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Professor Joseph Naveh: Epigraphic Reminiscences

25 November 2011

Professor Joseph Naveh was among the greatest of the Northwest Semitic epigraphers. He was born in (then) Czechoslovakia in 1928, and he died in Jerusalem on November 21, 2011. The scholarship Joseph Naveh penned is broad and deep, cogent and copious. He shall always be considered to be among the nephilim of the field of Northwest Semitic epigraphy. He will be sorely missed as a scholar, mentor, and friend.

During his early years (namely, 1955-1971), Joseph Naveh worked for the Israel Department of Antiquities (now the Israel Antiquities Authority), conducting surveys as well as excavating. From 1971 to 1997, he taught at Hebrew University (Jerusalem) in the Department of Ancient Semitic Languages. Even in retirement (1998-2011), he remained very active in the field, both in terms of publications as well as in terms of mentoring younger scholars in the field.

Although a fine excavator, it has long seemed to me that Professor Naveh’s discovery of Old Hebrew inscriptions in the area of Yavneh-Yam (“Mesad Hashavyahu”) in 1960 was a watershed moment in his life. The excavation season that year was brief, from 10 January to 1 February 1960, however, several Old Hebrew inscriptions were found, one of which was quite long and particularly important (Naveh 1960; cf. also 1962a; 1962b). The editio princeps of this inscription was rapidly published, and it is a model publication, detailed, careful, and cogent, further evidence for this being the fact that Frank Moore Cross made only minor revisions to Naveh’s readings (Cross 1962). At that time, epigraphy rapidly became a predominant focus for Naveh, and just a few short years after his publication of the Yavneh-Yam epigraphs, he completed an epigraphic dissertation at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (in November 1966), a dissertation written under Nahman Avigad. As a historical footnote, I should like to mention that Frank Cross once told me that he and Naveh had become quite good friends during this time period, and that many of their conversations during the early- to mid-1960s revolved around Aramaic palaeography. Naveh’s dissertation was subsequently published as The Development of the Aramaic Script (Naveh 1970) and it has long been, and remains, a sine qua non for those that discuss the synchronic variation and chronological development of the Aramaic script. Of course, Naveh’s early article on the distribution of the Old Hebrew script (Naveh 1968) remains a point of departure for all discussions of the Hebrew script, and this article foreshadowed his many subsequent publications on Hebrew scripts and inscriptions.

Significantly, however, Naveh’s publications focused not only on Old Hebrew and Aramaic, but also on Phoenician (e.g., Naveh 1987a), as well as on the scripts of Moab, Ammon, and Edom (e.g., Naveh 1970b; 1980). Moreover, arguably the most seminal early article on the Philistine script is the one authored by Naveh during the same year that he completed his dissertation (Naveh 1966). Naturally, it must be emphasized that Naveh’s research and writing also focused on Early Linear Alphabetic as well, with his article on Izbet Sarteh showcasing his acumen with regard to the earliest history of the alphabet (1978a). Of course, his article on the borrowing of the Semitic alphabet by the Greeks also reveals so much about the breadth of his interests and abilities (1973). Just as Naveh’s interests were “early,” so also were they “late.” For example, his article entitled “Hebrew Texts in Aramaic Script in the Persian Period?” (Naveh 1971) remains a point of departure for epigraphers discussing the Northwest Semitic scripts and inscriptions of the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods, as do also his articles and volumes on the Samaritan script (Naveh 1998a), Aramaic magical texts (Naveh 1998b; Naveh and Shaked 1993; Naveh and Shaked 1998), and inscriptions from Masada (Yadin and Naveh 1989). The utter breadth of his work is particularly impressive.

