Advances in the Study of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic: New Insights for Reading the Old Testament

Benjamin J. Noonan, Advances in the Study of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic: New Insights for Reading the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020. 336 pages. $38.99, paper.

This volume sets out to survey precisely what its title suggests and, in so doing, forms a kind of companion to Campbell’s recent Advances in the Study of Greek (Zondervan, 2015). The author is a professor at Columbia International University in South Carolina, member of serval scholarly organizations (including the Evangelical Theological Society), and has written on numerous topics related to Hebrew and Aramaic language. Aside from his scholarly qualifications, readers of this journal may also be interested to know that the book begins with an exhortation for students of Scripture to hone their competency in the biblical languages in an epigraph penned by J. Gresham Machen. Throughout, Noonan makes clear his desire that the volume might serve specifically to “interpret the Hebrew Bible faithfully” specifically within a ministry context (p. 25). The volume is written with students, pastors, and scholars in mind and presents a wide array of technical topics in an accessible way.

The contents of the book are appropriately delimited and very well organized given the target readership. Together, the first two chapters play an important role. Chapter one presents an introduction to the various theoretical approaches in general linguistics, without reference to the biblical languages. While this may at first seem far afield, in fact this chapter provides essential background knowledge given the fact that virtually all of the scholarly advances discussed in the book have come about thanks to new developments in linguistics proper. Chapter two then goes on to provide a survey of the study of biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, beginning with the Masoretes in the tenth century through the present. This chapter helps to orient the reader within the state of the discussion at large, placing certain well-known scholars in their intellectual context (e.g., Barr, Waltke, Silva) and introducing more recent but important names that may be less familiar to readers (e.g., Cook, Holmstedt, van der Merwe).

The following eight chapters then discuss specific areas of linguistic study. These areas include: lexicology and lexicography (ch. 3); verbal stems (ch. 4) tense, aspect, and mood (ch. 5); discourse analysis (ch. 6); word order (ch. 7); register, dialect, style-shifting, and code-switching (ch. 8); dating biblical texts (ch. 9); and pedagogical approaches (ch. 10). Few seminary graduates will know much about these topics since they receive little attention even in more recent intermediate Hebrew reference works. Indeed, that the very terms involved in those topics may be completely unfamiliar to some readers only serves to highlight the reality of new developments in the field and therefore the importance of this volume.

Each chapter is organized in a standardized way. First, the topic is situated within modern linguistics, building on the discussion in chapters one and two. Noonan then moves on to discussion of the various scholarly views of the topic for Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic in turn (the latter often being much shorter). This discussion is often organized into broad approaches (e.g., tense-prominent versus aspect-prominent theories of the verbal system), but for certain topics the field is limited enough to focus on the proposals and approaches of individual scholars in succession. In general, the approaches and scholars discussed are presented in a very descriptive style, without much comment as to their merit. However, Noonan does provide a section at the end of each chapter identifying to the way(s) forward for research within that particular topic, which will prove very helpful for those looking for guidance on how to proceed with their own work. On a similar note, Noonan also discusses key literature and resources throughout the book, providing a generous list of further reading at the end of each chapter.

A few critical observations are in order. First, although no fault of the author, the print quality of this volume is unfortunately low. While helping to keep costs down, one might hope that Zondervan would opt for paper and binding quality that assumes the book will need to endure ongoing use. Second, at times the structure of the book can lend itself to monotony, particularly in chapters in which one scholarly view appears after another, paragraph by paragraph, with little or no narrative to carry things along. In that sense, some may use this volume as something closer to a reference work, depending on the topic in view. Even so, the book can easily be read straight through and keep your underlining pencil or highlighter busy. Third, despite its subject matter, there is actually very little Hebrew or Aramaic in the book, aside from the occasional word or phrase. In one sense, this may be construed as a benefit for students or pastors whose languages have gotten rusty. But, while Hebrew and Aramaic are often translated in the text, in a large number of cases there is no translation, which will occasionally leave some readers in the dark.

Despite these drawbacks, given the many significant developments in this area of scholarship, this book was sorely needed and Noonan has done an excellent job with the task. The past fifteen years have seen a great deal of progress in the study of Hebrew in particular, yet a large portion of the scholarly discussion is confined to papers presented in study units at annual conferences or highly specialized monographs. Noonan has corralled all of that work, organized it, and explained enough of the technical background to enable the reader to come away oriented and equipped. The author is also to be commended for including Aramaic in this project, which could easily have fallen by the wayside as it so often does. Although Aramaic has seen considerably less scholarly activity by comparison, Noonan’s survey may help prompt further engagement. Students, pastors, and scholars alike will benefit from this book and owe the author a debt of gratitude.

William A. Ross
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte