Brian W. Davidson

teacher @highlandslatin,

PhD candidate @sbts,

research expert @sbtslibrary

The Earliest Hebrew-English Lexicography

When most students think of an "old" Hebrew-English lexicon, they think of BDB, originally published in 1906 by Brown, Driver, and Briggs, based on the work of Wilhelm Gesenius. The writing of Hebrew-English lexica, however, stretches all the way back to the end of the 16th century.

The early Hebrew-English lexicons can be divided into two groups -- those written between 1593 and 1656, and those written from the mid 1700's to the early 1800's.

Marie-Louise Craig, "Pioneers and 'No Through Roads': The Story of the Early Hebrew-English Lexicons," p. 25.

In the latest volume of the Perspectives on Syriac Linguistics series, Marie-Louise Craig describes seven of the earliest Hebrew-English lexica, noting the context, motivation, and resources of each project. The very first, John Udall's The Key of the Holy Tongue, preceded the production of any Hebrew-Dutch, Spanish, or German lexica by more than a century (pp. 23-24).

The part of the article I found most interesting was Craig's description of the motivations behind these works. She notes several themes that emerge in the titles and prefaces:

  1. The authors placed an extremely high value on the Hebrew language, viewing it as the very language of God.
  2. They were concerned about the trustworthiness of modern translations.
  3. They did their work for the "unlearned." That is, those who could not read Latin. According to Craig, this was their strongest motivation.

Furthermore, "The four pioneer Hebrew lexicographers who produced significant works in English were all non-conformists." For example, "William Robertson's work was sponsored by the Puritans" (p. 24).

After Parkhurst (1762), Hebrew-English lexica were "either translations of Gesenius or based on the German scholarship of Gesenius and Fürst." Craig concludes by giving two reasons why the work of the earliest Hebrew-English lexicographers did not endure: (1) their non-conformist views led many to neglect their work and (2) their linguistic theory was a bit too theologically framed.

Once linguistic science had established that Hebrew was one of a number of related Semitic languages, any lexicon based on the earlier theory was passed over for more modern productions. (p. 33)

This is a fascinating article, of which I thought you should be aware.

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