By Christopher A. Rollston
Toyozo Nakarai Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Emmanuel Christian Seminary
For those working in the field(s) of ancient history, ancient literature, archaeology, or epigraphy there often seems to be a strong desire to associate some new archaeological find, or some recent epigraphic discovery, with some person or event known from literary texts discussing the days of yore. This basic phenomenon has a long history with regard to literary texts. For example, within the Hebrew Bible, the book of Lamentations is anonymous, but through the centuries many contended that it was written by the Prophet Jeremiah. Similarly, the book of Ruth is anonymous, but through the centuries many argued that it was written by Samuel. Or again, within the Greek New Testament, the book of Hebrews is anonymous, but many attempted to argue that it was written by Paul. Similarly, the four Canonical Gospels are anonymous, but through the centuries, many have argued that these books were written by known figures of Early Christianity. Fortunately, critical scholarship has pushed back against such positivistic assumptions and reasserted the obvious: the evidence for these assumptions is not convincing, but specious.
With regard to the field of epigraphy, there are similar attempts. For example, W. Shea argued that the Izbet Sarteh Ostracon mentions Hophni, the son of Eli the Priest and that this ostracon gives an account of the movements of the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple of Dagon in Ashdod to Kiriath-Jearim (Shea 1990). Significantly, the readings of F. M. Cross (among others) differ markedly with those of Shea, with Cross not even reading the personal name Hophni in this ostracon (Cross 1980). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that L. Mykytiuk has argued that Shea’s proposal is simply not convincing at all (Mykytiuk 2004). Along those same lines, M.C.A. Korpel has argued that a seal with only the letters yzbl preserved should be considered that of the 9th century Queen Jezebel of the Israel (Korpel 2006). But the evidence cannot carry the weight with which Korpel has saddled it, since this root (zbl) is well attested as a Northwest Semitic root, there is no patronymic, the word “queen,” is not present, Korpel’s restoration (’alep) is not at all certain, and there is a dearth of evidence for epigraphic stamp seals in the 9th century BCE (Rollston 2009).
To be sure, sometimes the literary and historical data do converge nicely with the archaeological and epigraphic data. For example, it is entirely convincing to argue that the “Mesha King of Moab” mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., 2 Kgs 3:4-5) is the same as the person who commissioned the Moabite Stone (Dearman 1989; Rollston 2006, 126). Similarly, the “Bar Kokhba” (Dio Cassius; Eusebius) of the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 CE), the “Bar Koziba” of the Misnha and Talmud (Yadin 1971, 255-259), and the “Simeon Bar Kosiba” (Yadin, et al., 2002) are one and the same (Rollston 2006). Here is the main point, however: arguments for the association of epigraphic and archaeological data with events and people attested in literary and historical texts must be based on very good evidence. It is one thing to suggest that there “may be” a connection, but it is much different to suggest that a connection is “probable” or “certain.” Scholars must be careful to analyze the evidence in a disinterested manner, so that the possible connections are not overstated. This leads naturally into a discussion of Qeiyafa.
The archaeological site of Qeiyafa is really very impressive, with some significant monumental remains. Furthermore, the cultic artifacts which have recently been announced are certainly of some consequence as well (cf. www.biblicalarchaeology.org). At this juncture (coming in the wake of these recent finds), I wish to make some comments on the ostracon itself, reiterating some critically important data-points (for more details, see Rollston 2011; Rollston 2012).
(1) The script of this ostracon is definitely not Old Hebrew. Rather, it is a late stage of the Early Linear Alphabetic Script. The Old Hebrew alphabet is a descendant of the Phoenician script, not the Early Alphabetic Script. In short, this ostracon is not written in the Old Hebrew script and this is indubitable.
