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Tell Umm el-Marra (Syria) and Early Alphabetic in the Third Millennium:

Four Inscribed Clay Cylinders as a Potential Game Changer

16 April 2021

Tell Umm el-Marra (Syria) and Early Alphabetic in the Third Millennium:

Four Inscribed Clay Cylinders as a Potential Game Changer

Christopher Rollston, George Washington University

Introduction:

              The excavations at Tell Umm el-Marra in Western Syria were conducted from 1994-2010.  The excavations were sponsored by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Amsterdam, and they were co-directed by Glenn Schwartz and Hans Curvers. Among the major supporters of the excavations were National Geographic and the National Science Foundation. Within this blog post, I will convey the basic contours of the evidence outlined in Schwartz’s (2021) article, and then at the conclusion of my synthesis, I will convey my own perspective regarding these four inscribed clay cylinders: namely, the script is Early Alphabetic (based on the clear morphology of the letters), the language is arguably Semitic, and the date is early (based on the secure archaeological context and carbon 14 dates). At this time, I will turn in earnest to this task…

              The site of Umm el-Marra is ca. 20 hectares (i.e., ca. 50 acres).  It is located in the Jabbul Plain of northwestern Syria, roughly between the city of Aleppo and the Euphrates valley (Tell Umm el-Marra is about halfway between ancient Aleppo and ancient Emar). It has been suggested that Tell Umm el-Marra was the ancient city of Tuba, known from cuneiform sources. It is arguably the largest site in the Jabbul plain.

              Schwartz has noted that “particularly striking with respect to the third millennium BC occupation on Umm el-Marra is the activity on the acropolis in the middle of the site.  Here, at least ten mausoleums were built, one next to the other, over a period of some 300 years. Judging from their large-scale architecture and contents, including personal items of gold, silver, and lapis lazuli, the tombs were associated with individuals of high social rank, possibly the ruling families of Umm el-Marra or its region” (Schwartz 2021, 256).  In short, there is demonstrable evidence that some of those at the site of Umm el-Marra were very wealthy elites.

I. Four Inscribed Clay Cylinders from Tell Umm el-Marra: The Basic Data

              Significantly, during the 2004 field season, four small inscribed clay cylinders were found at Umm el-Marra in a third-millennium tomb. These were “lightly baked” (Glenn Schwartz, personal communication). In a very recent, and particularly erudite article, Glenn Schwartz has described this find and its archaeological context in substantial detail (Schwartz 2021; cf. also Schwartz 2010, for his earlier views).  In terms of the precise archaeological context, Schwartz has indicated that “the contents of the upper layer of Tomb 4 are stylistically homogenous and belong to the Early Bronze IVA or ENL 4 period, perhaps ca. 2450-2300 BC, equivalent to Umm el-Marra Period V.” he goes on to state that “since the pottery exhibits good parallels with the ceramic assemblage from Ebla Palace G, whose destruction is best assigned to ca. 2300 BC, I posit a twenty-fourth century BC date for the Tomb 4 upper layer” (Schwartz 2021, 256-257).  Furthermore, and particularly importantly, Schwartz also notes that this dating is “supported by the carbon-14 results from Umm el-Marra, which provide dates in the late third millennium for the EB IVB/ENL 5 period which succeeds EB IVA/ENL 4” (Schwartz 2021, 257).

              My initial thought (because of the graphemic shapes of the signs on the cylinders and the clear similarity to Early Alphabetic letters) was that these cylinders might be intrusive, coming from the second millennium BCE, not the third millennium. However, Schwartz has emphasized that “it is very unlikely that the cylinders were intrusive from a later period.”  He goes on to state that “they were resting on a tomb floor in a relatively widely-distributed area, not in a closely-arranged bunch as one might expect if they had been inside a small, undetected animal burrow or pit.” He states further that “they were about 80 cm below a scatter of broken mudbricks that had probably collapsed from the walls of the tomb, sealing the context of the cylinders.” In terms of size and shape of the cylinders themselves, Schwartz has stated that they are about that of “a human finger” and “are perforated lengthwise.” (Schwartz 2021, 257).   

              As for the signs on these four cylinders, Schwartz indicates that he finds them to be “relatively crude” (I do not find them to be any more crude than most of the rest of Early Alphabetic, something which I attribute to the fact that Early Alphabetic was never really standardized with regard to the direction of writing, the orientation of the letters, or the stance of the letters). Moreover, Schwartz suggests that they were probably incised with an implement like a wooden stick or a reed rather than a carefully made stylus” (Schwartz 2021, 257).  As for the number of graphemic signs, Schwartz notes that there are twelve individual graphemes (if the single sign from the fourth cylinder is included). Since some signs occur more than once, it is useful to note that Schwartz has stated that there are “eight distinct” signs (Schwartz 2021, 258). He also notes that “given the small number of sign values attested, it is difficult to ascertain whether the system was logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, or a combination of these” (Schwartz 2021, 258). Schwartz then moves into a methodical analysis of the various possibilities for these signs, based on writing systems or recording systems in the ancient Near Eastern world.  First and foremost, these signs are certainly not cuneiform.  Furthermore, Schwartz notes that they do not seem to be “potmarks incised on jars and pots in third millennium Syria and upper Mesopotamia” (Schwartz 2021, 258). They also do not seem to be “numerical characters,” such as are known in the Habur region (Schwartz 2021, 259). Furthermore, he mentions that “besides cuneiform, the major Near Eastern writing system of the third millennium BC was Egyptian.”  He notes that although there are some similarities (e.g., N5 and S29 in Gardiner 1957), but he concludes that “the similarities are not especially close, and perforated clay cylinders with hieroglyphic or hieratic inscriptions are not attested in Egypt” (Schwartz 2021, 259). More distantly, he notes that there were some connections between the Indus civilization and southern Mesopotamia in the third millennium, and that three of the characters on his clay cylinders might be compared with certain Indus symbols (namely, 283, 358 variant b, and 215 variant a), but he then concludes that “none of these parallels is especially close” (Schwartz 2021, 259). He also considers the early second millennium “pseudo-hierlglyphs from Byblos,” but reasonably concludes that “there are few convincing matches with the symbols from Umm el-Marra (Schwartz 2021, 259).

II. Early Alphabetic in Second Millennium Mesopotamia

              Early Alphabetic inscriptions are also seemingly attested in Mesopotamia, and Schwartz recognizes the significance of this (Schwartz 2021, 260). These alphabetic inscriptions are part of the Schoyen Collection. I have discussed these in the past (Rollston 2020, 69-70), and find it useful (for reasons of economy) largely to cite here my previous statements: “Stephanie Dalley has recently published a number of Akkadian tablets from the First Sealand Dynasty, and some brief, difficult Early Alphabetic inscriptions are present on the edge of four of these tablets (Dalley 2009, 15; plate 175 and drawings on plates 30, 50). In terms of date, Dalley stated that ‘the cuneiform King-lists place the First Sealand Dynasty between the Old Babylonian and the Kassite, and there seems no reason to contest that’ (Dalley, personal communication; see also Dalley 2009, 1-17). Regarding the grammar and the logograms (etc.) of these tablets, Dalley stated that this makes it certain that this corpus of tablets ‘come from a period at the end of the Old Babylonian Dynasty.’ Thus, regarding an approximate absolute date of these tablets from the First Sealand Dynasty, Dalley has stated that a date of ca. 1500 BCE is the most convincing (the presence of certain known royal names is also part of the equation)” (Rollston 2020, 69-70). Nevertheless, there is a fly in the ointment which I would be remiss not to emphasize.   Namely, as is the case with tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets, these Sealand Tablets were not found on a scientific excavation, but rather they appeared for sale on the antiquities market.  Therefore, we have no actual archaeological context for them.  Regarding the authenticity of the tablets, including the alphabetic inscriptions on four of them, however, Dalley has stated that she has ‘no doubt that these are all genuine” (personal communication). My sense is that Dalley is probably correct about the authenticity, although I do still harbor some modest doubts. In any case, if accepting the authenticity of the alphabetic inscriptions on the Sealand Tablets, the presence of these alphabetic inscriptions from Mesopotamia in the 15th century is important (Rollston 2020, 69-70).

III. Early Alphabetic in Egypt and the Levant

              In terms of the earlier history of the alphabet, especially as reflected in the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol, the most elegant and convincing date (based especially on things such as the palaeographic similarities between Middle Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Hieratic vis a vis the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol as well as the dating of Egyptian inscriptions at these same sites, etc.) is often contended to be the chronological horizon of the 18th century BCE.  The history of this discussion, along with various augmentations of it, have been recited by various scholars in various publications, including some of mine (see, for example, Rollston 2020, along with the bibliography there).  Of course, someone might attempt to push the data down chronologically and argue for the 17th century BCE for the inscriptions of Serabit and el-Hol. Conversely, it is worth emphasizing that as for the date of the invention of Early Alphabetic, Orly Goldwasser has argued for a date of ca. 1840 BCE (Goldwasser 2017, 142), an earlier date than has often been embraced.  Frank Moore Cross dated the invention of the alphabet to ca. 18th century BCE (Cross 1994, 57) and Joseph Naveh dated the invention of the alphabet to ca. 1700 BCE (Naveh 1987, 42). In essence, therefore, this chronological horizon (19th or 18th century) has been the consensus view (although occasionally a [much] lower date will be proposed [e.g., Sass 2005], but the data continue to mount against that view).

It is also important to emphasize the usage of Early Alphabetic in the broader Levant during the second millennium BCE. At this juncture, therefore, I will summarize this point by reiterating the data which I have discussed in various previous publications (e.g., Rollston 2020, 73).  Namely, Ugaritic (13th century BCE, and wedge-shaped in nature) is not the only attested alphabetic writing system in the Levant during the second millennium BCE. Indeed, various Early Alphabetic inscriptions (which are pictographic in nature,….and are reflective of the acrophonic principle) have been discovered at a number of sites in the Levant, ranging from around the 17th century BCE through the 10th century BCE. Note in this connection the following: the Beth Shemesh Ostracon (Driver 1954, 100-101, and plate 40; Naveh 1987, 35 with drawing), the Beth Shemesh Incised Potsherd (McCarter, Bunimovitz, and Lederman 2011), The Gezer Sherd (Taylor 1930 and plate 1), the Gezer Jar Signs (Seger 1983 and plates 1-4), Izbet Sarteh (Naveh 1978), the Ophel (Jerusalem) Incised Sherd (Mazar, Ben-Shlomo, and Aḥituv 2013; Hamilton 2015, with literature), Lachish Ewer (Cross 1954 and literature), the Lachish Dagger (Starkey 1937), the Lachish Bowl Inscripton (Ussishkin 1983, 155-157, and plate 40), the Megiddo Gold Ring (Guy 1938), the Qubur Walaydah Bowl (Cross 1980), the Qeiyafa Ostracon (Misgav, Garfinkel, and Ganor 2009; Rollston 2011), the Qeiyafa Ba’al Jar Inscription (Garfinkel, Golub, Misgav, and Ganor 2015), the Raddana Handle (Cross and Freedman 1971), the Shechem Plaque (Böhl 1938). Added to the discussion is now a new inscription from Tel Lachish (Höflmayer, Misgav, Webster, Streit 2021).

              Of these inscriptions, the Lachish Dagger is among the most important of the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from the Levant.  The archaeological context for this dagger is a tomb of the Middle Bronze Age (Starkey 1937; Sass 1988, 53-54; Goldwasser 2017, 140-142), arguably ca. the 17th century BCE.  Cross suggested (in 1967) that this inscription (consisting of four letters) may not be Early Alphabetic (see conveniently Cross 2003, 317-329, esp. note 13), but the script seems indeed to be Early Alphabetic and the fact that the archaeological context is a secure tomb of the 17th century is also paramount (in terms of date). In addition, I would contend that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Gezer Jar Signs (Seger 1983), incised before the firing of the pots, are Early Alphabetic and date to the Middle Bronze Age or early Late Bronze Age. Indeed, excavator Joseph Seger contends that these date to ca. the late 17th century BCE. Furthermore, the Megiddo Gold Ring must be part of the discussion as well. It hails from an excavated tomb, and according to P.L.O. Guy, the pottery found with the ring was MB II and LB II (Guy 1938, 173-177, and 68-72, plus Pl. 128: 15; and fig 177).  The precise letters that are attested have been the subject of discussion, but the fact that this inscription is written in Early Alphabetic is certain. Thus, I cannot concur with the statement of my dear friend Benjamin Sass that this inscription is a “pseudo-inscription” (pace Sass 1988, 101). I have collated this microscopically and consider it a nice, and readable, Early Alphabetic inscription (Rollston 2020, 73).

IV. Umm el-Marra’s Early Alphabetic: More Detailed Focus

              It is worth noting that in the past Schwartz has been reluctant to affirm that the four inscribed clay cylinders from Tomb 4 of Umm el-Marra are alphabetic (Schwartz 2010). Thus, he certainly did not rush to this conclusion.  Moreover, his most recent article about these is also very cautious (Schwartz 2021), as he moves through various possibilities (as discussed above).  But it is clear that he is now willing to state that this is the most reasonable position (i.e., it is Early Alphabetic).  And I concur.  That is, the most reasonable conclusion is that the Umm el-Marra clay cylinders are inscribed with signs that are most readily understood as Early Alphabetic letters (graphemes).  Moreover, since the Early Alphabetic alphabet was used to write Semitic, it is logical to conclude that this is the language of the Umm el-Marra inscriptions (the fact that they were found in Syria would also augment this conclusion, of course). 

The readings (with various caveats and provisos) of the first cylinder and third cylinders are posited by Schwartz to be, in essence, k’y (reading dextrograde), with that of the second reading wn‘ls. The fourth cylinder is more fragmentary with only a single grapheme preserved, and probably not fully (thus the options are greater, in terms of possible readings).  Furthermore, as Schwartz notes, reading sinistrograde is also option (i.e., he does not commit to either dextrograde or sinistrograde).  Indeed, Early Alphabetic could be written dextrograde (left to right), sinistrograde (right to left), boustrophedon (with consecutive lines written dextrograde and then sinistrograde, and so on), as well as columnar (top to bottom).  Naturally, since we are dealing with one-line inscriptions, making a certain determination about the direction of writing is difficult (since one can often find a possible root word in Semitic with which to associate one’s decision about the direction of reading).  That is not to say that it is entirely arbitrary.  It is not, since lexical and morphemic matters will often bring a particular word to the fore (and that’s the case with these inscriptions as well), as will at times the direction of the “face” of the letters.  It is also worth emphasizing that not only is the direction of writing a variable with Early Alphabetic, stance and rotation are as well (and these are often impacted by the direction of writing, of course).  Thus, the stance and rotation of the letters on these inscriptions are not surprising.  After all, with Early Alphabetic, this aspect of writing was certainly not fixed.

V. Some Final Reflections

              One factor which is of paramount importance is the putative time-frame for the production of the Umm el-Marra Inscriptions.  I have pressed my friend and teacher Glenn Schwartz on this quite hard (in the past), but he has strongly affirmed (in his articles on these inscriptions, as noted above, and in personal correspondence) that it just does not seem all that convincing to consider these to be intrusive elements from a later period in this third millennium tomb.  In this connection, it is worth noting that there were established connections between Syria and Egypt in the Early Bronze Age (e.g., Biga 2016). Furthermore, there were also established connections between Syria and Mesopotamia in the Early Bronze Age (e.g., Cooper, 2012; Cooper 2013).  And, of course, with the Levantine site of Byblos, the connections with Egypt during this chronological horizon (and earlier ones, as well as later ones) are especially clear as well. In short, in terms of the origins of the alphabet and its movement to places such as Umm el-Marra, there are various possible or plausible options.

              The problem, of course, is that any attempt to decipher Early Alphabetic is difficult and precarious (with a few exceptions) because of (among other things) the brevity of most of the texts at our disposal.  These specimens of Early Alphabetic from Umm el-Marra are no exception in that regard. I’m sure that some will posit with confidence this or that reading and understanding.  I’m not so inclined.  Indeed, that which would be really useful and important at this time would be for longer inscriptions to be found, and similar sorts of inscriptions from this early of a period (i.e., 3rd millennium BCE) in this region or some other region (be it Egypt, or Mesopotamia proper, or the northern or southern Levant).  Suffice it to state, though, that we have here some important inscriptions, it is most reasonable (based on the morphemic similarities with Early Alphabetic attested elsewhere) to contend that these are Early Alphabetic, and to note that the early history of the alphabet may have begun earlier than we had thought. In short, these inscriptions from Umm el-Marra do seem to be game changers and these should and will be a component of all future debates and discussions about the world’s first use of an alphabetic writing system.

Christopher Rollston (Rollston@gwuedu)

** I should like to mention that I was a member of the excavation staff in 1995, and I also studied archaeology at the graduate level with Glenn Schwartz at Johns Hopkins. Along those same lines, I should also like to mention that I benefited from discussions with Assyriologist Jerrold Cooper and Archaeologist Glenn Schwartz about these finds from Tell Umm el-Marra.

References:

Biga, Maria Giovanna.

