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Biblical gentilic 1. Language and/or script of ISRAEL (Mormon 9:33 (x3))


The Book of Mormon mentions the word HEBREW in only one verse, and even that passage, Mormon 9:33, is late in NEPHITE history and somewhat ambiguous because it is not clear whether the language or the script or both is meant.[1]

In the Old Testament, HEBREW (ʿibrit/ʿibri) is never used for the language, only as an ethnic term for people. As the name of a language, HEBREW first appears in the Hellenistic era, even though ʿibrit/ʿibri “was in fact common currency in the late Biblical period.”[2] When the language of the Israelites is mentioned in the Old Testament, for example in Isaiah 36:11, it is the southern dialect and is referred to as “Jewish,” יהודית yěhûdît (King James English: “Jew’s language”). No mention is made in the Old Testament of a northern dialect, though the Samaria ostraca attest to its existence.[3] However, Isaiah 19:18 uses a generic term, “language of Canaan” [King James English; in Hebrew: שפת כנען śěfat kěnaʿan, literally, “lip (>language) of Canaan”] to describe the language that will be spoken after his days in five cities in Egypt.[4] The assumption is usually made that Isaiah was referring to the language of the Hebrews when he mentions “language of Canaan.”

It is generally thought that the oldest extant texts in HEBREW in the land of Israel date to the 10th century.[5] The earliest “free citation” of biblical texts, the Ketef Hinnom silver amulets, are generally thought to “date to about the second half of the seventh century BCE,”[6] that is, just before Lehi left Jerusalem.

Regardless of the word that appeared on the plates that Joseph Smith translated, he would have rendered that word with a word that English readers would understand, namely, HEBREW.


Deseret Alphabet: 𐐐𐐀𐐒𐐡𐐅 (hiːbruː)


  1. Most readers of the Book of Mormon assume that language is meant. The previous verse, however, mentions the “characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian,” indicating the script (but not necessarily the language) that Mormon used to record his abridgement. That is, Mormon did not claim to be writing in the Egyptian language; but he did claim to be using a modified Egyptian script. Therefore, it is possible that Mormon in verse 33 was also only referring to a Hebrew script and not the Hebrew language.
  2. As stated by Simon Hopkins, “Names of the Hebrew Language,” in G. Khan, ed., Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, 4 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 2:795, “‘Hebrew’ as a technical term for the language occurs for the first time in Hellenistic Greek. hebraisti in this sense appears in the Prologue to Ben Sira = Ecclesiasticus (ca. 130 B.C.E.). The occurrence of this Greek word in the Ethiopic book of Jubilees ([ba-]hebrayest 12.26, 27; ba-lessana hebrayest 43.15), which was translated from Hebrew into Greek and thence into Ethiopic, shows that ʿibri as the name of the language was in fact common currency in the late Biblical period, and only by chance does not occur in the Hebrew Bible. The adjective hebraikos applies to Hebrew script and language in the Letter of Aristeas 3.30, 38.” The confusion of what to call the everyday language spoken by the people of Israel continues down into the New Testament. Most scholars believe that by New Testament times, the Jews spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew. In fact, all the quotes in the Greek New Testament that seem to quote the everyday language of the Jewish people are Aramaic, not Hebrew.
  3. The Samaria ostraca from the first third of the 8th century no doubt represent the northern dialect. For the date see Shmuel Aḥituv, Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period, trans. Anson F. Rainey (Jerusalem: Carta, 2008), 259. The famous “shibboleth” incident in Judges 12:6 involves the differences between trans- and cisjordan Israelite languages/dialects. Certainly, the cisjordan dialect would be an early example of the northern dialect.
  4. “Canaanite” is generally used by scholars today to designate the “Syro-Palestinian” Semitic languages other than Aramaic, and does include Hebrew. See Moscati, 9.
  5. For example, the Gezer inscription is usually assigned to the Hebrew language and dated to the 10th century (Ahituv, 252; the date and language are somewhat disputed). Though only an abecedary, the inscription from Tel Zayit is also dated to the mid 10th century (Ahituv, 18).
  6. Ahituv, 50 and 49 respectively.
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