EVIDENCE FOR HEBREW AS THE SPOKEN LANGUAGE IN JUDEA
by Martin J. Mann


It has been believed for many years among scholars and laymen alike that Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the only spoken language of the Jews in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee during the Second Temple Period of Jewish history (516 B.C.-A.D. 70). Many famous and well-respected scholars, Schurer being one, claimed this was particularly so during the final centuries before the Christian era. -1- Even when sources written during that period refer to the use of Hebrew as a spoken means of communication, modern scholars have understood this to mean Aramaic and its dialects and not Hebrew. -2- This opinion prevailed in scholarly circles for over 150 years. -3-

However, examination of coins, inscriptions, written sources dating from the period 200 B.C. to A.D. 200, and written sources dating immediately after this period testify to the fact that Hebrew "was the main vehicle of speech in Jerusalem and the surrounding country (Judea), as well as the language most used for literary purposes during this period." -4-

A brief historical overview is necessary to understand the relationship between Aramaic, the Hebrew-speaking kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the later provinces of Galilee, Samaria (Israel), and Judea (Judah).

Aramaic became the language of the Aramean tribes in Syria around 1100 B.C. and spread rapidly throughout the Near East. -5- The lingua franca of the Assyrians was Aramaic and it was also adopted later by the Neo-Babylonians and Persians as the language of international relations and trade. This is borne out by the vast number of Aramaic inscriptions discovered throughout the Near East. Aramaic served as the lingua franca from India to Ethiopia and from Arabia to the Anatolian Peninsula -6- from approximately 1000 B.C. to 332 B.C.

The northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria in 721 B.C., and many Jews were taken into captivity in Assyria. The Assyrians also attempted to take the southern Kingdom of Judah at the very end of the eighth century B.C. but failed. The fact that ordinary Judeans did not understand Aramaic at the end of the eighth century B.C. is explained in II Kings 18:26. -7- Two Judean officers in Jerusalem interrupt the messenger of the Assyrian king while he is delivering an ultimatum to the Judeans in Hebrew. The Judean officers ask the Assyrian messenger to speak "in Aramaic, for we understand it, and do not speak with us in Judean [Hebrew], in the hearing of the people who are on the wall." -8- Clearly the officers want the people not to be frightened by the Assyrian's message and ask him to speak in a language the people do not understand: Aramaic. This passage illustrates that Hebrew was distinct from Aramaic and that Judah had retained her linguistic identity despite the fact that by this time Aramaic had been the lingua franca of the Near East for over 200 years.

The southern Kingdom of Judah and the Jerusalem Temple eventually fell to the Neo-Babylonians in 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar, the victorious Babylonian king, also took many Jews into captivity like the Assyrians before him.

The fall of the two Jewish kingdoms, in 721 B.C. and 587 B.C., coupled with the captivity of the Jews both in Assyria and Babylon, has been cited by proponents of the Aramaic theory as reason for the replacement of Hebrew with Aramaic as the spoken language among the Jews. Aramaic theorists claim that since the Jews were exiled to Assyria and Babylon, empires where Aramaic was the dominant language, the Jews naturally adopted it and forgot their mother tongue of Hebrew. Although no one argues that Aramaic did have an influence on those Jews who were exiled, -9- to claim that Aramaic replaced Hebrew as a spoken language from this point on until modern times seems somewhat premature. It must be pointed out that many Jews, especially in Judah, were not taken into exile and thus remained in their native land and kept their native tongue. Hebrew never died out as a spoken language at any time in the sixth century B.C. or thereafter.

With the return to Jerusalem of some of those previously exiled Jews under the decree of the Persian King Cyrus in 538 B.C., Aramaic became introduced to those Hebrew-speaking Jews who had not been exiled and who had remained in Israel and Judah. -10- Aramaic did not replace Hebrew. Judah became a multilingual society with Hebrew and Aramaic used side by side. -11- Later, when Alexander the Great conquered the Near East in 332 B.C., this catapulted Greek into becoming the lingua franca of the Near East and yet another language was introduced to the areas of Israel and Judah.

