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 (, 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 ), 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 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 ( 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 ( ).

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.


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
A Guest Post by Prof. Dr. Thomas Schneider
University of British Columbia

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.


Dr. Thomas Schneider

The Early History of the Alphabet and the Recent Claim that the Northwest Semitic Inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are Hebrew: Spoiler Alert, They’re Not.

23 November 2016

serabit-el-khadm-rollstonsdrawingThe Early History of the Alphabet and the Recent Claim that the Northwest Semitic Inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadm and Wadi el-Hol are Hebrew: Spoiler Alert, They’re Not.
By Christopher Rollston
Recently, it has been claimed by Douglas Petrovich that the Early Alphabetic Inscriptions (some of which date to as early as the 18th century BCE) from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are Hebrew. His volume on these inscriptions will be published by Carta (Jerusalem) in the coming months. Petrovich also presented a paper on this subject at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research on Thursday, November 17th, 2016. I was present for his presentation. Alas, I am confident that his proposal for these inscriptions will not get traction with scholars who work in the field, that is, scholars who work in the fields known as Palaeography and Comparative Semitics. I will write a much longer discussion of his proposal fairly soon (around the time the book comes out). But I wish to put pen to paper at this moment as well, so as to help bring some important empirical evidence to the fore.

But before discussing some of the serious problems with the Petrovich proposal, I should like to emphasize first that the core inscriptions that form the basis of Petrovich’s claim are not recent discoveries. (1) In fact, in the case of the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem (in the Sinai), these have been known for more than a century (with publications on them going back, for example, to 1906 and 1916 by Gardiner). (2) And as for the Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from Wadi el-Hol (also in Egypt), these were published more than a decade ago (Darnell, Dobbs-Allsopp, Lundberg, McCarter, Zuckerman, 2005) in a volume published by the American Schools of Oriental Research for which I served as an external reviewer. Now to some of the salient details about Petrovich’s proposal and some of the empirical problems with it (there are a rather large number of problems, but I’ll focus on some of the most salient ones).

I. Douglas Petrovich argued (in his presentation at ASOR) that root-words such as rb (“great,” “big”), ‘l (“God”), yyn (“wine”) are present in the Early Alphabetic inscriptions and that these are Hebrew words. These words are attested in Hebrew, but that is only part of the story. Namely, these words are actually not just Hebrew but rather they appear in many Semitic languages. For example, this root for “big,” “great,” occurs not just in Hebrew, but also in Phoenician, Ugaritic, Aramaic, Akkadian, Old South Arabic (among others). Similarly, the word ‘El for God is also Common Semitic and it occurs in Ugaritic, Phoenician, Akkadian, Aramaic, Old South Arabic (along with some others). Or again, the word for “wine” (sometimes spelled with two yods and sometimes with one) occurs not just in the Semitic languages (such as Ugaritic, Phoenician, Arabic), but even in Indo-European languages such as Hittite! (and it comes into Greek and Latin, and ultimately even into the Romance Languages and even English). In short, there is no word that can be considered distinctively Hebrew in the Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem, Wadi el-Hol, or any other Early Alphabetic Inscription. Rather, for more than a century, the best that we can say is that these Early Alphabetic inscriptions are written in Canaanite, that is, the language of the Ancient Canaanites (who lived in ancient Canaan and often traveled down into Egypt, a tradition also reflected in Genesis). Thus, to say that these inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are somehow distinctively Hebrew is just not going to work. After all, if a word occurs in lots of different languages, that word cannot be considered diagnostic for one language. For that to be the case, that word would have to be present ONLY in one language. And that’s just not what we have with these inscriptions.

II. We have hundreds of Hebrew inscriptions and the earliest of these dates to ca. 900 BCE (see my article in Biblical Archaeology Review on “The Oldest Hebrew Inscription” for some of the most relevant inscriptions) and the alphabet of these Hebrew inscriptions has twenty-two consonantal letters. The Early Alphabetic Inscriptions (e.g., from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol), however, have twenty-seven consonantal letters. Thus, to claim that these inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are Hebrew is an argument that is strained well beyond the breaking point.

III. The Early Alphabetic Inscriptions are written from left-to-right (dextrograde), right-to-left (sinistrograde), and columnar. The Old Hebrew inscriptions are uniformly written from right-to-left (that is, sinistrograde). Thus, even with regard to the direction of writing, the attested inscriptions that are definitively Old Hebrew do not correspond with the diversity of directions that is present in the Early Alphabetic inscriptions. Again, the problem with the claim that these from Serabit and el-Hol are Hebrew is that the evidence doesn’t line up very well. And only the most strained of arguments can make it “line up.”

IV. In one of the Egyptian inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem (i.e., many inscriptions are present at this site, most of them are written in Egyptian, not Northwest Semitic…and as for one of them written in Egyptian…), Petrovich attempts to read the word ‘br, a word that is the root for the word “to cross over,” and when used as an ethnicon is the basis for the word “Hebrew.” The first thing that I would say is that this is a very, very strained reading of the Egyptian inscription. I am confident that few trained Egyptologists will embrace Petrovich’s reading of this text as having the root ‘br. Furthermore, even if this root were to be present, the fact of the matter is that even that root word (ayin, bet, resh) is attested in lots of different Semitic languages, including Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Old South Arabic, Akkadian, and Ugaritic. And in these cases, the word can and normally does mean “to cross over,” “to overstep.” In short, one must be careful to understand and remember that if a word occurs in multiple Semitic languages, it cannot be considered diagnostic or reflective of just one of those languages…and that holds true for all words, including the root ‘br.

V. In short, the things that Douglas Petrovich considers to be markers of Hebrew are, in fact, just markers of the Semitic languages in general. We even have a term of these sorts of words that occur in multiple Semitic languages. We call them “Common Semitic,” because they are attested in so many languages. In short, the only thing that can reasonably be said about the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol (etc.) is that they are written in a Northwest Semitic language and script. There is nothing in these inscriptions that is diagnostic for Hebrew. It would be interesting if there were features that could be considered distinctively Hebrew, but there are not. So, as has been the case for a very long time, we refer to these inscriptions as Canaanite or Early Alphabetic. And from this script called Canaanite or Early Alphabetic, the Phoenician script will later develop during the final decades of the 2nd millennium (and that’s an interesting story in and of itself). And from the Phoenician script, the Hebrew and Aramaic scripts will come in the early First Millennium (and that’s another interesting story). But that’s a long ways down the line in terms of time…long after the scribes of Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol penned their inscriptions. Thus, the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol are definitely not Hebrew.