2016  La Syrie et l’Egypte au IIIe Millenaire av. J.-C. d’apres les archives d’Ebla. Comptes Rendus. Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres April-June 2016: 691-711.

Böhl, F. M. Th.  1938.

“Die Sichem Plakette.” ZDPV 61:1-25.

 

Cooper, Lisa.

2012 Cultural Developments in Western Syria and the Middle Euphrates Valley during the Third Millennium BC.  In H. Crawford (ed.), The Sumerian World, 478-97.  London: Routledge

Cooper, Lisa.

2013 The Northern Levant (Syria) during the Early Bronze Age.  In A. Killebrew and M. Steiner (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeolgy of the Levant, c. 8000-332 BCE.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cross, Frank M. 1954.

“The Evolution of the Proto-Canaanite Alphabet.” BASOR, 134: 15-24.

Cross, Frank M. 1980.

“New Found Inscriptions in Old Canaanite and Early Phoenician Scripts.” BASOR, 238: 1-20.

Cross, Frank M. and David Noel Freedman. 1971. 

“An Inscribed Jar Handle from Raddana.”  BASOR, 201: 19-22.

Dalley, Stephanie. 

2009.  Babylonian Tablets from the First Sealand Dynasty in the Schoyen Collecction. CUSAS 9. Bethesda: CDL.

Driver, G. R. 1954. 

Semitic Writing: From Pictograph to Alphabet, 2nd ed.  London: Oxford.

Gardiner, Alan

1957. Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hierolglyphs. Oxford.

Garfinkel, Yosef, Mitka R. Golub, Haggai Misgav, and Saar Ganor. 2015.

“The ‘Išba‘al Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa.”  BASOR, 373: 217-233.

Goldwasser, Orly.

2017.  “From the Iconic to the Linear—The Egyptian Scribes of Lachish and the Modification of the Early Alphabet in the Late Iron Age.” In Alphabets, Texts and Artifacts in the Ancient Near East: Studies presented to Benjamin Sass, edited by Israel Finkelstein, Christian Robin, and Thomas Römer, 118-160. Paris: Van Dieren Publishers.

Guy, P. L. O. 1938.

Megiddo Tombs.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hamilton, Gordon J. 2015.

“Two Methodological Issues concerning the Expanded Collection of Early Alphabetic Texts.” In Epigraphy, Philology, & the Hebrew Bible: Methodological Perspectives on Philological & Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of Jo Ann Hackett, edited by Jeremy M. Hutton and Aaron D. Rubin, 127-156. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Höflmayer, Felix; Misgav, Haggai; Webster, Lyndelle; Streit, Katharina, 2021

“Early Alphabetic Writing in the ancient Near East: The ‘Missing Link’ from Tel Lachish. Antiquity 2021.

Mazar, Eilat, David Ben-Shlomo, and Shmuel Aḥituv. 2013

“An Inscribed Pithos from the Ophel, Jerusalem.” IEJ, 63: 39-49.

McCarter, P. Kyle, Shlomo Bunimovitz, and Zvi Lederman. 2011.

“An Archaic Ba‘l Inscription from Tel Beth-Shemesh.” Tel Aviv, 38:35-49.

Misgav, Haggay, Yosef Garfinkel, and Saar Ganor. 2009.

“The Ostracon from Ḥorvat Qeiyafa.”  Innovations in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Environs, 3: 111-123.   

Naveh, Joseph. 1978.

“Some Considerations on the Ostracon from ‘Izbet Sartah.” IEJ, 28: 31-35.

Naveh, Joseph. 1987.

Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography. 2nd ed. Jerusalem: Magnes.

Rollston, Christopher A. 2011.

“The Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon: Methodological Musings and Caveats.” Tel Aviv,38: 67-82.

Rollston, Christopher.

2019. “The Alphabet Comes of Age: The Social Context of Alphabetic Writing in the First Millennium BCE.” Pp. 371-390 in The Social Archaeology of the Levant: From Prehistory to the Present, eds. Assaf Yasur-Landau, Eric Cline, and Yorke Rowan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rollston, Christopher.

2020. “The Emergence of Alphabetic Scripts.” Pp. 65-78 in Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Near Eastern Languages, ed. Rebecca Hasselbach-Andee. Wiley Blackwell.

Sass, Benjamin. 2005.

“The Genesis of the Alphabet and Its Development in the Second Millennium B.C, Twenty Years Later.” 2004-2005. KBR, 2: 147-166.

Schwartz, Glenn M.

2010. “Early Non-Cuneiform Writing? Third-Millennium BC Clay Cylinders from Umm el-Marra.” Culture and History of the Ancient Near East, 42: 375-395.

Schwartz, Glenn M.

2021    Non-Cuneiform Writing at Third-Millennium Umm el-Marra, Syria: Evidence of an  Early Alphabetic Tradition?  Pasiphae XIII: 255-66.

Seger, Joe. 1983.

“New Evidence of the Earliest Alphabet.” In The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by Carol L. Meyers and M. O’ Connor, 477-495. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Starkey, J. L. 1937.

“Excavations at Tell edl-Duweir.” PEFQS, 70: 239-240.

Taylor, W.R. 1930.

“The New Gezer Inscription.” JPOS, 10: 79-81.

Ussishkin, David.  1983

“Excavations at Tel Lachish 1978-1983, Second Preliminary Report.”  Tel Aviv, 10: 97-185.

Deja Vu all over Again: The Antiquities Market, the Shapira Strips, Menahem Mansoor, and Idan Dershowitz

10 March 2021

Déjà vu all over Again:

The Antiquities Market, the Shapira Strips, Menahem Mansoor, and Idan Dershowitz

By Christopher Rollston, George Washington University

(Rollston@gwu.edu)

Introduction

Idan Dershowitz has authored an article entitled “The Valediction of Moses: New Evidence on the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments,” ZAW 133 (2021): 1-22. In his article, Dershowitz states that he offers “new evidence and arguments against the prevailing theory that Wilhelm Moses Shapira forged his infamous Deuteronomy fragments.” He considers the Shapira Strips to be authentic, basically, the first of the real Dead Sea Scrolls. That’s quite a claim.  In fact, he also believes that “The Shapira fragments are not only authentic artifacts, but are unprecedented in their significance: They preserve a pre-canonical antecedent of the Book of Deuteronomy” (p. 22 of his article). He also has a forthcoming monograph dealing with this subject, which will include a full transcription of the Shapira Strips, replete with translation and copious notes.

First and foremost, I would emphasize that Idan Dershowitz is doing the scholarly community a great service in producing a very useful transcription of the Shapira Strips, replete with copious annotations. This will be of much value for those interested in the history of modern inscriptional forgeries.

But I believe that his work will convince very few epigraphers (i.e., scholars who specialize in actual, ancient inscriptions) that the Shapira Fragments are authentic, ancient documents. And I do not believe that his work will convince all that many text scholars (i.e., scholars who primarily work not with actual ancient inscriptions, scrolls, papyri, but rather with edited texts in print editions) that the Shapira Strips are ancient…although I suspect some text scholars will find Idan Dershowitz’s proposal alluring, especially since it seems to “confirm” the things some of them have believed about the textual transmission of Deuteronomy in its earliest forms.

Nevertheless, the totality of the extant empirical evidence continues to demonstrate that the Shapira Strips are modern forgeries, and they reflect the same basic tendencies and problems which are present in most modern fakes and forgeries of the past two, three, or four centuries. I will discuss some of the evidence in this blog post, but in a more detailed fashion in a print publication.

Finally, I should also mention that I was an invited participant in the symposium at Harvard Law which was held in 2019 in which Idan Dershowitz presented his views. As I emphasized in that meeting, the evidence against authenticity is compelling: the Shapira Strips are indeed modern forgeries, modeled mostly on the book of Deuteronomy, with the sort of “forger’s flourishes, augmentations, and additions,” that are hallmark features of forgers’ methods…time and time again through the centuries.

NB: In this blog post, I reference a number of my articles.  Most of these (but not all) are available on www.academia.edu.  I have included bibliographic data for these in the “for further reading” section at the end of this blog post.  I would have liked to have integrated all of these references into this blog post, but since the New York Times article appeared today, and I wanted to get this post up rapidly, I am just including these as an addendum at the bottom of this blog post.

The Setting in the 19th centuy: 1868-1884

The Shapira Strips surfaced on the Antiquities Market in ca. 1883, and were shopped around far and wide by Moses Wilhelm Shapira (1830-1884) who had an antiquities shop in Jerusalem.  If they had been deemed ancient in 1883, they would have been by Shapira’s own statements) worth an absolute fortune. A decade prior to the surfacing of the Shapira Strips, Shapira had been closely connected with the Moabite Forgeries (ca. 1873, 1874, etc.).  The Moabite Forgeries were inscribed terra cotta and stone objects, with inscriptions modeled rather poorly on the great Mesha Stele Inscription, discovered in ca. 1868 (of which Salim al-Kari, an associate of Shapira, had made a squeeze prior to the famous shattering of the Mesha Stele by heating it and pouring water on it).  Although a number of scholars at the time deemed these Moabite Forgeries to be ancient (e.g., the great Semitist Konstantin Schlottmann), the archaeologist and epigrapher Charles Clermont-Ganneau rapidly debunked them as modern forgeries.  Clermont-Ganneau was absolutely correct.  In fact, the Moabite Forgeries would not fool even a beginning student of Northwest Semitic inscriptions today. 

It is also worth noting that many forgeries were surfacing in this era, in the wake of discoveries such as the Mesha Stele and the Temple Mount Inscription.  Clermont-Ganneau debunked many of them, authoring articles and even a monograph on the subject.  And, of course, Clermont-Ganneau was among the first to debunk the Shapira Strips as well, along with Christian David Ginsberg. Notably, Konstantin Schlottman asserted that the Shapira Strips were forgeries!

Also important to mention is that Shapira was very familiar with aged scrolls (e.g., from the Middle Ages), as he sold a number of them to the British Museum, especially from the region of Yemen.  It should also be emphasized that the Shapira Strips are no longer extant. After Shapira himself committed suicide in the Netherlands (after the Shapira Strips were declared to be modern forgeries), the Shapira Strips were later sold at auction and are often presumed to have later been burnt in a tragic house fire. At the very least, they have never surfaced again.

Further notation: During the past three or four centuries, many hundreds of forged inscriptions have appeared on the antiquities market.  These modern forgeries come in all shapes and sizes and are written in a number of languages, including Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. Some of these modern forgeries were quite poor, some of them were quite good.  But the production of textual forgeries in the modern period is quite a common thing, and it has often been quite lucrative for the forgers and for those who sell forgeries.  It is a major problem in the field and has long been so.

__

I. Not the first, not the last.

Idan Dershowitz is not the first scholar to attempt to contend that the Shapira Strips are ancient, and he will not be the last. That is, most famously, Menahem Mansoor (University of Wisconsin, 1959 “The Case of Shapira’s Dead Sea [Deuteronomy] Scrolls of 1883) argued at length that the Shapira Strips were not modern forgeries, but actual ancient Dead Sea Scrolls. But the convergence of epigraphic evidence is squarely against the Shapira Strips. However, I would emphasize that when one thinks about the long history of textual forgeries (going back many centuries), the Shapira Strips are quite good, especially for their time (i.e., late 1800s), but not nearly good enough to be considered ancient. That is, they are modern forgeries. I do not know if Shapira himself forged them.  But I am quite certain that they are demonstrably modern forgeries, not at all ancient.

II. A Methodological Imperative: Dramatic Claims Require Dramatic and Compelling Evidence (and we just don’t have dramatic, compelling evidence)

From the outset, I would emphasize that dramatic claims require dramatic and compelling evidence. Phrases such as: “Could it be?” “What if?” or “Might it be the case?” are simply not good enough.  Speculations about possibilities, or specious arguments about what a forger would have known, could not have known, might have done, might not have done, could have forged, could not have forged, could have written in his forgery, could not have written in his forgery…well, these have been demonstrated time and time again to be fruitless speculations, certainly not empirical evidence. And when scholars mount such arguments, time and time again they are demonstrated to have been wrong in their assumptions about all of these things that a forger could or could not have done, or could or could not have known.

Let’s now frame this in a very pragmatic fashion.  If the Shapira Fragments were to surface today, the leather would be subjected to carbon 14 tests; the ink would be subjected to chemical analyses (e.g., using a scanning electron microscope equipped with an EDS); there would be very careful analyses, using magnification, of the script itself, its morphology, the stance of the letters, and the ductus (i.e., the number of strokes forming a letter, the direction of those strokes, and the order of those strokes); the patina on the surface above the ink would be analyzed for modern contaminants in it and under it; there would be analyzes of the ways in which the ink had or had not flowed into the current cracks in the leather itself (much as was recently done with the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls Forgeries). But the Shapira Fragments are lost to history. They were presumably destroyed. So there is no way to do these sorts of basic, benchmark, empirical analyses. And without these sorts of analyses today, no inscription would be declared ancient by a serious scholar trained in epigraphy.

But, in essence, Idan Dershowitz is essentially asking that we forget about all that, and consider the Shapira Strips to be ancient manuscripts, not modern forgeries.  But since the Shapira Strips have disappeared, and are presumably gone forever: (a) there can be no carbon 14 tests of the leather, (b) there can be no laboratory testing of the chemical composition of the ink (e.g., using a Scanning Electron Microscope equipped with an EDS), (c) there can be no careful palaeographic analysis of the script using magnification of the inscriptions themselves, (d) there can be no laboratory analysis of the patina which is present on the leather or on the ink, (e) and there can be no analyses of the ways in which the ink has adhered to the leather (e.g., when someone attempts to forge a manuscript today, the ink will often “leak” into ancient cracks in the leather…and that is very telling, of course).  Moreover, looking at a photo or a hand-copy of an inscription is absolutely not the same as holding an inscription in your hands. There is just no substitute for being able to look at a manuscript oneself and to collate it oneself.  Thus, for someone to attempt to declare the Shapira Strips ancient or authentic in spite of the fact that none of these analyses (such as those listed above) can be done is an absolute deal breaker.  We simply must be able to analyze the Shapira Strips themselves (i.e., the actual documents) before anyone can make a compelling declaration of antiquity.

To put it differently, if an inscription appeared on the antiquities market today, a smart, methodologically savvy, trained epigrapher (i.e., a scholar trained in the actual ancient media, ancient writing technologies, ancient media, etc.) would not declare an inscription to be ancient without first subjecting the inscription to the examinations mentioned above.  Thus, to ask us today to accept as ancient the Shapira Strips when such analyses cannot be done is a bridge too far, way too far.  And, of course, on top of all this, the evidence (mentioned already back in 1883 and 1884 is quite damning, including, but not limited to, the anomalies with the script).  The Shapira Strips are modern forgeries.

Dramatic claims require dramatic, compelling evidence, and we just don’t have it with regard to the Shapira Strips. Rather we have hypotheticals, and circumstantial evidence, at best. And that’s just not going to make the cut, alas, in light of the insurmountable problems with the script (and the eerie parallels to the Moabite Forgeries).

III. Motives: Economic in part, but also in part to Bolster the Traditional View that Deuteronomy was Ancient, not a Pious Forgery of the late 7th century BCE.

There was a strong economic motive for the production of the Shapira Forgeries.  After all the Shapira Strips were stated (by Shapira, among others) to be worth a fortune. But there was more: The Shapira Strips were intended by the forger to Bolster the Traditional View that Deuteronomy was very ancient, and not a pious forgery of the late 7th century BCE. Of course, the forger also knew that any “find” that could bolster the traditional view would garner much attention, and be worth even more, in all sorts of ways.

Many within both Judaism and Christianity have long believed that the Pentateuch (also known as the Torah, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was written by Moses, who lived during the 13th century BCE.

The Shapira Strips are largely taken from the book of Deuteronomy (and modeled on the script of the Mesha Stele, which hailed from the 9th century BCE). Thus, if the Shapira Strips were ancient, they would be dated much closer to the time of Moses than any manuscripts of the Pentateuch available in the 1800s (or even now).  For this reason, some people really wanted (then and now) the Shapira Strips to be ancient and authentic, since that would put them much closer to the time of Moses (again, the script of the Shapira Strips was modeled on the Mesha Stele, which did come from the 9th century BCE).    

Now, let’s put all of that in context, in the 1800s.  “Biblical Criticism” was gaining a great deal of headway during the 1800s and was embraced by many scholars and laypeople, but it was repudiated by many others as heretical.  In terms of Biblical Criticism of the 1800s, note that W.M.L. DeWette had argued in the early 1800s that the book of Deuteronomy was a pious forgery from the 7th century BCE, not from the time of Moses in the 13th century BCE.  Please allow me to emphasize that date: EARLY 1800s (decades prior to the forged Shapira Strips)….in other words, this view that Deuteronomy was a pious forgery had been circulating for several decades…and many traditionalists were still upset about it, and they longed for hard evidence to the contrary.

Similarly, the first edition of Julius Wellhausen’s book entitled “The Composition of the Hexateuch” (note: Hexateuch is a way of referring to the first six books of the Bible, namely, Genesis through Joshua) was published in 1876-1877, and in this volume Wellhausen also argued for a “late date” for the composition of Deuteronomy (among other books).  

