|13 November 2005
Earliest known rendering of the Hebrew alphabet found
On the last day of his 2005 archaeological dig at Tel Zayit, about 50 kilometres south of Tel Aviv (Israel), Ronald Tappy was photographing his site, when a supervisor asked him to look at 'some scratches' a college volunteer had found on a stone. When he saw the stone, early morning light fell so perfectly across its face that he could make out faint letters. They had been unnoticed earlier because they disappeared in the sun's glare.
It turned out to be an alphabet. "You could say this was Solomon's alphabet." he said. Dr. Tappy and his colleagues believe the 38-pound stone holds the ancestor of all alphabets.
Dr. Tappy is studying the stone with Kyle McCarter, a renowned expert on ancient Near Eastern writing at Johns Hopkins University, and directors of the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California. Because it was sealed in a layer of debris caused by a fire, roughly between 925 and 900 BCE he knew it could have been written no later than that time.
Some scholars argue that biblical accounts of King David and King Solomon were invented centuries later. These scholars claim that 10th-century Judeans were illiterate, but this stone shows that they could have recorded their history. One other purported 10th-century BCE inscription surfaced in 1908, but is not from a proper archaeological excavation.
Phoenicians, who lived on the coast, developed an alphabet, which Greeks and Romans later adapted. The ruins the Tel Zayit stone was found in reflect the inland culture of Jerusalem much more than the Phoenician coastal culture, Tappy said. "This is a site from the outskirts of a 10th-century kingdom that was establishing itself exactly at that time in Jerusalem. This is the time of the Solomonic kingdom in Jerusalem," he said. "The fact that you can go to its western extreme, to the most remote part of the kingdom, and find literacy at the very beginning of its development says a great deal about the sophistication of that early state."
William Dever, a professor emeritus from the University of Arizona, said that the finding is significant because it involves a subject of intense debate among scholars: whether the ancient Israelites were literate and, by extension, whether the Hebrew scriptures found in the modern Bible were written down or passed on word of mouth. "All successive alphabets in the ancient world, including the Greek one, derive from this ancestor at Tel Zayit," Tappy said. Skeptical scholars who have viewed photos of the tablet have disagreed, saying it's unclear if the language is Phoenician, Hebrew or a blend of both.
The finding will be discussed at a conference held by the Society of Biblical Literature which begins Nov. 19 in Philadelphia.
Source: Associated Press, The Globe and Mail, Nepa News, Post Gazette (10 November 2005)
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