Respectfully submitted,

Dr. Christopher Rollston (Ph.D. Johns Hopkins University)
George Washington University
Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
Washington, DC

The Jerusalem Papyrus: Complementary Notations

1 November 2016

The Jerusalem Papyrus: Complementary Notations

by Dr. Christopher Rollston, George Washington University

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 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.


(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).


Christopher Rollston

The New ‘Jerusalem’ Papyrus: Not so Fast…

26 October 2016

Here are some things to remember, as this Jerusalem Papyrus garners attention:

I. The fact that the papyrus itself has been carbon dated to the 7th century BCE certainly does not mean that the writing on the papyrus is ancient In fact, it really means nothing. After all, ancient papyrus is readily available for purchase online (check the web and see!), thus, no modern forger worth his or her salt would forge an inscription on modern papyrus. Rather, he or she would purchase some ancient papyrus online and then write a text on it. It happens fairly often (the Marzeah Papyrus is a good example of this, as is the Jesus Wife Papyrus). In short, for anyone to conclude that this (or any) inscription must be ancient because the papyrus is ancient is quite naïve (For similar statements about inks, see VII, below). Thus, Caveat Eruditus.

II. There are some palaeographic and orthographic anomalies and inconsistencies in this papyrus inscription that are concerning and may suggest that it is modern, not ancient. Thus, again, Caveat Eruditus.

III. Modern forgers often use sensational content….after all this *raises* the price and it *lowers* the critical thinking capacity of those who very much wish for something to be true (e.g., the Jesus Wife Papyrus, the James Ossuary, and Jehoash Inscription, Moussaieff Ostraca, etc.). The content of the Jerusalem Papyrus is certainly sensational…and it is ever so convenient that on this piece with so few words such sensational content was found.

IV. The Jerusalem Papyrus is from the antiquities market and it has been floating around on the market for a few years now. It was not found on an actual archaeological excavation. I saw some good images of it a few years ago in Jerusalem.

V. There are many modern inscriptional forgeries on the market, as I have argued in various publications, for some fifteen years now (most of these articles are available via The money that modern forgers and dealers can make on modern forgeries is astronomical, consistently in the five and six figure range. The motivation is strong. In this case, this papyrus was seized, but that does not mean that it could not have been produced in the modern period with the intent of marketing it.

VI. Forgeries are often reported to have “been found here, or there, at some specific location. This has been the case since long before the Shapira Forgeries of the mid to late 1800s. And it was the case with the Hebron Philistine Inscriptions, the Jehoash Inscription, the Ivory Pomegranate, the James Ossuary and so many others. In short, I’m sure that some story will surface about the purported “find spot” of this papyrus inscription. I would urge caution, though, as forgers and dealers have a strong vested interest in attempting to dupe.

VII. Regarding ink, it is also worth emphasizing, as I did long ago in my first Maarav articles on forgeries (2003, and 2004) that the chemical composition of inks has been the subject of study for some time (note, for example, that in the editio princeps of the Lachish Ostraca, published in 1938, there is reference to the chemical composition of the ink). Thus, forgers have the capacity to know that which they must replicate (in terms of chemical composition of the inks) for an ink to be the same, or virtually the same, in chemical composition to actual ancient inks. Furthermore, the core component of carbon-based inks is ancient carbonized remains….and such remains are readily available (e.g., on excavations and the antiquities market) in the form of burnt wood and so the capacity is present for faked inks to be produced in the modern period that yield an ancient C-14 date. Moreover, of course, a clever forger might simply purchase some ancient inscription on the antiquities market (e.g., one with mundane content and so not a high-value inscription) and then carefully scrape the ink from that inscription and then mix that (dry) ink with water and then use that ink in a ]modern-forgery with sensational content. Using such methods, a forged, modern inscription could pass all the lab tests. In short, this is a game of cat and mouse and modern forgers have substantial motivation for producing modern forgeries with ink that can “pass all the tests.” Again, caveat eruditus [NB: the material in this paragraph, that is, VII, was added on October 27, 2016, a day after my initial post].

VIII. In short, to those wishing to declare that the letters on this papyrus inscription are ancient, I would say: ‘Not so fast!’

IX. Ultimately, I believe that there is a fair chance that although the papyrus itself is ancient the ink letters are actually modern…that is, this inscription is something that I would classify as a possible modern forgery.

X. Recently, I signed a contract with Eerdmans Publishing for a volume (almost entirely completed at this time) entitled _Forging History in the Ancient World of the Bible & the Modern World of Biblical Studies_. The Jerusalem Papyrus inscription will be in that volume…

Dr. Christopher A. Rollston, George Washington University

The Tel Aviv University PNAS Study: Some Methodological Musings

13 April 2016


Tel Aviv University’s Epigraphic Hebrew Project is among the most innovative and important in the world, with the collaboration of scholars from the hard sciences, epigraphy, and archaeology. During recent years, a number of seminal articles have been published as part of this project. Very recently, an additional multiple-author article has appeared in PNAS (April 2016). This article is entitled “Algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judah’s military correspondence sheds light on composition of biblical texts.” I have served as a consultant on Tel Aviv’s Epigraphic Project and find the project to be particularly important, productive, and auspicious. I am not among the authors of this article, but I find the technology, hard sciences, and mathematics in the article to be especially impressive. At this juncture, I shall summarize the salient components of the PNAS article, some of the conclusions of the article, and then I shall offer some sober reflections.

