Simon Holloway (4/09)

Blogger of the Month for April 2009

John Hobbins Interviews Simon Holloway

Simon Holloway is the author of Davar Akher: looking for alternative explanations at

JH: Simon, thank you for allowing to interview you.

SH: Thank you, John. I’m rather tickled at having been invited.

JH: Tell us about yourself. What dybbuk possessed you to study Latin, Greek and Coptic, not to mention Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac?

SH: If it was a dybbuk then it was one that I had somehow appropriated while wandering the streets of Mea Shearim. I lived there for fourteen months and it was partly out of a desire to ‘unlearn’ some of my yeshiva education that I began studying Classical Hebrew and Biblical Studies in the first place. My intention at the time was to pursue a PhD in Talmud, but I’d always been very drawn to the Biblical literature and was amazed at how much it opened itself up to me upon a deeper acquisition of the language. I grabbed Aramaic and Syriac as well (but only because they were on offer) and was somewhat thrilled at how readily I took to them. That is not to suggest a particular aptitude as much as it indicates a particular love for grammar that had simply never been given an opportunity to present itself.

As for Latin, Greek and Coptic — let’s just say that they seemed like a great idea at the time! I wanted to get a Masters as well (one must collect the whole set, you know) and decided that the first two years of my doctorate were as good a time as any. Being a Masters in Ancient History, I availed myself of the opportunity to study some more languages and see what the non-Semitic world has to offer. I do understand now why I was warned against doing so. The languages themselves are marvelous, but the time taken to commit to trying to learn them was a great drain on my general productivity. As it stands now, I am as far from being proficient in Latin, Greek and Coptic as one can conceivably be, but the experience of ‘learning’ new types of languages has stood me in good stead nonetheless. This is a dybbuk that is unlikely to be exorcised any time soon.

JH: I’ve noticed that you read Hebrew of all periods. I’ve found this to improve my awareness of diachronic change in the language. Do you find the same?

SH: That depends! The only Hebrew that I really read these days in Biblical Hebrew and, while I am well aware of how “Biblical Hebrew” apparently subsumes a plethora of dialects and sub-dialects, I seem to be incapable of truly appreciating the full ramifications of that without a chart of linguistic variants that could send a crocodile to sleep. Besides, I also seem to have inherited some of the skepticism of my supervisor, Ian Young. When faced with dialectal variations, can we be certain that they are grounded in chronology? The difference between two forms may have as much to do with geography or even matters of style, and so I remain doubtful as to how well the corpus of literature at our disposal can even inform us of diachronic development at all.

JH: You’ve made it clear on your blog that your way of appropriating your Jewish heritage does not involve belief in God after the manner of Ramban or Rambam. Nor do you subscribe to a messianic-nationalist hope. I would guess that you’re not orthoprax either. On the other hand, you might be considered a 21st century version of Shadal. Or does that miss the mark completely?

SH: That my philosophy bears little resemblance to the philosophies of Nachmanides and Maimonides shouldn’t surprise anybody, but a comparison to S.D. Luzzato? I am somewhat flattered, though reminded of Merry’s statement to Bilbo in the first chapter of the The Lord of the Rings: “It was a compliment… and so, of course, not true.” Nonetheless, if I’m going to answer your question seriously, then I have to draw attention to the fact that I even see such a statement as complimentary at all, which may then do much to indicate my personal philosophy. Like the “Shadal”, I also believe that Jewish texts (indeed, all ‘religious’ texts) can and should be subjected to the same degree of analytical scrutiny as any other collection of literature. The Bible is not privileged by virtue of being the Bible and when we behave as though it is more than what it is, we actually make it so much less than what it is.

