like, I’ve been lied to my whole life, this Bible. Not really. But you know, you see things that English sometimes necessarily has to cover over because you have to get to your point. You can’t like…

Jared: Well, I’ll cut you off. Where does he teach?

Pete: Anyway, yeah –


He teaches at George Washington University. He’s an Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literature, that’s a mouthful. We’ll talk about that another time, not now. But anyway, yeah, we talked about “where does Hebrew comes from?” and has effect, you know, on when parts of the Bible were written. Stuff like that, just fascinating stuff.

Jared: Alright, let’s head into the conversation then.

[Music begins]

Chris: Let’s read the text, word for word, line by line and see what it says. Let’s let the chips fall where they may. The interpretive traditions are really fascinating, but right now we’re going to look at what the actual text says. I believe you can discern that, and I can discern that. My fidelity is to the text and to what it says.

[Music ends]

Pete: All right Chris, well listen, thanks for being on the podcast here. I just got a question for you, this is a question that is on everyone’s mind, every Christian I know is asking this question -where does Hebrew come from?

Chris: Yeah, great question.

Pete: Isn’t it though? It’s a fantastic question. People, hold on here. Do not press fast forward or whatever you do on these podcasts. Just listen, because this is really interesting. Where does the Hebrew language come from? Because the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, but Hebrew has a history, there’s a language, there’s a beginning, and when did it begin and how did it begin and all that kind of stuff. Let’s get into that.

Chris: Alright. That sounds very good. So, the earliest Hebrew inscriptions we have hail from about 900 BC, and so that’s when our epigraphic evidence comes from.

Pete: Okay, what is epigraphic mean?

Chris: Ah, very good. So, epigraphic basically means inscriptional. So, our earliest Hebrew inscriptions come from probably the early 9th century BC/BCE. And so, for example, we have some from a site called Rehov, really nice inscription, 9th century.

Pete: What’s it written on?

Chris: It’s written on a potsherd.

Pete: Okay.

Chris: And so it’s a really fascinating piece. So, we have the old Hebrew script there, if we push down a little bit later to the late 800’s, early 700’s, we get some fascinating Hebrew inscriptions from a place called Kuntillet Ajrud. Those are especially important because they mention things such as this: Yahweh of Samaria, Yahweh of Teman, Yahweh and his Asherah. So, according to those inscriptions, which are inscriptions that hail basically from the late 9th, early 8th century BC, we actually see that some ancient Israelites, through Hebrew inscriptions, Hebrew script, some ancient Israelites actually believe that Yahweh had a consort. So, the God of Israel had a consort.

Pete: So, like a girlfriend?

Chris: Yes, yes, yup. And if we pushed down even further, a little bit further from the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel, namely Samaria, we have inscriptions that probably come from the reign of Jeroboam II, a king of northern Israel, so really fascinating corpus. So, that’s really the beginning of Hebrew as it’s attested on inscriptions.

Pete: So, that’s the evidence that we have. Now, some people will say, “well what about the Bible? The Bible is older than that. Isn’t it?” But, like, the oldest manuscripts of the Bible are not as old as these inscriptions that we have.

Chris: That’s right. Right, so we have no portion of the Bible, it seems, from the First Temple period. So, all of the texts which we have are actually, which are biblical, come from what we call the Second Temple period. So, basically the time period from about 516 BCE down, but we don’t even have any that are that early.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Chris: Really, the oldest ones we have are the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the earliest of those is probably late 4th century, early 3rd century BC. So right, we don’t have any biblical texts that are nearly as old as these Hebrew inscriptions we have from places such as…


Pete: Okay, so we have these biblical texts, some of which are early Second Temple period. Can we say like 5th century BCE or later? Or certainly later with the Dead Sea Scrolls, you know, 200/100 BCE, but we’re looking at like that second half of that first millennium before the time of Christ.

Chris: That’s right.