I. The Tel Aviv University Study, the Postulates, the Conclusions:
The Tel Aviv study is based on an innovative an important algorithmic analysis of sixteen ostraca (i.e., ink inscriptions on broken piece of pottery called potsherds) from the Judean fortress of Arad. The English publication of the Hebrew-language Inscriptions from Arad appeared in print in 1981 (Aramaic inscriptions were also found there, but from a later period). The volume is entitled Arad Inscriptions, authored by Yohanan Aharoni (Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society). The Hebrew inscriptions in this volume number 112 (this includes ostraca, inscriptions incised into pottery, and seals).
(1) The Tel Aviv University study published in PNAS analyzed the following ostraca: 1,2,3, 5, 7, 8, 16, 17, 18, 21, 24, 31, 38, 39, 40, and 111. (2) The Tel Aviv study presupposes that all sixteen of these inscriptions were written ca. 600 BCE (pages 2-3). (3) Based on the analysis of the handwriting on these sixteen inscriptions, the authors stated that they “deduce the presence of at least six authors” in this group of sixteen ostraca (page 1). (4) The authors of the PNAS study believe that some of these ostraca were “most likely” composed at Arad (e.g., Ostraca 31 and 39) and some were probably dispatched from other locations (e.g., Ostraca 7, 18, 24, 40). Within the abstract it is stated even more emphatically. Namely, “our algorithmic analysis, complemented by the textual information, reveals a minimum of six authors within the examined inscriptions. The results indicate that in this remote fort literacy had spread throughout the military hierarchy, down to the quartermaster and probably even below that rank” (page 1). (5) Because Arad was a military fortress and there are some named military officials, the authors posit that there must have been “a proliferation of literacy” at this time period (NB: the term “proliferation of literacy” occurs numerous times in the article), that is, around 600 BCE. (6) Part of their reasoning is based on the fact that there were similar fortress sites at places such as Tel Malhata, Lachish, Horvat ‘Uza and so from this they contend that by “extrapolating the minimum of six authors in 16 Arad ostraca to the entire Arad corpus, to the whole military system in the southern Judahite frontier, to military posts in other sectors of the kingdom, to central administration towns such as Lachish, and to the capital, Jerusalem, a significant number of literate individuals can be assumed to have lived in Judah ca. 600 BCE” (page 3-4). (7) The authors then argue that “the spread of literacy in late-monarchic Judah provides a possible stage setting for the compilation of literary works. “ The authors concede that “biblical texts could have been written by a few and kept in seclusion in the Jerusalem Temple, and the illiterate populace could have been informed about them in public readings and verbal messages by these few.” But they contend that “widespread literacy offers a better background for the composition of ambitious works such as the Book of Deuteronomy, and the history of Ancient Israel in the Books of Joshua to Kings” (page 4). (8) Ultimately, the authors conclude that by ca. 600 BCE, therefore, all of this “implies that an educational infrastructure that could support the composition of literary texts in Judah already existed before the destruction of the First Temple” (586 BCE).


II. Rollston’s Reflections
A. There has been sufficient inscriptional evidence for some time from the world of ancient Israel to contend that already by 800 BCE there was sufficient intellectual infrastructure, that is, well-trained scribes, able to produce sophisticated historical and literary texts. Indeed, I argued for this a decade ago in a detailed epigraphic article (Rollston 2006), and I was not the first epigrapher to do so. Moreover, among the most important recent monographs discussing scribal education in ancient Israel, within the broader context of the ancient Near East are those of David Carr (2005), Karel Van der Toorn (2007), Seth L. Sanders (2009). And long before this, the subject of schools and literacy in ancient Israel was the object of much discussion in scholarly literature, with Hermisson (1968), Whybray (1974), Lemaire (1981) being among the most enduring. Reference could also be made to the work of D.W. Jamieson-Drake’s work (1991), although a number of scholars have discussed the serious problems with the data and the assumptions that served as a foundation for that volume. And, of course, I would wish to emphasize the careful and enduring work of the great James Crenshaw on the subject of scribal education in ancient Israel (1985; 1998). In short, the subject of writing and literacy in ancient Israel and Judah has a long history within the field. As for my own work, the main point for which I have contended is that we have sufficient epigraphic evidence to demonstrate that there was detailed, sophisticated, standardized education in the Old Hebrew writing system (script, orthography, hieratic numerals, phonology) in ancient Israel and Judah. And the evidence for that is already present by ca. 800 BCE (Rollston 2006; 2008; 2010; 2012). For this sophisticated scribal apparatus, I used the term “intellectual infrastructure” during a presentation in Jerusalem during May of 2013 (now forthcoming 2016). I believe that the cumulative epigraphic evidence from sites such as Kuntillet Ajrud, Beth Shean, Tel Rehov, Arad, Samaria, Jerusalem, Lachish, Horvat Uza, Tel Ira, and Beer-Sheva is compelling. And epigraphs in Phoenician, Moabite, Aramaic, Ammonite, and even Edomite augment the Old Hebrew data substantially. More recently, I have discussed scribal curriculum in Old Hebrew in some detail (2015; forthcoming 2016). Thus, the first point that I would wish to make regarding the PNAS study is that with its date of ca. 600 BCE, this study is too conservative. I would contend that we have such evidence already two hundred years prior to this. As an ancillary note, I should like to emphasize that I am not arguing here arguing that this or that portion of the Bible hails from a particular place and time (that is a separate, longer discussion, of course, because of the long transmission history of much of the biblical material), although I concur with the consensus of the field that the late 7th and early 6th centuries were periods of substantial literary productivity in Judah. But most importantly, to reiterate, I am contending that the epigraphic evidence at hand demonstrates rather nicely that there were educated scribes in Israel and Judah by the late 9th and early 8th centuries BCE and that these scribes were capable of writing fine historical and literary texts. Thus, in sum, as for the PNAS article, I would say (with some good-natured humor and a turn of phrase), “I see your 600 and raise you 200” (i.e., to ca. 800 BCE).