JH: You note on your blog that your research at the moment concerns the linguistic analysis of Nehemiah. I presume you will challenge or refine the perception most Hebraists have, according to which Nehemiah is, from the point of view of vocabulary, syntax, morphology, and orthography, demonstrably later than many other textual blocks in the Hebrew Bible. Take Nehemiah 1:1b-4. I can’t help thinking that if the passage were a late pre-exilic or early exilic period text, the date formula would have been after the fashion of what we find, for example, in Ezekiel:ויהי בעשרים שנה בחמישי (fifth month of the regnal year, per Bickermann’s hypothesis), not ויהי בחדש כסלו שנת עשרים. The distribution of Canaanite, ordinal, and Babylonian month designations across the biblical corpus coheres with a larger set of contrastive data in support of the hypothesis that the Primary History, the part of the Bible in which Canaanite month names occur, contains pre-exilic tradition, whereas those text blocs in which the Babylonian month names occur (First Zechariah, Esther-Nehemiah, and Esther), do not. Once again, if Neh 1:1 were a late pre-exilic or early exilic text, מבצר שושן would be expected, not שושן הבירה (בירה is demonstrably late and occurs only in Chronicles; Ezra-Nehemiah; Esther; Daniel). I count twelve more idioms through 1:4 for which a different standard wording is attested in text blocs often considered to be written in earlier Biblical Hebrew. The trick, I think, is to establish that a contrastive standard wording takes hold in late Biblical and post-Biblical Hebrew insofar as texts from later periods refrain from biblicizing content and diction. What other guardrails do you put in place before making inferences about date based on linguistic differences?

SH: Quite a question! First off, I cannot say at this point the exact extent to which I am likely to challenge the assertions of other scholars in this regard. I am led to believe, on the basis of research already conducted (both for my Honours thesis, which was on the distribution of locative-heh suffixes in Chronicles, and for my PhD research thus far) that the suppositions of these scholars — that the language of Nehemiah is demonstrably late — is something that will be challenged. To what extent it will be challenged is something that can only be determined by time, and an increase in the number of case studies that I conduct.

Secondly, you are quite right in suggesting that one requires a contrastive element in assessing these things. It is no good harping on about how a particular term is late if there is either no other word in usage for the same thing, or no other instance in which another word might have been employed. A further guardrail that I would place on the material at hand is stylistic. Not enough attention has been paid in the past to the question of register, nor to (elemental) considerations of assonance and alliteration — both of which, I believe, are at play in many instances, and both of which can sometimes be shown to have governed an author’s choice of word.

Finally, one must also consider the statistical number of possible instances. Robert Polzin, who is deservedly recognised as a leading figure in this research, isolated instances where certain books showed overwhelmingly higher concentrations of certain forms. When you consider that the overall number of those forms may be as low (in some instances) as six, the statistical display is considerably less impressive.

JH: In any case, I don’t see how you can evaluate the thesis of David Marcus according to which parts of Nehemiah show signs of having been translated from Aramaic without developing a set of criteria able to falsify such a hypothesis. Criteria of that sort would be helpful across the board. Are you aware of how important your research might turn out to be?

SH: The original language of Nehemiah is something that interests me greatly, and I do suspect that the core component of the so-called “memoir” would have had an Aramaic origin. Nonetheless, I’ve not properly investigated this (save to read, and blog about, that article by Marcus), and cannot comment on whether or not my own research is likely to go down such a line. I also believe that criteria of this nature would be very important, and am well aware of the difficulties inherent in establishing them! As for how important my own research will be, well one can only hope. I suspect that it will take its place amongst a variety of other linguistic studies that typify a new trend in Hebrew philology: the recognition that every book possesses its own unique register.

JH: Nor do I see how you can properly profile the language of the prayers except as an amalgam of language borrowed from pre-existent traditions (Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history) mixed in with diction and content typical of late Biblical and post-biblical prayers. Is there a corpus of prayers you have isolated for comparison in post-biblical tradition?

SH: To be perfectly honest, I have disregarded those prayers for the most part and focused specifically on language within the narrative portions of the so-called Nehemiah Memoir. Contrary to the opinions of the earlier scholars, and in line with some more contemporary ones, I do not believe that the prayer formulations were a part of this “memoir” in its earliest phase. Besides, assessing them is very difficult when one considers (as you have rightly pointed out) their highly formulaic nature. It is where the author has a freer hand to compose, that we may best analyse the nature of his composition.

JH: What do you hope to do when you grow up?

