The intensifying infinitive absolute in Hebrew.

A telltale sign of Hebrew origin or influence.


Rather many ancient texts composed originally in Hebrew are now extant only in Greek, Latin, or other language translation. The Hebrew originals have been utterly lost. But, if the only surviving texts are in Greek or Latin, or in some other tongue, how do scholars know that there was ever a Hebrew version in the first place, let alone that the Hebrew was the original?

By looking for a few good linguistic clues in the translations. One of the best clues is the presence of Hebraisms in the other language. A Hebraism is an expression or idiom that makes good sense in Hebrew, but not in the language into which the Hebrew was translated. (Every language has these kinds of idioms. Greek has Graecisms, Latin has Latinisms, English has Anglicisms, and so on.)

One of the most common Hebraisms of this kind is the intensifying infinitive absolute. An infinitive is the unconjugated or uninflected form of a verb. In English the preposition to usually precedes the infinitive, as in to read or to write. The infinitive in Hebrew takes two different forms, the construct and the absolute. But we are concerned only with the absolute form here. One of its most common purposes is to intensify the cognate finite verb in the same sentence. In other words, a Hebrew sentence might have the same verb twice in a row, once in the infinitive absolute form, and again in a conjugated or inflected form.

The result is an expression that, if translated literally into English, might look like to think he thought, or to speak he spoke. These phrases make little sense in English. Only slightly improving their intelligibility, some literal translations will use participles instead of infinitives, as in thinking he thought, or speaking he spoke. That is better, perhaps, but still odd in English, and probably missing the point of the Hebrew idiom, which is to intensify the main verb. So most translations obscure the Hebrew idiom altogether, and translate something like he thought carefully, or surely he spoke. The subject of the verb is not only doing the verb, he or she is doing it intensely in some manner.

The nice thing for scholars is that this particular Hebraism makes as little good sense translated literally into Greek or Latin as it does translated literally into English. And quite often the Greek and Latin translations of ancient Hebrew texts were almost painfully literal.

One has to be careful. Sometimes a Hebraism might show up in an originally Greek or Latin text just because the writer was a native speaker of Hebrew, and is thinking Hebraically. So the scholar will usually look for more than one or two Hebraisms here or there to come to a judgment on the original language of the text at hand. If the whole of an originally Hebrew text has been translated literally, however, the scholar will not have far to look. The translation will be teeming with Hebraisms.

Below are two examples from the Hebrew scriptures. There is no doubt, of course, that our Old Testament was composed originally in Hebrew. We still have the Hebrew texts, and are historically aware of the stories behind some of the more popular ancient translations of those texts. What will be of interest is how two of these translations, the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, handle the Hebraic infinitive absolute.

My first example is possibly the most famous instance of this Hebraism, Genesis 2.17 (Masoretic, LXX, Vulgate):

ומעץ הדעח מוב ורע לא חאכל ממנו כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות׃

Απο δε του ξυλου του γινωσκειν καλον και πονηρον ου φαγεσθε απ αυτου· η δ αν ημερα φαγητε απ αυτου θανατω αποθανεισθε.

De ligno autem scientiae boni et mali ne comedas. in quocumque enim die comederis ex eo morte morieris.

But from the tree of knowing good and evil do not eat, because in the day you eat from it dying you will die.

In the Hebrew, מות is the infinitive absolute and תמות is the main verb.* I have rendered this phrase participially in my wooden English translation. The New American Standard renders it as you will surely die.

* Many thanks to Andrew J. Brehm for catching a spelling error in the Hebrew text of this verse.

But note what the Greek translation has done. It has rendered the main verb nicely, but added a cognate noun, as unnecessary in Greek as it is in English, as a translation of the Hebrew infinitive absolute. So we read θανατω αποθανεισθε, or by death you shall die.

The Latin translation likewise bears a duplication unnecessary to Latin, morte morieris.

My second example is Hosea 1.6 (Masoretic, LXX, Vulgate):

ותהר עוד ותלד בת ויאמר לו קרא שמה לא רחמה כי לא אוסיף עוד ארחם את־בית ישראל כי־נשא אשא להם׃

Και συνελαβεν ετι και ετεκεν θυγατερα, και ειπεν αυτω· Καλεσον το ονομα αυτης Ουκ Ηλεημενη, διοτι ου μη προσθησω ετι ελεησαι τον οικον του Ισραηλ, αλλ η αντιτασσομενος αντιταξομαι αυτοις.

Et concepit adhuc et peperit filiam, et dixit ei: Voca nomen eius Absque misericordia quia non addam ultra misereri domui Israhel, sed oblivione obliviscar eorum.

And she conceived again and bore a daughter, and [God] said to her: Call her name No Mercy, because I shall no longer assent to be merciful to the house of Israel, but rather opposing I shall oppose them.

(My translation of לא רחמה or Ουκ Ηλεημενη as No Mercy is a bit simplistic. A more complete translation might be She Who Has Not Been Shown Mercy, which is a bit cumbersome as a name.)

Both the Greek αντιτασσομενος αντιταξομαι (opposing I shall oppose) and the Latin oblivione obliviscar (by forgetfulness I shall forget) retain a rigid literalness that betrays a Hebrew original.

Another Hebraism of a different kind in this very text is that command קרא שמה (call her name). In English we would say name her.

Even if the ancient Hebrew scriptures had survived only in Greek and Latin, an accumulation of obvious Hebraisms such as these would have served as undeniable proof of an original Hebrew composition.