B. The authors of this study contend that all sixteen of the ostraca they analyzed were written around 600 BCE. However, the original excavator (Yohanan Aharoni) argued that some of these ostraca (i.e., the ones studied in the PNAS article) came from stratum VI (e.g., 1-24, etc.), some from stratum VII (e.g., Arad 31, 38, 39), and at least one (Arad 40) from stratum VIII (Aharoni 1981). In other words, the original excavator argued that the sixteen ostraca used in this study were from three different chronological horizons, not one. That is, the original excavator believed that these ostraca definitely did not come from the same time-frame, but rather during the course of ca. a century. There has been a substantial amount of discussion regarding the stratigraphy of Arad (especially Z. Herzog 2002, 3-109) and even Aharoni noted that some of the inscriptions were found in loci that he viewed as mixed or unclear (see Aharoni 1981, 181-185 for a loci-table and also his discussion in the body of the volume for all the ostraca). I conversed with Professor Ze’ev Herzog about Arad about the stratigraphy of Arad VI and VII a number of years ago (namely, 1998), as I wished to see strata VI and VII as contemporary. At that time, he emphasized to me that these were separate strata, sequential, not contemporary. That is not to suggest that there is a vast expanse of time between these two strata, as there is not, but the point he emphasized was that stratum VII and VI were sequential, not contemporaneous. In terms of absolute dates, Aharoni dated the Stratum-VII destruction to ca. 609 BCE and the Stratum-VI destruction to ca. 586 BCE. As for stratum VIII, the dates for it have been much discussed as well. Aharoni argued that Stratum VIII-destruction was ca. 701 BCE (during the punitive campaign of Sennacherib against Judah). Some would wish to push the date a little later, of course. In any case, Arad Ostracon 40 is one that Aharoni considered to hail from Stratum VIII. Nadav Na’aman (one of the authors of the PNAS study) has argued that Arad Ostracon 40 is to be associated with the ostraca from Arad VI. His reasons are as follows: (a) “No eighth century letter written on a potsherd has been discovered in any site in Palestine….it seems that writing letters on pottery began only in the seventh century BCE.” (b) “the orthography indicates a relatively late date, with internal matres lectionis for ‘yš (lines 7-8) and yhwd[h] (line 13).” (c) “Epigraphically, the letter [Arad 40] has many parallels with both Stratum VIII and VII-VI ostraca…” (d) “The situation described in the ostracon closely matches the reality of the late years of the Judahite monarchy.” (e) In addition, Na’aman suggests that “Malkiyahu, the recipient of the letter [Arad Ostracon 40] is possibly the same officer Malkiyahu the son of Zerabu’ur, who led troops to Ramat-Negev according to Ostracon 24 from Arad” (Na’aman 2003, 199-204). The authors of the PNAS article embrace Na’aman’s view (see footnote on page 3, and note also that the authors of the PNAS study are also very much aware of the difficult stratagraphic history of Arad and the secondary literature discussing it). I would suggest that a fair amount of Na’aman’s reasoning is potentially problematic. (a) Thus, regarding epistolary texts in the ancient Near East, I would emphasize that this is a very old practice, centuries older than even the oldest Levantine alphabetic texts. That is, letters were around in the ancient Near East for a very long time. Moreover, using potsherds as a medium for writing alphabetic texts is also well attested long before ca. 600 BCE, of course. I would be cautious, therefore, about arguing on the basis of an absence of an epistolary ostracon, that we should date Arad 40 to the early 6th century (i.e., Stratum VI). (b) The usage of internal matres lectionis in Old Hebrew inscriptions does increase during the late 7th and early 6th centuries, but the fact of the matter is that we do have the usage of matres lectionis in Old Hebrew inscriptions already by the end of the 8th century, with the Royal Steward Inscription from Jerusalem being a prime example (Rollston 2006, 63-64). (c) As for the script, I find some of the forms in Arad 40 to reflect a time-frame prior to the late 7th or early 6th century. In short, I do not see a compelling palaeographic reason for dropping the date of Arad 40. (d) Judah was in a difficult political situation from the reign of Ahaz (d. ca. 715 BCE) to the assassination of the Judean Governor Gedaliah (sometime shortly after the fall of Judah in 586 BCE). And Edom was a alive and well in the region for much of this period, as the two-volume magnum opus edited by Thomas E. Levy, Mohammad Najjar, and Erez Ben-Yosef demonstrates (2014). Therefore, I find it difficult to assume that the only time during the final century of the First Temple Period that Edom could have been a nemesis for Judah was ca. 600 BCE. (e) As for the personal name Malkiyahu, note that Na’aman used the word “possibly.” That’s important. Moreover, a quick look at the Hebrew Bible reveals that some eight people have names based on this root, and I’m confident that there are more (if I looked harder). In short, this is not a rare name. So to assume that they are the same person is…well…an assumption that might be erroneous. Note in this connection Lawrence Mykytiuk’s foundational work on personal names, a work that reminds us all of the importance of having at least a shared name and a shared patronymic (or some other inscribed feature, such as the same title, etc., etc.) for any attempt to suggest some sort of identification between two individuals (2004). And, of course, in Arad Ostracon 24, we have reference to someone called Malkiyahu son of Zerab’ur, but in Arad Ostracon 40 we have reference simply to Malkiyahu (with no patronymic). That’s a problem for anyone attempting to posit a certain, or near-certain identification. Note, therefore, that because papponymy (naming after a grandfather) was a very common practice in the ancient Near East (including Israel and Judah), one could make a decent case that the Malkiyahu of Arad Ostracon 40 is the grandfather of the Malkiyahu of Arad Ostracon 24, with the former being a well-known patriarch of the family. Although this might (and I repeat, *might*) account for most of the data that we have (including the fact that in the case of Arad 40 we do not have a patronymic but in Arad 24 we do), I am disinclined to speculate. After all, without a patronymic, and with names based on the root mlk being fairly common, it is simply too problematic to argue that these two are definitely the same person. So, I won’t. In this too, therefore, I must differ with the authors of the PNAS study.

