Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Diacritical marks

Reaction to TID took a weird turn recently when apostate Hector Avalos channeled the shade of Francis Turretin on the Hebrew vowel points. I'm going to post the comments left by two commenters in the meta:

In regards to the Hebrew of son-in-law and father-in-law, not only were the vowel pointings not added for thousands of years after the events the texts are meant to discuss, but holem, qames-hatuf and qames are all related and can reduce to the other in many situations.

The hilarious thing is that the first comment is by Avalos, who commends Tobin for this comment on Hebrew vowel pointings! Could Avalos have any less credibility as a scholar at this point? He's been known as a crank for years at SBL meetings, but this kind of stuff is simply ridiculous.

Here is a visual illustration of the point about son-in-law/father-in-law made by Steve:

‏‏חֹתֵן - this is the word for "possessing a son-in-law" which makes you a father-in-law.

‏חָתָן - Here is the word for "daughter's husband" or son-in-law.

Even without a knowledge of Hebrew you can see that the main three characters are identical. The point Steve is making is that in the original form, the three identical characters are all that was there. Whether you were writing son-in-law or father-in-law, the word you used was ‏חתן.

In most of the old cognates (Old Arabic, Syriac, Musnad, etc.) the word can mean either son-in-law or father-in-law.

Later scribes placed the vowel-pointings into the text and thus decided based on their own analysis of context, tradition, etc. which word was meant by the three consonants and created a way to distinguish based on adding vowel pointings.

The vowel pointings of course are not inspired, and in this regard the latter scribes that added them could have been incorrect.

This is but one of the many examples where Tobin (and Avalos) show themselves incapable (or willfully reluctant in the case of Avalos) of handling even basic grammatical/linguistic issues.

Notice that Dr. Avalos ignores the point being made above to talk about my usage of "reduce" and other diversions from the actual point being made by us against Tobin (which deals with the usage of vowel pointings to differentiate between forms of חתן.

For those paying attention, notice how each of his "points" divert from the actual discussion, and how his citations only back up the diversions and do not deal directly with the issue at hand.

To clarify things, here is what Tobin said:

Hays suggestion – which he referenced from yet another evangelical author – that the same word is used for father-in-law or son-in-law - is simply incorrect. Anyone with a good lexicon of Biblical Hebrew[30] can check for themselves that the words are pointed differently. Although these words share the same consonant Het-Tav-Nun (Ch-T-N) the vowels use for the word for ‘father-in-law” are different from the word denoting son-in-law or bridegroom. In its most basic form, father-in-law is pointed with a holem (with an “o” sound) above the Het and a sere (with an “e” sound) below the Tav and can be written as choten. The word for son-in-law is pointed with qames (an “a” sound) below both the Het and Tav giving the word chatan.

Hector said, "Tobin is correct, and he speaks to the fact of how often Triabloggers don't have enough expertise in biblical languages to form sound exegetical and historical conclusions."

The argument we are making is that Tobin is incorrect in this assessment because the vowel pointings (which are his central means of differentiating the usage of חתן) come much, much later in the history of the text. Thus, the original words for son-in-law and father-in-law in the pre-Masoretic texts are both simply חתן, which can be interpreted either way depending on context.

In Hebrew, the later tradition differentiated by assigning vowel pointings based on their interpretation, but not every language did this as evidenced by continued non-differentiated usage in the Syriac, Old Arabic and other cognates (see any standard lexicon for evidence of this, ala Kohler Baumgartner).

There is little evidence of pre-Masoretic markers significant enough to differentiate between the holem/sere pointing for חתן, and the qames/qames pointing. It's origins are in the Akkadian ḫat(a)nu, which simply means any relative by marriage (see Huehnergard or even Tawil). For instance, the Samaritan Pentateuch uses the unspecified and unpointed חתן, which is why it remains in the indeterminate Arabic form in the Arabic version. There is nothing to indicate at this point of the textual history how a scribe would differentiate between the two terms outside of context and tradition. Since the actual differentiation in the text comes much, much later in the history of the language this brings the possibility of misinterpretation and error.

Dr. Avalos leaves out in his answer that there are many instances in which the Masoretes made decisions on what the "real" reading of the text is, called the "ketiv-qere" readings. Don't let all of the talk about vowel reduction throw you off, because there are many different ways in which vowels reduce.

I might just ask him to use his expertise to translate dalet-waw-dalet.


  1. I am occupied with other projects at the moment, but I plan to address your new round of misinformed
    pronouncements on Hebrew and Semitics in a more detailed post at DC in the near future.