Again, many in Christianity and Judaism had long believed that Moses (who lived during the 13th century BCE) was responsible for Deuteronomy as well as the rest of the Pentateuch.  But scholars such as DeWette, along with many other scholars in the 1800s, were dating Deuteronomy to the 7th century BCE, that is, around 500 or 600 years after Moses.  Many traditionalists (even many scholars) believed that to be absolutely heretical. 

Indeed, the traditionalists believed that the Bible itself was under assault from Biblical Criticism and its late-dating of Biblical texts. 

Now….enter the Shapira Strips!! They solved everything and vindicated the Bible….that is, The fact that the Shapira Strips seemed to demonstrate that Deuteronomy could be dated much closer to the time of Moses than scholars such as DeWette had contended was widely hailed as absolutely marvelous. And the Shapira Strips could demonstrate that Deuteronomy was much older than the late 7th century….after all, the script of the Shapira Strips was very similar to the script of the Mesha Stele, and the Mesha Stele was 9th century…more than two hundred years prior to DeWette’s dating of Deuteronomy! 

Of course, it should always be remembered that modern forgers (and ancient forgers) know their market.

And it’s also worth emphasizing again that the Shapira Strips were being touted as priceless…and for this reason the price Shapira was asking for them was indeed a fortune. 

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IV. Textual Forgeries: A very old story

(1) There is a long history of talented, unscrupulous people (including scholars, antiquities dealers, and disgruntled students) producing textual forgeries (as well as other types of forgeries, of course, as well).  Thus, we have textual forgeries from the ancient, medieval, and modern world….that is, from ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, as well as ancient Israel and Early Christianity, from the Middle Ages (e.g, the Donation of Constantine), and from the modern world (I deal with this in a print article on the long history of textual forgeries).  Thus, it’s a very old tactic. (2) During the past few centuries, modern forgeries revolving around the Bible and Biblical World have surfaced on the antiquities market. These have generated (even before, during, and after the time of Shapira) a great deal of money.  These forgeries are in various languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic.  (3) Forgers have often patinated their works so as to cause them to appear ancient.  And also, the forgers will, when possible, use older or ancient media as well (e.g., ancient pots, ancient papyri, parchment). In short, forgers have long been quite sharp, quite knowledgeable. (4) Forgers and dealers often produce forgeries that will peak the interest of scholars and collectors….that is, forgers know the market…they know their target-audience, “marks” well. They know what people want, and they produce fakes with the desired content. (5) Forgers and dealers often go to “text” scholars, rather than to epigraphers, palaeographers, and papyrologists….they do this because text scholars are accustomed to working more with edited texts than with ancient written artifacts (this was the case with the Jesus’ Wife Papyrus, and with countless other modern forgeries). (6) These text-scholars often take the bait, as it were (in my two Maarav articles, I deal with some of this….and the ways in which various scholars ultimately “authenticated” inscriptions which were actually modern forgeries).  (7) Shapira either produced himself, or commissioned the production of, the Moabite Pottery Forgeries and the Moabite Stone Forgeries. These are pretty bad forgeries…and would not fool anyone in the field today, but they fooled quite a few people in the 1870s.  I’ve written about these some (e.g., see the articles in the Finkelstein volume and the Naveh volume, in which I deal some with Shapira, especially his pottery and stone forgeries).  (8) The Shapira Strips were declared modern forgeries in the 1880s on the basis of strong and compelling evidence.  Thus, Ginsberg and Clermont-Ganneau were quite right (that is, long ago, at the time the Shapira Strips surfaced).  (9) Shapira had means, motive, opportunity. .  

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V. Basic Principle: After the discovery of a truly sensational ancient inscription, forgers will often produce modern forgeries which are similar in terms of script or content to the authentic, ancient one. The Mesha Stele (discovered in 1868, and often called the Moabite Stone) was just such an inscription…it dates to the 9th century BCE, is written in the Old Hebrew script (because, as the inscription itself mentions, that King Omri of Israel had subjugated the Moabites and held hegemony over them), it is written in the Moabite language (remember: language and script are two different things), and it contains content which dovetails with the Bible’s description of King Mesha of Moab (e.g., 2 Kings 3). The Mesha Stele is a truly sensational, ancient inscription.  

It has been clear for more than a century that he Moabite Clay forgeries were largely the product of Shapira’s friend and business associate Salim al-Kari (Salim had made a squeeze of the Mesha Stele, hence, he knew what the script looked like), while the Moabite Stone Forgeries were the product of Martin Boulos, but the fact remains Shapira himself is also definitely and deeply connected with these blazing forgeries of the early 1870s. In fact, Shapira or an associate of his would sometimes take would-be buyers to a site, state that some of these clay and stone “inscriptions” had recently been found at this or that site, and then he would invite the would-be buyers to dig around…and lo and behold they would find some in the ground.  Of course, these had been “planted” there so that they could be found, but it was a very effective tool in the toolbox of Shapira.

The Shapira Strips are also modeled on the script of the Mesha Stele.  The script of the Shapira Strips is considerably better than that of the Moabite Forgeries.  This is not surprising, as a decade had passed between the time of the production of the Moabite Forgeries and the Shapira Strips.  Scholars had been quite critical of the script of the Moabite Forgeries, and this was all documented in journal articles of that time.  The forger of the Shapira Strips was reading those articles, especially those published in ZDPV.

Of the many similar stories is this more recent one: The Tel Dan Stele Inscription was discovered on the excavation at Tel Dan in 1993 and 1994. This inscription mentions the “House of David” (i.e., the Dynasty of David), is written in Aramaic, and dates to the 9th century BCE. Less than a decade after the discovery of the Tel Dan Stele, a modern forgery (which also fooled a number of scholars) known as the Jehoash Inscription surfaced on the antiquities market (in ca. 2001).  I collated this inscription in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, a day or two before my testimony for the prosecution in the Israel Forgery trial in the 2000s.  Again, the point is that in the wake of the discovery of a bona fide sensational inscriptional find, forgers begin to produce very similar fakes…and these can, and sometimes do, sell for vast amounts of money.

There is also a very similar situation with a Greek inscription from the Temple Mount, discovered in 1871.  It is a truly fascinating inscription which contains a warning to any foreigners who might venture too far into the Temple complex in Jerusalem.  And not long after this discovery, a forged Temple Mount inscription appeared on the antiquities market. 

In short, the appearance of the Shapira Strips and the Moabite Forgeries follows an established pattern, a pattern that is attested in the periods before and after Shapira’s time.

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VI. A few words about the Script

The script of the Shapira Strips is not the same as the bastardized script of the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries sold by Shapira. Indeed, the script of the Shapira Strips is much better than the script of the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries, but the script of the Shapira Strips has a handful of eerie similarities to the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries. 

Idan wishes for us to dismiss this evidence, or to assume that those producing the hand-copies of the Shapira Strips were utterly inept.  But, with all due respect to Dershowitz, we have enough good hand-copies, and even script charts, to be able to state that the script of the Shapira Strips is flawed, and these flaws are similar to the sorts of flaws often found in modern forgeries through the decades.  This evidence cannot simply be dismissed.

  Also relevant: we can state that the script of the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries and that of the Shapira Strips is similar (in a few tell-tale ways) because we have some fairly good hand-copies of the Shapira Strips (hand-copies which were made by scholars after Shapira announced the Shapira Strips in ca. 1883), and, of course, many of the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries are still in existence today (especially in England and Israel).  In short, the script of the Shapira Strips is a better than that of the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries, but the hallmark features that demonstrate the script is forged are present in both groups (i.e., the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries as well as that of the Shapira Strips).

VII. Forgers often model their forgeries on ancient literary texts (e.g., the Bible, or some other ancient literary text), or on some ancient inscription.

Especially relevant for the Shapira Strips: In this connection it is useful for me to emphasize another standard method of forgers: forgers often model their forgeries on the script and words of actual ancient texts.  They do this for a number of reasons, one of which is to attract the attention of scholars and the public (as people will often say about these that “they authenticate the Bible”).  But there is another reason as well: it is hard for someone in the modern period to produce a fake which contains no errors with regard to the script, spelling, syntax, and word-meanings (when compared to actual ancient texts), but if the forgers mimic some of the words, sentences, spelling, or syntax, of a genuine inscription or an ancient literary text, it is much easier to avoid mistakes…and so forgers often mimic or copy the words from ancient texts..  Thus, many forgers borrow quite heavily from genuine ancient texts (either inscriptions or literary texts).  The forger of the Shapira Forgeries is very heavily dependent on the book of Deuteronomy.  The forger of the Shapira Strips picked and chose this text and that text (as forgers often do), but the dependence is crystal clear.  Idan Dershowitz wishes to claim that a forger could not have done that. I have learned, in part the way, that making assumptions about what a forger could or could not do, is perilous. For centuries, they have really been quite good, much smarter and better than we thought.

VIII. Modern Forgeries dismissed early on by a consensus of scholars, with some scholar or scholars coming along later and arguing that these were not forgeries after all: We’ve seen this previously too.

After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (beginning in 1947), some people began to suggest that the (now lost) Shapira Strips might have been authentic and were, basically, the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  As already noted, among those who contended this was Menahem Mansoor of the University of Wisconsin.   

This sort of thing happens from time to time with regard to forgeries.  For example, there is a modern forgery known as the “Brazilian Phoenician Inscription.”  This surfaced during the late 1800s and was rapidly dismissed as a modern forgery, that is, it was deemed not to be ancient Phoenician, but rather a modern forgery.  However, during the 1960s, Cyrus Gordon, then of Brandeis University began to contend (in an article published in 1968) that the Brazilian Phoenician inscription was ancient.  Frank Cross of Harvard rapidly wrote a rejoinder (published also in 1968) demonstrating that the Brazilian Phoenician Inscription was a modern forgery, and not a particularly good one. In short, it’s nothing new for someone to come along and suggest that some modern forgery is actually ancient.  It happens.

In the case of this most recent attempt by Idan Dershowitz to suggest that the Shapira Strips are ancient, I would simply note that this has been attempted in the past, and without success (e.g., Menahem Mansoor).  

In Professor Dershowitz’s case, he is attempting to contend that the contents of the Shapira Strips (the things included as well as the things excluded) corresponds with just what scholars would expect for an early version of the book of Deuteronomy. I would counter that it is always precarious to argue that an inscription from the market must be considered ancient based on what we think a non-extant (!) proto-biblical text might have said! That’s putting the cart before the horse in all sorts of ways.

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I will be including a long discussion of the Shapira Strips in my forthcoming volume entitled (tentatively), Pious Forgeries: Forging History in the Ancient World of the Bible & the Modern World of Biblical Studies. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Forthcoming. I look forward to continuing this conversation, and to providing additional, detailed evidence against the Shapira Strips.

Sincerely,

Christopher Rollston (Rollston@gwu.edu)

For Further Reading:

“Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests.” Maarav 10 (2003): 135-193.

“Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic.” Maarav 11 (2004): 57-79.

“Navigating the Epigraphic Storm: A Palaeographer Reflects on Inscriptions from the Market.”  Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 69-72.

“The Antiquities Market, Sensationalized Textual Data, and Modern Forgeries.” Co-authored with Andrew Vaughn. Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 61-69.

“The Public Display of Forgeries: A Desideratum for Museums and Collections.”  Written with Heather Dana Davis Parker. Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 75.

“Who Wrote the Torah according to the Torah?” TheTorah.com (August 2017). https://www.thetorah.com/article/who-wrote-the-torah-according-to-the-torah

“Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period.” Pp. 176-197 in Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, eds. Matthew Rutz and Morag Kersel.  Joukowsky Institute Publication Series of Brown University, Oxbow Books, 2014.

“The Ivory Pomegranate: The Anatomy of a Probable Modern Forgery.” Pp. 238-252 in Epigraphy, Philology and the Hebrew Bible: Methodological Perspectives on Philological and Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of Jo Ann Hackett, eds. Jeremy M. Hutton and Aaron D. Rubin. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015.

“The Bullae of Baruch ben Neriah the Scribe and the Seal of Ma‘adanah Daughter of the King: Epigraphic Forgeries of the 20th Century.” Pp. *79-90 (English) in Eretz Israel 32: The Joseph Naveh Volume, eds. Joseph Aviram, Shmuel Ahituv, et al. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2016.

“The Putative Authenticity of the New ‘Jerusalem’ Papyrus Inscription: Methodological Caution as a Desideratum,” Pp. 321-330 in Rethinking Israel: Studies in the History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel in Honor of Israel Finkelstein, ed. Oded Lipschits. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2017.

The Forger Among Us: The Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scrolls and the Recent History of Epigraphic Forgeries

15 March 2020

The Forger Among Us:

The Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scrolls and the Recent History of Epigraphic Forgeries

Prof. Christopher Rollston (Ph.D. Johns Hopkins University)

rollston@gwu.edu

Dept. of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

George Washington University

             

On March 13, 2020, the Museum of the Bible held a symposium in Washington, D.C.  The focus of the symposium was the presentation of various laboratory tests (on the basis of physical characteristics, elemental and molecular analysis, chemical analyses; using, for example, FTIR analyses, XRF analyses, SEM-EDS analyses, etc.) performed on sixteen fragments, putatively of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are part of the Museum’s holdings.  The point-person for the laboratory tests was Colette Loll (of Georgetown University), founder and director of Art Fraud Insights, the firm responsible for the laboratory report (which is 212 pages long).  The hard-science team included (in addition to Colette Loll) Abigail Quandt (of the Walters Art Museum), Aaron Shugar (of the State University of New York), Rebecca Pollak (SAFA Senior Research Conservator), Jennifer Mass (Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture), and Thomas Kupiec (Founder of the Kupiec Group and CEO of ARL, Bio Pharma and DNA Solutions).  The respondents at the symposium (the symposium was entitled “A Journey for the Truth: Investigating the Recent Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments”) were, in order of presentations: Dr. Greg Bearman (Cal Tech), Dr. Christopher Rollston (George Washington University), Dr. Kipp Davis (Trinity Western University), Dr. Sidnie White Crawford (University of Nebraska and Princeton Theological Seminary), and Dr. Lawrence Schiffman (New York University).  Respondents were given access to the full laboratory report (i.e., all 212 pages) during the weeks prior to the symposium.   

              Dr. Jeff Kloha (Chief Curatorial Officer of the Museum of the Bible; Ph.D. University of Leeds; Kloha joined the Museum of the Bible in 2017) began the symposium with a brief welcome, and Dr. Michael Holmes (Director of the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative; Ph.D. Princeton Theological Seminary; Holmes joined the Museum in November 2014) provided a brief history of research on the “Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scroll Fragments” (including the fact that these “fragments” were said to be, in part or in whole, from the Kando family, that is, the family of Khalil Eskander Shahin, who was a broker and seller of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered during the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s).  Among the things that Kloha and Holmes indicated in their remarks was the fact that they fully accept the verdict of Art Fraud Insights: all sixteen Dead Sea Scroll fragments are actually modern forgeries, not ancient.  Based on the constellation of evidence (palaeographic, laboratory), it is (from my perspective, previously and also now) readily apparent that all sixteen of the Museum’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments are indeed modern forgeries.  This seemed to me to be the clear consensus of all of the respondents.

              The conclusions of Art Fraud Insights were preceded by prior laboratory tests (on a smaller selection of the Museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, tests which also suggested that these fragmentary materials were modern forgeries) and the assessments of various Biblical Scholars and Epigraphers (e.g., Dr. Kipp Davis, Dr. Arstein Justnes, Dr. Michael Langlois, among others).  Thirteen of these Dead Sea Scroll fragments had been published in a volume entitled Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection (eds. Emanuel Tov, Kipp Davis, and Robert Duke; Leiden: Brill, 2016, 236pp).  The morning of the symposium, a National Geographic article authored by Michael Greshko was published online (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/03/museum-of-the-bible-dead-sea-scrolls-forgeries/).