C. As for the contention of this Tel Aviv Study that we can posit a “proliferation of literacy” at ca. 600 BCE, based on the assumption that there are at least six different hands in the sixteen ostraca that were analyzed, I would simply suggest that this is a very broad assumption that I would not be inclined to make. After all, the assumption of the PNAS study that all of these ostraca come from ca. 600 BCE is difficult to embrace (see discussion above). Furthermore, in reality we do not know how many of these ostraca might, or might not, have been produced at the site of Arad. Compare, however, some of the assumptions of the Tel Aviv study (e.g., page 3, and footnote). That is, from my perspective, there is nothing in the content of these ostraca that make it at all compelling to state that any were definitely produced at Arad. After all, even lists could have come from elsewhere. That is not to say that there were not readers and writers at Arad. There were. After all, that’s where the ostraca ended up. But the origin-point is not something that can be ascertained on the basis of the data at hand. Thus, rather than arguing on the basis of sixteen ostraca (that ended up at Arad) that we have a “proliferation of literacy,” I would simply conclude that we have some readers and writers of inscriptions at Arad. That’s all we can say. Who were these readers and writers at Arad? I would emphasize that these writers may very well have been scribes associated with the army. After all, we do have references in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., 2 Kings 25:19; Jeremiah 52:25) to the “scribe of the leader of the army” (and I find this title to be something that can be considered a credible, historical thing). In addition, I do think that it is reasonable to contend that some military officials (at various levels of the command structure) could read and write, and I have noted this in print as well. But, I would wish to emphasize that we do not have evidence for enlisted soldiers, that is, the average soldier, reading and writing. We have evidence for some literacy among some of the army officials. That’s what I think we can say. Furthermore, although this study does not suggest this, per se, some have already seized upon it (within hours of the appearance of this study!) and begun to contend that we have people from all walks of life writing and reading in First Temple Judah. That’s quite a leap. I would, therefore, emphasize that we have no evidence for the common folk writing and reading, not from the epigraphic record and not from the Bible (see especially Ian Young’s articles on literacy, 1998a; 1998b). I’d like to be able to state that there were carpenters who built houses by day and read papyri manuscripts at night. And I’d like to say that there were blacksmith’s shaping metal over a furnace during the day and penning contracts at night. And I’d like to be able to say that there were potters turning pots on the wheel by day and writing alphabetic acrostics by the light of olive-oil lamps before dawn. And I’d like to say that there were shepherds guarding their flocks by day and writing out parchment king-lists by night. But I can’t. We have no inscriptions with content that causes us to think that people from these vocations are producing or consuming texts (on some poorly written texts, by people with little training, see below). Some might counter that we seem to have so many more inscriptions from the late First Temple Period and so we must assume the proliferation of literacy. I would counter that we also have a growing population and thus a burgeoning governmental apparatus during the late First Temple Period, and so we have a need for more professional scribes and literate elites. Governments need scribes and literate officials. And as government grows, so does the number of scribes. That’s fine, but it does not mean that we can assume that the general populace (people from all walks of life) is reading and writing texts. Furthermore, since we have a growing population in Judah, even though we have more scribes and literate officials, it could be argued that the percentage of the population that is literate stays about the same. Also perhaps of some consequence regarding readers and writers in antiquity, we actually have a Jerusalem scribe in the early 2nd century BCE who notes that scribes were reading, writing, traveling, and solving riddles….but the average person was simply not able to do such things (Sira 38:24-39:11). It is reasonable to posit that this was even more the case during the First Temple Period.

D. To be sure, most people contemplating the subject of literacy today bring their own experiences to the table, namely, the widespread literacy of the modern world. But in the modern world, we normally have government mandated education of (for all practical purposes) the entire population. Things were very different in antiquity. We have no evidence at all of government mandated education of large portions of the populace in antiquity. So what do we have? We know that scribes and high governmental officials (temple, palace) and military officials read and wrote. Did some of the trades-people sometimes learn to write? I suppose so. But was it common? No, I don’t think so. Furthermore, note that we have several hundred Old Hebrew inscriptions from the Iron Age that are very well done, with a sophisticated knowledge of letter morphology, stance, orthographic conventions, the use of hieratic numerals, knowledge of epistolary conventions, some understanding of phonology, the ability to use effectively different tenses, parts of speech, and to do so very well. I’d like to suggest that everyone could do that, but I can’t. And, in fact, when someone without formal, standardized education attempted to write an Old Hebrew inscription (or any other ancient script), it is painfully obvious. And we do have a few inscriptions to prove that! In short, much as it pains me to say it, the writers in readers of texts in ancient Israel and Judah were elites, not the common person. In essence, the common person could get along just fine in life without learning to read or write (see Rollston 2006, 48-49 regarding the time it takes to learn one’s first writing system, even an alphabetic one).


So, in sum, the Tel Aviv Epigraphic Project is scintillating. The technology and talent that the authors of this PNAS article bring to the table is unmatched anywhere in the world. But the sociological conclusions about the “proliferation of literacy” in Judah is not something that can be posited on the basis of this study. The methodology is stunningly important, but I would wish to see more caution regarding the conclusions.


