earliest hebrew inscription reported found

Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon

Professor Gershon Galil of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa claims this inscription on a pottery shard discovered in the Elah valley dating from the 10th century BCE is the earliest example of Hebrew writing. Courtesy of the University of Haifa

researchers at haifa university are claiming that the ostracon discovered in 2008 at khirbet qeiyafa contains the earliest example of hebrew writing. professor gershon galil of the department of biblical studies at the university of haifa has translated the text of the faded ostracon. according to a press release:

The inscription itself, which was written in ink on a 15 cm X 16.5 cm trapezoid pottery shard, was discovered a year and a half ago at excavations that were carried out by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel at Khirbet Qeiyafa near the Elah valley. The inscription was dated back to the 10th century BCE, which was the period of King David’s reign, but the question of the language used in this inscription remained unanswered, making it impossible to prove whether it was in fact Hebrew or another local language.

galil’s english translation reads as follows:

1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

galil uses the ostracon to argue that hebrew was established much earlier that most scholars date the origin of the language. while the gezer calendar, which dates to approximately the same period is a simple text telling the reader when to plant and when to harvest and may have served as a school text, this qeiyafa ostracon echoes some of the teachings that would later be found in the bible, such as caring for slaves, widows, orphans, infants, foreigners, and the poor.

a few comments and questions should surely be asked:

  1. what was the context of the sherd? this is instrumental in ruling out forgery. the ostracon came from the elah fortress excavation. the new york times’ ethan bronner wrote an article highlighting the excavation. there is an excellent timeline of the discovery of the ostracon.
  2. is the translation accurate? scholars will no doubt debate each letter of the transcription and translation. stephen smuts has blogged about a youtube video where professors hagai misgav and yosef garfinkel discuss their translation of the ostracon. galil’s translation will be sure to continue the debate.
  3. does this prove the existence of king david? the answer is no (nor does it arge against his existence). what it does show is that hebrew (if it is determined to be, in fact, hebrew and not some canaanite dialect) writing was practiced in the 10th century bce. this would support the presence of literate hebrew scribes at qeiyafa. whether the presence of scribes in a smaller coastal town supports the existence of an even larger israelite presence in jerusalem is yet to be seen. we cannot assume that just because someone in a small town southwest of jerusalem can write in hebrew means that there are even more people writing in a capitol in jerusalem. what it would tell us is that literacy was more common and widespread at an earlier period than previously thought. of course, none of this lends any evidence to the existence or absence of king david, but a widespread literacy of hebrew in the 10th century bce could be used as evidence of an established or coordinated scribal system in israel.
  4. does this mean that the bible was written earlier than we thought? no. because the text of the ostracon only makes references to themes that would later appear in biblical books, and does not cite them specifically, we cannot say that the bible was composed at any earlier of a date than the 7th-to-1st century bce periods that scholars already date the bible. conservative scholars argue that some portions of the bible were written as early as the 8th century reign of king hezekiah (with some archaic hebrew songs and poems perhaps dating a bit earlier), and other scholars date the composition of the bible to the 6th and 5th centuries bce, during and after the exile to babylon. still other minimalist scholars date the composition of the bible to the 3rd and 2nd centuries bce. (some books like daniel and esther were written even later and date to the second and first centuries bce). thus, we cannot state that this ostracon requires us to date the biblical texts to an earlier period. what we can say is that the themes of social justice and care of the poor and marginalized that would later be echoed in the torah and by the prophetic books were already in the consciousness of the peoples that would later com to identify themselves as jews.
  5. does this prove the story of david and goliath is true? no. better yet, not on your life! the story of david and goliath claims to have taken place in a valley where this ostracon was discovered. here’s a great rule of thumb in archaeology: just because something – anything – was found in a place where a legendary story is said to have taken place does not prove the story. it does nothing. it’s as if i told you that i floated in mid air unaided at ucla. you then traveled to ucla and found a flip flop that said ‘rainbow’ on it. you then tell the world that you discovered a rainbow flip flop in the same place that cargill claims to have floated in mid air. this does not make my story valid, it just means that the place i claimed to have done something exists. likewise, the discovery of this ostracon in the place where david was said to have battled goliath does not in any way lend evidence to the historicity of the legend. it only means that there is a place named the valley of elah. this, of course, won’t stop reporters form mentioning david and goliath.

links

http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2010/01/linguistics-and-dating-of-texts.html

http://thechurchofjesuschrist.us/2010/01/etching-hints-bible-is-older-than-thought-earliest-hebrew-inscription-found/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+TheChurchOfJesusChrist+(The+Church+of+Jesus+Christ)&utm_content=Google+Reader

http://jamestabor.com/2010/01/07/oldest-hebrew-text-deciphered/

http://www.dailyhebrew.com/2010/01/07/update-10th-century-khirbet-qeiyafa-inscription/

thoughts on the new hoard of bar-kokhba coins discovered in a judean hills cave

A hoard of Bar-Kokhba coins recently discovered in a Judean desert cave.