One event was primarily responsible for establishing Hebrew as the dominant language of Judea in the second century B.C. The desecration of the Jerusalem Temple by the Syrian Seleucid King Antiochus IV in 167 B.C. prompted a revolution of the Jews led by Judas Maccabaeus. The revolution was successful and in 164 B.C., the Temple was cleansed. It seems apparent that this sparked a religious and nationalistic revival among the Jews in all of Israel, particularly those in Judea. This revolutionary victory led to a reinstatement of Hebrew as the dominant language in all of Judea and even to a large degree in Samaria and Galilee. -12- A parallel can clearly be drawn between this reinstatement of Hebrew and the nationalistic reinstatement of Hebrew as the official language of modern-day Israel. -13-

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide substantial evidence that Hebrew was a spoken language from early in the second century B.C. Discovered over a sixteen-year period from 1947 to 1963 on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea, the Dead Sea Scrolls consist of approximately 600 manuscripts of biblical books, non-biblical books, and original writings of the Jewish sect responsible for writing the manuscripts. Tens of thousands of fragments comprise these 600 manuscripts. The ages of these fragments and scrolls range from 200 B.C. to A.D. 100. -14-

The original writings of this sect are particularly fascinating for they give us insight into the language used by the sect itself. Among the original sectarian compositions were a vast number of commentaries on various books of the Bible, including Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Psalms, and others. It is most profound that all these commentaries, without exception, were composed in Hebrew. -15- In addition, manuals to guide and direct new members of the sect in the ways of the community were discovered. These were also written in Hebrew. -16-

This is striking. It is hardly conceivable that a commentary or manual of instruction would be written in a language other than the vernacular of the people for whom those texts were intended.

An examination of the language of the scrolls of non-biblical books favors Hebrew. As of 1983, out of the ten major scrolls that have been published, nine are in Hebrew and one in Aramaic. The Temple Scroll, the longest scroll at over 28 feet long, is composed in Hebrew. -17- A comparison of the number of pages of these ten scrolls shows a nine-to-one ratio of Hebrew to Aramaic; 179 pages in Hebrew; 22 pages in Aramaic. -18-

Edward Kutscher, the world-renowned Aramaic expert, stated that even when one examines the language of the sacred scrolls of the biblical books, its peculiar style reflects a unique character common only to the Hebrew of the period. -19-

Proponents of the Aramaic theory have long suggested that Mishnaic Hebrew, the distinguishing name given to the Hebrew of the period 200 B.C. to A.D. 200, was an "artificial scholarly idiom resulting from a hebraization of Aramaic," -20- a liturgical language used solely by the priests in the Temple and synagogue. The existence of the commentaries and manuals within the body of the Dead Sea Scrolls seems to refute this. Not only was Mishnaic Hebrew unique from Aramaic in its grammar, syntax and vocabulary, -21- but clearly these texts were not intended solely for priests. The place of study in Judaism is of the utmost importance, a responsibility to be undertaken equally by priest and peasant.

Indeed, Professor Frank M. Cross of Harvard, the foremost authority on the handwriting of the Dead Sea Scrolls today, sums it up best when he states that the scribes who copied these texts "had an inferior knowledge of Aramaic grammar and syntax and that their principle language was Hebrew." -22-

The works of Josephus Flavius (A.D. 37-100) are illuminating when one considers the question of Hebrew as a spoken language in the period 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. Josephus, a Jew, was a commander of Jewish rebels during the First Revolt of the Jews against Rome (A.D. 66-73). Forced to surrender early in the conflict, Josephus gave himself up to the Romans and spent the rest of his life in Rome compiling a number of historical works, the two most important being The Jewish War, a focus on the events of the First Revolt, and The Antiquities, a description of Jewish history from its roots up until the war with Rome.