Pete: And the other stuff though, that’s, the other stuff only goes back to like the 900’s or something, or the 10th century or 9th century. So that’s, the biblical story is much older than that.

Chris: Yes, it is. The biblical story is, and there’s some discussion, a fair amount of discussion, about just how much older Hebrew as a language is. And so, because I come from the Johns Hopkins University tradition, the Albright tradition, I think that certain biblical texts such as Exodus 15 and Judges 5 probably hail from something around 1100 BC, perhaps 1200 BC, something such as that. Those are really archaic texts. The fascinating thing is we don’t have any inscriptions that go back quite that far.

Jared: So, how would you know, when you say that these passages, Exodus 15/Judges 5, are archaic and older if we don’t have evidence of it being written back then, how would you know? Is it from the language or how can you place the date on those?

Chris: Yes, indeed it is. So, basically there are features in the Hebrew language of those really archaic texts, such as Exodus 15 and Judges 5, which are similar to certain features, for example, of the Ugaritic language which hails from the 13th century BC. And so, when we do comparative analysis, we say to ourselves, look, these Hebrew texts in the Hebrew Bible, these really archaic texts, they have features that are shared with Ugaritic.

Pete: Ugaritic is what? Explain that.

Chris: Ah, yes. So, Ugaritic, Ugarit is a place in Syria, right on the Mediterranean coast. It’s one of the most beautiful sites one could imagine. The architecture is heavily stone. I visited there a number of years ago. It was a really wealthy city and there were some scribes there, many scribes there it seems, and they wrote a language which we’ve dubbed, we call Ugaritic. It’s an alphabetic language, it’s an alphabetic script and those texts come from about the 13th century BC. And these are wonderful texts, they’re about Baal, they’re about Asherah, they’re about El and Anat, so really fascinating Canaanite literature. And when we look at the language of Ugarit and then we compare it with certain features of these really archaic texts in the Hebrew Bible, we find shared features and that helps us to say, look, Exodus 15, Judges 5, these are archaic Hebrew. This is basically our oldest Hebrew, and even the inscriptions don’t go back that far because they don’t reflect those same sorts of really archaic features. That’s not surprising because our inscriptional record picks up, as I say, about 900 BC.

Jared: And that’s how we would have this evidence that, for instance, like source criticism that there are different parts that have been placed together because maybe Exodus 16 or Exodus 14 maybe don’t have these same characteristics that we find in Exodus 15. So, it leads scholars to believe that those were written down at different times and then put together later.

Chris: Right, as you know, that’s a really complex subject and there’s a lot of evidence which demonstrates that and it’s very complex. But indeed, you’re right, that basically when we look at the text of the Hebrew Bible, we see that some texts, indeed, Exodus 15 is really archaic but the texts that comes before it and after it, chapter 14, chapter 16, are not nearly as archaic. So, it allows us to see that when we look at the biblical text, we’re looking at a wonderful library of literature even when we’re in the same book and different pieces hail from different time periods. And these are, of course, stories, many of these, right? The text of Exodus 15, the Song of the Sea, the Israelite’s crossing, the Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds, it’s a beautiful story, probably was told and retold so very often. Probably, during these retellings, it seems that even the archaic way of speaking that was part of the first tellings of these stories, that gets preserved in the biblical text. And so, it’s absolutely scintillating.


Pete: It’s sort of like saying thee and thou nowadays.

Chris: Yes!

Pete: The power of scripture, people want to retain that “older language” and that doesn’t mean the person saying thee and thou is living in the 17th century or something, but it just, it’s the power of that way of talking that gets attached, you know, to the text and people just like it that way.

Chris: Yeah, I feel exact, that’s exactly the way that I think about it as well. And so, when I grew up, I grew up in the King James Version and the way that I recited Psalm 23, you know, I recited it in that older fashion, the Elizabethan English. I still find it to be quite beautiful, actually, the 23rd Psalm and various other texts, and I think that’s right. The ancient Israelites found the same thing when they recited the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, they used the archaic language, they preserve that archaic language.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Chris: But the majority of the biblical text comes from later periods, of course.