I should also like to emphasize that Professor Naveh was also especially gifted at recognizing and repudiating modern forgeries that came to light via the antiquities market. For example, although some prominent scholars had touted the “Philistine Hebron Documents” as ancient, Naveh published the seminal article debunking these assertions, and demonstrating conclusively that these documents were modern forgeries (Naveh 1982). Similarly, it was Naveh that argued in a brief, but critically important, article that the “Moussaieff Ostraca” were forgeries (1998c), something that he and I discussed at length in his home in 1998 and which precipitated my own presentations (esp. 1999-2002) and articles on the history of modern forged inscriptions (Rollston 2003; Rollston 2004). Nevertheless, it also should be emphasized that Naveh believed that some of the inscriptions that appeared on the antiquities market were genuine, evidence for this being the fact that he published a number of the fourth century Aramaic ostraca (which had been purchased on the market) putatively from Idumaea (Eph‘al and Naveh 1996).

Professor Joseph Naveh’s research and writing will certainly continue to impact the field in profoundly important ways for decades to come. His Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography (1987) remains a vade mecum. No epigraphic library worth its salt is complete without this volume. Indeed, rarely does a week pass that I don’t take this book from my shelf, and I think this is the case for most epigraphers. Similarly, his volume entitled On Sherd and Papyrus: Aramaic and Hebrew Inscriptions from the Second Temple, Mishnaic and Talmudic Periods (1992) remains a most useful compendium of inscriptions from the Second Temple and Post-Biblical periods. I suppose this volume looms large in my own mind not only because of its content, but also because during a visit of mine to his home in Jerusalem, he pulled a copy from his shelf, inscribed it with some generous words, and gave it to me as a gift. Professor Naveh’s On Stone and Mosaic: the Aramaic and Hebrew Inscriptions from Ancient Synagogues (1978b) is also a seminal volume, the point of departure for those working on ancient synagogue inscriptions. Furthermore, one of the most useful volumes in the field is a selection of his published articles, namely, the volume entitled Studies in West-Semitic Epigraphy: Selected Papers. This was a volume that Naveh seemed rather reluctant to agree to. Indeed, shortly after the volume of Frank Cross’s collected writings appeared (Cross 2003), I suggested to Professor Naveh that a similar volume of his own writings would be particularly useful for the field (no doubt others had made the same suggestion), but Professor Naveh suggested in his response to me that he probably did not wish for such a volume to be produced. Fortunately, he must have reconsidered, and the field is better for it, as this volume is a veritable embarras de richesses for the field.

So, with the passing of Professor Joseph Naveh, the field is certainly the poorer. Frankly, his passing took me by surprise. It was not so very long ago that he and I had corresponded. On the other hand, perhaps I should have expected it…he was an octogenarian after all. But the fact remains that I didn’t expect it. With so many, I mourn this loss deeply. Fortunately, though, from his writings we shall all continue to be taught, and the memories of his many acts of kindness will certainly remain with us for many decades to come.