Scholars adhering to the idea that Aramaic was the only spoken language in Judea in the last centuries of the Second Temple claim that Josephus spoke Aramaic, even when Josephus himself writes that he spoke in Hebrew. A look into Josephus' writings clearly establishes beyond doubt that when Josephus mentions Hebrew language (glotta hebraion) or Hebrew dialect (hebraion dialekton) he means Hebrew and not Aramaic. -23-

When writing about the creation of man as recorded in Genesis, Josephus writes, "Now this man was called Adam which in Hebrew (glottan hebraion) signifies 'red.'" -24- Josephus believes that the name Adam (adam) comes from the Hebrew word for red (adom). The Aramaic word for red is sumka. There is no root a,d,m in Aramaic. -25-

When Josephus talks about the creation of woman, he writes, "In the Hebrew tongue (hebraion dialekton) woman is called 'essa.'" -26- Here Josephus is merely transliterating the Hebrew word for woman, 'isha, to the Greek, essa. Josephus could not be referring to Aramaic here, as the word in Aramaic for woman is antattha. -27-

In yet another place, Josephus says, "for 'adoni' in the Hebrew dialect (hebraion dialekto) means 'lord.'" -28- In Aramaic, the word for lord is mara. -29-

There are other examples, but the above prove the point that when Josephus mentions Hebrew, he means Hebrew and no other language. Josephus always draws a clear distinction between Aramaic and Hebrew in his works. Each time he refers to Aramaic, he uses the Greek work suristi (Syrian). This was the Greek word to refer to Aram, Aramean, or Aramaic. -30- Thus we can be certain of Josephus' intent when he describes the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and recounts an event in which he personally took part, giving a speech to fellow Jews trapped in and around the Temple complex in Jerusalem:


From this we may deduce that "Hebrew then was not only the language of the literary circles or of the learned few; it was also the language of the 'multitude' of Jerusalem, the vernacular." -32-

The New Testament provides some of the best evidence that Hebrew was a spoken language in Judea in the first century A.D. For hundreds of years scholars have realized that a Semitic original underlies the Greek texts of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and a large portion of the Book of Acts. It has been assumed for an equal number of years that this Semitic original was Aramaic.

Those who adhere to the Aramaic theory have cited the various Aramaic words in the gospels as proof that the spoken language in Judea in the first century A.D. was Aramaic. -33- It is true that various Aramaic words are dispersed through the Gospels, words such as Abba (Mark 14:36) or Golgotha (Matthew 27:33), -34- but to say that this constitutes proof that Aramaic was the vernacular is erroneous. Using this logic, we could state a far more convincing argument for Hebrew as the vernacular, based upon the far more numerous Hebrew words which appear in the Greek manuscripts of the Gospels: levonah (Matthew 2:00); mammon (Luke 16:9); Rabbi (Matthew 23:7,0); Beelzebub (Luke 11:15); corban (Mark 7:11); satan (Luke 10:18); raca (Matthew 5:22); and amen, which appears almost 100 times. -35-

The phenomenon of Aramaic words within Greek or Hebrew texts is not uncommon. Over the centuries, Hebrew borrowed many words from Aramaic and Aramaic borrowed many words from Hebrew. All Hebrew manuscripts from documents dating to the first century A.D. contain Aramaic words. The book of Jeremiah, written centuries before the Gospels, has one sentence in Aramaic (Jeremiah 10:11). Even Genesis 31:47 has two words of Aramaic appearing as a phrase. -36- A few Aramaic words within a Greek or Hebrew text implies no more than a few French words interspersed within a modern English text.

There are countless idioms throughout the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of Acts which only make sense in Hebrew or are characteristic only to Hebrew. These idioms lend testimony to the probability of a Hebrew original behind the Synoptic Gospels and parts of Acts, further substantiating the fact that Hebrew was a vibrant spoken language in the first century A.D.