SH: Ah, the great lie that we feed to children! I hope never to grow up, John. One only plateaus out at a certain point if they wish to, and I believe that life is all about continued growth and continued change. There are many areas into which I would like to move when the time is right, and I hope that a career as an academic will afford me the potential to realise those sorts of developments.

JH: What suggestions do you have for fellow bloggers, things you would like to see discussed?

SH: My first suggestion would be to pick a pseudonym! The maintenance of my own small blog has been as much an exercise in deletion as it has been in the accretion of material. At this stage, I’d say that I’ve made enough of a fool of myself by now that it no longer matters, but I may consider having my name legally changed once the present one is sufficiently soiled!

In a more serious tone, I would also love to see more in the way of literary readings of Biblical, and Bible-related, material. When I browse down through the list of posts that I have bookmarked, that does seem to constitute something of a trend. Too many people in our world consider the Bible to either constitute some type of ethereal manifestation of the divine, or an amalgam of poorly-kept traditions at which they might feel free to cut away, as though they know more Hebrew than the successive generations of Masoretes who preserved it. When more people begin to consider the Bible as an example of literature (and literature, in many instances, at its absolute finest) then we may really begin to start getting somewhere.

JH: Your blog touches on a delightful range of topics. I like how you get bent out of shape on account of all the fools in this world. Do you see your blog as one element in an interactive community, and if so, what are the other elements, potential and actual, in that community?

SH: I am embarrassed to say that I have not contributed to my blog in a little while so, if I am a member of a community, I am a fairly non-vocal and unhelpful one at that. I do like the way that my blog has put me in touch with other like-minded individuals and, while I may not be so successful at keeping my own contributions coming, I am still much enamoured of theirs. To answer your question more directly, I would say that the community, as I perceive it, comprises those blogs that grapple with issues of Biblical criticism. I realise that a community only exists insofar as it is perceived by its members, and that some of its members would perceive it as a community of religious blogs, or a community of blogs that deal with the Ancient Near East, and so forth. It is interesting to me how we each define the community differently and how its borders shift and change for each of its ‘members’. Why, one need only click twice on two links from any given blog, and end up somewhere radically different! Oh, what a tangled web we weave…

JH: I hear you have a family. What does a day in the life of Simon Holloway look like?

SH: That depends on what you mean by “family”. I have parents and four siblings, but no wife or children of my own. I’m fairly busy these days as well — and for the first time in my life I am able to mean that in the fullest sense! I am the Director of Education at a synagogue in Sydney, and the principal of their Hebrew and Religion School. An interesting job for an apikorus like myself, but it’s lovely to be involved again with that side of the community. I’ve been getting some guest-lecturing in so far this year as well, and that’s been wonderful. Every opportunity that I have to stand before a group of adults reminds me of how much I love to teach, and I hope that a typical “day in my life” will have much more of that in the near future.

JH: Do you have talents or hobbies that you want to share with our readers? Am I right that you are a book collector?

SH: I am! I have over a thousand books now, although they are mostly of the non-collectable variety. The largest single section of my “library” comprises academic literature on the Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic literature and Dead Sea Scrolls. I am very proud of my Rabbinics shelf, which contains a large number of midrashim, a beautiful (and rather old) Talmud, and the full text of the Arba’ah Turim — amongst other things. It’s very pretty to look at.

Outside of that area, I am a(n amateur) cyclist, I like to write (and read) poetry, and am a lover of fine whiskey. I find that the latter two combine particularly well, although I do try not to mix either of them with the former — for safety’s sake.

JH: If you knew you were going to be stranded on an island for six months, and could only take six books with you, what would you take?

SH: For fiction, I would take both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion; for non-fiction, I would take Tov’s Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Fishbane’sBiblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel and Rainey’s The Sacred Bridge; for the blurred line between, I would take the Hebrew Bible. I would also take Gesenius’ grammar, Waltke and O’Connor’s grammar, and the BDB. I know, I know; how can you only choose six?

JH: Thanks, Simon, for putting up with this interview! We appreciate your participation and wish you the best.

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