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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Oldest Hebrew Text Is Evidence for Bible Stories?

Mati Milstein in Elah Valley, Israel
for National Geographic News

A 3,000-year-old pottery shard with five lines of text (above) is the oldest Hebrew writing ever found, archaeologists said in October 2008.

The text, found on a hilltop above the valley where David is said to have battled Goliath, could give historical support for stories in the Bible.

Copyright 2008 by David Willner for
Foundation Stone
What may be the oldest known Hebrew text, found on a hilltop above the valley where David is said to have battled Goliath, could lend historical support to some Bible stories, archaeologists say.

The 3,000-year-old pottery shard with five lines of text was found during excavations of the Elah Fortress, the oldest known biblical-period fortress, which dates to the tenth century B.C.

It is the most important archaeological discovery in Israel since the Dead Sea Scrolls, according to lead researcher Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology.

His team believes the text may provide evidence for a real-life King David and his vast kingdom, the existence of which has been long doubted by scholars.

Carbon-14 dating of olive pits found at the archaeological site, as well as analysis of pottery remains, also place the text to between 1000 and 975 B.C., the time King David, head of the Kingdom of Israel, would have lived.

"This means that historical knowledge of King David could pass from generation to generation in writing—and not just as oral tradition."

The exact nature of the text— believed to be Hebrew written in Proto-Canaanite script, a type of early alphabet—has yet to be determined, but a number of root words have already been translated, including "judge," "slave," and "king."

But the archaeologist's claims are disputed by an Israeli colleague, who says there is not enough scientific information to reach definitive conclusions.

Strategic Valley

The fortress is located southwest of Jerusalem on what was the border between the Israelite-run Kingdom of Judea and the coastal Philistine territories. Philistines, who possibly came from Crete, settled the southern coast of Palestine around the same time as the Israelites in the 12th century B.C.

(See a time line of early Christianity.)

During the biblical period, the Elah Valley was the main point of passage between the two territories.

It's not known whether the Judeans or the Philistines controlled the strategic fortress overlooking the Elah Valley, which was surrounded by nearly 3,000-foot-long (700-meter-long) fortifications built of massive stones.

But Garfinkel believes the site was most likely the westernmost outpost maintained by the Kingdom of Judea, which controlled land in southwest Asia and Palestine and was a predecessor to the Kingdom of Israel.

For instance, pottery at the fortress is similar to that found at other Israelite sites, and there are no pig remains—an indicator that often distinguishes Israelite from Philistine sites.

The newfound Hebrew text has also added new evidence of Judean rule, since key words indicate the text is most likely Hebrew.

(Related: "4,000-Year-Old Tombs Found Near Jerusalem Mall" [November 21, 2006].)

Proving the Bible?

Garfinkel believes the Elah site and newfound writing could provide historic evidence of the United Monarchy in the tenth century B.C.

That's when King David is said to have united Judea and Israel, establishing a large kingdom that stretched between the Nile River in present-day Egypt and the Euphrates in Iraq, according to the Bible.

Though most researchers don't believe this kingdom existed, evidence from the site and pottery shard seems to support the idea of a strong central administration based in nearby Jerusalem, as detailed in the Bible, Garfinkel said.

(Related: "Jerusalem Tunnel Linked to Bible" [September 11, 2003].)

"There is a big debate if the biblical tradition is accurate history or mythology written hundreds of years later … But this is the first time in the archaeology of Israel we have evidence that in the time of King David such heavily fortified cities were built."

ABC Evolution

The ancient text may also shed light on the evolution of the world's alphabetic languages.

"This is the first time that we have a Proto-Canaanite inscription dated in [the context of] an archaeological site from the tenth century B.C.," Garfinkel said.

"This is a major contribution to the understanding of writing in the world."

The evolution of alphabetic scripts, which had their origins in Proto-Canaanite some 3,700 years ago, was one of humankind's greatest intellectual achievements, experts say.

"This allowed everyone to read and write. Before this, Sumerian scripts and Egyptian hieroglyphs were very complicated writing techniques … only trained scribes could read and write in the ancient Near East," Garfinkel said.

Archaeological Doubts

Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who is not involved in the Elah excavations, agreed the site is very important, but has significant concerns with Garfinkel's interpretations of the findings.

Immediately drawing ties between the site and the Kingdom of Judea is a mistake, he said—and it might well have been Philistine in origin.

Also, due to the small number of samples, the carbon-14 dating of the site is also not as precise as it should be, he added.

"We need to wait for more samples. It's not enough to date the site based on two [olive pits]," he said.

He also expressed doubts about the centerpiece of Garfinkel's findings—the text.

"I am prepared to predict that it will be very difficult to determine whether the text is, in fact, Hebrew. There will be evidence indicating various possibilities," he said.

"In the nature of its discovery, this [piece of pottery] is also not unusual. There is a group of late Proto-Canaanite [pottery shards] from the same chronological phase that have been found in various sites on the coastal plain—none of them were discovered in Judea proper."

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