Aharoni, Y. Arad Inscriptions. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society, 1981.
Carr, D.M. Writing on the Tablet of theHeart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Crenshaw, J. L. “Education in Ancient Israel.” JBL 104 (1985): 601-615.
_____. Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Faigenbaum-Golovin, S.; Shaus, A.; Sober, B. ; Levin, D.; Na’aman, N.; Sass, B.; Turkel, E.; Piasetzky, E.; Finkelstein, I. “Algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judah’s military correspondence sheds light on composition of biblical texts.” PNAS Early Edition (April 11, 2016): 1-6.
Jamieson-Drake, D.W. Scribes and Schools in Monarchic Judah: A Socio-Archaeological Approach. JSOTSup 109. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
Hermisson, H. J. Studien zur israelitischen Spruchweisheit. WMANT 28. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1968.
Herzog, Z. “The Fortress Mount at Tel Arad: An Interim Report.” Tel Aviv 29 (2002): 3-109.
Lemaire, A. Les écoles et la formation de la Bible dans l’ancien Israël. OBO 39. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1981.
Levy, T. E., Najjar, M., Ben-Yosef, E., eds. New Insights into the Iron Age Archaeology of Edom, Southern Jordan: Volumes 1-2. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, UCLA, 2014.
Mykytiuk, L. J. Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 BCE. SBLAB 12. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.
Na’aman, N. “Ostracon 40 from Arad Reconsidered.” Pp. 199-204 in Saxa Loquentur: Studien zur Archäologie Palästinas/Israels, Festschrift für Volkmar Fritz zum 65. Geburtstag, eds. C. G. Den Hertog, U. Hübner, S. Münger. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag 2003.
Rollston, C. A. “Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence.” BASOR 344 (2006): 47-74.
_____. “The Phoenician Script of the Tel Zayit Abecedary and Putative Evidence for Israelite Literacy.” Pp. 61-96 in Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context, eds. R. E. Tappy and P. K. McCarter, 2008.
_____.Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age. SBL Archaeology and Biblical Studies, 11. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.
_____. “An Old Hebrew Stone Inscription from the City of David: A Trained Hand and a Remedial Hand on the Same Inscription.” Pp. 189-196 in Puzzling Out the Past: Studies in Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures in Honor of Bruce Zuckerman, eds. M. J. Lundberg, S. Fine, W.T. Pitard. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
_____. “Scribal Curriculum during the First Temple Period: Epigraphic Hebrew and Biblical Evidence.” Pp. 71-101 in Contextualizing Israel’s Sacred Writings: Ancient Literacy, Orality, and Literary Production, ed. Brian B. Schmidt. SBL Ancient Israel and Its Literature, 22. Atlanta: SBL, 2015.
Sanders, S. L. The Invention of Hebrew. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
Toorn, K. van der. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Whybray, R.N. The Intellectual Tradition in the Old Testament. BZAW 135. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974.
Young, I. “Israelite Literacy: Interpreting the Evidence, Part 1. VT 48 (1998a): 239-253.
_____. “Israelite Literacy: Interpreting the Evidence, Part 2.” VT 48 (1998b): 408-422.

A Woman’s Seal and a Man’s Seal from First Temple Jerusalem Excavations

7 March 2016

A Woman’s Seal and a Man’s Seal from First Temple Jerusalem Excavations

By Dr. Christopher A. Rollston, George Washington University (

The announcement of two Iron Age seals from Jerusalem is most welcome. These were found on scientific excavations that have been conducted in Jerusalem by Drs. Doron Ben-Ami, Yana Tchekhanovets, and Salome Doron. The photos of the seals that have been released are those of Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

I. The Broader Context of the Jerusalem Seals

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.

II. The Readings of the Two New Jerusalem Seals

The first seal reads (Register 1): L‘lyhnḥ; (Register 2): bt. g’l. Translation: (Register 1): Belonging to ‘Elyhnḥ; (Register 2): daughter of Go’el. As is customary for seals, this seal (and the other one) begin with the letter lamed, that is, the “Lamed of Ownership.” The first personal name on this seal (i.e., on the first register) consists of two morphemes: ‘ly and hnḥ. Note that it is also arguably possible that the yod (y) is to be associated with the second morpheme (as a marker of the imperfect tense), rather than the first. In any case, the first morpheme is from the root meaning “to be high” and is associated with a number of personal names and divine names (e.g., the personal name ‘Eli in Samuel and the divine name ‘Elyon, for example, in Deut 32:8-9, et passim). The second morpheme is arguably that of the root nwḥ, in the Hiphil stem. From this verbal root come various names, including the personal name Noah of Genesis (Gen 6, et passim) and Samson’s father (Manoah, Judg 13). At this time, I would suggest that an acceptable translation of this personal name on the seal is something such as “God Most High has brought rest.” The second register begins with the standard word for daughter, that is, bt. Although this is not the first seal of a woman to be found, such seals are always of substantial importance because they were, and thus are, quite rare. The second personal name (G’l) is the standard word for “Redeemer” (e.g, a kinsman redeemer). This root is well attested in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Boaz is referred to as a kinsman redeemer (e.g., Ruth 3:13, et passim), because he functioned as a kinsman redeemer for the land and family of Elimelech. In the case of this seal from Jerusalem, that same root word is used as the basis of a personal name. Of course, the putative linguistic symmetry of the two verbal roots for the personal names on this seal is quite nice, with the first personal name referring to “bringing rest” and the second root revolving around the semantic realm of “kinsman redeemer,” (cf. Ruth 1:9, with Naomi’s statement that she hopes her daughters-in-law could find “rest” (nwḥ) in the house of a different husband, after the death of Naomi’s two sons).

The second seal can be read (Register 1): LS‘ryhw. b (or LS‘dyhw b); (Register 2): n.Šbnyhw. Translation: (Register 1): Belonging to Sa‘aryahu (or Sa‘adyahu), so- (Register 2): -n of Shebnayahu (with the word for “son” beginning at the end of the first register and concluding at the beginning of the second register, as is fairly typical at times in seals). The more difficult aspect of this seal is the proper reading of the fourth letter of the first register. The apparent morphology of the head of that letter in the published photo is strongly suggestive of a dalet, rather than a resh (because of what appears to be a slight overlap over of the head). But the length of the stem of that letter is more suggestive of a resh. To be absolutely certain of the reading (i.e., of the morphology of this letter), therefore, I’d prefer to be able to look at this under a microscope myself. Perhaps I can do that soon, permissions permitting. In any case, for the sake of argument, I will discuss both potential morphemes (i.e., of the reading dalet and of the reading resh) for the personal name on the first register. For S‘r, the lexeme is arguably the one that has the basic meaning “to visit, inspect, conduct affairs,” or the lexeme “heavy gale, high wind, to drive away, to blow away.” I slightly prefer the former lexeme, if the reading resh is accepted. Conversely, for the reading S‘d, the lexeme is arguably the one meaning “support, strengthen.” The presence of the yahwistic theophoric is also to be noted, as this is a nice marker of a Judean personal name, something that makes sense in a Jerusalem context, of course. The personal name of the second register (Shebnyahu) is attested in the Hebrew Bible and in the epigraphic record. For example, within Isaiah and Kings (Is 36:3; 2 Kgs 18:18, etc.), there is reference to an official state scribe during the time of Hezekiah (r. ca. 715-687 BCE) as Shebna (a shortened form of the same name on the seal; for additional references to this personal name, see Neh 9:4; 10:5, 12:14, etc.). Epigraphic references include the Old Hebrew Arad Inscriptions (e.g., Arad 27, late 7th/early 6th centuries BCE) and arguably the Royal Steward Inscription of Jerusalem (late 8th century BCE). In terms of meaning, some have suggested that the tri-literal root of this personal name means something such as “to come near, close.” Perhaps.