Jared: Well, I was going to take us there just to finish out this thought, maybe we could swing the other way and say, you know, I’m thinking of Aramaic influence and other things that may play into it. What would be some of the later texts that we could say may’ve been, some of the last pieces of the Old Testament that were written? Are there ways to tell that based on this style of writing?

Chris: Yes, there are, on the language, or if we’re dealing with manuscripts or inscriptions, the style of writing as well. So, for example, Chronicles is written in what we often refer to as late-biblical Hebrew. The Hebrew portions of Daniel, of course, portions of Daniel are written in Aramaic, 2:4-7:28 is all Aramaic, but there are portions of Daniel in Hebrew and those portions are written in later Hebrew. So, texts such as Ezra, Chronicles, Nehemiah, Daniel, they’re written in what we refer to as late-biblical Hebrew and there are features that characterize that. So basically, we have features of the language itself, for example, in Exodus 15 and Judges 5 which are very old, very archaic, preserve really old patterns with regard to verbs and nouns and then we have the late features in books that come from the Second Temple period such as Chronicles and Ezra and Nehemiah and Daniel. And then, predictably of course, there are a lot of books or portions of books which are right in the middle, things such as Samuel and Kings.

Pete: So, okay, we’re talking about texts. Let’s, let’s talk a little bit about Hebrew and geek out a little bit here, but how old is that language? I mean, it’s probably hard to tell, but you mentioned that Hebrew is an alphabetic language, and I can imagine people saying, “well, what other kind of languages are there then? Languages have alphabets and nouns and vowels and consonants and things like that.” So, let’s talk about that. Let’s go backwards, you know, you’re like in the, around the 12th century, perhaps, for things like Exodus 15 and Judges. Can we, like, let’s go back and see when could Hebrew have begun even as a language, when would that have been possible?

Chris: So, we know that the alphabet was invented around 1800 BCE or BC, we have evidence from places such as, places in Egypt, such as Serabit El-Khadim and Wadi el-Hol, these are locations in Egypt. And we have writing there about that time, which is alphabetic writing and before that point, there was writing. Writing began in human history about 3200 BC/BCE. So, for example, Sumerian is a language which probably hails from about that time period. Probably a generation or two after that we have writing in Egypt. So, we have writing in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3200 BCE, but it’s not an alphabetic writing system. We get the alphabet around 1800 BC/BCE.

Pete: Well, what are the writing, talk a little bit about, I mean, this is very complicated stuff I think, but talk a little bit about Egyptian, the language and just how they depicted it on paper and the kind of, you know, if it’s not alphabetic, what is it? And even Sumerian, you know, is a very, very ancient culture that powerful and seemed to give rise to a lot of cultures that we even read about in the Bible. You don’t really read about Sumerians in the Old Testament to my recollection, but you do read about Assyrians and Babylonians and things like that. But, so yeah, just take us back and just, because I know people are wondering, if it’s not an alphabet, what is it?


Chris: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, these early writing systems in Mesopotamia and Egypt work in this fashion. They began, both of them, the Mesopotamian writing with Sumerian and Egyptian writing with hieroglyphics, as heavily pictographic scripts and basically when you looked at the picture, it was whatever was depicted in the picture, it represented an entire word.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Chris: Normally a noun, perhaps a verb, but the picture represented an entire word, or we might say, for later periods, the sign, if it’s not so pictographic, the sign used in Mesopotamian writing and Egyptian writing would represent a whole word or it would represent an entire syllable or it could represent a determinative, which is basically an adjectival sort of feature of the language. But especially, it’s useful to focus in on those first two, namely if you’re looking at Egyptian writing or Sumerian and Acadian writing, the sign, the symbol represented not a single letter, but an entire word.

Pete: And that is a cumbersome way of communicating, right?

Chris: What’s that?

Pete: I mean, there are many, many, many more syllables in any language and words than there are letters, right?

