| 2 November 2008
Earliest example of Hebrew writing found on a shard
Five lines of ancient script on a shard of pottery could be the oldest example of Hebrew writing ever discovered, an archaeologist in Israel says. The shard was found by a teenage volunteer during a dig about 20km (12 miles) south-west of Jerusalem. Experts at Hebrew University said dating showed it was written 3,000 years ago - about 1,000 years earlier than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other scientists cautioned that further study was needed to understand it.
Preliminary investigations since the shard was found in July have deciphered some words, including judge, slave and king. The characters are written in proto-Canaanite, a precursor of the Hebrew alphabet. Lead archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel identified it as Hebrew because of a three-letter verb meaning "to do" which he said was only used in Hebrew. "That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found," he said. He said the relic is strong evidence that the ancient Israelites were literate and could chronicle events centuries before the Bible was written. This could suggest that some of the Bible's accounts were based on written records as well as oral traditions.
The shard and other artefacts were found at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, overlooking the Valley of Elah where the Bible says the Israelite David fought the Philistine giant Goliath. Mr Garfinkel said the findings could shed significant light on the period of King David's reign. Carbon-14 analysis of burnt olive pits found in the same layer of the site as the pottery shard helped archaeologists date it to between 1,000 and 975 BCE, the same time as the Biblical golden age of King David's rule in Jerusalem.
Archaeology has turned up only scant finds from David's time in the early 10th century B.C., leading some scholars to argue the Bible's account of the period inflates the importance of him and his kingdom. Some have even suggested his kingdom may not have existed at all. But the fortified settlement where the writing was found contains indications that a powerful Israelite kingdom existed near Jerusalem in David's time, says Garfinkel.
But his colleagues at Hebrew University said the Israelites were not the only ones using proto-Canaanite characters, therefore making it difficult to prove it was Hebrew and not a related tongue spoken in the area at the time. Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar said the inscription was 'very important', as it is the longest proto-Canaanite text ever found. "The differentiation between the scripts, and between the languages themselves in that period, remains unclear," he said.
Some scholars are hesitant to embrace Garfinkel's interpretation, and his findings are already being wielded in the ongoing debate over whether the Bible — written hundreds of years after many of its events are supposed to have occurred — is more fact or legend. While the site is likely to add another "building block" to the historical record, archaeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University said the claims about it went beyond the strict boundaries of science. Finkelstein, who has not visited the dig but attended a presentation of the findings, warned against what he said was a 'revival in the belief that what's written in the Bible is accurate like a newspaper.'
Sources: Associated Press, BBC News, Tahoo! News (30 October 2008)
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