              It is important to put the Museum’s sixteen modern forgeries in a broader framework.  (1) First and foremost, it should be emphasized that textual forgeries have a very long history, going back to Ancient and Medieval times.  For example, the Famine Stele was an ancient Egyptian forgery (hailing from the Ptolemaic Period but purporting to come from the time of the Egyptian Old Kingdom), the Manishtushu Cruciform Monument was an ancient forgery (purporting to hail from the time of Sargon the Great’s son in the late 3rd millennium BCE, but in reality hailing from the Neo-Babylonian Period, some fifteen hundred years later), and the Donation of Constantine was a Medieval forgery (and in reality not from Constantine the Great, but a forgery from the Middle Ages which purported to be from Constantine the Great; for discussion of these, see Rollston, “Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period,” 2014, pp. 177-184, and the earlier literature cited there).  (2) Textual forgeries (in Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, etc.) also abounded during the late 19th century and the early 20th century, with the Shapira Forgeries (some on stone, some on pottery, and some on parchment), the Brazilian Phoenician Forgeries, and “the Messerschmidt Clay Forgeries” (http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?m=201311 ).  (3) Furthermore, during the final decades of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century, epigraphic forgeries continued to abound, with the Hebron Philistine Documents, the Moussaieff Ostraca, the Jehoash Inscription (all dealt with in Rollston 2003, Rollston 2004, Rollston 2005, as well as in some later articles of Rollston), the Ma’adanah Seal, the Baruch Bullae (both dealt with in Rollston 2016), the Ivory Pomegranate (dealt with in Rollston 2015), the Ya‘akov [James] Ossuary, the Jesus Wife Papyrus, the Jerusalem Papyrus (the latter two dealt with in Rollston 2017) being some of the most famous.  (4) And the list could go on.  But the point is that these forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments are part of a much broader phenomenon.  It is also important to mention that all of these forgeries of the past 150 years are connected with the Antiquities Market in some fashion. (5) The methods of forgers are varied, but can be fairly well ascertained without much difficulty.  Forgers have a multitude of tools at their disposal (see Rollston 2003, pp. 137-139, forgers can and do use the best of our lexica and grammars, the best of our epigraphic and palaeographic discussions, the best of our historical and cultural discussions.  (6) They also read our discussions of laboratory analyses (cf. Rollston 2003, pp. 182-191, for discussion of various protocols and procedures for laboratory tests, and the failings of some laboratory scientists as well), including the chemical composition of inks and patinas (and forgers will read this superb analysis by ArtFraudInsights, alas, and they will learn much from it so as to produce better forgeries on a variety of media).  And, of course, forgers can and do use ancient media (e.g., ancient potsherds, stones of Levantine quarry, ancient papyrus, ancient vellum; for fuller discussion, see Rollston 2003, pp. 138-139; Rollston 2004).  Indeed, only the most foolish of forgers would not use some ancient medium (e.g., with the hope that a carbon test on the medium may be performed and thus “authenticate” the inscription itself).  (7) And forgers have also (since at least the time of the Shapira Forgeries) attempted to create fake patinas (see Rollston 2003, pp. 183-186).  (8) Furthermore, modern forgers are also becoming quite adept at duping even some fairly good hard-scientists by salting things such as carbonized remains into their fake patinas (as was the case with the Jehoash Inscription; see Rollston 2003, pp. 183-186 et passim), and by using ancient carbonized remains (e.g., from the remains of beams burnt in antiquity) to make inks which can pass laboratory tests (dealt with especially in Rollston 2017, pp. 322-323).

              The motives of the forgers are varied.   Here are the ones which I have contended (in various publications, including Rollston 2003, pp. 191-193; Rollston 2014, pp. 176-177) are most common during the past 150 years, but many (if not all) are also part of the ancient world in some fashion. Some have suggested (or assumed) that the primary motive for forgers is economic.  True enough, venality is certainly a motive through all time.  However, I am confident that a larger number of motivations can be posited, based on known forgeries: (1) Venality (i.e., greed); (2) Hubris (i.e., the forger’s belief that he or she is too good to make mistakes, detectable or otherwise); (3) “Sour Grapes” (e.g., of a doctoral student purged from a program, or a veteran scholar who feels he or she has been slighted by another scholar); (4) Professional Rivalry (e.g., the production of a forgery which confirms something which said scholar has previously said in print); (5) Pranks (i.e., an outright joke); (6) Professional/Personal Aggrandizement (e.g., fame for being associated with some stunning new inscription from the market); (7) Religion and Politics (especially the desire to prey on the sincere beliefs, hopes, and fears of good people).  I have discussed all these in greater detail in various places through the years (again, Rollston 2003; Rollston 2004; Rollston 2014).

As an ancillary note, and as a modus operandi of forgers: namely, forgers of, dealers of, and owners of forged antiquities often seek out scholars whom they believe will “authenticate” their finds.  Along these lines, forgers, dealers, and owners know which scholars most frequently “authenticate” inscriptions (including some forgeries) from the Antiquities Market and they especially seek out the opinions of those scholars (because they want their own inscriptions to be authenticated). 

Similarly, forgers, dealers, and owners will often approach scholars whom they know do not work with epigraphic remains, but are rather “text scholars” (i.e., scholars who mostly work with edited texts rather than the actual physical objects…and so these scholars do not intimately know the look and feel of something which is actually ancient). 

It is important to mention that although some have suggested that scholars are never the culprits, the facts on the ground demonstrate otherwise.  Note, in this connection, the famous forgery published by Princeton Professor Coleman-Norton (dealt with in Rollston 2003, pp. 192-193), a forger who was outed by his own student, Bruce Metzger.

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              The Forger of the Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scroll Forgeries: With this basic summary of some of the early history of forgeries, I should like to return, in earnest, to the forger of the Museum of the Bible’s forgeries.  I shall be fairly forthright here.  Here is a profile of the forger: I believe that the forger of these Dead Sea Scrolls forged fragments is a trained scholar in our field, with access to actual ancient scrolls.  I believe that the forger forged them during the course of a few months, or more likely, a couple years (this also accounts for some of the variation in the script).  I believe that venality (indeed, outright and blatant greed) is a primary motivation (literally, netting the forger millions of dollars for these Museum of the Bible forgeries), but greed is not the only motivation.  I believe the scholar of these forgeries is particularly hubristic, and assumed he (or she) could fool all other scholars (and also probably delighted in this assumption).  I do not think that these were forged as some sort of a joke (as was the case in the Coleman-Norton forgery and in the case of the Hebron Philistine Documents). Clearly, I believe that the forger is amoral.  Also, I believe that the forger worked primarily alone, but could have included a paid friend or associate who had at least a high-school level knowledge of chemistry (these forgeries are not sophisticated enough to have included the assistance of a trained scholar in chemistry). 

              Also, I believe that a good investigative journalist should be capable, given the resources (e.g., several months of compensated work) of a good newspaper or learned society, should be able to discover the identity of the forger.  I hope that the weight of all of the relevant national and international laws is brought forth against this forger (although, as a realist with regard to conviction rates, I suspect that the most that can be hoped is that the identity of the forger will be discovered).

              Some final reflections: The Museum of the Bible (and its precursors, associated entities, etc.) engaged in some lamentable and egregious actions, as well as lapses of professional ethics, some of which were also breaches of the law (hence the US Dept. of Justice case, of course).  This cannot, and should not, be forgotten (for all sorts of reasons).  It was bad, and it was wrong (I’m thinking here of, among other things, the purchase of many objects, including cuneiform tablets, from conflict zones in the Middle East).  And the Museum has paid a price for those actions, not only in the serious tarnishing of the reputation of the Museum and the surrender of pillaged objects and inscriptions, but also substantial financial penalties from the US Dept. of Justice.  But I have also long said, and long believed, in the possibility and importance of true penitence and the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.  Indeed, I do believe in the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, on a personal scale as well as for organizations, learned societies, and even nations. 

              So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think in this case of these forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments now in the custody of the Museum of the Bible, and some of the broader implications.  These were purchased with the understanding that they were known prior to the enactment of the “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – 1970” (e.g., that they came from the Kando family and so the chain of custody was secure).  Frankly, I believe those advising the Museum at the time of the purchase were (at the very least) naïve, but that’s another story for another time.  The thing that I wish to emphasize here is that the Museum of the Bible ultimately came clean: They rapidly acknowledged that these scroll fragments might be modern forgeries and that the lore (and documents) associated with their origins might be a fabrication (indeed, I have long said that I put zero credence in any “statement about the antiquity” or “documentation” that is shown to me by an owner, collector, or dealer, as they have so many reasons to prevaricate).  Then, the Museum funded the very extensive laboratory tests (I have no idea what this must have cost, as the laboratory reports were numerous, conducted by first-tier scientists, and are reported in a tome that exceeds 200 pages….the final sum for all this work must be in the five figures, and I would not be surprised if it was in the low six figures).  And then, to top it all off, major people in the current senior leadership at the Museum (e.g., Jeff Kloha and Michael Holmes….and many others, I believe as well) have embraced the results of the laboratory report: All sixteen of these Dead Sea Scroll fragments are modern forgeries.  I would imagine that this was, and is, a tough pill to swallow.  And frankly, I’m impressed that they publically and unambiguously stated that they accept this conclusion.  Indeed, I’m impressed.  I’m not surprised, as I have come to know Jeff Kloha and Michael Holmes some during the past few years.  These are honest people, good and kind people, and smart scholars.  Frankly, I have come to like and appreciate them. 

              One final point: I have believed for a long time (and said in print long ago, after a comment to me from mentor and friend, the late Frank Moore Cross), museums should have forgery exhibits so as to raise the awareness of the public and of scholars about the problem of modern forgeries (see Rollston and Parker 2005).  The Israel Museum did this a number of years ago with regard to the Shapira Forgeries.  It was a marvelous exhibit, drew a lot of attention to the problem, did a lot of good, and my earnest hope is that the Museum of the Bible will allocate space, as a signal of its further desire to right wrongs, for an exhibit of these forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments.  And, along those same lines, since many museums have modern forgeries in their holdings (including the Smithsonian and the Met), perhaps the Museum of the Bible could work with such museums to produce a first-class exhibit about the problem of the antiquities market and the problem of modern forgeries.  That’s an exhibit I would love to see.  It’s unusual, it’s important…and, of course, the Museum does have the forgeries.

Select Bibliography

Rollston, Christopher A. “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests.” Maarav 10 (2003): 135-193.

______.  “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic.” Maarav 11 (2004): 57-79.

______.  “Navigating the Epigraphic Storm: A Palaeographer Reflects on Inscriptions from the Market.”  Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 69-72.

Rollston, Christopher; Heather Dana Davis Parker.  “The Public Display of Forgeries: A Desideratum for Museums and Collections.”  Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 75.

Rollston, Christopher.  “Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period.” Pp. 176-197 in Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, eds. Matthew Rutz and Morag Kersel.  Joukowsky Institute Publication Series of Brown University, Oxbow Books, 2014.

______“The Ivory Pomegranate: The Anatomy of a Probable Modern Forgery.” Pp. 238-252 in Epigraphy, Philology and the Hebrew Bible: Methodological Perspectives on Philological and Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of Jo Ann Hackett, eds. Jeremy M. Hutton and Aaron D. Rubin. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015.

______.  “The Bullae of Baruch ben Neriah the Scribe and the Seal of Ma‘adanah Daughter of the King: Epigraphic Forgeries of the 20th Century.” Pp. *79-90 in Eretz Israel 32: The Joseph Naveh Volume, eds. Joseph Aviram, Shmuel Ahituv, et al. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2016.

______.  “The Putative Authenticity of the New ‘Jerusalem’ Papyrus Inscription: Methodological Caution as a Desideratum,” Pp. 321-330 in Rethinking Israel: Studies in the History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel in Honor of Israel Finkelstein, ed Oded Lipschits.  Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2017.

The Bible, a New Hebrew Inscription from Jerusalem, and a High Official of Judah

1 April 2019

The Bible, a New Hebrew Inscription from Jerusalem, and a High Official of Judah

Christopher A. Rollston, George Washington University (rollston@gwu.edu)
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Introduction:

During October 2018, a particularly important piece of ancient Judean officialdom was found: an Old Hebrew bulla with the name of a high official. The press reports about this important inscription began to appear in late March and early April of 2019 (see the link to the New York Times article at the conclusion of my blog post). This is a fairly striking find, and so I especially applaud those connected with this find and the careful press reports about it (e.g., Excavators Yuval Gadot and Yiftah Shalev as well as Epigrapher Anat Mendel Geberovich) for the sober historical approach which they have taken. I consider this cautiousness to be a model for the field, and I find myself (to use a phrase of affirmation that I first heard from the late Frank Moore Cross) to be in happy agreement with the statements that Gadot, Shalev, and Mendel Geberovich have made regarding this find. At this juncture, I shall turn to some of my reflections on this bulla.

Synopsis of the Details:

I. The reading of the bulla, the palaeographic date, and its archaeological context.
The clay bulla consists of two registers. The first register reads: LNtnmlk (“Belonging to Nathan-Melek”) and the second register reading: ‘bd hmlk (“Servant of the King”). The reading is certain, as all of the letters are clear. I would date the script to the mid-7th century BCE (ca. 675-625 BCE). Indeed, I would be quite disinclined to push the date down into the early 6th century, primarily because the morphology and stance of several of the letters (e.g, nun, lamed, and especially the kap) reflect the hallmark features of the mid-7th century Old Hebrew script, not the further developments that are part of the Old Hebrew script of the late 7th or early 6th centuries BCE. It is also worth noting and emphasizing that the script of this bulla is definitively that of the Old Hebrew script. Note, for example, that the curvature at the terminal portions of the nun, mem, and kap are diagnostic markers of the Old Hebrew script (and as such, they can be distinguished from the contemporary Phoenician and Aramaic scripts as well as the daughter scripts hailing from those script traditions). It is also worth emphasizing that this bulla is aniconic (i.e., without imagery), something that is a standard feature of Old Hebrew seals (and thus also bullae) from the time after the reforms of Hezekiah (reigned ca. 715-687 BCE) and Josiah (reigned ca: 640-609 BCE). Significantly, this inscription was found on a scientific excavation in Jerusalem (namely, the City of David). Moreover, this inscription was found in the remains of a large, First Temple Period administrative building. Thus, it hails from officialdom.

II. The Personal Name Nathan-Melek: Meaning and Biblical Reference

The name “Nathan-Melek” means “The King has given.” That is, ntn is a Hebrew verb in the perfect tense, and mlk is the common noun “king.” Martin Noth’s discussion of this personal name remains current (Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1928], 21, 118, 170). Furthermore, as Noth correctly states, the word “Melek” is to be understood as a means of referring to God. Thus, this personal name is a means of referring to the benevolence of God. As such it is analogous to personal names such as Nathaniel (“El has given”) and Natanyahu (Yahweh has given). Of particular significance is that there is only one reference in the entire Hebrew Bible (2 Kgs 23:11) to someone with this name: Nathan-Melek a sārîs (meaning: royal attendant, or perhaps eunuch; on this see Nili Sacher Fox, In the Service of the King: Officialdom in Ancient Israel and Judah [Cincinnati: HUC Press, 2000], 196-203) in the court of King Josiah of Judah. In short, according to 2 King, a certain Nathan-Melek was a high official and was mentioned in the context of the great religious reforms of King Josiah (for the similar reforms of Hezekiah, see 2 Kings 18:3-8, etc.). Here is the fuller context of that reference in Kings: “Josiah….removed the horses which the kings of Judah had given to Shamash (the Sun God), (that is, those placed) at the entrance to the House of Yahweh (i.e., the Temple in Jerusalem) by the chamber of Nathan-Melek, the sārîs, which was in the precincts (reading with NRSV). And he burned the chariots of the (aforementioned) Shamash with fire” (2 Kings 23:11). It should be remembered that in the ancient Near East (e.g., Mesopotamia) Shamash (literally: “sun”) was often connected with horses and a chariot, in essence symbolizing the travel of the (sun) God Shamash through the sky each day. Quite obviously, the presence of the chariots of the Sun (Shamash) in the Judean Temple was understood as syncretism by King Josiah (and as such was to be removed).

III. The Title ‘bd hmlk (or ‘bd + Royal Name) “Servant of the King.”

Significantly, the term ‘bd hmlk (or ‘bd + Royal Name) is definitely not a way to designate a slave (although the term ‘bd alone can and normally does signify this), but rather it is the title of a high royal official. It is nicely attested in Northwest Semitic inscriptions. For example, a Hebrew seal was found during the excavations of 1932 at Miṣpah (Tell en-Naṣbeh) in Tomb 19 and reads: “ly’znyhw ‘bd hmlk” (“Belonging to Ya’azanyahu, servant of the king”; Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals; Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences, Israel Exploration Society, Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, 1997, 52 [#8]). Similarly, Lachish Ostracon 3 (line 19) refers to a certain “Ṭbyhw ‘bd hmlk” (“Ṭobiyahu, servant of the king”; Frank Cross 1985). Along the same lines, a seal was found at Megiddo in the 1904 excavations and reads: “lšm‘ ‘bd yrb‘m” (“Belonging to Šema, servant of Jeroboam”; Avigad and Sass 1997, 49 [#2], that is, with the personal name of the king of Israel stated (rather than simply giving the title). This same title (i.e, ‘bd + hmlk or ‘bd + Royal Name) is also attested in various additional Northwest Semitic dialects (e.g., Avigad and Sass 1997, 322 [#859] from an Ammonite tomb; Avigad and Sass 1997, 322 [#860] from Tall Umeiri in the Madaba Plains; Avigad and Sass 1997, 388 [#1050]; (Avigad and Sass 1997, 389-390 [#1051] from Tell el-Kheleifeh. In addition to the epigraphic evidence, there are a number of attestations of this title (or a related title) in the Hebrew Bible as well (e.g., 2 Sam 18:29; 19:29; 2 Kgs 5:6; 2 Kgs 22:12; 2 Chr 34:20; 2 Kgs 25:8; cf. also 1 Sam 21:8; 1 Sam 29:3; 2 Chr 13:6, etc.; for discussion and earlier literature for the biblical and epigraphic materials, see Fox 2000, 53-60).