Chris: Yeah, that’s right. There definitely are. And so, the writing systems of Mesopotamia and Egypt, as you might imagine, because it, they’re representing words or syllables, there are usually 700 or 800 different signs in that language. So, the beauty of the alphabet is that when you have an alphabetic writing system, namely a writing system in which each letter or grapheme, we might say, represents a single phoneme, which is the smallest meaningful unit of sound. So, when we get an alphabet, we have a dramatic innovation in writing, so we no longer have to have 600 or 800 signs. We normally have in an alphabetic writing system somewhere between 25, 22, 30, something such as that.

Pete: Yeah, right.

Chris: So, dramatically different systems for sure. And so, these complex non-alphabetic writing systems, these are the earliest and alphabetic writing begins about 1800 BCE. And so, Hebrew must have hailed after that point when the alphabet was invented.

Pete: Is there a way of tracing the beginnings of the alphabet around 1800? Is there a way of tracing that beginning to what would eventually become the Hebrew language? Because, you know, the Hebrews didn’t invent the alphabet, they got it. So, it took time from 1800 on. And, you know, I’m making a point of this because, you know, from the, with respect to like the chronology of the biblical story taken at face value, you know, when you’re at 1800, I mean, Abraham’s long gone, right? So, I mean, it does affect how we think of like, what the Bible is and when it was written and why it was written and because there’s no Hebrew in existence until a much later time. So, it, can you give any sort of definitive direction on when Hebrew might have arisen or what scholars tend to say when Hebrew might’ve arisen as a language that people could actually communicate in?

Chris: So, basically, you know, 1200/1100 BC/BCE is when we can posit that we have Hebrew. Before that point, we would’ve had a Semitic language, we would’ve even had a northwest Semitic language, Ugaritic for example is a northwest Semitic language earlier than Hebrew. And in fact, these texts from Wadi el-Hol and Serabit El-Khadim, these are Semitic languages as well and they’re even northwest Semitic so they’re similar to Phoenician and Hebrew in that regard. But, as you indicate, there is no way that Abraham would’ve been speaking Hebrew. It wasn’t around at that point. So, not only did we not have the writing system, we didn’t really have the language yet either.

Pete: How about Moses?

Chris: Yeah, Moses is a very good, very good question and I’m probably more conservative than some people are. I think by the time we’re talking about Moses, so, if we put Moses ballpark him somewhere in the middle of the 13th century BC/BCE, I think that we could probably posit that there was some sort of fledgling form of Hebrew, but the Hebrew that Moses would’ve spoken would’ve been deeply archaic, probably at least as archaic in terms of the way that it sounded, in terms of the ways things were spelled, it would’ve been analogous to or maybe even earlier than the things that we have in Exodus 15 and Judges 5.


Pete: And so, it would’ve been not at all, I shouldn’t, I don’t want to exaggerate, but it would be very different from Hebrew that students learn today when they open up the book of Genesis or Exodus and start reading it. That’s not the language that people living in the first millennium, you know, from 1000-2000 BC, that is not the language that they would’ve handled. This is a language that really, it comes by later.

Chris: That’s right. So, when we look at the biblical text it doesn’t seem to be the language of the late second millennium BCE except for those texts that we’ve talked about, Exodus 15/Judges 5 and a handful of others. When we open up Genesis, we’re basically seeing Hebrew as it was spoken during the period of the monarchy. So, what we’re seeing when we open the Hebrew bible, much of it, Genesis for example, it’s the language that would’ve been spoken during the period of the monarchy, and, so standard biblical Hebrew.

Jared: Stay tuned for more Bible for Normal People.

[Music begins] [Producer’s group endorsement] [Music ends]

Pete: Can I get back, Jared, this is so important, but Jared asked a question before too about like, how can you tell? I guess what you’re suggesting is that there’s, you can trace a development of the Hebrew language based on the texts that we have.

Chris: Right.

