In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hebrew Language

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Blogs
  • Language Software

Biblical Studies Hebrew Language
Jeremy M. Hutton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0025


The Hebrew language is a member of the Semitic language family and thus related (somewhat distantly) to Akkadian, Arabic, and the Ethiopic languages of eastern Africa. Hebrew’s closer relatives are the languages of the Northwest Semitic language subgroup (including Ugaritic and the many various dialects of Aramaic) and specifically the other members of the Canaanite branch of Northwest Semitic (Phoenician, Moabite, Edomite, and Ammonite). Hebrew is by far the most well-attested language of this Canaanite family and, along with the Ethiopic dialects (e.g., Tigrinya and Amharic), Arabic, and modern Aramaic dialects (e.g., Turoyo), is one of the most widely studied and spoken Semitic languages. Canaanite dialectal features are distinguishable already in the Late Bronze Age records at Tell el-Amarna, but the earliest diagnostically Hebrew texts (as opposed to texts deriving from the other Canaanite dialects, Phoenician, Moabite, etc.) date to the 9th century BCE. Although its existence as a spoken language during the Middle Ages was limited to a learned elite, Hebrew experienced a renaissance in the late 19th and 20th centuries CE and remains spoken today (in a form dramatically different from Biblical Hebrew) as Modern Hebrew. This duration of roughly three thousand years gives Hebrew the distinction of being one of the longest attested living languages (along with Chinese and Aramaic; see Language Family and Hebrew Development). Because the language has evolved significantly over time (as does any language), it is typically periodized into Classical Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic (Mishnaic) Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew. Although much biblical scholarship has been written both in Rabbinic Hebrew (from the closure of the biblical canon until the modern period) and in Modern Hebrew (during the late 19th and 20th–21st centuries CE), this bibliography focuses primarily on that form of the Hebrew language in which the Bible was written, Classical Hebrew, and the related forms of epigraphic Hebrew (i.e., the language preserved in extrabiblical, inscriptional material). Classical Hebrew is typically periodized into Archaic (or Early) Biblical Hebrew, Standard Biblical Hebrew, and Late Biblical Hebrew, although this division is currently the subject of debate (see Current Chronology Debate). Sources on later varieties of Hebrew are grouped in three small subsections: Qumran Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew and Samaritan Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew.

General Overviews

General, short overviews of the Biblical Hebrew language can be found in nearly any biblical encyclopedia. Most treat the standard linguistic categories at a cursory level: short discussion of Hebrew’s place in the Semitic language family, list of the primary sources of the language, brief description of the language’s grammatical features (phonology, morphology, and syntax) and lexicon, and so on. This article is arranged in a very similar way in Grammatical Analysis, although the remaining sections contain lists of standard reference works, textbooks, and monographs (not to mention the burgeoning supply of electronic resources) pertinent to the study of Biblical Hebrew and beyond. General overviews of the Biblical Hebrew language include the dictionary articles Schramm and Schmitz 1992 and Hutton and Rubin 2007 as well as the more narrative description of the language in Hackett 2002.

  • Hackett, Jo Ann. “Hebrew (Biblical and Epigraphic).” In Beyond Babel: A Handbook for Biblical Languages. Edited by John Kaltner and Steven L. McKenzie, 139–156. SBL Resources for Biblical Study 42. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.

    A particularly helpful feature: this essay contains a useful list (pp. 148–154) of resources for the study of the Hebrew biblical text, many of which are not contained in Textbooks and Pre-Tiberian Text Traditions.

  • Hutton, Jeremy M., and Aaron D. Rubin. “Hebrew Language.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 2, D–H. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 768–778. Nashville: Abingdon, 2007.

    A standard account of Biblical Hebrew, with a brief section on the basic genres found in epigraphic Hebrew (which may serve as a control on the ancient status of Biblical Hebrew).

  • Schramm, Gene, and Philip C. Schmitz. “Languages (Hebrew).” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4, K–N. Edited by David N. Freedman, 203–214. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    An overview of Hebrew’s history, linguistic affiliation, early textual evidence, grammatical structure, and literary development as well as the scholarly investigation thereof.

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