IV. Sealing Practices

Before drawing conclusions about the possible identification of the Nathan-Melek of the new bulla and the Nathan-Melek of the Hebrew Bible, some reference to the usage of stamps seals in the Iron Age Levant is useful. Namely, seals were part and parcel of the economic and legal activities of the people of the ancient Near Eastern world, particularly the elites. Seals would be used in cases, for example, of the purchase or sale of something of substantial value (e.g., land, precious metals), or in the case of a marriage, or divorce, or adoption (etc.). Within Iron Age Israel, Judah, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Phoenicia, Philistia, and Syria, stamps seals were very commonly used. Many seals have been found on scientific excavations in these regions. Most of these seals are quite round and have about the same diameter as a small coin (although they are thicker than coins). Most were made of attractive, and sometimes rare, stones (incised with a sharp incising tool, made of metal). Most seals have holes drilled through them so that a string (“cord”) could be attached to them. Some were attached in antiquity to a ring, and on rare occasions (such as tomb contexts), the seal and ring are found together. Seals with words inscribed on them are called “Epigraphic Seals.” Seals without words inscribed on them are called “Anepigraphic Seals.” Seals with imagery (e.g., animals, people) on them are called “Iconic Seals.” Seals without imagery are called “Aniconic Seals.” Some seals have words and imagery, some just imagery, some just words. Seals are often divided into “lines.” Each line is referred to as a “register.”
There are some particularly nice references to seals and sealing practices in the Hebrew Bible. Among the most detailed descriptions is the one contained in the book of Jeremiah, a prophet of the late First Temple and early Exilic Periods. Within this biblical text (Jeremiah 32), the prophet is said to have purchased a field from a kinsman of his, in the tenth year of Judean King Zedekiah (ca. 587 BCE, just as Jerusalem was about to fall to King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon). Jeremiah is said to have signed a deed of purchase, in the presence of witnesses. There were two copies of this deed (both probably written on papyrus), one the “open copy” and one the “sealed copy.” The open copy would normally be retained for rapid reference and would often have been kept by the purchaser (or a close associate). The sealed copy, however, would normally be archived, often in the house of a scribe, or in an archive of a palace or temple. The sealed copy was the binding legal copy and would only be opened if and when there was some reason to verify in a decisive legal fashion the fact or the nature of the agreement (e.g., purchase, or sale, or marriage, or adoption, or divorce, etc.). In any case, the sealed copy would be rolled up or folded up, and a string would be wrapped around it and then a small clump of wet clay would be attached carefully and precisely to the string, and then the parties to the agreement would press their seals into the clumps of wet clay (the result would be an impression of the seal in the clay, the impressed clumps of clay are referred to as “bullae,” sing: “bulla”). The seals would serve as proof of the event (e.g., purchase, sale, marriage, divorce, adoption). Note that seals are normally incised (i.e., made) in mirror image, so that when they are impressed into the clay, the resulting image is positive (i.e., in the correct orientation). Within the narrative of Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah gives both the sealed copy and the open copy to Baruch ben Neriah for safe keeping.

V. Nathan-Melek the servant of the King and Nathan Melek the Sārîs

Finally, some reference is in order regarding the possible identification of Nathan-Melek the Sārîs (2 Kgs 23:11) and Nathan-Melek ‘bd hmlk of this Old Hebrew bulla. (1) First and foremost, it must be emphasized that this personal name is rare. Indeed, as noted, it is attested in the Hebrew Bible for just one person. (2) Second, the figure Nathan-Melek in the Hebrew Bible is connected with King Josiah (r. ca. 640-609 BCE) of the second half of the 7th century BCE, and this is also the most convincing palaeographic date (and the archaeological context as well). (3) Third, the Nathan-Melek of the Bible and of this bulla both have royal titles. (4) This data converges to make it probable that the figure of the Bible and the figure of this bulla are one and the same. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that the two titles are different (although arguably someone referred to as a sārîs could also be referred to as an ‘bd hmlk, or conversely, could be understood to have risen to the position of an ‘bd hmlk). Ultimately, therefore, I would contend that although it is not absolutely certain that the biblical Nathan-Melek and the epigraphic Old Hebrew Nathan-Melek are the same, I would consider it most likely that we are indeed talking about one and the same. Of course, fate can sometimes be cruel, and sometimes the most convincing of assumptions proves to be false. Thus, because we do not have a patronymic for Nathan-Melek in the Bible or on the bulla, and because the titles are not identical (cf. 1 Sam 8:15; 2 Kgs 24:12), certitude remains just beyond reach. But, as for me, I am entirely comfortable considering it most likely, or virtually certain, that 2 Kings 23:11 and this bulla refer to the same person.

Addendum: Added at 3:50 p.m. on 1 April 2019: It is useful for me to mention that because of the practice of patronymy and the practice of papponymy, someone might wish to contend that this bulla is not that of biblical Nathan-Melek, but rather that of his son (or grandson). Also…in terms of an additional PN that contains some related data, see also Elimelech (my God is King”) in the book of Ruth.

The ‘Isaiah Bulla’ and the Putative Connection with Biblical Isaiah: 3.0

26 February 2018

The ‘Isaiah Bulla’ and the Putative Connection with Biblical Isaiah: A Case Study in Propospography

By Christopher Rollston, George Washington University (rollston@gwu.edu)

The Old Hebrew bulla excavated by Dr. Eilat Mazar, and published in Biblical Archaeology Review (March-May 2018) in an article entitled _Is this the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature(pages 65-73, notes on page 92) is of much interest and certainly merits substantive and substantial discussion.
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Prolegomenon. It is perhaps useful in this connection to reference certain components of the time-line, as things have developed fairly rapidly, and I’ve been trying to carve out a few hours during the past few days to discuss this interesting find (hence this third blog on the bulla). During the afternoon of February 21, 2018, I was contacted by National Geographic to provide my reflections on the press release about an article on the “Yesha’yahu Bulla, an article slated to be published online at midnight that evening. Thus, after clearing my desk some, and after reading closely the press release, I wrote up my brief reflections about the need for caution regarding the assumption that this bulla was made from a seal of Isaiah the Prophet. I sent this off to National Geographic within about two hours of the original request. Biblical Archaeology Review published their article (i.e., the editio princeps) on February 21, 2018, and various news-outlets, of course, subsequently released their articles, including National Geographic. A number of my statements were included in that story (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/prophet-isaiah-jerusalem-seal-archaeology-bible/). I found the National Geographic story to be very useful, especially since most or all other news-outlets seem to have presumed that this bulla was probably (or was certainly) that of Isaiah the Prophet. Around 8:30 a.m. on February 22, 2018, prior to heading off to teach, I posted the full version of my comments to my blog (http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?p=796), in which I mentioned (as I had to National Geographic) my core concerns, namely, the root yš‘ is a very productive root for personal names (with around twenty people in the Hebrew Bible with names derived from that root, thus, revealing that there many people with the name “Isaiah,” or some similar name based on the same root, in Judah during any given time; as well as my concern about the absence of an alep (which is essential for understanding this to be the word for prophet); my concern about the presence of a presumed internal yod mater lectionis (in light of the dearth of internal matres lectionis in Hebrew inscriptions of the late 8th and early 7th centuries BCE and in light of the fact the Lachish Letter 3.20 does *not* have the mater); my concern about the absence of the article (as in the majority of occurrences in ancient Hebrew of the word “prophet,” it is linguistically definite); as well as a notation about the fact that there are a number of proper nouns in Hebrew that begin with the root letters nun and bet. Mazar’s article anticipated some of these criticisms, and her article uses the phrasing “may” be the bulla of Isaiah the Prophet, but the thrust of the article is about the prophetic figure. In any case, a day later, that is, at ca. 1:00 p.m. on February 23, 2018, I went live with a second post on this bulla, fleshing out some of my suggestions in my first blog (of February 22nd), including and especially the various possibilities for the letters nun, bet, yod (nby) of the third register (http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?p=801). Now, at this time (February 26, 2018), I here posting some additional details about this bulla, especially regarding the three letters on the third register, heavily incorporating data from my previous two blog posts. Note that this third blog post is the basis for a forthcoming article in a traditional publication venue (i.e., a print publication, rather than just a blog).

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Discussion of Bulla
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Material: Impressed Clay.

Condition of Bulla: Partially Broken.

Reading of Bulla: First Register: Partially broken, fragmentary iconograhic element; Second Register: L-yš‘yh[w]; Third Register: nby. Note the absence of bn “son of” (but note that this morpheme is sometimes absent from patronymics in the epigraphic record).

Thus, the bulla reads “Yešayahu, nby”

NB: The word that follows the first personal name on a seal (and, thus, a bulla) is normally: a patronymic, a gentilic (descriptor), or a title.
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Date: this inscription putatively dates to the 8th century or the early 7th century. That is, I would emphasize that the script is the script of the late 8th or early 7th century BCE, and there is no way to be more precise than that. And, of course, the archaeological context is not such that the date can be stated to be only the 8th century. Ultimately, a date in the late 8th century is permissible, but so is a date in the early 7th century.
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Potential Problems with understanding nby on the third register as prophet, that is, potential problems with assuming that the third register is to be understood as reading: nby[’]:

The fact that an alep is not present, or preserved, after the yod is of critical importance. Without it, we do not have the word for prophet. With it, we would not be conversing about this…because if there were an alep there, then we would have the word prophet (or a verbal or nominative based on that same root). But, alas, we don’t have it, hence the necessity of this conversation (and I do not find it convincing to contend that because of the, especially later, quiescent nature of the alep, it simply wasn’t written on this bulla; after all, we have it present in many Iron Age inscriptions, including in the very word for prophet in Lachish 3:20). I have essentially noted all of this previously but also emphasize it here as a point of departure. Ultimately, this entire conversation (about wanting to read the word prophet here, even though we don’t have a critically important letter that must be present to make the case with certainty), reminds me of the previous attempts to contend that he broken Hebrew seal with the letters “yzbl” must refer to Queen Jezebel (I deal with those analogous assumptions in an article entitled “Prosopography and the YZBL Seal” in IEJ 59 [2009]: 86-91). That’s not the only possible reading of that seal; similarly, reading “prophet” on this bulla is not the only possible reading here.

Furthermore, the preponderance of the occurrences of the word for prophet are definite (either via the usage of the article, or via the presence of a pronominal suffix, or in a construct chain in which the nomen rectum is definite). I have noted all of this in the previous posts, but emphasize it here as well. And it is also worth emphasizing that the epigraphic occurrence of the word prophet (h-nb’) in Lachish 3:20 conforms with this pattern. In any case, as I have noted, the absence of the article here does not mean that this word cannot be the word for prophet, but it merits attention nonetheless, as it is concerning. Furthermore, after noticing that Eilat Mazar’s article suggests (e.g., in the accompanying drawing) that the article (i.e., the hey) could be reconstructed at the end of the preceding line, I would emphasize that I find that very, very difficult to accept. There is simply no room at the end of the previous line for that letter (note that the Old Hebrew letter hey normally takes up a fair amount of horizontal space). Anat Mendel-Geberovich has indicated to me that she also believes that there is not sufficient space for the letter hey at the end of the preceding line.

Moreover, as I mentioned in the previous blog posts, if this word on the bulla is the word “prophet” (i.e, if someone were to assume that the alep were really present and that we have the word for prophet), the presence of a yod mater lectionis is thus different from the attested spelling of this word in epigraphic Hebrew, namely, Lachish Letter 3, line twenty (an inscription that dates to the early 6th century, a time period during which we see even more internal matres lections). ). Moreover, as I also mentioned in my previous posts, although we do have internal matres lectionis in Old Hebrew inscriptions, beginning in the late eighth century, it is rare (for discussion and bibliography, see “Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 344 [2006]: 47-74, especially pages 61-66). Ultimately, because we do not have the yod in the Lachish Ostracon, it could be suggested that this weakens the case for this being the word prophet in this new bulla (and, as noted, the absence of the alep is a major obstacle).

Or again, as I have mentioned in my previous posts, it is also the case that the Hebrew names are based on Hebrew roots, of course, and the root yš‘ (yod, shin, ‘ayin) is the basis not just for the name of Isaiah the prophet, but for almost twenty different people in the Bible (from various periods). And this name persists deeply into the Second Temple Period as well, with at least a dozen attestations (see, for example, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2002, p. 180). Thus, during any given period, there were likely a number of people running around in Judah, and the city of Jerusalem, who had the name Isaiah (or a form thereof, based on the same Hebrew root).
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Nevertheless, it seems that in spite of the absence of the critically important alep (etc.), and in spite of the absence of an article, the presence of the yod, and the prevalence of the PN “Isaiah,” some have contended that this bulla is that (or most likely that) of the prophet Isaiah. And most have argued this because they believe that about the only reasonable understanding of the letters nby is to restore an alep and read the word “prophet.”
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Before proceeding, I would emphasize (and reiterate) in this connection that those proposing this are presupposing the yod is an internal mater lectionis and that there is sufficient space after the yod for an additional letter.
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It is useful, therefore, for me to reference again (while also augmenting my previous posts at times) some of the various additional possibilities that must be considered for nby. Here are a few options:

(1) The name Nbyt (attested as a personal name, often contended to be a gentilic of sorts, in Genesis 25:13). Such a proposal would suggest that the yod is an internal mater lectionis and that there is sufficient space after the yod for an additional letter. In this case, the word would arguably be a patronymic.

(2) The name Nbṭ (i.e, with the final consonant a ṭet). This personal name is attested within the Hebrew Bible (e.g. 1 Kgs 11:26) as well as in Old South Arabic personal names (see (see M. Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung, Beiträge zur Wissenschaft vom Alten und Neuen Testament, III, 10. Stuttgart, 1928 [reprint: Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1966], pages 36, 186). This name seems to be based on a root that means “bring to light.” Such a proposal (i.e., for this word) would suggest that the yod is an internal mater lectionis and that there is sufficient space after the yod for an additional letter (note that although the formation in the Bible is based on this root, the form on the bulla would need to reflect a different formation so as to account for the yod as a mater lectionis; thus, in this case, one could posit a qattîl or a qātîl. For these formations, see Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990, section 5.4, page 89). In this case, the word would arguably be a patronymic (as in the previous case).

(3) The name Nabil is also something that is plausible, a name that arguably has a core semantic domain of meanings such as “noble,” “wise,” “light,” or “flame.” This proposal would suggest that there is room for a letter after the bulla’s yod. Note that there is, of course, a very famous pun (cf. the phenomenon of nominal pejorative equivoces) in the Bible (1 Sam 25:25) on a personal name “Nabal” (I dealt with this name in “Ad Nomen Argumenta: Personal Names as Pejorative Puns in Ancient Texts,” in the volume entitled In the Shadow of Bezalel: Aramaic, Biblical, and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of Bezalel Porten, ed. Alejandro F. Botta. Leiden: Brill, 2013, pages 367-386; in that article I follow James Barr, with regard to this personal name). In the case of this personal name, (especially) the qattîl formation or (perhaps) the qātîl formulation, would arguably account for a yod mater lectionis (Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990, section 5.4, page 89). In this case, the word would arguably be a patronymic (as in the previous cases).

(4) The root Nbz. This word is attested in Imperial Aramaic (see Hoftijzer and Jongeling, Dictionary of the Northwest-Semitic Inscriptions, Leiden: Brill, sv Nbz) and seems to mean something such as “document,” “receipt.” In this case, as with the previous possibilities, it would be presupposed that there is room after the yod of the bulla for an additional letter, and in the case of this word, the yod would be understood as a mater lectionis, and the word could be understood as a title, something such as “recorder” (on the subject of foreign words and loan words in Northwest Semitic, see works such as Stephen A. Kaufman, The Akkadian Influences on Aramaic (Assyriological Studies 19), Chicago: University of Chicago 1974; Paul V. Mankowski, Akkadian Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew, Harvard Semitic Studies 47, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2000). Of course, in the case of a title, I would also prefer for there to be a definite article (hey), since we often get it with titles. But since some are willing to propose that the article is not necessary before the word “prophet,” then I think it is also fair to state that it could be nbz as a title (or, less likely, a personal name), with a yod mater (and someone could propose that it follows a formation such as a qattîl or a qātîl. For these formations, see again Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990, section 5.4, page 89). I should emphasize that I might in this case contend that the title could have entered Hebrew through Akkadian (something that would not be sui generis in Hebrew, of course). Ultimately, I do not think that this would be the most compelling restoration (i.e., of a zayin), but, again, there is a remote possibility, depending on the kind of formation that someone might propose.

(5) There are a number of personal names (in various languages, including Hebrew) that are built upon the theorphic element Nb- (i.e, the God Nabu). It is possible that the bulla’s nb is this theophoric element, but space constraints would perhaps militate against this (as the non-theophoric component would require at least two or three letters and there is not sufficient space for that), as would perhaps also a putative Judean having such a name in the late 8th century or early 7th century, as would perhaps also, of course, the presence of a yod on the bulla (but…the yod might not be a problem, if, for example, it were part of a verbal or nominal modifier). Of course, the spelling of this DN would normally include a waw. Note also in this connection that double names are a well-known phenomenon in the Semitic world, as well as later in the Greco-Roman world (and thus one could conceivably argue that the first name is the Hebrew name and the second name is an Akkadian name for the same person; cf. of course, later cases such as Hadassah = Esther; Daniel = Belteshazzar; Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah = Shadrack, Meshach, Abednego [Abednebo[; Saul = Paul, etc.). Again, I am disinclined to embrace this possibility, but it is theoretically possible.