The author of Matthew refers to the Jewish people or land of Judea as "Israel," either when quoting Jesus or when illustrating a point himself (Matthew 2:20,21; 8:10; 1:6). -37- When Gentiles speak, the author uses the Greek words for "Jews" or "Hebrews" but never "Israel." -38- "Such a consistent usage is hardly conceivable in any language other than Hebrew." -39-

The phrase "Kingdom of the heavens" appears literally in the Greek text of Matthew 32 times. This phrase using "heavens" is Hebraic in character and does not appear in any other language. -40- Plus, only in Hebrew can the word "heaven," shamayim, assume a "transcendental connotation" and join in fixed constructions. -41- One of these fixed constructions is malkut hashamayim, translated literally, "Kingdom of the heavens." Given the fact that "heavens" in the Greek text of Matthew is always written in the plural, retaining the plural suffix of the Hebrew word shamayim, shows that someone went to great lengths to translate literally from the Hebrew original to Greek. -42-

The idiom "flesh and blood" (sarks kai haima), to mean a human being, appears in Matthew 16:17. This idiom is common in Mishnaic Hebrew but totally foreign to Aramaic or any other language. -43-

Matthew's referral to a gentile Phoenician woman as "Canaanite" further illustrates Hebraic influence upon the texts of the Synoptics (Matthew 15:20). "'Canaanite' is a term commonly used in Hebrew for 'Phoenician,' but not in any other language. In Aramaic or Greek, it is simply devoid of meaning." -44-

Jesus' mention of those with the "good eye" and those with the "bad eye" (Matthew 6:22,23) is another Hebrew idiomatic expression meaning "generous" and "miserly" respectively. Neither Greek nor Aramaic has such an idiom. -45- This expression is still used in Israel today.

These and the countless other idioms spread throughout the New Testament are profound. All in all, "there are hundreds of Semitisms (Semitic idioms) in the Synoptic Gospels which could only be Hebrew, but there are no Semitisms which could only be Aramaic without also being good Hebrew." -46-

The passages in Luke 23:38 and John 19:20 are perhaps the best testimony to Hebrew being a spoken language in the first century A.D. Concerning the inscription placed upon the cross during Jesus' crucifixion, it is recorded in three of the oldest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that this inscription was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. -47- If Aramaic was the language of the Jews of Judea, then why wasn’t Aramaic on the inscription? Rome certainly intended for everyone to understand her message, whatever their native tongue. This is why the inscription was written in Hebrew and not Aramaic. Here it seems is concrete evidence that Hebrew, and not Aramaic, was the vernacular of Judea during this time.

It is also interesting that the church fathers from the second to the fourth centuries A.D. have "no early tradition whatsoever for a primitive Aramaic gospel." -48- Papias, a church father of the mid-second century A.D. wrote, "Matthew collected the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could." -49-

Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.), Bishop of Lyons, France -50-, wrote toward the end of the second century, "Now Matthew published among the Hebrews a written gospel also in their own tongue, ..." -51-

Origen, Jerome, and other church fathers through the third and fourth centuries all agree on a Hebrew original for one or more of the Gospels. These early Church traditions seem to add further confirmation to what the Hebraisms of the Gospels have already hinted to us: early Gospel writers composed their narratives and stories in the native language of their readers, Hebrew.

A brief look at coins and inscriptions dating anywhere from 200 B.C. to A.D. 200 also shows that Hebrew had not died out as a spoken language during that time nor was it confined to the scholarly language of a privileged few.

Coins in ancient times served as a means of propaganda and broadcasting. Handled by everyone in society, coins could reach millions with a message in ways the emperor, king, or governor could not. Inscriptions on coins to convey an idea were of extreme importance and the language used for the inscription was chosen carefully. Of the 215 Jewish coins minted between the fourth century B.C. and the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt (A.D. 135), 99 of these coins have Hebrew inscriptions and only one has an Aramaic inscription. Coins inscribed in Greek even outnumber those inscribed in Hebrew, -52- at least with respect to the Jews.

