The Oldest Hebrew Text


Photo: Archeologist Yossi Garfinkel displays a ceramic shard bearing a Hebrew inscription at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Garfinkel says the ceramic shard containing five lines of faded characters written 3,000 years ago at the time of the Old Testament’s King David, was found in the ruins of an ancient fortified town south of Jerusalem and is the oldest Hebrew inscription ever discovered, according to Garfinkel.

Archaeology again may contribute to our understanding of Israelite history. Archeologists have found an ostraca with writings that dates back to 3,000 B.C., the period when David was king. According to the news report, the words “judge,” “slave,” and “king” appear on the five lines of texts. The written material was found on a site called Elah Fortress. The Valley of Elah was the place where Israel fought against the Philistines and David killed Goliath (1 Samuel 17:2).

Because of the importance of the finding, I am posting in its entirety the news report published by Reuters. According to the press release, the article was written by Ari Rabinovitch and edited by Sami Aboudi.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Archaeologists in Israel said on Thursday they had unearthed the oldest Hebrew text ever found, while excavating a fortress city overlooking a valley where the Bible says David slew Goliath.

Experts have not yet been able to decipher fully the five lines of text written in black ink on a shard of pottery dug up at a five-acre (two-hectare) archaeological site called Elah Fortress, or Khirbet Qeiyafa.

The Bible says David, later to become the famed Jewish king, killed Goliath, a Philistine warrior, in a battle in the Valley of Elah, now the site of wineries and an Israeli satellite station.

Archaeologists at Hebrew University said carbon dating of artifacts found at the fortress site, about 20 km (12 miles) southwest of Jerusalem, indicate the Hebrew inscription was written some 3,000 years ago, predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by 1,000 years.

They have been able to make out some of its words, including “judge,” “slave” and “king.”

Yosef Garfinkel, the lead archaeologist at the site, said the findings could shed significant light on the period of King David’s rule over the Israelites.

“The chronology and geography of Khirbet Qeiyafa create a unique meeting point between the mythology, history, historiography and archaeology of King David,” Garfinkel said.

It is amazing the kind of information archaeology can provide in clarifying the past. So far, the five lines of text have not been translated. However, if the words “judge” and “king” are correct, the ostraca may be a reference to the late period of the judges or the early years of the monarchy.

I just hope that archaeologists and epigraphers provide a translation of the text as soon as possible. This finding may radically transform our understanding of the early history of Israel.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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7 Responses to The Oldest Hebrew Text

  1. Wayne Leman says:

    >I saw this news item today on CNN.com. I hope it won’t be too long before they can get a translation of most of the piece.

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  2. >Wayne,I agree with you. Whatever the content of the ostraca, people want to know what such an old text, written in Proto-Canaanite, has to say about its time and society.Thank you for your comment.Claude Mariottini

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  3. >Dr. Marriotini,I am CoDirecotr of Foundation Stone. Our organization is developing the Elah Fortress-Qeiyafa site. The Reuters article stresses only the ostracon. However the fortified city is incredible by itself. Over 200,000 metric tons were used to build the casemate wall alone. That must be the work of a centralized government, says Prof. Garfinkel, not the maybe 500 people who lived there. Some stones are 4-8 tons, 2 so far are 10 tons each, in the most monumental entrance found yet in the Iron Age, and in the only two-gate city ever identified. This may then be the city known as -Two_Gates, Sha’arayim, mentioned 3 tmes in the Bible, twice in association with King David before he was king. The pottery typology and carbon-14 dating of burnt olive pits, in a clear destruction layer context, which is very rare, enable the dating to a time earlier than others have been willing to admit there was a government. Urban ciivlization vs. rural living is the transition aspect of Iron Age I to Iron Age II, and this addresses that theory and may revise it. Four imagin glabs worked on the ostracon, as you can see on Hebrew U’s site you reference. For a general review and updates, a great promo file, and links to articles, see http://www.elahfortress.comDr. Marriotini, we invite you and your students to come and dig with us! YoursBarnea Levi SelavanFoundation Stone

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  4. johnrgentry says:

    >Dr. Mariottini,One comment and one question. The comment: in your post you state:”Archeologists have found an ostraca with writings that dates back to 3,000 B.C., the period when David was king.”I believe you meant to say 3,000 years ago (about 1,000 B.C.).The question: regarding the oldest Hebrew text, this may be the oldest text in Hebrew, but what about the recent deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphics that simply transliterate(?) the ancient Semitic Canaanite language (ancient Hebrew?) and dates to about 2500-3000 B.C.? Is this not a form of ancient Hebrew spoken by Abraham and his contemporaries?Thanks,John R. Gentry

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  5. Kepler says:

    >I wonder how they know it is "Hebrew" and not just Proto-Canaanite as used by several groups there. The area is in what was a "border".If you transcribe the words for "king" and "slave" in different Semitic languages into that alphabet you would get exactly the same thing. Take for instance "king": it is m-l-k in all Semite languages (similar cases for words like slave). Even modern Arabic, which is not Northwest Semitic but forms another branch and was obviously not spoken there, would look the same for the words "slave" and "king" if that alphabet is used.So: isn't the text just another of the many texts written by the Canaanites, not necessarily "Hebrew"?

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  6. >The reason Dr Hagai Misgav determined it was Hebrew is because of the conjugation "al taas", do not do.There has been progress in reading the ostracon, and we hope to post developments at http://www.elahfortress.comBarnea Levi SelavanFoundation Stone

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  7. Kepler says:

    >Thanks for your answer.I look forward to reading the paper with the details about Dr Misgav's hypothesis on 'al taas' and the rest of the text.K.

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