(2) The roots attested in this ostracon (i.e., those that can be read) cannot be considered distinctively Old Hebrew. For example, the root mlk (king) arguably occurs in line 4. This is certainly a Hebrew root, but this root also occurs in numerous Semitic languages, including Ugaritic, Amorite, Phoenician, Punic, Moabite, Aramaic, Ammonite, Edomite, and even Palmyrene. Because this root occurs in so many ancient Semitic languages, it should be classified as Common Semitic. It definitely cannot be considered as diagnostic for Hebrew. Similarly, as for the root `bd (serve, servant) in this ostracon (e.g., line 1), it cannot be considered distinctively Old Hebrew either. After all, while it certainly occurs in Old Hebrew, it also occurs in numerous Semitic languages, including Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Nabatean, Palmyrene, Ethiopic, and Classical and even Modern Arabic. The same thing can be said about the root špţ (judge), and nqm (avenge). Indeed, the same can be said for every root in this ostracon. To be sure, a critically important root for the original editors of the text (Misgav, Garfinkel, and Ganor 2009) is `sh (“to do”) in line 1. This root is their primary basis for the contention that the Qeiyafa Ostracon is Hebrew. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that this root is attested in the Moabite language (e.g., in the famous Mesha Inscription, on lines 3, 9, 23, 24, 26; Dearman 1989) and the great Semitist Z. Harris believed that the root ‘åh (‘śh) might very well be present in Phoenician as well (Harris 1936, 136). Obviously, therefore, this root is not distinctively Old Hebrew. In short, the language of this inscription is not something that can be determined with certitude. The question must be left open.
(3) There does seem to be judicial terminology in the Qeiyafa Ostracon, but judicial terminology is attested throughout much of the ancient Near East (Weinfeld 2000).
(4) It should also be emphasized that within this ostracon there is no reference to a particular city or nation state and this absence must be factored into any putative suggestion about the significance and Sitm im Leben of this ostracon.
(5) I am very disinclined to accept Puech’s problematic speculations that the Qeiyafa Ostracon should be associated with the coronation of a particular king, be it Saul or David. Obviously, for this to be considered a cogent understanding of this ostracon there would need to be some reference in the ostracon to Saul or David! (Puech 2010)
(6) Finally, I should also like to emphasize that the decisive manner in which the site of Qeiyafa has been associated with a particular king or a particular “kingdom” (e.g., David) is pressing the data much harder than I would. Or, to put it another way, even if we could contend that this site was Judean or Israelite, could we definitively state that it is to be associated with a particular king of one of these states? I would suggest that without decisive epigraphic evidence, the answer must be no. Rather, we must be content to refer to some possibilities, and to leave it at that. Archaeologists will continue to debate and discuss this issue (e.g., Finkelstein and Fantalkin 2012 and the bibliography there), but it is caution regarding all such conclusions that I would urge.
In the final analysis, it must be said that there is a sincere human desire on the part of scholars to fill the gaps in our data, to fill in the lacunae. That is honest and it is sincere. Nevertheless, it is also imperative that we attempt to be sober, disinterested scholars, restricting our conclusions to the data at hand. Thus, as for the site of Qeiyafa and its ostracon, I would suggest that both are important and discussions will certainly continue. This is good, but caution about conclusions must be our modus operandi. That is, it is imperative that a concerted effort be made to avoid going further than the data would allow.
Cross, F. M.
1980 Newly Found Inscriptions in Old Canaanite and Early Phoenician Scripts. BASOR 238: 1-20.
Dearman, A. (ed.)
1989 Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
Finkelstein, I., and Fantalkin, A.
2012 Khirbet Qeiyafa: An Unsensational Archaeological and Historical Interpretation. Tel Aviv 39: 38-63.
Harris, Z. S.
1936 A Grammar of the Phoenician Language. AOS 8. New Haven: American Oriental Society.
Misgav, H.; Garfinkel, Y.; and Ganor, S.
2009. The Ostracon. Pp 243-257 in Khirbet Qeiyafa Vol. 1. Excavation Report 2007-2008, ed. Y. Garfinkel and S. Ganor. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
2006 Seals of Jezebel and Other Women in Authority. Journal for Semitics 15: 349-371.
Mykytiuk, L. J.
2004 Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. SBL Academia Biblica 12. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
2010. L’Ostracon de Khirbet Qeyafa et les Débuts de la Royauté en Israël. RB 117.2: 162-184.
2006 Inscribed Ossuaries: Personal Names, Statistics, and Laboratory Tests. NEA 69:125-129.
2009 Prosopography and the Yzbl Seal. IEJ 59: 86-91.
2011 The Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon: Methodological Musings and Caveats. Tel Aviv 38: 67-82.
2012 What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription? BARev 38: 32-40, 66-68.
Shea, W. H.
1990 The ‘Izbet Sartah Ostracon. AUSS 28: 59-86.
2000 Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East. 2nd edition. Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press.
1971 Bar Kokhba: the Rediscovery of the Legendary Her of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome. New York: Random House.
Yadin, Y., et al.
2002 The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Nabatean Documents). Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
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