Monday, January 11, 2010

The Oldest Hebrew Text

Archeologists don't all agree on everything, obviously. Still, there's a rough consensus whereby the parts of the Biblical story that happened prior to the 7th century BCE are shakier than the later parts. To the best of my knowledge, no archeological evidence has even been uncovered for the story of the Patriarchs (who were nomads living in tents). In recent years, however, there have been a number of discoveries from the period of King David, that's the 10th century BCE. A pottery shard was discovered bearing his name. His palace was unearthed. (I wrote from the site, here).

Now, there's this:

Prof. Galil's deciphering of the ancient writing testifies to its being Hebrew, based on the use of verbs particular to the Hebrew language, and content specific to Hebrew culture and not adopted by any other cultures in the region. "This text is a social statement, relating to slaves, widows and orphans. It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as asah ("did") and avad ("worked"), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah ("widow") are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages. The content itself was also unfamiliar to all the cultures in the region besides the Hebrew society: The present inscription provides social elements similar to those found in the biblical prophecies and very different from prophecies written by other cultures postulating glorification of the gods and taking care of their physical needs," Prof. Galil explains.

He adds that once this deciphering is received, the inscription will become the earliest Hebrew inscription to be found, testifying to Hebrew writing abilities as early as the 10th century BCE. This stands opposed to the dating of the composition of the Bible in current research, which would not have recognized the possibility that the Bible or parts of it could have been written during this ancient period.

David Hazony gives context:

Every once in a while, archaeologists in Israel hit pay dirt, undoing years of speculative claims that the key stories in the Bible never happened. For decades, it was claimed that King David never existed — putting into question the pivotal stories of the books of Kings and Chronicles on which a great deal of the biblical narrative turns. But then, in 1992 at Tel Dan, archaeologists uncovered the first clear nonbiblical evidence of David’s reign, an explicit reference to the king himself.

Now it has happened again. For years, biblical “minimalists,” as they are called, have been telling us that most of the Bible had to have been written many centuries after its stories took place. Basing their view mostly on the lack of Hebrew texts being found that date back to the time of David and Solomon, scholars like Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University have insisted that the ancient Israelites back then didn’t have the textual skills needed to record the stories of the Bible and that, at best, the texts we now have were written in the 7th or 6th centuries B.C.E., three or four centuries later....

For more than a century and a half, new “scientific” proofs of the falsehood of the Bible have been the surest way to establish yourself in the inner circles of academic fashion. Yet in most cases, these proofs unravel with the continued work of archaeologists, whether at Tel Dan in 1992, or in the discovery of King David’s Palace in the City of David in the early 2000s (full disclosure: I was at the time the editor of a journal published by the Shalem Center, which also sponsored that dig), or in the Elah Valley this week.

None of this proves that one has to accept the Bible’s authority as a source of faith or morals. But it does suggest that efforts to use science as a bludgeon against religion are not really working.

The whole thing is a bit like peering through some super-snazzy telescope at the edge of the universe. The ability to find every-day artifacts that have conveniently been waiting to be found for 3000 years is similarly at the edge of what can be done. To imagine how far back 3000 years ago is, pretend you're alive in the Athens of Pericles, with Spartans at the gates and Socrates asking aggravating questions: King David is still about as ancient for those Athenians as Christopher Columbus is for us. As Athens rose and fell, Rome rose and fell, the Middle Ages came and went, the Europeans "discovered" the world, dominated it, left and sank towards irrelevance... all that while this piece of pottery with a Hebrew text on it lay in the mud and waited to be discovered... by a fellow who knew how to read it because it's in his mother tongue (though spelled with different letters). What are the odds?


Anonymous said...

I am a religiously illiterate avid reader and I love to be confirmed in my choice of preferred texts by archaeologists

i.e. what we call the old testament seemed always very very real to me in the same way that the trouble Achilleus raises according to the Ilias seems such a very accurate and timeless description to anybody who has ever been close to a power squabble in an office just as he image of David and Goliath so often come to mind in that environment.

But there's a snatch, how can any adherer to the new testament ever forgive your elders for having come up with the incomparably better book?

and yes it is a miraculous event and it makes me very happy

NormanF said...

Ancient Israel and its neighbors shared the same language and lived in a similar milieu. And yet the picture that emerges is the Israelites had a different way of life and different ideas of order, justice and happiness than them. Those ideas were reflected in the Hebrew Bible and we know more about them than the pagan Canaanites with whom they once co-existed in the same land.

Anonymous said...

shared the same language?

in remoter parts of Germany where dialects (for example Niederdeutsch) are surviving you'll find that language differs widely even today from one valley/hamlet to the next. I live now for 6 years about 60 kms from where I would understand the natives who speak like my grandmother did and I still lose track of what the locals are saying real fast. In the books I had the difference was not as great but spoken it gets alien very fast.


Menachem Mendel said...

David Hazony shouldn't get so excited. While this seems to be the earliest evidence of Hebrew, with some disputing that this is even Hebrew, what this has to say about the biblical text or Ancient Israel is disputed. Galil's reconstruction of the text may be right, but it may not be. In addition, it is a far leap from this fragment to the biblical narrative. It is definitely a big deal, but scholarly caution should be adhered to.

AKUS said...

I used to travel to Italy for work and in many of the areas outside the large cities I was interested to learn that very often people in adjacent villages had dialects so different they could not understand each other except by speaking modern Italian. The locals could tell which village someone came from simply by their language and accent.

Joe in Australia said...

The text is fragmentary and the translation is disputed, but it demonstrates the existence of a literate culture during a period when Biblical minimalists suggested that no such culture was to be found. And the apparent subject matter of the text isn't sheep or bushels of grain: it's human rights. It's quite beautiful to think that this is what our ancestors were talking about three thousand years ago.