Hebrew inscriptions on ossuaries from the same period are quite numerous and these inscriptions were usually made not by a skilled artisan but by a family member or friend. -53- This signifies once again that Hebrew was not just a religious language of scribes or priests. One ossuary lid from a town three miles east of Jerusalem lists in Hebrew the payroll of an undertaker’s employees. -54-

The Bar Kochba letters are documents which show that even well into the second century A.D., Hebrew remained a spoken language in Judea. These letters were composed during the Second Revolt of the Jews against Rome (132-135 A.D.). These were not scholarly letters but letters which dealt with pressing matters of supplies, maneuvers and administrative background. -55-

No two of the Bar Kochba letters are written in the same handwriting and each "must have been dictated in an overstaffed office." -56- The letters were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and the script throughout all the letters is cursive. -57- If Hebrew was used in these letters, clearly Hebrew was still a spoken language.

Some of the Hebrew letters display a peculiar phenomenon related to spelling and pronunciation. -58- Hebrew has an accusative marker, et, which must appear with the definite article, ha, before the accusative object. In the dictated texts of some of the Hebrew letters, this accusative marker, et, always appears without its first letter, aleph, and without the definite article, ha. In addition, the second letter of the accusative marker, tav, is always prefixed to the noun or object, -59- the whole construction signifying a sloppy, slurred pronunciation on the part of the dictator of the letter. When the texts of some letters record tamekomot instead of the correct et hamekomot and tahsi hakesef, instead of the correct et hatsi hakesef, -60- it is clear that the scribe is recording precisely what he hears, slurred Hebrew speech.

Modern Israelis speak Hebrew in the very same way and are notorious for slurring this accusative marker in their speech. "An equivalent in English would be to say ‘thplaces’ instead of 'the places." -61-

Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language at the end of the second century A.D. -62- The Revolt of A.D. 132-135 had tremendous impact upon the history of Hebrew in Judea. Rome put down the Bar Kochba Revolt with unspeakable brutality, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Judeans. Because Mishnaic Hebrew was the spoken language of Judea for centuries and the devastation in Judea so great following this rebellion, with "the Hebrew-speaking stock having been killed off or sold into slavery, there was little hope left for the survival of Mishnaic Hebrew." -63-

The Roman historian, Dio Cassius, also records the devastation brought upon Judea as a result of the war:

After the Bar Kochba Revolt, with Judea devastated, the seat of the rabbis moved up to Galilee where Hebrew, more and more into the second century A.D., was a secondary language. In the process of editing and compiling the older Hebraic traditions in the Galilee, in the midst of a population increasingly ignorant of Hebrew, this once vibrant language had little hope of surviving as a vernacular. -65- Despite the odds, Hebrew did remain as a spoken language for 65 years after the revolt.

Thus one may conclude that, based upon contemporaneous evidence, Hebrew was a living, vibrant vernacular in Judea and its environs from 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. The Hebrew commentaries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus’ Hebrew speech to panicked masses in Jerusalem, hundreds of Hebraic idioms within the New Testament, Hebrew-inscribed coins and ossuaries, and dictated Hebrew letters in the midst of a brutal war, all stand as overwhelming evidence to refute the often quoted theory that Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the spoken language in Israel and Judea from the late sixth century B.C. through the Christian era.



NOTES:

1. Emil Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.-A.D. 135) , ed. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black, Vol 2 (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1979), p.20.
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2. Jehoshua M. Grintz, "Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple," in Journal of Biblical Literature, (Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, Dec. 1960), pp. 32-47.
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3. Y. Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1982), p. 71.
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4. Grintz, p. 32.
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5. Grintz, p. 32.
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6. Kutscher, p. 71.
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7. Kutscher, p. 71
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8. II Kings 18:26 (New American Standard Version).
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9. David Bivin and Roy B. Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus (Arcadia, CA.: Makor Foundation, 1983), p. 54.
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10. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 55.
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11. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 55.
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12. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 55.
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13. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 55.
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14. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 49.
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15. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 53.
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16. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 49.
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17. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 49.
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18. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 52.
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19. Kutscher, p. 94.
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20. Schurer, p. 27.
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21. Kutscher, p. 94.
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22. Bivin and Blizzard, pp. 42-43.
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23. Grintz, p. 42.
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24. Josephus Flavius, Jewish Antiquities, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray and Ralph Marcus (London: William Heinemann, 1939), 1.2 §34, vol 4, pp. 16-17.
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25. Grintz, p. 43.
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26. Josephus, Antiquities, 1.2 §36, vol 4, pp. 18-19.
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27. Grintz, p. 43.
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28. Josephus, Antiquities, 5.2.2 §121, vol 5., pp. 56-57.
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29. Grintz, p. 43.
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30. Grintz. P. 43.
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31. Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray (London: William Heinemann, 1928), 6.2.1 §96, vol 3, pp. 402-403.
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32. Grintz, p. 44.
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33. Schurer, p. 22.
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34. Schurer, p. 22.
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35. Bivin and Blizzard, pp. 32-33.
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36. Bivin and Blizzard, pp. 30-31.
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37. Grintz, p. 34.
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38. Grintz, p. 34.
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39. Grintz, p. 34.
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40. Grintz, p. 36.
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41. Grintz, p. 36-37.
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42. Grintz, p. 37.
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43. Grintz, p. 36.
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44. Grintz, p. 35.
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45. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 37.
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46. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 40.
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47. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 30.
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48. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 48.
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49. Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History, trans. Kirsopp Lake (London: William Heinemann, 1926), III 39, 16, vol 1, pp. 296-297.
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50. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 46.
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51. Eusebius, V 8, 2, vol 1, pp. 454-455.
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52. Bivin and Blizzard, pp. 55-57.
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53. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 67.
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54. Bivin and Blizzard, p. 68.
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55. Kutscher, p. 117.
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56. Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kochba (New York: Random House, 1971), p. 124.
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57. Yigael Yadin, "The Expedition to the Judean Desert, 1960: Expedition D," in Israel Exploration Journal, (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 11 [1961]), p. 50.
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58. Yigael Yadin, "The Expedition to the Judean Desert, 1961: Expedition D—The Cave of the Letters," in Israel Exploration Journal (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 12 [1962]), p. 256.
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59. Yadin, Bar Kochba, p. 181.
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60. Yadin, 12 (1962), p. 256.
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61. Yadin, Bar Kochba, p. 181.
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62. Kutscher, p. 71.
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63. Kutscher, pp. 115-116.
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64. Cassius Dio, Roman History, trans. Earnest Cary (London: William Heinemann, 1925), LXIX, 12-14, vol 8, pp. 447-451.
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65. Kutscher, p. 116.
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Martin J. Mann is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he received a B.A. degree with highest honors, completing a major in history and a minor in classical Greek. While at the University of Texas, Martin concentrated on studies in modern Hebrew, classical Greek, and both ancient and modern Eastern history.

A native of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, Martin has attended United Wesleyan College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he concentrated on studies in Hebrew, Second-Temple-Period history, and archaeology. After completing studies at the Hebrew University, he served for eight months as personal assistant to David Bivin, director of the Jerusalem School for the Study of the synoptic Gospels and publisher of Jerusalem Perspective. Martin is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa, Outstanding College Students of America, Golden Key National Honor Society, and was honored by the University of Texas as a College Scholar. In 1983, he was elected to Who’s Who Among American Colleges and Universities.

In the summer of 1983, Martin studied at the American Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem, concentrating on Middle Eastern history, the historical geography of Israel, and archaeology. He also participated in the archaeological excavations at Lachish.

Martin is currently employed at Yavo, Inc. And also volunteers as a teacher in Hebrew, Greek, ancient history, and literature. He plans to pursue graduate degrees in history and/or political science.


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