Pete: You can tell some things are earlier, some things are clearly later, and then there’s a bunch of stuff in the middle. So, I mean, that’s just even worth knowing.

Chris: Yeah, that’s right. So, and it’s important, so, the point you raised is very useful and very important just in terms of grounding people, literally. This is where the inscriptions come in.

Pete: Yes.

Chris: So, with the inscriptions, we have archeological context, we have carbon dating –

Pete: And these are things that were found through archeological research.

Chris: That’s right.

Pete: Digging and you find them in the dirt and you dig them up and you read them, okay.

Chris: That’s right. So, you find these, these inscriptions are found in places like Samaria or Lachish or Irad or Kuntillet Ajrud and they have an archeological context, there are items associated with them, often times organic remains. These things can be sent off for carbon-14 tests and we get solid dates for these things. There could be some debate about the dates at times, but we look at a constellation of evidence and we can date these pieces that are found archeologically. So, we know what Hebrew of the 8th century BC, the 7th century BC, the 6th century BC, we know what it looked like. And the reason we know what it looked like is because we have inscriptions that have been in the ground for all these centuries and they can be read so we know precisely what Hebrew looked like. And a fascinating thing is when we compare the language of these inscriptions and various biblical texts, we find that the language of the inscriptions, for example, is pretty similar to, or basically the same as something that we read in Samuel or Kings or various parts of Genesis. And so, this is the linchpin, this inscriptional data gives us the comparative material we need to be able to say, this is, this biblical text, is from the period of the monarchy.


Or we have later inscriptions too from the Second Temple period. So, we know what Hebrew and Aramaic looked like during those periods and we know what the language looks like, we know the linguistic features and we, so we can look at that and then we can compare it with biblical texts like Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Chris: And we say, look, these are the same.

Pete: Yes. So, when, I mean, a question that many people ask, like, when was the Bible written?

Chris: Mm hmm.

Pete: And that’s, over time.

Chris: Right.

Pete: In a sense, I mean, the things would be written over time. It might’ve been collected later, but that’s not an easy question to answer and it takes, like, linguistic work is part of that discussion of trying to determine when things might’ve been written.

Chris: Right, that’s absolutely correct. So, as you know, there are various sorts of ways in which scholars will approach this, one will be linguistic and that’s very important. And so, the basic thing that I’m suggesting is we have these inscriptions, they can be dated, we can compare them with the biblical text, and that functions as a metric for us so that we’re basically anchoring the things that we’re saying in real data, concrete data, the epigraphic record, the inscriptional record. So, that’s definitely a major feature of the dating of biblical texts and so, that’s the case. And of course, one of the things that’s true as well is the Bible makes it clear that it’s written in different periods as well. So, if we look at the early chapters of Samuel and Kings, that’s clearly narrative, that at least in terms of its setting, comes from the time period of Saul and David and early chapters of Kings with Solomon. So, the biblical text has those materials that at least in terms of the setting of the piece come from that time period. But then we also have things in the Bible such as the book of Jeremiah and Jeremiah was a prophet of the 7th century and the early 6th century, whereas David was a figure of the 10th century. So, even when we look at the Bible itself, there are chronological linchpins in it as well. So, it was clearly, even according to the Bible itself, written at different time periods and that’s clear. And then we can compare the language of inscriptions, quite often, with the language of the Bible and that gives us a separate way of attempting to date things as well. So, there, it’s indeed highly complex and the date of setting and the date of composition are often very different things, but all of that data has to be integrated. And when we do it, and when we do it well, we come up with some pretty convincing dates for the biblical text and the time of the composition of this library. I should say the times of composition of this library that we have in the Bible.

Jared: Yeah, I wanted to talk about the times, because we’ve been talking about the span of these different books being written, but I wanted to mention and talk about, like, for instance, the book of Isaiah.

Chris: Mm hmm.

