On January 10, 2010, the University of Haifa issued a press release announcing that the most ancient Hebrew text found to date had been translated. Discovered by Yossi Garfinkel at Khirbet Qeiyafa (pronounced Kee YAH fuh) in 2008, the 15x16.5 cm potsherd contains five lines of writing and dates to the 10th century B.C. Professor Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa’s Department of Biblical Studies translated the inscription. The translation provided in the press release is as follows (a dotted line indicates missing text; brackets indicate the translator’s reconstruction of unreadable text):
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 (Feldman, 2010).
The inscription is remarkable because it provides evidence against the prevailing theories of the Bible’s composition. The documentary hypothesis, or JEDP theory, says that the Pentateuch was not the work of Moses, but of at least four main writers living hundreds of years after the time of Moses. The earliest portions were supposedly written around the 10th century B.C., while the legal and ritual material (such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy) were written in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. The Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription shows that echoes of legal material thought to date very late in Israel’s history actually appear centuries earlier.
The second problem the inscription poses for critics is that it gives evidence of a centralized government in Israel at a very early stage. Unlike modern times, the vast majority of people in the ancient world were illiterate. Some of the most highly educated societies might have had a literacy rate of fewer than 10 percent. The existence of writing in the 10th century at Khirbet Qeiyafa—a border town over 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem—shows that some kind of bureaucracy existed since only a trained scribe could be responsible for the inscription.
Critics deny that David and Solomon were kings ruling an Israelite nation (see Finkelstein and Silberman, 2001 and 2006). Instead, they argue that the two were little more than chieftains presiding over a rather small parcel of land—if they even existed at all. The existence of writing at Khirbet Qeiyafa, in addition to other examples such as the Gezer calendar and the Tel Zayit inscription (all three dating to the 10th century B.C.), show not only that some kind of centralized government existed in ancient Israel, but that this government was large enough to train scribes to work in out-of-the-way areas of the kingdom.
As the press release reported:
Prof. Galil also notes that the inscription was discovered in a provincial town in Judea. He explains that if there were scribes in the periphery, it can be assumed that those inhabiting the central region and Jerusalem were even more proficient writers. “It can now be maintained that it was highly reasonable that during the 10th century BCE, during the reign of King David, there were scribes in Israel who were able to write literary texts and complex historiographies such as the books of Judges and Samuel.” 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 (Feldman, 2010).
Although mute, the ancient evidence does speak. In this case, it advises the Bible’s detractors to reevaluate their criticisms.
Feldman, Rachel (2010), “Most Ancient Hebrew Biblical Inscription Deciphered,” January 10, http://newmedia-eng.haifa.ac.il/?p=2043.
Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman (2001), The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York: The Free Press).
Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman (2006), David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition (New York: The Free Press).
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