III. Script, Language, and Date

The script of both of these seals is the standard Old Hebrew script. The script of both seals is nicely done, certainly the work of a trained seal maker (for an important reference in Second Temple Jewish Literature to a seal-maker, see especially Ben Sira 38:27). I have seen some suggestions by some scholars that the script of the ‘Elyhnḥ Seal might be Ammonite. This is definitely not the case. The script of both of these seals is Old Hebrew. Note in particular the stance of the bet (on both seals), reflective of the standard recumbent stance of the Old Hebrew, rather than Ammonite. Regarding the date, I would contend that a date in the late 8th century or early 7th century BCE is the best palaeographic date. Regarding language, it can be said that the language of both of these seals is Old Hebrew, and, of course, the presence of the (Judean) Yahwistic theophoric on the Ben Shebnyahu Seal argues for this as well. Finally, I should also like to emphasize that the reason it was quite rare for women to have seals was not because, as some have apparently suggested, because of the “generally inferior economic status of women.” Rather, I would contend that it was because ancient Near Eastern societies (including that of the Iron Age Levant) were patriarchal. For this reason, men were normally responsible for most of the agreements that would require the sealing of documents. There were certainly some exceptions, as reflected in the lofty narratives about Job’s daughters (Job 42), the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 27), and the Noble Wife (Prov 31). But the biblical and epigraphic evidence converge to suggest that men were the normal brokers of agreements requiring sealed documents.

In sum, these two seals are Old Hebrew. They are both well done, the work of a well-trained seal maker. The palaeographic date that I would assign to them is that of the chronological horizon that spans from the late 8th century to the early 7th century BCE. The Yahwistic theophorics are predictable, but still important. The fact that one of these seals is that of a woman demonstrates that she was a very prominent woman indeed, someone who must have engaged in business and legal activities that necessitated her owning a seal. This is most impressive and certainly the most important component of these new finds.
Christopher A. Rollston, George Washington University (


22 March 2015

By Dr. Christopher Rollston, George Washington University (Washington, DC)


Myth Number One: Forgeries are Rare. Actually, forged inscriptions are quite common. In fact, people have been forging inscriptions for a very long time. True, recent decades have witnessed many modern epigraphic forgeries, coming on the heels of many notable forgeries during the late 19th century and early 20th century (Rollston 2003; Rollston 2004; Vaughn and Rollston 2005; Rollston 2005). But epigraphic forgeries are attested not just during the modern period, but also during the Middle Ages, and even earlier, with some of the earliest forgeries hailing from ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt (Rollston 2014), and with ancient Christians producing scores of modern forgeries as well (Ehrman 2012). During the past 140 years, most forged inscriptions were sold on the antiquities market.

Myth Number Two: Forged Inscriptions are Easy to Detect. Some forgeries are of low quality and easy, therefore, to detect, but some are so good that they have fooled some of the best scholars in the world (for discussion, see Rollston 2003; Rollston 2014).

Myth Number Three: There was just one Jesus. Actually, this was a fairly common name in the Second Temple Period (i.e., the time when Jesus of Nazareth lived). In fact, within the New Testament, there are at least five people with the name Yeshua (Jesus): namely, Yeshua (Joshua) the successor of Moses (e.g., Acts 7:45); Jesus son of Eliezer (Luke 3:29), Jesus Barabbas (Col 4:11), a resident of Cyprus named Bar-Jesus (i.e., son of Jesus, Acts 13:6) and Jesus of Nazareth. Second Temple Jewish literature contains references to many additional people with this name. Significantly, therefore, even if the entire “James Ossuary Inscription” were ancient, there would be no guarantee that it belonged to the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. For that to be the case, there would need to be a more specific descriptor, something such as “the brother of Jesus of Nazareth,” or “the brother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.” Since we do not have that sort of data for this inscription caution is required.



The James Ossuary was not found on a scientific expedition. Rather, it was pillaged from the ground and sold on the antiquities market. Thus, there is no reliable chain of custody for this ossuary. There are no photos of its discovery. There is no means of ascertaining the number of bones that were placed in this ossuary. Moreover, it should be remembered that the bones of multiple people were placed in a single ossuary at times (regardless of whether there was no name inscribed on the ossuary, or just one name, or two names, etc., etc.), and so even if some bone fragments were still in this ossuary, it would have been impossible to determine whose they were. Of course, because the James Ossuary was not found on a scientific expedition, and because the chain of custody cannot be determined with any certainty (because it has been in the hands of antiquities dealers and antiquities collectors), and because antiquities dealers sometimes place some bones in one ossuary that came from a different ossuary, to attempt to discern anything from any bone fragments in the James Ossuary would be fruitless. After all, without a clear chain of custody, forensic medicine is not at all decisive.


The script of the first half of this inscription /Y‘qwb br Ywsp/ reflects distinct depth and clarity. In addition, kerning (quite common in this period) is present. However, the second half of the inscription /’hwy d yshw‘/ is not carved with the same depth, clarity, and kerning. Because of camera angle and lighting (as well as shadowing), some photographs capture this rather well. Personal collation confirms that there is indeed a distinct difference in depth, clarity, and kerning between the first and second halves the inscription. Compare also the predominant consistency of the depth, clarity, and kerning of some of the longer ossuary inscriptions (e.g., Rahmani 70 Lid, Plate 11 [deep with kerning, slight reduction in size because of space constraints]; Rahmani 80 Lid, Plate 13; Rahmani 370 Lid, Plate 52 [light incising throughout]; Rahmani 430 Rim, Plate 62 [deep incising and kerning throughout]; Rahmani 560 Lid, Plate 80 [consistent depth and clarity]; Rahmani 796 Front, Plate 116 [light incising throughout]. Cf. Rahmani 12 Lid, Plate 2 [with “signature” not as deep, etc.]; Rahmani 893 Front, Plate 135 [reduction of depth and size, arguably an issue of centering].

