Bar Koseba (Bar Kochba) and Modern Hebrew Today: Speaking a Language as a Window into an Ancient Language

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Bar Koseba (Bar Kochba) and Modern Hebrew Today: Speaking a Language as a Window into an Ancient Language

Many processes in a language are basic to the human species and can provide insight into speakers of the past.

Today when we speak Hebrew fast it is common to ask something like
“ra’ita ’ta-nehag?” or more Tel-Avivian “raita ’ta-naag?”
Did you see the driver? ראית את הנהג?

The marker “et” את is swallowed up with the article “ha-” ה ‘the’ and a contraction results: “ta-” . Over fifty years ago researchers were surprised to discover the same thing in several places in the Bar Kochba letters. These were letters discovered in the 1950’s and were written during the BarKochba revolt 132-135 CE.

Bar Koseba made statements like
מעיד אני עלי תשמים “I call heaven as my witness…”
The writer has written תשמים instead of את השמים.

חזק תמקום “strengthen the place” = חזק את המקום
Again we find “et ha-” את ה transformed and written as simple “ta-” ת.

Several things become clear at the same time.

The spelling in the BarKoseba letters was not learned in a school but must reflect real speech. Any student of Hebrew learns how to write the word ‘et’ את

[definite accusative marker] in their first months. So the Hebrew of these letters was a spoken Hebrew, not a book Hebrew.

They were willing to write Hebrew ‘as it sounded’ rather than the traditions in their books.

Modern Hebrew speakers did not learn to make the contraction from reading books or from rules learned at school or from history.

The way people spoke then, mirrors the way people speak now.

This coincidence did not happen through planning but through common usage of speaking a language.

Looking across the centuries we can say, “Hey, they speak like we do.”
Such things are possible because many of the same influences on language remain in effect throughout the ages.


PS: Yes, this phenomenon in the Bar Koseba letters means that Hebrew was still a commonly spoken language at the time. The letters have direct relevance for discussions of languages that were being used by Jews in the first century and potential languages for Jesus’ teaching and the background of the gospels. However, that subject is extensive and will be taken up from time to time in other blogs.

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  1. Troy March 14, 2012 at 1:36 am

    I am really interested in the subject of Hebrew in Jesus day. If there are any books, articles or documentaries that you know of please share 🙂

  2. Cameron Hamm July 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    Troy, I am reading a book called “New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus” by David Bivin, and there are some sources he cites that you may be interested in:
    Lindsey, Robert. 1990. “The Jesus Sources: Understanding the Gospels” (HaKesher: Tulsa, OK, page 13.
    Lindsey, Robert. 1990. “Jesus Rabbi and Lord: The Hebrew Story of Jesus Behind Our Gospels.” Oak Creek, WI: Cornerstone Publishing, page 207.
    Also Bivin’s book I list at the top, page 33-38 has a chapter on how Jesus’ words were preserved. The intro in this book also has some interesting tidbits regarding the language of Jesus teaching being Hebrew (pp xxi-xxvii). You can also find some interesting things at

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