A hoard of Bar-Kokhba coins recently discovered in a Judean hills cave.

the discovery of a large hoard of roman and jewish coins dating to the period of the bar-kokhba revolt was announced wednesday, sept 9, 2009 at a press conference at hebrew university in jerusalem.

congratulations to boaz langford, amos frumkin, boaz zissu, hanan eshel, and earlier cave explorer gideon mann on their work over the years and this recent find.

the discovery:

stephen smuts over at biblical paths has an excellent blog about the hoard of bar-kokhba coins discovered in a cave in the judean desert. i shall not attempt to replicate it here. avi joseph at gnews and brian blondy at the jerusalem post have also reported on the find. according to the jerusalem post:

The massive discovery marks the first time Israeli researchers have ever found a large hoard of ancient coins from this era. The gold, silver and bronze coins, 120 in all, were discovered in an undisclosed location within the ‘Green Line’ of Israel. The unlocking of the almost inaccessible cave also yielded iron weapons, storage jars, oil lamps, a juglet, a silver earring and a glass bottle.

many personal treasures left by jewish refugees were discovered. however, there was one particularly glaring object that was absent from this cave: there were no scrolls. (at least the archaeologists have not reported the discovery of any scrolls or written documents tucked away with this obvious cache of domestic valuables.) i found the absence of scrolls striking, especially since the article repeats the interpretation of the cache of objects as the remains of fleeing jewish refugees:

The artifacts are believed to be solid evidence proving the theory that Jews found refuge in the Judean Hills during the time-period.

and:

Prof. Frumkin added “this discovery verifies the assumption that the refugees of the revolt fled to caves in the center of a populated area in addition to the caves found in more isolated areas of the Judean desert.” The researchers believe that the Judean Hills cave served as a hiding place, with its proximity to the ancient city of Betar, for a dozen or more Jewish fighters.

interesting. again, there were no written manuscripts discovered hidden and among all of the other personal ‘valuables.’ this begs the question: did jewish refugees carry with them scrolls while fleeing jerusalem? were scrolls as common as ‘weapons, storage jars, oil lamps, a juglet, a silver earring and a glass bottle’ among jewish residents fleeing jerusalem? were scrolls not considered valuable? or were they so valuable that they were not carried and buried with the rest of a fleeing jewish refugee’s personal possessions?

most poignantly: what does the absence of scrolls say about the minority theory that claims the dead sea scrolls are not the product of a qumran community, but rather the belongings of jewish residents fleeing jerusalem?

Coins dating to the period of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt.

Coins dating to the period of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt.

now of course, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. but, there is no doubt that jews fled the roman suppression of both the great revolt of 70 ce and the bar-kokhba revolt. archaeologists have discovered dispatch letters from bar-kokhba himself, marriage contracts and land deeds, weapons, storage jars, oil lamps, juglets, jewelry, glass bottles, textiles, and many, many coins. but the fact that there is evidence of jews fleeing jerusalem and hiding objects in the desert does not necessarily mean that the dead sea scrolls discovered near qumran are among the objects hidden by jerusalem residents. when one couples this new discovery, in which just about everything but scrolls was discovered among the hidden personal treasures of jewish refugees, and one adds in the years of research demonstrating the congruity of ideology within the dead sea scrolls (especially the sectarian manuscripts), and one couples with this the evidence of obvious reoccupation and expansion at qumran, it all bolsters the tested, albeit aged and still not disproved majority theory that the dead sea scrolls are indeed a product of the jewish residents of qumran.

but i digress.

political undertones:

as always, one cannot help but sense that political undertones of the statement in the jerusalem post article that reads:

With this find, Prof. Zissu said that the distribution of the coins in the region helps to further “indicate the geographical extent of the Jewish presence outside of Jerusalem” during the Roman occupation of the land of Israel. Prof. Zissu further explained that “since there is not a definitive historian (from the era), we have to rely on the information we find from the coins and discoveries.”

it seems that every archaeological discovery made ‘within the green line of israel’ offers some evidence on jewish presence in the holy land. jewish presence in israel and palestine in ancient times from the iron age through the bar-kokhba revolt is undisputed. however, it is always interesting to observe that this presence is regularly, yet not so subtly highlighted as rationale for a continued presence in the west bank today.

some thoughts and predictions:

fun fact: bar-kokhba (and his coins) was my initial choice for a dissertation topic before the qumran visualization project came along. that decision determined my (and unfortunately, another’s) fate for the last four years.

let me guess: jimmy barfield will revise his ‘scientific’ arson investigation-inspired methodology and claim that this is one of the lost treasures of the copper scroll.

i can’t wait: norman golb (this time, without the assistance of his son) will self-publish some pdf and slap it up on his university of chicago website attempting to link this find somehow, someway to his slowly dying theory that the dead sea scrolls aren’t really from qumran. just wait for it…  it’s fascinating to see golb’s support disappear with his son’s 80+ aliases. but again, i digress…

congratulations again to archaeologists langford, frumkin, zissu, eshel, and the rest of the team and the university!

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