by Christopher Rollston

Works Referenced

Naveh, Joseph. 1960. “A Hebrew Letter from the Seventh Century B.C.” Israel Exploration Journal 129-139.
______. 1962a. “More Hebrew Inscriptions from Mesad Hashavyahu.” Israel Exploration Journal 12: 27-32.
______. 1962b. “The Excavations at Mesad Hashavyahu.” Israel Exploration Journal 12: 89-113.
______. 1966. “The Scripts of Two Ostraca from Elath.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 183: 27-30.
______. 1968. “A Palaeographic Note on the Distribution of the Hebrew Script.” Harvard Theological Review 61: 68-74.
______. 1970a The Development of the Aramaic Script. Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
______. 1970b. “The Scripts in Palestine and Transjordan in the Iron Age.” Pp. 277-283 in Essays in Honor of Nelson Glueck: Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century, ed. James A. Sanders. Garden City: Doubleday.
______. 1971. “Hebrew Texts in Aramaic Script in the Persian Period?” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 203: 27-32.
______. 1973. “Some Semitic Epigraphical Considerations on the Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet.” American Journal of Archaeology 77: 1-8.
______. 1978a. “Some Considerations on the Ostracon from ‘Izbet Sartah.” Israel Exploration Journal 28: 31-35.
______. 1978b. On Stone and Mosaic: The Aramaic and Hebrew Inscriptions from Ancient Synagogues. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration society.
______. 1980. “The Ostracon from Nimrud: An Ammonite Name-List.” Maarav 2/2:163-171.
______. 1982. “Some Recently Forged Inscriptions.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 247: 53-58.
______. 1987a. “Unpublished Phoenician Inscriptions from Palestine.” Israel Exploration Journal 37: 25-30.
______. 1987b. Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography, 2nd ed. Jerusalem: Magnes.
______. 1992. On Sherd and Papyrus: Aramaic and Hebrew Inscriptions from the Second Temple, Mishnaic and Talmudic Periods. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
______. 1998a. “Scripts and Inscriptions in Ancient Samaria.” Israel Exploration Journal 48: 91-100.
______. 1998b. “Fragments of an Aramaic Magic Book from Qumran.” Israel Exploration Journal 48: 252-261.
_______. 1998c. “Remarks on the Recently Published Moussaieff Ostraca.” Israel Exploration Journal 48: 269-273.
______. 2009. Studies in West-Semitic Epigraphy: Selected Papers. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
Naveh, Joseph and Saul Shaked, Magic Spells and Formulae: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1993.
______. Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 3rd ed. 1998).
Eph‘al, Israel and Naveh, Joseph. 1996 Aramaic Ostraca of the fourth Century BC from Idumaea. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
Yadin, Yigael and Naveh, Joseph. 1989. Masada I: The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963-1965 Final Reports, The Aramaic and Hebrew Ostraca and Jar Inscriptions. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
Cross, Frank Moore. 1962. “Epigraphic Notes on Hebrew Documents of the Eighth-Sixth Centuries B.C.: II. The Murabba‘at Papyrus and the Letter Found near Yabneh-yam.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 165: 34-46.
______. 2003. Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook: Collected Papers in Hebrew and West Semitic Palaeography and Epigraphy, Harvard Semitic Studies 51. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
Rollston, Christopher A. 2003. “Non-Provenanced epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests.” Maarav 10: 135-193.
______. 2004. “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic.” Maarav 11: 57-79.


6 Comments to “Professor Joseph Naveh: Epigraphic Reminiscences”

  1. very nicely said

  2. Thank you, Chris, for this fine review of Professor Naveh’s sine qua non contributions to the world’s understanding of ancient Israel. His life and work is a blessing to us all. Gratefully, ~james

  3. Thank you for sharing all of these insights into his scholarly contributions. The only thing I can add is that back in September 2000 while just beginning to study ancient inscriptions, I was deeply impressed that someone as eminent as Dr. Naveh would take the time to respond to my request for information about an inscribed bowl, & share his opinion. Saddened to hear that he’s gone now.

  4. One of the funny things about Yossi is that while he started as a “trench archaeologist” – only then moving to epigraphy (as you noted above), he always had a bit of a disdain for us “plain vanilla” archaeologists …
    I had the pleasure and honor of taking a few classes with him at HU in the late 80s and mid-90s, and always learned something new and interesting – in each and every class!

  5. francesco bianchi

    I too wpuld like to share some scientific and personal memories about the late Prof. Josef Naveh. A Italian- Israeli scholarship allowed me to attend his lessons in the Academical Year 1988-1989 He taught each Monday at his quiet home of Rehavia (at bet marzeah as we would say in Hebrew). We sit in a little room filled with books. We read Aramaic papyrii and Jewish or Aramaic inscriptions or ostraca. The lesson dealing with “Hazael’s Booty inscription” was really magnificient for insight and scholarship, as he completed the work before our eyes. Between the two lessons there was time for a quick lunch: during it Prof. Naved shared with me – a shy Italian graduate student – opinions about archeology (he did not like archeologists, though he sprake with pride about his work at Meshad Yeshaviahu), epigraphy or just about life. It was really a great time and all over the years, I treasured the memories of these lessons. His teaching, at the same time sure and humble, was really a blessing.

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