    One thing I will say now is that you should read the sources you cite more thoroughly in the future in order to avoid the sorts of mistakes I see already.

  2. I'll admit that I am fallen and could be wrong, but I'm not sure how at this point, so I'll be interested to read your response. Hopefully, this time you will deal with the actual argument being made and not try to divert to other issues. Here is the argument to be clear:

    1. Paul Tobin claims that Steve Hays was incorrect as to whether חתן could refer to both father-in-law and son-in-law.
    2. Tobin's sums up his argument as, "Anyone with a good lexicon of Biblical Hebrew can check for themselves that the words are pointed differently" and relies on the difference between the vowel pointings of ‏חָתָן and ‏חֹתֵן to make his point.

    1. The vowel pointings were added long after the writing of the sections of the Pentateuch in discussion (early Middle Ages according to most scholars)
    2. In the pre-Masoretic text חתן would not have included vowel pointings or other indicators sufficient to differentiate between son-in-law or father-in-law (an example would be 4QExa, which includes Ex. 18 showing an unpointed חתן in reference to Jethro).
    3. חתן has a wide semitic range (Currid's point via Hays). In some Hebrew texts חתן clearly means son-in-law (ala Gen. 19:14, Jud. 15:6), and in others it means bridgegroom (Isaiah 61:10, Jer. 7:34), and in other places it means father-in-law (Judges 19:4,7,9).
    4. The ambiguity of the חתן can be found in similar cognates (ala Akkadian, where "ḫat(a)nu [means] relative by marriage, son-in-law, who by marriage...has become a relative to another man and his family and enjoys their protection" (HALOT חתן), or Syr. "son-in-law, father-in-law" (HALOT חתן), or Arabic, "son-in-law, bridgegroom" (HALOT חתן)).
    5. The long period of time between the writing of the text and the creation of the vowel pointings means that the development of the pre-Masoretic traditions and interpretations of the Masoretes could have been wrong.
    6. Based on 1-5, Tobin's reference to the vowel pointings does not give sufficient reason to question Hays point.

    There may be other reasons to question Hays point (which you have not mentioned), but Tobin's counterargument is what we are disagreeing about. Tobin's argument was that reference to the vowel pointings sufficiently shows Hays to be incorrect. Submitting other arguments against Hays does not support Tobin's argument or justify your claim that Tobin is correct or shown Hays lack of expertise in the biblical languages.

  3. By the way, if anyone has access, T.C. Mitchell, the former Keeper of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum, wrote an article called "The Meaning of the Noun htn in the Old Testament" for Vetus Testamentum.

    It's a great article (available on JSTOR), and concludes that regardless of the vowel pointings (as he makes clear), the meaning of חתן in the OT is "a relative by marriage" and thus includes all of the in-laws we've discussed.

  4. Anyone with just a basic (say even less than a years worth) study of Biblical Hebrew knows you don't need the vowel markers to make sense of the text.

    A statement like that in #2 of the setup demonstrates a very poor grasp of the subject.

  5. I don't know if it's legal to post from a paid journal article, so if it's not please delete this comment. I wanted to share a pertinent line from Mitchell's article cited above:

    "Indeed, I would here suggest that htn in the Old Testament, instead of carrying only particular meanings such as 'father-in-law' or 'son-in-law,' which vary according to context, has some such general meaning as 'relation-by-marriage,' which it bears in every context in relation to a male ego."

  6. Just to demonstrate how elementary this is, from chapter two (yes, that's chapter 2) of my Beginning Biblical Hebrew:

    During the original phase, Hebrew was written without any vowels indicated in the script. The letters צדק could have meant “righteousness,” “his righteousness,” “they are righteous,” etc.

    During the middle phase, several letters of the alphabet came to be used to indicate certain vowels. The letters צדקו could have meant “his righteousness,” or “they are righteous,” but not “righteousness.” We will refer to these letters used to indicate vowels as vowel letters.

    During the final phase, “points” were added to the text to eliminate all ambiguity. The word צִדְקוּ could only have meant “they are righteous.” We will refer to these points as vowel signs.
    » This phase was ca. A.D. 700 to A.D. 1000
    » The scholars responsible for adding the vowel signs to the text are called “Masoretes.”
    » The text of the Bible produced by the Masoretes is called the “Masoretic Text,” abbreviated MT.

    Futato, M. D. (2003). Beginning Biblical Hebrew (7). Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns.

    Anyone backing up the arguments in that setup isn't being very thorough.

    Look Dr. Avalos! No vowel signs!
    אמר נבל בלבו אין אלהים