(6) The GN (geographic noun) “Nob” comes readily to mind and this famous biblical GN (e.g., 1 Sam 21:2, et passim) is one of those I had in mind in my initial post with my reference to proper-noun possibilities (hence the choice of the term proper “noun” rather than “personal name” in that initial post). In this case, it might be possible to contend that the word Nby of the bulla is a gentilic, meaning something such as “Nobite.” Moreover, Lawson Younger has indeed suggested that understanding Nby as a gentilic (e.g., “Nobite,” and thus “Isaiah the Nobite”) is something he considers quite appealing; and Nathaniel Greene has independently indicated to me that he is inclined to view it this way. Furthermore, Nadav Na’aman has independently indicated to me that he embraces this understanding, and he has noted the name Nobay (Nobite) in Nehemiah 10:20 (cf. also the spelling in LXX). And Younger, Greene, and Na’aman have (cumulatively) also referenced three seals from the antiquities market in this regard and one from Lachish (see Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals, Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1997, #379; #227; #693; and from an excavation, #530 [Lachish]). Of these, I would emphasize that #530 is from an excavation and so it is the one that can best carry the weight, that is, be considered the best evidence for the presence of this reading in the epigraphic record. In addition Na’aman has drawn my attention to H. Rechenmacher’s Althebraische Personennamen, Munster 2012, 179. In this case, “Nobite” would be a gentilic (rather than a patronymic or a title). Obviously, in this case the yod could be viewed as a final mater (and these are nicely attested as early as the late 9th and early 8th centuries BCE), but, as P. Kyle McCarter has emphasized (personal communication) the yod probably represents -at, only later developing to final î. Furthermore, as Kyle McCarter has also emphasized, if this is a straightforward gentilic, we would also want the article here “the Nobay,” “the Nobite.” Thus, McCarter has indicated that his preference is to understand this as an original gentilic (ay) which had become a personal name (as also with the father of Zephaniah, “Cushi”, Zeph 1:1), thus, yielding for this bulla a standard patronymic, “Isaiah (son of) Nobay.” And because the father of the prophet Isaiah’s is named “Amoz” (Isa 1:1), this is clearly not a bulla of Isaiah the prophet (cf. the #379, from the market, which does have bn before nby).
And the elegance of this is that there is no presumption that there is a letter after the yod and there is no need to resort to an internal matres lectionis to account for the yod. Note in this connection that Lawrence Mykytiuk has indeed mentioned to me the fact that he is not convinced there is enough space for a letter after the yod. I have similar concerns.

(7) Within the corpus of ancient Hebrew (biblical and epigraphic), a final yod (or alep) can function as a hypocoristic element (with the hypocoristic signifying a DN). This yod was arguably consonantal at first, rather than being a pure mater lectionis. As for the final yod, note, gor example, ’ḥzy (Reisner Samaria Ostracon 25:3; meaning something such as “DN has seized”), bgy (EnGedi 2:6; arguably meaning something such as “DN has enriched,” so F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp J.J. M. Roberts, C.L. Seow, R.E. Whitaker, Hebrew Inscriptions, New Haven: Yale, 2005, 596), m‘šy (Arad 22:4; meaning something such as “work of DN”), ‘wpy (Jer 40:8; Khirbet el-Qom), šby (Yavneh Yam 1, end of line 7 and beginning of 8, meaning something such as “DN has returned”), and bqy (1 Chr 5:31; 6:36; an ostracon from Jerusalem, arguably from a geminate root or a medial w/y root). In addition, reference can also be made to ḥgy (Gen 46:16; Numb 26:15; and with epigraphic attestations, for example, in Hebrew, Phoenician, Old South Arabic, as well as later Arabic, and often understood to be a way of referring to someone who was born on a festal day), and also yš‘y (1 Chr 2:31, et passim; this being arguably a shortened form of yš‘yhw, but note also the Phoenician form of this personal name with an alep hyporistic and thus certainly not a Yahwistic theophoric). Thus, with that evidence in mind, and now as for the bulla’s third register reading of nby, it is useful to note that there is a Northwest Semitic geminate root nbb (also attested in the Bible, but with some etymologies that might not necessarily yield a great personal name), a Northwest Semitic middle waw root (attested in the Bible and the epigraphic corpus with the meaning “prosper,” or “rain abundantly,” and so something that would yield a good personal name), and a Northwest Semitic middle yod root meaning “fruit,” “give fruit” (and thus something that would yield a good personal name; cf. Isa 57:19, et passim; cf. also Mal 1:12). And, furthermore, it is possible that this putative gentilic in Neh 10:20 is actually to be connected with this root. In this case, the yod of the bulla’s nby (and thus also the Bible’s) would be a hypocoristic; and in this case there would be no need to restore a letter after the yod, and there is no need to resort to understanding the yod as an internal mater lectionis (something that, as noted, is difficult to have so early, as they are so rare in the late 8th or early 7th century). And, of course, as noted, the latter two roots mentioned in this paragraph would yield good personal names. The elegance of numbers 6 and 7 (in terms of not needing to resort to any special pleading) is particularly attractive. And, of course, in this case, the second name is a patronymic (cf. #379, from the market, which does have bn before nby). And because the name of the father of the prophet Isaiah is given as “Amoz” (Isa 1:1) this is clearly not a bulla of Isaiah the prophet.

(8) Furthermore, if one were to contend that the middle waw or middle yod root above is the operative one in this name, one could also argue (if someone believed that there was room after the yod for an additional letter) that the yod of the bulla is actually followed by a hey (although that would not necessarily be required) and that this is a PN (based on the middle waw or middle yod roots) and it is to be understood as something such as “Yahweh has given fruit” or “Yahweh has granted abundantly.”

(9) And there are additional options (e.g., a 1cs pronominal suffix on a verbal or nominal consisting of nb), which I will discuss in the print version of the article on this bulla (including, for the sake of thoroughness, discussion of the p > b phenomenon that is attested in epigraphic Old Hebrew, among other places). I do not think that this is operative in the case of the bulla, but it would open additional linguistic possibilities (including various personal names, such as biblical npyš).
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Ultimately, the conclusion is that there are a number of different possibilities for the second word of this inscription. I have listed some of them here, and there are at least five to seven additional ones that could be listed. The “take away” is this. I would like to be able to say that this bulla is that of the prophet Isaiah, but that’s not at all the sole possibility, and although some of the suggestions here (above) are more likely than others (I have a slight methodological preference for options six and seven, as they do not require the positing of an internal mater lectionis and they do not require the addition of a letter after the yod, something which may be important in light of the apparent space constraints), it is certainly not the case that one can weight them in such a fashion as to affirm or declare that this or that one is *the* most likely. Some are more probable than others, but that’s about as far as good methodology allows us to go. And so the reading nby’ (“prophet”) will remain one of a number of various possibilities. Some will want certainly want “prophet” (nby[y]) to be *the* correct restoration (or understanding), but in light of the various alternatives, that is a very subjective opinion. And it’s important to be forthright about stating this. Alas, ultimately, we must always attempt to reflect deeply and broadly on restorations and readings. And in the case of this bulla, I think that there are a number of additional options and there is no empirical method of making a decisive determination.

Final Reflections on Broader Themes: It is perhaps useful to emphasize an additional, important facet of all such finds: we as a field are best served, of course, by always being vigilant and careful in the wake of a new archaeological or epigraphic find. Indeed, Carol Meyers and Eric Meyers felt this so strongly (in the wake of the Talpiyot Tomb media blitz) that they convened a symposium at Duke University in April 2009, and the volume entitled Archaeology, Bible, Politics, and the Media (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012), was published on the basis of the lectures given at that symposium. Within my lecture at that symposium and my article in the volume (“An Ancient Medium in the Modern Media: Sagas of Semitic Inscriptions,” pages 123-136), I recount a number of occasions during the past fifty years in which there was a fair amount of distance between the early sensational claims made about various finds and the cold, hard historical and philological reality, namely, that the finds were, in fact, very nice finds, but fairly standard and mundane in terms of actual content and significance. I would like to reiterate here some of my concluding thoughts at the end of that article in the Meyers and Meyers volume: (1) “Scholars who interface with the media must always strive to be circumspect and intentional…searching for critiques of conclusions rather than just collegial confirmation”; (2) “Scholars must always remember that epigraphic finds are rarely as ‘dramatically important,’ ‘sensational,’ or ‘stunning’ as they might seem at first blush”; (3) “‘Gale-force winds’ often develop when inscriptions are discovered and the media typically want rapid and decisive comment, especially if the find putatively connects with something that is important biblically, religiously, or politically. Scholars should remind the media that the best constructs of the data are usually the result of a slow, methodical, scholarly process…” (p. 133); (4) Long ago, Max Miller emphasized to me that after some misunderstanding gets out in the public or scholarly world (and he was referencing especially things such as a mislabeling of a site on a biblical map), it becomes virtually impossible to excise. (5) In sum, methodological caution and methodological rigor are always “desiderata.”

Christopher Rollston, George Washington University (rollston@gwu.edu).

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., Nadav Na’aman, Jason Bembry, Joel Burnett, Larry Mykytiuk, Nathaniel Greene, Anat Mendel-Geberovich, and Lawson Younger for discussing matters related to this bulla with me.

The Isaiah Bulla from Jerusalem: 2.0

23 February 2018

The Isaiah Bulla from Jerusalem: 2.0

By Christopher Rollston, George Washington University (rollston@gwu.edu)

The Old Hebrew bulla excavated by Dr. Eilat Mazar, and published in Biblical Archaeology Review (March-May 2018) in an article entitled _Is this the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature(pages 65-73, notes on page 92) is of much interest, as noted in my previous post on this subject.

Date: this inscription putatively dates to the 8th century or the early 7th century. That is, I would emphasize that the script is the script of the late 8th or early 7th century BCE, and there is no way to be more precise than that. And, of course, the archaeological context is not such that the date can be stated to be only the 8th century. Ultimately, a date in the late 8th century is permissible, but so is a date in the early- to mid- 7th century. We must be candid about that.

In any case, within this post, I wish to emphasize certain things that I mentioned in the previous post and also especially to flesh out some of the possibilities for the second word, that is, word, or word fragment, that is present on the third register: nun, bet, yod. As with my previous post, this will be done in brief. I will publish a full journal article on this bulla at a later date in the near future. In any case, my view is that this second word could be a patronymic (in which case this bulla is certainly not Isaiah the Prophet’s as his father was Amoz), a title, or a gentilic.

The fact that an alep is not present, or preserved, after the yod is of critical importance. Without it, we do not have the word for prophet. With it, we would not be conversing about this…because if there were an alep there, then we would have the word prophet (or a verbal or nominal of the same root). But, alas, we don’t have it, hence the necessity of this conversation (and I do not find it convincing to contend that because of the [especially later], quiescent nature of the alep, it simply wasn’t written on this bulla; after all, we have it present in many Iron Age inscriptions, including in the very word for prophet in Lachish 3:20. I have essentially noted all of this previously but also emphasize it here as a point of departure.

Ultimately, this entire conversation (about wanting to read the word prophet here, even though we don’t have a critically important letter that must be present to make the case with certainty), reminds me of the previous attempts to contend that the broken Hebrew seal with the letters “yzbl” must refer to Queen Jezebel (I deal with those analogous assumptions in an article entitled “Prosopography and the YZBL Seal” in IEJ 59 (2009): 86-91). Jezebel is not the only possible reading of that seal, and reading “prophet” on this bulla is not the only possible reading here.

Furthermore, the preponderance of the occurrences of the word for prophet (nb’) in ancient Hebrew are definite (either via the usage of the article, or via the presence of a pronominal suffix, or in a construct chain in which the nomen rectum is definite). I have noted all of this in the previous post, but emphasize it here as well. And it is also worth emphasizing that the epigraphic occurrence of the word prophet (h-nb’) in Lachish 3:20 conforms with this pattern. In any case, as I have noted, the absence of the article here does not mean that this word cannot be the word for prophet, but it merits attention nonetheless, as it is concerning. Furthermore, after noticing that Eilat Mazar’s article suggests (e.g., in the accompanying drawing) that the article (i.e., the hey) could be reconstructed at the end of the preceding line, I would emphasize that I find that restoration very, very difficult to accept. There is simply no room at the end of the previous line for that letter (note that the Old Hebrew letter hey normally takes up a fair amount of horizontal space). Anat Mendel-Geberovich has indicated to me that she also believes that there is not sufficient space for the letter hey at the end of the preceding line.

Moreover, if this word on the bulla is the word “prophet” (i.e, if someone were to assume that the alep were present on the seal and thus assume that we have the word for prophet), the presence of a yod mater is thus different from the attested spelling of this word in epigraphic Hebrew, namely, Lachish Letter 3, line twenty (an inscription that dates to the early 6th century, a time period during which we see a growing number of more internal matres lections in Old Hebrew). As I mentioned in my previous post, this problem is not insurmountable, but it is noteworthy. Furthermore, as I noted in my previous post, we do have internal matres lectionis attested in the late 8th century (“Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 344 (2006): 47-74, esp 61-66), but it is not the norm.

Or again, as I have mentioned in my previous post, it is also the case that the Hebrew names are based on Hebrew roots, of course, and the root yš‘ (yod, shin, ‘ayin) is the basis not just for the name of Isaiah the prophet, but for almost twenty different people in the Bible (from various periods). And this name persists deeply into the Second Temple Period as well, with at least a dozen attestations (see, for example, Tal Ilan’s, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2002, p. 180). Thus, during any given period, there were likely a number of people running around who had the name Isaiah (or a form thereof, based on the same Hebrew root).
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Nevertheless, it seems that in spite of the absence of the critically important alep (etc.), some have contended that this bulla is that of the prophet Isaiah. And some have argued this because they believe that the second word, that is, the letters nby, are to be understood as the word “prophet.” It is useful, therefore, for me to expand on my brief reference in my previous post to the fact that the word “prophet” (nby[‘]) was not the only viable understanding of the extant letters. Here are some of a number of other possible understandings, with the assumption that there is room for an additional letter after the yod (which is something that is certainly presupposed by those advocating that we are to understand the word “prophet” on this bulla). In any case, here are a few options, some of which presuppose that there is a letter after the yod and some of which do not presuppose this:

(1) The name Nbyt (attested as a personal name, arguably a gentilic, in Genesis 25:13). Such a proposal would suggest that there is enough room on the bulla, after the yod, for an additional letter.

(2) The name Nbṭ. A personal name based on this root is attested within the Hebrew Bible (e.g. 1 Kgs 11:26) as well as in Old South Arabic personal names (see M. Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung, Beiträge zur Wissenschaft vom Alten und Neuen Testament, III, 10. Stuttgart, 1928 [reprint: Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1966], pages 36, 186). This name seems to be based on a root that means “bring to light.” As with the previous proposal, this proposal would presuppose that there is enough room after the yod for an additional letter. Moreover, the preserved yod on the bulla, could be understood in this case as being a mater (although the formation in the Bible is based on this root, it reflects a different formation and so a mater is not present).

(3) The name Nabil is also something that is plausible, a name that arguably has a core semantic domain of meanings such as “noble,” “wise,” “light,” or “flame.” There is, of course, a very famous pun (cf. the phenomenon of nominal pejorative equivoces) in the Bible (1 Sam 25:25) on a personal name “Nabal” (I dealt with this name in “Ad Nomen Argumenta: Personal Names as Pejorative Puns in Ancient Texts,” in the volume entitled In the Shadow of Bezalel: Aramaic, Biblical, and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of Bezalel Porten, ed. Alejandro F. Botta. Leiden: Brill, 2013), pages 367-386; in that article I follow James Barr, with regard to this personal name). In this regard, cf. the Qattîl formulation, arguably with a yod mater (Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990, section 5.4, page 89), which could account for the yod on the bulla.

(4) The root Nbz. This word is attested in Imperial Aramaic (see Hoftijzer and Jongeling, Dictionary of the Northwest-Semitic Inscriptions, Leiden: Brill, sv Nbz) and seems to me something such as “document,” “receipt.” Understanding the yod as a mater, this word could be understood as a nomen occupationis, that is, something such as “recorder” (on the subject of foreign words and loan words in Northwest Semitic, see works such as Stephen A. Kaufman, The Akkadian Influences on Aramaic (Assyriological Studies 19), Chicago: University of Chicago 1974; Paul V. Mankowski, Akkadian Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew, Harvard Semitic Studies 47, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2000). Of course, in this case, I would prefer the definite article (hey) as well (since we often get it with titles), but since some are willing to propose that the article is not necessary before the word “prophet,” then I think it is also fair to state that it could be nbz as a title, with a yod mater, and that it follows the standard pattern for nomen occupationis (Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990, section 5.4, page 89). In this case, I should emphasize that I might in this case contend that the title could have entered Hebrew through Akkadian (something that would not be sui generis in Hebrew).

(5) It might also be possible to contend that the word Nby is a gentilic, meaning something such as “Nobite” and since we do have the GN “Nob” attested in the Bible, this is a viable option as well (cf. 1 Sam 21:2). Indeed, Lawson Younger has suggested that this is something he considers possible and Nathaniel Greene has independently indicated that he is inclined to view it this way. Both Younger and Greene have mentioned in this connection the famous Old Hebrew seal from the antiquities market that has a PN followed by Nby, “the Nobite” (see Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals, Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1997, #379; cf. also #227).

