Saturday, January 9, 2010

Oldest Piece of Hebrew Writing Found at Elah

I come to you this morning with breaking news! Breaking news in Biblical studies! Stop the presses!

Alright, I don't have any presses--just a "publish post" tab. Hell, the New York Times has probably mortgaged their last press. Nonetheless, the news must out.

A professor at the University of Haifa--Gershon Galil--has successfully translated what scholars now believe to be the oldest piece of Hebrew writing. (Here is the Jerusalem Post's coverage of the story.) Archaeologists working a site in the Elah valley--where David is said to have slew Goliath--unearthed 3000 year-old pottery fragments with carved inscriptions in a very archaic version of Biblical Hebrew. (The photo on the left makes it look like a delicious piece of toast.) The text reads as follows, according to Galil's translation:

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.

Though this is not a Biblical passage, it does feature recognizable aspects of the early Israelite religious practice that would become Judaism ... among them an incipient monotheism--"you shall not do it, but worship the Lord"--and a healthy advocacy of social justice--"Protect the poor and the slave / support the stranger."

But why should we care? Well, this find confirms the possibility that parts of the Bible could have been written as early as the tenth century, B.C.E., during the reign of King David. (Interestingly, this is Harold Bloom's speculative hypothesis in The Book of J.)

Traditional Bible readers (Orthodox Jews and some evangelical Christians) believe the Tanakh's claim that Moses wrote the Bible in the fourteenth century, B.C.E. However, no linguistic or archaeological evidence supports such a hypothesis. Thus, in recent years, modern scholars have been persistently revising that number forward; many contemporary researchers have recently argued that the oldest parts of the Bible were written in the sixth or seventh century, B.C.E.

However, Galil's translation allows us to move that date back once more, to the time of the most successful monarchy in ancient Israelite history.

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