Jared: Which, over time, scholars have said, well, there’s a second Isaiah, there’s a third Isaiah. And so, how do we, that may be a new concept for people even just to even mention that, hey, that scholars think there’s multiple sections of this book of Isaiah. How would you go about, because it’s not, doesn’t seem like, maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s not, but I wouldn’t think it’s about dating, these are written hundreds of years apart. But there’s something else that leads scholars to say these are different compositions, they’re not, it’s not all one uniform book here.

Chris: Right. There are definitely linguistic differences. So, Isaiah has 66 chapters and linguistically, there are different blocks. The blocks are not neat and clean, but there are different blocks. The way that I often approach that subject is this way, I’ll say to those listening to me, often undergraduate students, will bring in a lot of assumptions and that’s fine. But what I’ll do is say to them, with regard to Isaiah, I’ll say look at chapters 1-39, and we have references to Ahaz was a king of Judah. We have reference to Rezin who was a king of Syria, we have references to Pekah, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, we have references to Tiglath Pileser III, who was a king of neo-Assyria and the fascinating thing, and we have references to Hezekiah as well.

Pete: Mm hmm.


Chris: The fascinating thing is those kings are kings of the 8th century and Hezekiah, the early 7th century BCE. And so, I say to students: look at the actual content, read the text. And I’ll always say to them, our fidelity is to the text. And so, when we look at 1-39, all of the references are 8th century BCE or, in the case of Hezekiah, late 8th/early 7th century BCE. And then I’ll say to them, take a look at Isaiah 40 and take a look especially at 44 and 45 and the fascinating thing there is that we have references to Cyrus, for example. The end of chapter 44 and the beginning of chapter 45, we have reference to Cyrus and the references make it clear that the Jerusalem temple has been destroyed, the references to the need to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. We know when it was destroyed, it was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians. And we also know that it was Cyrus the Great who defeated the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus. We know when he did it, 539 BCE or BC. And so, when we look at Isaiah 40, especially 44 and 45 for historical references, we say, my goodness, Cyrus was a figure of the second half of the 6th century BCE, began to reign, people will put him about 550 BCE, reigned until about 530 BCE. And we say, my goodness, the references to the temple in that block of material, they presuppose that the temple has been destroyed and needs to be rebuilt. The text makes it clear Jerusalem has been desolated and needs to be rebuilt, and then the text refers to Cyrus as someone who’s going to be the agency by which God rebuilds the temple and rebuilds the city of Jerusalem. And so, clearly in 40-55, we’re looking at texts that hail primarily from the 6th century BC/BCE, whereas in 1-39, we see texts that hail from the 8th century BC/BCE. And we’re not making this data up, it’s in the text and so what I often do with people is just take them to the text and I say, let’s read the text, let’s let the chips fall where they may, and in the case of Isaiah 1-39, fall nicely in the 8th century from someone we know, Isaiah the prophet of the 8th century, and 40-55 come from the 6th century. And there’s some debate about 56-66 and there aren’t historical markers, but in those first two big blocks, 1-39 and in 40-55, we have lots of historical references. And so, it’s pretty clear that the book of Isaiah is a rolling corpus, and someone might say, “what’s the reason for that? Why? Why was this text, this book, augmented?” And I think it had something to do with the power of the 8th century Isaiah. I think there was a school that basically gathered around him, a prophetic school of sorts, and they continued for a few centuries, the traditions of the great Isaiah of the 8th century.

Pete: Yeah.

Chris: And they continued to augment the words and works of Isaiah of the 8th century as the centuries rolled. And so, it’s a beautiful, beautiful book.

Pete: Yeah, that takes us across the ages, so to speak.

Chris: Mm hmm.

Pete: I mean, I know, Jared knows this too, that there are people listening who are gonna say, “this is great. I remember my pastor or my teacher saying that, ‘well, that Isaiah 40 and stuff that mentions the Babylonian captivity and Cyrus, that’s predictive’.” But you’re saying that, I mean, I agree with you, this is not predictive, but it’s the setting. It just, it just assumes an exilic time.

