The discovery of a cache of documents in the Cairo Geniza revolutionized Jewish Studies as an academic discipline. A few scholars had known about the Geniza collection even as early as the 1750s, but its significance was only discovered when a pair of English twin sisters, Agnes S. Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson, brought renowned scholar Solomon Schechter text fragments from their Egyptian tour in 1896. Schechter was quick to understand the monumental importance of the find and travelled to Egypt where he acquired many thousands of documents. Today, the largest stores of the Geniza finds are housed in the Taylor-Schechter collection in Cambridge (where Schechter taught), some 193,000 fragments, and there are an additional 31,000 at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where Schechter later served as president).
One of the most important finds in the Cairo Geniza was a Hebrew version of the Book of Ben Sira. Though there were extant versions in Greek, Latin and Syriac, the Hebrew original had been presumed lost. A later monumental discovery by Yigael Yadin of additional fragments in Masada validated the text’s origins and time-frame. (Previously some scholars had thought the book to have been composed in the Middle Ages.)
The Masada fragments date back to 125-100 CE. The combination of the two finds gives a window into the history of the Hebrew language and the intertestamental literature of this period. Ben Sira, it seems, tried to imitate the grammar and style of Biblical Hebrew, and his language drew heavily on the whole Hebrew Bible. However it could not help but be influenced by contemporary spoken languages such as Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic.
Additionally, there are influences from unknown foreign sources. Since all sources are written and literary, scholars know little about the actual spoken language at this period.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls, initially discovered by a shepherd in 1947 in caves in Qumran, above the Dead Sea, were originally part of a library of a Jewish sect that had settled in the region. In this material are portions, and even whole books, from the Jewish Bible and Apocrypha and Pseudocrypha, as well as sectarian writings, hymns, manuals, and commentaries.
In the Biblical texts, scholars have found interesting similarities between and differences from the Masoretic version. For example, the complete Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa), whose text is largely similar, differs in spelling, phonetics, morphology, and in some cases, vocabulary and syntax. Some scholars claim this reflects a more popular version of the book during this era. Among the many criteria used to determine the nature and date of the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls are the forms of proper names. The spelling and writing of proper names clearly reflect a Hebrew later than the Biblical period. According to Kutscher, since Aramaic was the lingua franca during this period, the differences found in the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect the characteristics of a literary Hebrew used in the last centuries of the first millennium BCE.
There are many similarities between the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls and that of the Samaritan oral tradition of the Pentateuch. Additionally, common Aramaic forms and usages left their marks on the language. Interestingly, there are few loanwords from additional languages: Greek and Latin are almost entirely absent from the Dead Sea Scrolls. One theory is that this was a conscious effort on the part of the writers to reject the foreign influence on their sacred language, a type of early Academy of the Hebrew Language, if you will. This consciousness is supported by the number of terms that appear to have been translated from Latin, especially those pertaining to the military.Two aspects of the vocabulary of the Dead Sea Scrolls merit special attention. Firstly, like today’s Academy, the writers of the scrolls took roots or words found in Biblical Hebrew whose meanings were lost or unknown and employed them with new meaning. Secondly, there are several words found in the scrolls whose meanings are only now more-fully understood to scholars of Biblical Hebrew thanks to their usage in the Dead Sea Scrolls.