(6) There are a number of personal names (in various languages, including Hebrew) that are built upon the theorphic element Nb (i.e, the God Nabu). It is possible that the bulla’s nb is this theophoric element, but space constraints would perhaps militate against this (as the non-theophoric component would require at least two or three letters and there is not sufficient space for that), as would perhaps also a putative Judean having such a name in the late 8th century or early 7th century, as would perhaps also, of course, the presence of a yod on the bulla (but…the yod might not be a problem, if, for example, it were part of a verbal or nominal modifier). Note also in this connection that double names are a well-known phenomenon in the Semitic world, as well as later in the Greco-Roman world (and thus one could conceivably argue that the first name is the Hebrew name and the second name is an Akkadian name for the same person; cf. of course, later cases such as Hadassah = Esther; Daniel = Belteshazzar; Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah = Shadrack, Meshach, Abednego [Abednebo[; Saul = Paul, etc.). Again, I am disinclined to embrace this possibility, but it is theoretically possible.

(7) Within Semitic, because of middle w/y words and because of geminate roots, there are a number of additional possibilities.

(8) Furthermore, it is possible to contend that there is a hey or alep after the yod (forming the theophoric yh, or forming some sort of hypocoristic).

(9) Finally, I wish to emphasize that it is possible that there is not enough space after the yod for an additional letter. Along those lines, Lawrence Mykytiuk has indeed mentioned to me the fact that he is not convinced there is enough space for a letter after the yod.

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Ultimately, the conclusion is that there are a number of different possibilities for the second word of this inscription. I have listed some of them here, and there are at least five to seven additional ones that could be listed. The “take away” is this. I would like to be able to say that this bulla is that of the prophet Isaiah, but that’s not at all the sole possibility, and although some of the suggestions here (above) are more likely than others, it is certainly not the case that one can weight them in such a fashion as to affirm or declare that this or that one is *the* most likely. Some are more probable than others, but that’s about as far as good methodology allows us to go. And so the reading nby’ will remain one of a number of possibilities. Some will want that one (nby[y]) to be the correct restoration (or understanding), but in light of the various alternatives, that is a very subjective opinion. And it’s important to be forthright about stating this. Alas, we must always attempt to reflect deeply and broadly on restorations and readings. And in the case of this bulla, I think that there are a number of additional options and there is no empirical method of making a decisive determination.

Christopher Rollston, George Washington University (rollston@gwu.edu).
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Jason Bembry, Joel Burnett, Larry Mykytiuk, Lawson Younger, Anat Mendel Geberovich, and Nathaniel Greene for discussing matters related to this seal with me.

The Putative Bulla of Isaiah the Prophet: Not so Fast

22 February 2018

The Putative Bulla of Isaiah the Prophet: Not so Fast

The Old Hebrew bulla excavated by Dr. Eilat Mazar, and published in Biblical Archaeology Review (March-May 2018) in an article entitled _Is this the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature(pages 65-73, notes on page 92) is of much interest.

Numerous stamp seals and bullae have been discovered in the Iron Age Levant. For a synopsis of the use and significance, see the article entitled “Seals and Scarabs” (Volume 5, pages 141-146 in _The New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible_, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2009, available via my www.academia.edu page).

This new bulla consists of three registers. Much of the top portion of this bulla is missing (including much of the top register), so the bulla is not fully preserved. The first register has no legible letters (although some iconography is preserved). The second register of the bulla reads “L-yš‘yh[w].” The third register has three preserved letters: “nby.”

Although cautious, it is stated in the press release and in the article itself that this bulla (a lump of clay that has been impressed by a seal) may say “Belonging to Isaiah the Prophet” (note that the lamed [L] at the beginning of the bulla is best translated “belonging to,” and the personal name after this lamed is the personal name “Isaiah” (with the Yahwistic theophoric mostly preserved). The third register, as noted, has the letters nby. Note also that the first the two Hebrew consonants for the word “prophet” are nun and bet, that is, nb).

It would be nice if this bulla did refer to the prophet Isaiah of the Bible, but it would not be wise to assume that this bulla definitely reads that way or that it definitely refers to Isaiah the prophet. In this regard, I very much applaud Dr. Mazar for not assuming that this bulla is definitively that of Isaiah the prophet. That is, the operative word is “may.”

In any case, here are briefly some of the reasons for my methodological caution regarding the assumption that this is a bulla associated with Isaiah the Judean prophet of the eighth century:

(1) Hebrew names are based on Hebrew roots, of course, and the root yš‘ (yod, shin, ‘ayin) is the basis not just for the name of Isaiah the prophet, but for almost twenty different people in the Bible (from various periods). In any case, because this root was such a productive root with regard to personal names (and certainly also, therefore, the root used for the names of many, many people who are not mentioned in the Bible), it is very clear there were lots of people walking around in the 8th century and 7th century BCE with the name Isaiah, or names that were based on the exact same root-word.

(2) Most of the time, the second name on a seal is the name of the father of the owner of the seal (often preceded by the word /ben/ meaning “son of.” However, sometimes a title does occur as the second element, but it is much less common.

(3) The critically important letter that would be needed to confirm that the second word is the title “prophet” is an alep. But no aleph is legible on this bulla, and so that reading cannot be confirmed at all.

(4) Compounding this problem is the fact that in the Hebrew Bible, there are around a dozen proper nouns that begin with the letters “nb” (that is, place names or personal names that begin with those two letters) and so that second word could be a number of different things, including the name of the father…and in that case, it would definitely not be the bulla of the prophet Isaiah, as his father’s name was Amoz (Isaiah 1:1).

(5) The presence of the yod in this bulla that was found is interesting, because this spelling is different from the spelling of the word prophet in the epigraphic record. That is, the word “prophet” occurs in a very famous ostracon (an inscription written in ink on a broken piece of pottery) from the great Judean site of Lachish, not far at all from Jerusalem. And in that inscription (Lachish Letter 3, line twenty), there is no yod (that is, the “y” is absent). Moreover, although we do have internal matres lectionis in Old Hebrew inscriptions, beginning in the late eighth century, it is rare (for discussion and bibliography, see “Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 344 [2006]: 47-74, especially pages 61-66). Ultimately, because we do not have the yod in the Lachish Ostracon, it could be suggested that this weakens the case for this being the word prophet in this new bulla (and, as noted, the absence of the alep is a major obstacle).

(6) There is one final thing that causes me some pause about understanding this bulla as containing the word prophet. And that is the absence of the Hebrew article. We have a few hundred occurrences of the words “prophet” or “prophets” in the Bible, and in the overwhelming majority of these cases, the word is definite (i.e., either with the word “the,” or with a pronominal suffix, or with a personal name after it, which are all ways of making a word in Hebrew definite). In short, if this were the word “prophet,” I would have liked to have seen the word “the,” as in “Isaiah the prophet.” But, alas, we don’t have the word “the” on this bulla.

In sum, in light of the fact that there almost twenty people mentioned in the Bible whose names are based on the same root word as the name “Isaiah” (and thus plenty of people walking around with that name or its basic equivalent); and in light of the fact that the word being read as “prophet” is lacking the critically important letter (the alep); and in light of the fact that there are plenty of names in the Bible that begin with nun and bet (and so that second word could be a lot of different things); and in light of the presence of a yod and the absence of the article on this new bullae…I feel obliged to state that we had better be cautious about assuming too much. Of course, the assumption that this is a bulla of Isaiah the prophet is scintillating, but it is certainly not something that we should assume is at all certain. It’s not.

Christopher Rollston, George Washington University
(rollston@gwu.edu)

The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions 2.0: Canaanite Language and Canaanite Script, Not Hebrew

10 December 2016

The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions 2.0: Canaanite Language and Canaanite Script, Not Hebrew

Dr. Christopher Rollston (rollston@gwu.edu), George Washington University

Doug Petrovich has proposed in a paper presented on November 17th, 2016 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research and in a forthcoming volume (Jerusalem: Carta) that the Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are Hebrew. This is quite a claim, but it will find few takers among those who actually know the scripts and languages of ancient Semitic inscriptions written in linear alphabets.

After all, the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol can be dated to ca. the 18th century BCE. But the earliest inscriptions written in the distinctive Old Hebrew script can be dated with substantial certitude to the 9th century BCE. And the script of the actual Old Hebrew inscriptions is very, very different from the script of the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol. In fact, no one who has formal training in these different scripts would ever confuse them or suggest that they were the same. I’ll get back to this point in a moment, but first a little history.

There is nothing all that new about Petrovich’s proposal. After all, more than ninety years ago, H. Grimme wrote a volume entitled _Althebräische Inschriften vom Sinai_ (Hannover, 1923) in which he argued that the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem were Hebrew. Grimme can almost be forgiven, because he wrote before the discovery of Ugaritic. Almost. But even then, his views didn’t find many takers, as he was manipulating the evidence to the point that his proposal had more twists and turns than a dirt road in a Tennessee holler.

In fact, here is what the great epigrapher Joseph Naveh (d. 2011) of Hebrew University (Jerusalem) said about Grimme’s proposal: “There were scholars who tried to relate this script to the Israelites, who after the Exodus lived for a generation in the Sinai Peninsula. Nowadays these romantic views are no longer accepted” (Naveh, _Early History of the Alphabet_ 1987, 26). Similarly, A. van den Branden argued (in an article entitled “Les inscriptiones protosinaitiques,” published in 1962 in _Oriens Antiquus_ 1, pp. 197-214) that the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem were written in a South Semitic language that is attested on various South Arabian monuments. Neither of these proposals gained any traction with people who knew multiple Semitic languages and scripts…because these proposals were based on erroneous and partial understandings of the actual inscriptional evidence.

I’m sure that Grimme and van den Branden were well intentioned, and I believe that Petrovich is as well. But the evidence is weighty, and the evidence demonstrates the following: the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol (and various other second millennium sites, etc.) are written in a Northwest Semitic dialect of the early Second Millennium BCE. In terms of the name for this language, the most apt term is “Canaanite.” After all, there is nothing distinctively Phoenician, or Hebrew, or Aramaic, or Moabite, or Ammonite, or Edomite about the words in these inscriptions that would reasonably allow someone to call the language of these inscriptions by one of those terms. Indeed, the words in the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are found in lots of Semitic languages, not just one. Thus, the best term of the language of these inscriptions is “Canaanite.”

And as for the script of these inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol, the best terms are “Early Alphabetic,” or “Canaanite.” Some prefer the term “Proto-Sinaitic Script.” Any of these terms is acceptable. But it is absolutely and empirically wrong to suggest that the script of the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol is the Hebrew script, or the Phoenician script, or the Aramaic script, or the Moabite script, or the Ammonite script, or the Edomite script. The script of these inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol (etc.) is not one of the distinctive national scripts (such as Phoenician or Hebrew or Aramaic, etc.), but rather it is the early ancestor of all of these scripts and we term that early ancestor: Early Alphabetic. Here is the precise derivation: first came the Early Alphabetic script (e.g., of the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol, dating to ca. 18th century BCE), and from this Early Alphabetic script (which continued to be used in the Levantine world for several centuries) came the Phoenician script (in ca. the late 11th century BCE and the early 10th century BCE). And from the Phoenician script came the Old Hebrew script (in the 9th century BCE) and the Aramaic script (8th century BCE). And it should be emphasized that the Hebrew script was developed in the homeland, that is, Israel (and that explains why it is first attested there).

Here are some of the features of the Early Alphabetic script. It could be written from left-to-right (for which we sometimes use the fancy word “dextrograde”), right-to-left (for which we sometimes use the fancy word “sinistrograde”), boustrophedon (which means the first line was written from left-to-right and the one below it was written from right-to-left, and so on…interestingly, the term “boustrophedon literally means “as the ox plows”), and columnar (which means: written from top to bottom, as in a column, rather than on a horizontal plane). In addition, in the Early Alphabetic script, the letters were very pictographic in nature and they would “face” one way if you were writing left-to-right and they’d face the other way if you were writing right-to-left. In addition, the Early Alphabetic script had twenty-seven letters. I’ve included here a scan of W.F. Albright’s chart of those letters.

However, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic (etc.) are consistently written from right-to-left (not in any of the other options, listed above). And Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic always “face” the same direction (because they are always written in the same direction, that is, from right-to-left). And Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic (etc.) all have twenty-two letters in their alphabet (as demonstrated by Hebrew inscriptions that list the Hebrew “abc’s” in order, and also by Biblical alphabetic acrostics, such as Psalm 119, etc.), not twenty-seven, of course. And, on top of all this, the shapes (“morphology”) of the letters of the Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic letters are often quite different from the shapes of the Early Alphabetic letters. In short, the difference between the Early Alphabetic script and the Old Hebrew script is night and day. Even a novice can be trained to tell the difference in a matter of minutes. In fact, I have actually tried this in class at times and even undergraduates can rapidly be taught which is which. It’s not rocket science.

So….let’s now continue with a little more history and a little more data…

The oldest inscriptions written in a distinctive Old Hebrew script can be dated with certitude to the 9th century BCE (some have suggested perhaps the 10th century…that too is fine), as the great Joseph Naveh of Hebrew University argued (1982, _Early History of the Alphabet_, 65-66), and as I too have argued (e.g., in my “Northwest Semitic Cursive Scripts” article in the Frank Moore Cross memorial volume entitled _An Eye for Form_, 202-234). We know an enormous amount about the history and development of the Hebrew script through time, as we have hundreds and hundreds of Hebrew inscriptions from the 9th through 6th centuries BCE (less for the earlier periods than the later periods, but still, many, many inscriptions and lots of evidence, therefore).

These inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol arguably date to ca. the 18th century BCE. The Serabit el-Khadem inscriptions have been known for more than a century (Petrie, Researches in Sinai, 1906), and a decade after their discovery, A. Gardiner discerned that these inscriptions were written in a very early form of the Semitic Alphabet. Indeed the title of his seminal article on the subject is “The Egyptian Origin of the Semitic Alphabet” (JEA 3, 1916, 1-16). The Wadi el-Hol inscriptions had been discovered some time ago, but were studied and formally published just around a decade ago (Darnell, Dobbs-Allsopp, Lundberg, McCarter, Zuckerman, 2005). Inscriptions written in this same Early Semitic Alphabetic script (though dating to later centuries) have been found at additional sites, including Lachish and Gezer (i.e., sites in the Levant).

These inscriptions have been studied heavily through the years, with the publications by scholars such as W.F. Albright (_The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and Their Decipherment_, 1966), F. M. Cross (written primarily in the 1960s-1990s and all collected in his volume entitled _Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook_ Eisenbrauns, 2003), P. K. McCarter’s published dissertation (_The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet and the Early Phoenician Scripts, 1975), B. Sass’s published dissertation (entitled _The Genesis of the Alphabet and Its Development in the Second Millennium B.C._ 1988), G. Hamilton’s 1985 Harvard dissertation and its augmented published form (entitled _The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts_, 2006), various substantive and important articles by O. Goldwasser (referenced or archived at https://huji.academia.edu/orlygoldwasser ), the volume by S. Sanders (entitled _The Invention of Hebrew_, 2009), as well as some publications by me on the subject of the Early Semitic Alphabet, the Phoenician alphabet, and the Old Hebrew alphabet (a number of these are referenced or archived at https://gwu.academia.edu/ChristopherRollston). And this is only a very partial list. The bibliography is really quite vast.

And now on to say a little more about Petrovich’s proposal, keeping the above background in mind…
I noted in my previous post on this subject (http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?p=763) that various words that Petrovich was stating were distinctively Hebrew were actually Common Semitic (a term that means that those words are found in multiple Semitic languages, not just one or two). Here is Petrovich’s response to me: “I assert the reading rb “many, abundant” and yn “wine” to be Hebrew words in the context of the [Serabit el-Khadem] inscription.” That’s fascinating, as he is conceding that these words are Common Semitic and he is saying that they are Hebrew in the Serabit el-Khadem inscriptions because he says that these inscriptions are Hebrew. That is, of course, a textbook case of circular reasoning. After all, the script is definitively *NOT* the Old Hebrew script and the roots rb “many, abundant,” and yn “wine” are attested in multiple Semitic languages (and in the case of “wine” even in non-Semitic languages!), thus, there is no evidence forming the basis for a declaration that the inscriptions are Hebrew.

But let’s look at more of Petrovich’s evidence. Thus, in his response to my previous blog post, he posited that “in Sinai 349 the Hebrew word tl(y) ‘quiver’” is used. He believes this word is distinctively Hebrew, that is, a smoking-gun demonstration of the fact that Sinai 349 is Hebrew. So, let’s look at the actual evidence, and I’ll even go with his reading (i.e., tav lamed) for the sake of argument. That is, he reads tl here and let’s see if those two letters must mean “quiver.” …Well, a quick look at the lexicon reveals the following: ….well, there’s a word (as many people know, even if they don’t know any Semitic languages) that occurs in multiple ancient Semitic languages that means “ruins” and it is spelled tl. In addition, there is a word for “to attach, or hang” that occurs in multiple Semitic languages that would be spelled tl in this period (root tlh). Moreover, anyone trained in Semitic languages would know that tl could represent the geminate Semitic root tll (to scheme, flirt). And there are even more options. In any case, Petrovich assumes that the only possible meaning for tl in Sinai 349 is “quiver,” but a quick look at the lexicon demonstrates that this assumption is erroneous. So much for those two letters demonstrating that Sinai 349 is Hebrew.