Chris: That’s right.

Pete: It’s not predicting one day they’ll be in exile. It’s just, it plops you into something where all of a sudden, it’s like, you’ve changed scenes like in a movie, and you’re like, you were at a ranch in one setting and then you’re in the city in the next and you clearly have switched settings entirely. And that’s very important for trying to understand the development of these, of this book.

Chris: Right, I think so too. Absolutely. And so, what I would say is, right, Cyrus is spoken of, for example, as a contemporary figure. We’re talking about, the text talks about things Cyrus is doing and we know when Cyrus lived and the temples destruction is something that’s a past event and we know when that happened. It happened in 586 and its described in this big block of Isaiah 40-55, especially 44, 45, chapter 40 as well, is something that’s already occurred.


And so, that’s right. Sometimes people will resist the actual text –

Pete: Mm hmm.

Chris: And what I always say is, let’s read the text. Let’s read the text word for word, line by line and see what it says. And I think, for me it’s very much this way, my fidelity is to the text and what it says. We all grow up hearing things, it doesn’t matter the tradition we’re raised in.

Pete: Yeah.

Chris: Within Judaism, within Christianity, within the various segments of Judaism and the various segments of Christianity, there’s an interpretive tradition that are part of those and that interpretative tradition is rather beautiful and magnificent. But when I study the text with students or when I give lectures, I say, look, the interpretive traditions are really fascinating, but right now we’re going to look at what the actual text says and I believe you can discern that and I can discern that.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Chris: And that’s why I’ll often, well, I never talk in generalities about the biblical text or I try never to do that.

Pete: [Light laughter]

Chris: I always take people specifically to texts and say, lots of people talk about the biblical text in broad terms –

Pete: Right.

Chris: And I always say to the students, I say, let’s look at the text.

Pete: Yeah, how do you deal with this here? These words in front of you, what do we do with this?

Chris: Yeah, yeah.

Pete: So, I mean, the question of like, you know, how old is the Bible, where does it come from, there’s a linguistic dimension.

Chris: Mm hmm.

Pete: There’s also, like, with Isaiah as the example, there’s a content dimension, just read and see what it says and what is being presumed about the setting, for example, and –

Chris: Right.

Pete: I mean, it’d be nice if we just had clear dates about everything, but we really don’t. Which does get us back, I mean, just with the few minutes that we have left, so maybe we can’t go into as much detail as would be fun, but like, some of these inscriptions are really interesting for helping us understand, like, the setting of the writing of some of this stuff and my favorite one is the Siloam Tunnel inscription. I love that, I studied that in graduate school too, but tell us just briefly what that is and its connection to the Bible and why it’s sort of important linguistically.

Chris: That indeed is one of my favorites as well. So, there is an 1800-foot-long tunnel in Jerusalem, and it functioned to carry water from outside the city underground to the inside of the city. And there’s this wonderful inscription written in Hebrew. The Hebrew script, because we can date scripts, handwriting develops through time –

Pete: Mm hmm.

Chris: Ours, our parents, our grandparents, and the ancients as well and Hebrew script as well. So, the script of the Siloam Tunnel inscription is, it’s basically an 8th century, late 8th century script and here’s what the inscription says, it says in essence two teams of stone masons began at opposite ends, 1800 feet apart, and they chiseled through solid rock, often following fissures in the natural rock when they could, we could see it. One can walk through it and see this even today. But they chiseled through that rock and they met in the middle and the inscription is fascinating because it says that when they were getting close to meeting, they could hear the voice, or perhaps the sound of the chiseling, or the voice –

Pete: Mm hmm.

Chris: Of those doing the chiseling. It’s a magnificent, magnificent inscription and the tunnel itself it magnificent as well.

Pete: And it’s mentioned in the Bible too, right?

Chris: Yes.

