By: Ed Greenstein
At the turn of 2003 the Israeli press published a front-page article, announcing the authentification by the Geological Survey of Israel of what appeared to be a royal inscription of King Jehoash of Judah (circa 800 BCE). If genuine, the inscription reports on a refurbishing of the Jerusalem Temple (the Temple of Solomon) in close conformity with the account that is presented in 2 Kings 12. If genuine, the inscription would be proof positive that there actually was a great temple in Jerusalem in the monarchic period, a fact that has been challenged in recent scholarship.
But the inscribed stone, roughly the size of a tablet computer, was not discovered in a controlled archaeological excavation. Instead, it came to light through an antiquities collector, who claimed it was from the environs of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem but had no documentation to support that assertion.
A full geological analysis of the stone tablet was published in December 2012, arguing that it and the lengthy, fifteen-line inscription it bore were genuinely ancient. The authors allowed for the possibility that the mineral coating of the inscription, its patina, including imbedded gold globules and signs of burning, could have been produced artificially. Carbon 14 testing showed the tablet to be hundreds of years later than the period of King Jehoash.
The geologists, who represent their work to be “hard” science, and therefore unbiased, disparaged other scholarly methods of determining authenticity—analysis of the language (philology), spelling (orthography), and writing (paleography) of the inscription. It is clear why: almost all the competent studies of the language, spelling, and writing of the inscription, which began appearing in academic journals and the press, as well as the committee of scholars appointed by the Israel Antiquities Authority to determine the authenticity of the inscription, concluded that the text was inauthentic—it was a forgery.
Well-respected geologists challenged the conclusions of the colleagues who pressed for authentication. They explained how the patina could have been faked. Moreover, they made another important point: if the stone tablet were once in the Temple and after some destruction were buried in the adjoining soil, there would have been local mineral elements in the patina that are not present.
Recently, Howard R. Feldman, a geologist who worked with the Israeli authenticators, has claimed that the numerous scholars of ancient Hebrew language, literature, and writing who have determined the inscription was forged have been motivated by “minimalism,” the position that virtually all the Israelite history recounted in the Bible is a later fiction unless it can be supported by indisputable evidence. I’m afraid that the opposite is the case: the geologists promoting the authenticity of the text are the ones exhibiting some need to prove it is genuine. The scholars, Israeli and Western, who have challenged the authenticity of the inscription on the basis of philology and paleography are for the most part relatively traditional in their historical views and far from the minimalist school. We just don’t care for fakes and fakery—they are the very antithesis of the academic values we hold dear.
I am, among other things, a Semitic philologist. The moment I saw a photograph of the so-called Jehoash inscription in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in mid-January 2013 my curiosity was piqued. Yes, it seemed too good to be true. The text was very clean and legible. I copied the inscription and studied it. In less than two hours I found several anomalies—spellings and linguistic usages that did not jibe with what we know of ancient Hebrew writing and language.
Convinced the text was forged, and worried that the Israel Museum or some other institution might pay good money for it, I phoned the paper, and the next day a few of my examples, together with doubts expressed by a leading Israeli historian of the Biblical period, Nadav Na’aman, were reported in Ha’aretz, in both the Hebrew and English editions. Subsequently other anomalies were discerned, well over a dozen. Here are just a few.
- In Biblical Hebrew the term bedeq means a crack. Accordingly, in the Biblical account of King Josiah’s temple repairs, the cracks were “tightened” or “reinforced.” In later Hebrew the term bedeq comes to mean “repairs,” an elliptical (omitting the verb) derivation of the Biblical usage. The inscription says “I made the bedeq,” which is the opposite of what was intended. The author of this text was thinking in later Hebrew, not ancient Hebrew.
- The inscription closes by invoking a divine blessing for the people. This is quite odd. Moreover, the Hebrew has “May YHWH command his people with a blessing.” How does one command someone with a blessing? The proper Biblical expression (see Leviticus 25:21; Deuteronomy 28:8; Psalm 133:3) is “to command (or ordain) the blessing” to the people. Again, the author of this text was thinking in modern Hebrew, where the phrase “with blessing” is widely used.
- An expert in ancient scripts, Christopher Rollston, has indicated a subtle anomaly that, to me, is far stronger than any geological analysis. When West Semitic scribes of the Biblical period would write the sequence of letters kaph-samekh, as in the word for “silver,” keseph, the top of the kaph is always notably higher than that of the samekh. But not in the so-called Jehoash tablet. This is a forger’s mistake. A forger can copy letter forms from charts and trace them from existing inscriptions. But only a sophisticated scholar will (until now!) pay proper attention to the relative height of the letters. This is an insight that was not yet in the handbooks.
- At least three-quarters of the inscription is composed of (sometimes misread and misinterpreted) phrases from the Bible—an extraordinary number, which gives the impression of cobbling together, not original writing.
Several months after the publication of the tablet and after several scholars had declared the text a fake, the State of Israel put the owner, Oded Golan, and other individuals on trial in Jerusalem district court, for this fraud and for other infractions. After seven and a half years of periodically hearing testimony from 130 witnesses, in March 2012, the judge delivered a 500-page opinion explaining the complexity of the case, in which experts contradicted experts. The judge did not find the Jehoash inscription to be authentic but felt there was enough doubt to acquit the defendant of the major criminal charges. In October 2013 the court ordered the Israel Antiquities Authority to return the tablet to its owner. The tablet was returned the following May.
The judge, overwhelmed by the diverse testimony, was inconclusive. However, the judgment of scholars who read ancient texts and analyze their language and writing is clear: no textbook of ancient Hebrew inscriptions will ever include the so-called Jehoash text; no historian of ancient Israel will ever count the inscription as a source; no grammarian or lexicographer of ancient Hebrew will ever include words, phrases, or forms found in the inscription as genuine data.
Forgeries such as this, and there are others, play into the hands of the radical skeptics. Perhaps, they say, other inscriptions that were not discovered in professional excavations are phony. Perhaps even some that were are fake. The work of philologists and paleographers is difficult enough without the complications produced by frauds. It would be great to find more genuine inscriptions from ancient Israel—but unless they are found in controlled digs, they will be under suspicion until authenticated.
Ed Greenstein is Professor of Biblical Studies and Meiser Chair in Bible at Bar-Ilan University, Israel
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