Friday, December 30, 2011

Linguistics and Textual Criticism

Lately I have been engaged in a linguistic study of the verb וַיְהִי "and it came to pass..." and its role in understanding macrostructure and narrative strategy in Biblical Hebrew narrative. I have noticed a few tensions between linguistics and textual criticism that need to be addressed. It seems that often the two are pulling in opposite directions. Textual critics are given to emending unique or problematic texts to alleviate difficulties, whereas linguists tend to latch on to exactly these unusual texts as some of the most significant.

As an example, Christo van der Merwe has argued that וַיְהִי can sometimes be used to mark climatic elements in a story. I came independently to a similar conclusion in a paper in 2007 based on the pattern-breaking וַיְהִי of Genesis 5:23. Later I noticed that Ron Hendel rejects this reading in favor of the normal form וַיִּהְיוּ with the support of the Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint. Robert Longacre also lamented how often grammarians emended וְהָיָה forms to וַיְהִי.

Obviously, in any given situation, only one of these solutions can be correct. But this example shows the need for a cooperative dialogue between linguistics and textual criticism. Biblical scholars cannot afford to be ignorant of either linguistics or textual criticism. The one-method scholar is likely to be led astray at some point.

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