Pete: In 2 Kings it said the tunnel is mentioned –

Chris: Yup, that’s right. So, one could look at 2 Kings 20 and around verse 20 or 22 and it actually mentions that Hezekiah did this. And of course, the Bible details why he did it, basically, Hezekiah had rebelled from the neo-Assyrian king, Sennacherib. He knew that Sennacherib was gonna come knocking on his door looking for tribute and destroying in the process of making that trip, and he knew that Jerusalem was going to be besieged. He knew the city was vulnerable because a major water source was outside, and so the Bible describes all of that in 2 Kings 18-19 and then it describes or references the tunnel that he had built as part of his preparations for what he knew would be a terrible siege of the neo-Assyrians.


So, that’s a great text because we have the linkage between the inscription, 8th century Hebrew inscription, and a biblical text, which references the fact that Hezekiah built this tunnel or had it built.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Chris: So, absolutely scintillating.

Pete: And it seemed to work, because the Assyrians weren’t successful in defeating Jerusalem, so –

Chris: Yeah, that’s right.


Pete: Good for him, bully for him.

Chris: Yeah, that’s right.

Jared: Well, we’re at the end of our conversation here, but just really fascinating stuff that actually, I appreciate your attention to the details of the text and how meticulous you are about that, and we can find so much information when we just pay attention is what I’m hearing from you.

Chris: Yes.

Jared: But if people wanted to learn more about the work that you do and the things that you’ve been talking about here, where can people find you? Do you have a faculty page or book maybe that you want to point people to?

Chris: Sure. The book that has a lot of information about these connections between, a book which I wrote which has a lot of discussion of this sort of thing, is a book entitled Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age came out about a decade ago.

Pete: And it’s not thick.

Chris: Yes, it’s not thick and I tried to make sure that it’s an easy read.

Pete: Yeah.

Chris: And so, it’s not full of technical jargon at all. I wanted to make sure that it was accessible to ordinary people and not just scholars. I hope it’s useful to scholars, but that’s one place people could turn and yeah, I have my own blog which I’ll put stuff on on occasion,, and that’s a good place especially for really new finds when someone finds an inscription and its excavated, I’ll often blog about it quite immediately, usually within a matter of hours or days, so that’s someplace people could turn.

Pete: Right.

Chris: And my faculty page at George Washington University has some information about publications as well.

Jared: Excellent. Well, thanks again for coming on and just sharing your knowledge and expertise with us. It’s really great.

Chris: Well, it’s great to be with you all and thanks so much, and we can do it again sometime.

Pete: Absolutely. Thank you, Chris.

Chris: Yeah, thank you. Take care now.

[Music begins]

Jared: Thanks again, everyone, for tuning in. We have a special announcement, again, a world premiere announcement here.

Pete: World premiere?

Jared: That coming soon, it’s not out yet –

Pete: Is it the world? Because the world cares about this.

Jared: Yes, exactly.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: We have our second installment in our Bible for Normal People book series; Pete is coming out with Exodus for Normal People. It’s not going to be coming out quite yet, but just put it on your calendar, put it on your radar in the next few months you’ll be getting more news about this release. But Pete, you want to say a few words about it?

Pete: Yeah, it’s sort of all done, I guess. And it’s, you know, the audio version too, all that kinda stuff. So yeah, it’s 1400 pages long and it’s about $175.

Jared: [Laughter]

It is not. It is not.

Pete: No, it’s very readable and short and all that kinda stuff and I had a lot of fun doing it. And some of you remember, I did a series “Pete Ruins Exodus,” it was a five or six part series, so for me that was the beginning of getting into some of this stuff, but the book is really different than the series because it’s a book and I was able to get into stuff, really at a different level but I think still a very readable level. So, it was so much fun for me to write that and I hope you enjoy it.

Jared: Yeah, so if you liked Genesis for Normal People and looking forward to Exodus for Normal People, again, just be on the lookout. Stay tuned for more information as it comes available. Thanks so much!

Narrator: Thanks, as always, to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.

[Music ends] [End of recorded material]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.