Most Tenable Conclusion: Two Hands, with the words “James son of Joseph” written by one person and “Brother of Jesus” (i.e., brother of Yeshua) written by another person. However, based just on the script, it is tenable to suggest that (a) the hands are both ancient; or (b) the second hand is modern; (c) the entire inscription is modern and the forger was not assiduousness enough in forging. Within the fields of biblical studies, hermeneutics of suspicion have been invaluable. In my opinion, it is prudent to retain such hermeneutics with this market inscription as well, as it is the “brother of Yeshua” component (written in a different hand) that arguably makes this ossuary financially valuable. I should note that I have heard it suggested that “there is no logical reason for someone to add ‘brother of Yeshua’ to this inscription.” However, I can think of a million (financial) reasons for a forger to have done so. Of course, someone might retort that this assumes the modern forger would have *known* that this would make it valuable. I would think a forger would certainly know this. Someone might further retort that Golan did not know this reading until he was told and so would not have added it. I would suggest that any forger worth his salt would *want* epigraphers to *believe* that he did *not* know how significant this addition might be. It is a very savvy technique.


The Geological Survey of Israel performed SEM-EDS analyses on the patina of the “Ya‘akov Ossuary” (Rosenfeld and Ilani 2002). The results showed that the patina is composed mainly of CaC03 (93%) and contains Si – 5.0%; A1 – 0.7%; Fe – 0.3%; P – 0.4%; and Mg – 0.2%. The report notes that there are no modern elements (such as modern pigments), and the patina adheres firmly to the stone. Again, this is valuable information, but it is imperative that one not conclude or assume, on the basis of this evidence, that this entire inscription is ancient. Rather, this test simply demonstrates that this object need not be disqualified on the basis of anomalies in the chemical composition of the patina. It certainly does not authenticate the patina. Indeed, the report implicitly concedes this point with the words: “no evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found.” This is an important and honest assessment; however, it must be noted in the strongest possible terms that the absence of certain anomalies in the chemical composition of a patina is not the same as a demonstration of the antiquity of a patina. Note, however, that subsequent laboratory tests were performed and problems with the distribution of the patina were noted (Ayalon, Bar-Matthews, Goren 2004).


Forgers continue to produce some very sophisticated forgeries. These are sold on the antiquities market. High quality forgeries can and do sell for tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The James Ossuary was not found on a scientific expedition, but rather appeared mysteriously and was sold on the antiquities market. The chain of custody for this ossuary and its inscription cannot be known. The second half of the inscription on this ossuary (i.e., the part that says “brother of Jesus”) is the part that would potentially make this ossuary worth some money. Dramatic claims required decisive evidence. In the case of the James Ossuary, we simply do not have that caliber of evidence. Indeed, I consider (at least) the second half of the James Ossuary Inscription to be a probable modern forgery, not an inscription that can be said to be an ancient inscription connected with the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. I wish that this inscription could be said to be entirely ancient and I wish that it could be said that it is certainly to be connected with the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. But the evidence supporting this conclusion is simply too tenuous, alas.


Ayalon, A., Bar-Matthews, M., Goren, Y. “James Ossuary. Journal of Archaeological Science 31 (2004): 1185-1189).

Ehrman, B. Forgery and Counter-Forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. Oxford University Press, 2012

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

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

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

Rollston, C. “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.

Rosenfeld, A. Ilani, S. “SEM-EDS Analyses of Patina Samples,” BARev 28 (Nov/Dec 2002).

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

Wife of Jesus Coptic Papyrus: Brief Methodological Musings

10 April 2014


The first time that I saw a good image of this papyrus (early fall of 2012), I was suspicious about its authenticity and told my wisdom lit class (which happened to ask about it one evening, during a class in the early fall of 2012) that I believed it to be a probable modern forgery….the ink and the script just didn’t look right to me. That’s still the way that I feel. I have worked in Sahidic Coptic for ca. twenty years, having studied it formally during my doctoral program and having taught it recently at the graduate level. Moreover, I’ve read pretty heavily in the Nag Hammadi Corpus as well. And Hellenistic Greek is also in my wheelhouse, as are ancient inscriptions in general.

As for the laboratory tests, the carbon tests on the papyrus demonstrate that the papyrus is ancient. That’s no surprise. Just as modern forgers of ostraca use ancient pottery sherds for their logia, so also a modern forger of a papyrus inscription would use some ancient papyrus (which, although certainly not as readily available as pottery, is still available….with or without ancient ink). It should be emphasized that papyrus was often reused (note the phenomenon of palimpsests) and so the putative date for the papyrus itself (prior to the Common Era) is not an important issue at all, neither for authenticity, nor against authenticity. It is an absolute non-issue. Also, the fact that the “ink” used on this is consistent with the chemical composition of ancient ink is also not necessarily evidence for antiquity. After all, the chemical composition of ancient “ink” has been known for some time and the chemicals available in antiquity are certainly still available today. Thus, the chemical composition of the ink is not necessarily an argument in favor of authenticity. Also, it is also possible for someone to scrape off (e.g., from a papyrus) ancient ink from the words of some mundane ancient inscription….and then add a little water to the dried ink which had been scrapped off and then resuse the ink. Some people (including some scholars) assume that modern forgers are not all that bright (and thus would not be that clever in forging something). In contrast, I believe that modern forgers (at least from the final quarter of the 20th century and on) are quite sharp…..and for good reason they try to be very clever: after all, there is much money to be made and modern forgers knows this….so, as for this piece, I remain very suspicious of its authenticity. Perhaps it’s ancient….but I doubt it.

I should also note that if it turns out that Jesus of Nazareth was married (i.e., if some good, credible, first century evidence comes to light at some point in the future and demonstrates this), that sounds fine to me. In other words, I have no theological objections to this sort of thing. My concerns about this papyrus (which is later than the first century CE anyway), are only epigraphic in nature. I have no vested interest one way or the other.

Sincerely, Christopher Rollston

The James (Ya’akov) Ossuary: The Kalman Interview at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem (Video)

6 January 2014


The broadcast in its original airing may be viewed .

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