In Petrovich’s response to me he also states that “in Sinai 349 the Hebrew word ‘m (aleph mem) appears.” He also states that this is “the Hebrew word ‘m for “terror, dread” (and he also mentions that he believes that the final hey of the word ‘mh is a mater lectionis and that it would not be reflected in the early orthography….I could discuss that further, but this subject is well-known and so I’ll not delve into it here). And he states that “this word occurs only in Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic.” So, Petrovich reads the letters aleph and mem and he assumes that this must be the Hebrew word for “terror, or dread.” That is fascinating….but let’s look at a good dictionary again, as a diligent student would always do. And, lo and behold, there’s a word that jumps right off the page of the lexicon: the word “mother” is spelled aleph mem (and I suspect that a number of my readers already thought about the fact that the word “mother” is spelled aleph mem….and these readers, therefore, already knew that if you see the letters aleph + mem it isn’t necessarily the word for “dread, or terror”). And that word (i.e, aleph mem, “mother”) is attested across the Semitic languages, from Phoenician, and Ugaritic, to Hebrew and Aramaic, to Ethiopic (and beyond). And there’s more, if we keep looking…the word “if” is also spelled aleph mem. And the word for slave woman, maidservant is also spelled aleph mem (plus a hey mater) and it occurs in all kinds of Semitic languages, from Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, to Akkadian and Ethiopic. And the word for “forearm, cubit,” is also spelled aleph mem (and it’s attested in many ancient Semitic languages as well, including Ugaritic, Akkadian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Ethiopic, etc). And alep mem is also the way to spell “tribe, people” and this word is also attested in multiple Semitic languages. Again, the problem here is that Petrovich assumes that the letters he reads as aleph mem must be some word that he considers to be distinctively Hebrew (i.e., a word for “terror or dread”) and so he views that word as being a demonstration that Sinai 349 is using a rare Hebrew word. But the problem is that he is making all sorts of assumptions and a quick look at any dictionary proves that his assumptions are just not correct.

The same goes for his reading of the word “Hebrew” in Sinai 119. Egyptologist Thomas Schneider has demonstrated nicely (in a guest post on my blog) that the word “Hebrew” is just not there (http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?p=771 ).

And the same can be said for Petrovich’s attempts to read the names of biblical people in these inscriptions. They are simply not there. I wish that they were. I would really like to see some references to more biblical people in the epigraphic record. In fact, I very much like the work of Lawrence Mykytiuk (e.g., his _Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 BCE_, SBL 2004….and various really sterling articles by Mykytiuk since the publication of his book). But the difference between Mykytiuk’s work and Petrovich’s is that Mykytiuk is really reading inscriptions carefully and accurately, considers all of the options, and draws reasonable conclusions.

Finally, I should like to emphasize that the issue is not one of faith versus academia or “not believing in the biblical exodus from Egypt.” In my case, I do believe there was an exodus from Egypt, and things such as the Beni Hasan Tomb, the painting in the tomb of Rekhmire, Papyrus Anastasi 5, and the Instruction of Merikare (all of which are discussed so very well by Nahum Sarna in an article entitled “Israel in Egypt,” published in a volume edited by H. Shanks and entitled _Ancient Israel_, 2nd ed. 1999) are pretty important pieces of evidence regarding the fact that there was some sort of an exodus. In short, it is not my disinclination to believe in the exodus that causes me to not embrace Petrovich’s proposal. I do believe that the evidence (biblical and extrabiblical) are sufficient to believe there was an exodus. So…it’s just Petrovich’s proposal that I find unconvincing. The evidence just doesn’t support his proposal.

Thus, in the end, the conclusion that must be drawn is that (1) the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are written in the Early Alphabetic script (also called “Canaanite” and “Proto-Sinaitic”), not the Old Hebrew script (which we know so well from hundreds of inscriptions), and (2) the language of the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol is not the Hebrew, or Phoenician, or Aramaic language, but rather it is a West Semitic language or dialect that is best termed “Canaanite.” That’s it.

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The Problem with Reading the Word ‘Hebrew’ in Sinai 115: An Egyptologist’s Response

23 November 2016

Reading the Word ‘Hebrew’ in Sinai 115: An Egyptologist’s Response
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A Guest Post by Prof. Dr. Thomas Schneider
University of British Columbia
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As part of Douglas Petrovich’s proposal that the Early Alphabetic Inscriptions (e.g., Serabit el-Khadem, Wadi el-Hol) are Hebrew, he has proposed (as putatively supporting evidence) to read a word in one of the Egyptian inscriptions (namely: Sinai 115) from Serabit el-Khadem as the word for “Hebrew.” This, however, is just not correct. Here are some of the reasons:

(1) the correct reading is in two lines: Jpn, son of Jrw. Petrovich combines J and p from line one with r from line 2.

(2) Egyptian /j/ is used to render Semitic aleph, never an ayin (and one would need an ayin here to have the word “Hebrew”).

(3) Similarly, in the 12th dynasty, Egyptian /r/ is never a transcription of Semitic /r/, but of /l/ and /d/.

(4) Also, /p/ is a regular rendering of Semitic /p/ and not /b/, although this is less objectionable.

(5) Ultimately, therefore, Petrovich’s proposed reading of this word as “Hebrew” is not possible.

Respectfully,

Dr. Thomas Schneider

The Jerusalem Papyrus: Complementary Notations

1 November 2016

The Jerusalem Papyrus: Complementary Notations

by Dr. Christopher Rollston, George Washington University
__
Introduction

Here are the readings of the editio princeps: [‘]mt. hmlk. mn‘rth. nblym. yyn. Yršlmh.
Translation of the readings of the edition princeps: [Maidse]rvant of the King, from N‘rth, (two) jars of wine to Jerusalem.

As the papyrus continues to garner attention, it is perhaps useful to convey certain additional reflections, especially with the release of the editio princeps (i.e., I have now received a copy of it and so can augment some of my reflections). I have also had some time to spend with a very fine high resolution image of the inscription.

Moreover, I should like to emphasize that I would be pleased for this papyrus inscription to be ancient, but the fact remains that forgeries have been produced in steady numbers during the past century (and much earlier), in a number of languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Phoenician (for a synopsis of much of this data, see my “Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period,” in _Archaeologies of Text_, eds. Morag Kersel and Matthew Rutz [2014], available on www.academia.edu). Therefore, vigilance should be the modus operandi of the entire field, as the great Joseph Naveh of Hebrew University often reminded us (e.g., his BASOR 247 [1982] article “Some Recently Forged Inscriptions,” his JNES 27 [1968] article “Aramaic Dubiosa,” and his IEJ 48 [1998] article with Israel Eph’al on the Moussaieff Ostraca) and as the great Frank Moore Cross reminded us (with his Orientalia 37 [1968] article on the forged Phoenician Inscription from Brazil and his IEJ 53 [2003] article on the Jehoash Inscription). Of course, the recent Gospel of Jesus Wife Papyrus forgery should also be instructive for all in the field.

On a different note, it should also be emphasized that we have many Old Hebrew inscriptions from First Temple Period Jerusalem, some of them particularly famous and especially important, such as the Siloam Tunnel Inscription, the Royal Steward Inscription (with N. Avigad’s masterful decipherment), the Ophel Inscription (see the list and full texts of inscriptions from Jerusalem in the volume entitled _Hebrew Inscriptions_ edited by F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, J.J.M. Roberts, C.L. Seow, and R.E. Whitaker [Yale, 2005]. Furthermore, we have Mesopotamian inscriptions, such as the famed Sennacherib Prism, with its reference to Jerusalem and its King Hezekiah (r. ca. 715-687) during the 701 BCE siege of Judah. In addition, the city of Jerusalem is mentioned in a nice Old Hebrew inscription in stone from Khirbit Beit Lei (as Adam Bean and Nathaniel Greene have emphasized) that dates to the late First Temple Period. In other words, from inscriptions we know a lot about and from Jerusalem.

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(1) Carbon dates normally, of course, have a plus and minus range. In the media discussions of the Jerusalem Papyrus, there have been many references to an assumed secure 7th century carbon date for the papyrus….but this is too narrow…as it is without a stated plus and minus range. Important, therefore, is the fact that in the editio princeps of this inscription, a larger range is given (footnote 3, page 248), with a calibrated 2-sigma date being (756- 679 BC [34%], and 671-430 BC [61.4%]). Of course, this is indeed fairly important because it shows that the C 14 date for the papyrus is certainly not necessarily a 7th century date. That doesn’t necessarily change things all that much, but it is important, for a number of (fairly obvious, I think) reasons. Furthermore, Israel Finkelstein, Eric Cline, Benjamin Porter, and Felix Höflmayer have all drawn my attention to the fact that the “Hallstatt Plateau” is arguably to be factored in here…namely, according to the “Hallstatt Plateau,” radiocarbon dates of ca. 2450 BP (Before Present = 1950) consistently calibrate to ca. 800-400 BC, regardless of the measurement precision. The editio princeps of the Jerusalem Papyrus gives 2460 BP +/- 71. In short, the plateau is operative. Thus, it is quite problematic to suggest that the carbon date for the Jerusalem Papyrus is, and can only be, 7th century BCE. The plus or minus must be admitted to be considerably wider for the carbon date, arguably a couple hundred years.

(2a). The Restoration. A striking thing is that the authors of the editio princeps restore an ‘alep to get the word ‘mt (construct form of ‘mh, that is, “maidservant”). The assumption is that it was an ‘alep that was at the end of the preceding line (a few traces of that line are visible, so there was a preceding line, but *no* traces of an ‘alep are present at the end of that preceding line). The authors of the editio princeps do consider other options (noted on p. 241 of the editio princeps), but they settle on [‘]mt, that is, (the construct form of) “maidservant.” However, I would wish to emphasize that restorations are notoriously difficult things. Thus, without an initial ‘alep actually present, the restoration cannot be considered at all certain. Thus, and this is very important, this inscription might not be about “the maidservant of the King” at all, as the word maidservant is based on a restoration.

(2b) The Restoration Continued. In addition to positing a different letter or two that would result in a different noun (i.e., not “maidservant,” but some other nominal), it would also be possible to posit a verbal form (including even the root mwt, “die,” “dead”….which could make this inscription really interesting… although various other possibilities could also be posited). Again, though, that’s the problem with restorations….they are very uncertain, unless we’re dealing with highly formulaic language (e.g., a legal contract). And even then it’s not always easy. In this case, we do not have a highly formulaic text, and we have very little context, so I consider any particular restoration (whether it be ‘mh or something else) to be only a possibility.

(3a) Orthography and Lexicography. There are a couple of potential problems with the orthography in the Jerusalem Papyrus, the first one particularly concerning. Namely, regarding the words of the Jerusalem Papyrus nblym (with yod as an internal mater lections) and yyn, that is, “jars of wine” or “two jars of wine” (if the term for jar is understood as a dual, which is the way that the authors of the editio princeps wish to understand it), it must be conceded that the orthography of the inscription is problematic. After all, within Semitic languages, this construction (this juxtaposition of two nouns or nominals) is called a “construct chain” (i.e., x of y). And in Semitic construct chains (including Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Ethiopic, etc.), the noun in construct takes the “construct form.” Sometimes there is no discernible difference (at least in the writing system), but when a masculine plural or masculine dual noun is in the construct form, the plural ending îm and the dual ending ayim (see Jouon paragraph 92 g on this) are replaced by the vowel ê (and, most importantly for our purposes) without the mem. That is, the mem is eliminated. Gone. Note, along these lines, that the very same expression is used in the Hebrew Bible, that is, “vessels of wine.” BUT in Standard Biblical Hebrew it is written: nbly.yyn (1 Samuel 25:18; for additional examples of the plural construct form of nbl “jar” in the Bible, see Job 38:37; Lam 4:2). That is, as is standard in Ancient Hebrew, no mem is present in the Biblical form (the yod in the biblical form is a mater lectionis). This is the way it worked in Ancient Hebrew. In essence, therefore, there is a serious orthographic problem (i.e., mistake) in the Jerusalem Papyrus inscription, and a rather large one at that: the word nblym is in construct and so there should be no mem (note that Ezekiel 47:4 and Numbers 9:20 are arguably corrupt; I am grateful to Jason Bembry for mentioning these texts to me) and arguably are reflective of a deep structure that is different from the context in the Jerusalem Papyrus. Of course, someone might posit that in the inscription we have a “frozen form” of some sort, but this would be a very strained argument to make, since we have the very same expression in Standard Biblical Hebrew and the mem is lost…just as it is supposed to be (across the Semitic languages). Someone might propose that although this syntactically like it should be a construct chain, it is not. But that is a really hard argument to make as this construction is basically a textbook case for a construct chain (and that’s the way Biblical Hebrew has it as well). Also, I suppose that someone might attempt to propose some sort of strained argument to account for the mistake in the Jerusalem Papyrus’s orthography, but I’m disinclined to embrace special pleading all that readily, especially in an inscription on papyrus (and thus ostensibly a first-class scribe). We do have some mistakes in inscriptions at times, but this would be a big one for an ancient scribe to make, and one that would be hard to explain for a *native speaker of Ancient Hebrew and a first-tier scribe (for as Professor Joseph Naveh has noted, papyrus was the medium that the most highly educated and gifted of official scribes would use). Conversely, this is the sort of mistake that someone might make if they didn’t know Ancient Hebrew all that well (note that Modern Hebrew often avoids construct forms…with the use of “shel” being a common substition in Modern Hebrew for something that would have been a construct form in Ancient Hebrew). In short, I consider this to be a howler of an error.

(3b) Orthography and Lexicography. It could be contended that the proposed reading (of the editio princeps of the Jerusalem Papyrus) of the place-name N‘rth is problematic. Note that the form in the inscription (i.e., the spelling in the inscription) is the same as that in Joshua 16:7. At first blush, this might seem good. But this may not be the case, once we look more closely at the context of Joshua 16:7. In the Joshua reference, this place-name has a directive heh on it (note the verb yrd “to go down” is present in the Joshua text, so a directive heh, with its semantic range of “direction toward” makes perfect sense). Note also that the standard dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (HALOT), as well as BDB, presuppose that the lexical form of the word in Joshua is n‘rh (so at the very least, the authors of the editio princeps differ with HALOT and BDB [p. 655] on the lexical form of the place name). Thus, the form in Joshua is a result of the presence of the directive heh (thus, again, BDB page 655). Significantly, the form in the Jerusalem Papyrus is preceded by the preposition min (with assimilation of the nun) and so the directive heh would not normally be used in Ancient Hebrew (as the directive heh signifies “direction toward,” not “direction from” and this is something the Rabbis noted long ago, when they reasoned that the directive heh stood in place of a prefixed lamed “to”…so Waltke and O’Connor, paragraph 2.1b, et passim). In short, in Ancient Hebrew, this place-name is N‘rh, and when the directive heh is attached, the form we have (as demonstrated by Joshua 16:7) is N‘rth. Thus, the form that should arguably have been in the Jerusalem Papyrus Inscription is N‘rh, not N‘rth (the “double feminization” line of thought is pretty strained). However, there are exceptions, with a small number of cases with both the preposition min and the directive heh (e.g., Jer 27:16 and Josh 15:10).

(3c) Orthography and Lexicography. In this connection, I should like to mention that, as both Jason Bembry and Joel Baden have emphasized to me (personal communication) that it is certainly possible to understand n’rth as meaning “his young (female) attendant” (i.e., n’rh [nfs meaning “female attendant,” “female maidservant,” etc.] with the 3ms ms possessive suffix….of course, it could also be a 3fs possessive suffix, but in this context, 3ms is more likely). In any case, if one accepts this lexcial understanding (i.e., a common noun, rather than a place-name), then the meaning of the text is certainly different from the way that the authors of the editio princeps understand it, and this understanding (i.e., the common noun) has the elegance of being a fairly common word and with orthography that is standard Ancient Hebrew.

(4) There are also some problems with the script…perhaps in part related to the morphology of some letters, but especially in the realm of the ductus of some letters (the term ductus refers to the number of strokes that form a letter, the direction of those strokes and the order of those strokes). I’ve spent a fair amount of my life looking through a microscope or jeweler’s loop at Old Hebrew ink-inscriptions from excavations. And I have some ductus concerns (forgers can often get the morphology of a letter pretty accurately, but they struggle more with ductus….because palaeographers don’t discuss it very much. As for ductus of some forgeries, I discussed this sort of thing in detail in Maarav back in 2003, with regard to the Moussaieff Ostraca and Jehoash Inscription, etc.). I will be discussing this in the journal article that is currently in preparation and will be in print during the spring of 2017.

Updated 2:30 eastern (Nov 2).

Sincerely,

Christopher Rollston

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