2010-01-10

A (Near) Bible Text Discovered in the Ancient Kingdom of David?

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by Neil Godfrey

They’re coming thick and fast now. Having just been hit with the discovery of Jesus’ house in Nazareth, or maybe his neighbour’s, we now have another Israeli archaeologist telling the media that a text on a pottery shard dated — and located — in King David’s jurisdiction, testifies to a Bible-like text that is unique to the prophetic and compassionate culture of ancient Israel. (Thanks to Sabio Lantz for alerting me to this piece of news.)

The claims come from Prof. Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa. He is not an archaeologist, but an historian and interpreter of archaeological finds. This is interesting because one of the loudest complaints against so-called “minimalists” like Philip Davies, Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson is that they are not archaeologists, but historians who interpret the archaeological reports. But moving on, and not to get sidetracked with inconsistencies like this, here is Professor Galil’s claims as reported in what appears to be a University of Haifa press release.

“This text is a social statement, relating to slaves, widows and orphans. It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as asah (“did”) and avad (“worked”), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah (“widow”) are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages. The content itself was also unfamiliar to all the cultures in the region besides the Hebrew society: The present inscription provides social elements similar to those found in the biblical prophecies and very different from prophecies written by other cultures postulating glorification of the gods and taking care of their physical needs,” Prof. Galil explains. . . . .

He adds that the complexity of the text discovered in Khirbet Qeiyafa, along with the impressive fortifications revealed at the site, refute the claims denying the existence of the Kingdom of Israel at that time.

Impressive fortifications refuting the claims denying the Kingdom of Israel?

A few months ago I discussed what the evidence of the fortifications found in Judea around this period. It is surely fanciful to link them with a centralized kingdom of Israel!

The University of Haifa press release continues:

The contents of the text express social sensitivity to the fragile position of weaker members of society. The inscription testifies to the presence of strangers within the Israeli society as far back as this ancient period, and calls to provide support for these strangers. It appeals to care for the widows and orphans and that the king – who at that time had the responsibility of curbing social inequality – be involved. This inscription is similar in its content to biblical scriptures (Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, Exodus 23:3, and others), but it is clear that it is not copied from any biblical text.

John Loftus on Debunking Christianity has already published a fine piece raising awareness of translation and dating controversies.

I repeat here the translation comparisons, and then cite a few ancient nonbiblical texts that ought to give pause to anyone taking Galil’s claims of the uniqueness of the society of ancient Judah.

The University of Haifa translation:

1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

Compare a translation by John Hobbins, “based on the judgments of Misgav, Yardeni, Ahituv, and Schniedewind”:

1          Do not do [anything bad?], and serve [personal name?]
2          ruler of [geographical name?] . . . ruler . . .
3          [geographical names?] . . .
4          [unclear] and wreak judgment on YSD king of Gath . . .
5          seren of G[aza? . . .] [unclear] . . .

The reader might be forgiven for questioning the certainty of either translation.

But assume the former is the truer. Here is a small sampling of similar Middle Eastern texts, from an appendix in The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson. To assign a uniqueness to Israel’s culture on the basis of a few lines of this sort of poetry is patriotic arrogance in the extreme.

Akkadian Counsels of Wisdom (Messiah Myth, p. 328)

To your opponent, do no evil. Recompense your evildoer with good. To your enemy, let justice [be done] . . . . Give food to eat; give date wine to drink; honor, clothe the one begging for alms. Over this, his god rejoices This is pleasing to the god Shamash; he rewards it with good. Be helpful. A maid in the house, do not . . .

Hittite Hymn to Telepinus (Messiah Myth, p. 328)

Whatever you say, O Telepinus, the gods bow down to you. Of the oppressed, the orphan and the widow you are father and mother; the cause of the orphan and the oppressed you, Telepinus, take to heart.

Compare Psalm 65:5

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy habitation.

Middle Assyrian Hymn to Marduk (Messiah Myth, p. 329)

Each day you give justice to the oppressed and abused; you administer the destitute, the widow, the wretched and the anxious . . .

I think there is much more public familiarity with the similar texts from Egypt which I won’t repeat here.

There is hardly anything remarkable or unique about the content of the text.

What might be a bit unusual is that the content is not about trade administrivia, nor, apparently, is it a few lines of praise for a deity. Or maybe it is a few lines about a deity. Or maybe . . . . Let’s wait and see.

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  • 2010-01-10 22:13:14 UTC - 22:13 | Permalink

    Thanks for the post !!
    Even the Science blogs give it favorable biased press ! Geez !

  • rey
    2010-01-11 03:42:48 UTC - 03:42 | Permalink

    This seems like such a non-find to me. Aside from the bulk of the text being debatable, the lack of the proper name in line 1 (the translation of which seems fairly certain) “don’t do [something] but serve [somebody]” means we don’t know whether this text was written by a worshiper of Yahweh or Baal or whoever. When I said similar things in the comment at Exploring our Matrix I was jumped. Somehow this find makes the views of Old Testament “minimalism less plausible.” I fail to see how myself, however. They assure me its because fortifications of a particularly Judean character were found in the area, and they deride any idea that a foreign king might have used local labor to make them. No the Judean character comes from the fact that David was kind when they were made, and this little piece of pottery, the fortifications, it all proves the reality of King David, even though his name isn’t on any of it.

  • 2010-01-11 07:00:21 UTC - 07:00 | Permalink

    It takes more than a single pottery shard with text to establish a kingdom. The evidence I outlined in previous posts is such that Jerusalem and Judea at this time simply lacked the infrastructure and relative geopolitical status to be anything resembling the biblical Kingdom of Judah.

    If the required evidence does eventually unearth, then that’s fine. But one does have to remain a little cautious when there does appear to be such a regular glut of finds that are used to throw the spotlight on popular tourist areas and to extol a particular ideological and nationalist bent whose application is not without some international controversy.

  • 2010-01-11 07:55:50 UTC - 07:55 | Permalink

    I’m more interested in the philological implications of the find. Is it a nascent form of ancient hebrew, or is it canaanite?

  • 2010-01-11 08:07:31 UTC - 08:07 | Permalink

    What exactly is “Canaanite” and what exactly is ancient Hebrew? One of the studies that has piqued my interest in this question: The Canaanites and their land, with an overview in Vetus Testamentum.

  • rey
    2010-01-16 15:25:48 UTC - 15:25 | Permalink

    Funny satire here parodying some of the wild claims made about this ostracon with an obviously fake (you’ve got to see the scribbly picture) discovery of a similar ostracon that’s a letter from King David to his mother. I ran accross the link to this on Exploring our Matrix.

    • 2010-01-17 15:53:58 UTC - 15:53 | Permalink

      I just caught up with that parody. Thanks for posting it here. It deserves the widest circulation! :-)

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