A New Ceramic Inscription from Jerusalem (10th century BC?)

A new inscription purportedly dating to the 10th century BC has been discovered in excavations at Jerusalem. The inscription was inscribed on the shoulder of a large ceramic pithos jar that was turned up in Eilat Mazar’s excavation in the ‘City of David’ area (just south of the Old City walls). The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has issued a statement about the find, which I copy below at the end of this blog post (see blue section). Two photos accompanied the statement, and I have included them here in this blog post, too.

Here is the first photo:

This jar fragment bearing an inscription in the Canaanite language was unearthed near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar. Dated to the tenth century BCE, it is the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; photographed by Noga Cohen-Aloro.)

My initial thoughts:

There is some confusion in the media statement (see blue section below) about the dating of this inscription. On the one hand the statement claims the inscription is in a Proto-Canaanite script and dates to the era before Israelite rule, but then it claims the inscription comes from the 10th century BC and dates to Israelite rule. I think what the statement is probably trying to say is that the letters of the inscription appear to be in a script that is known from the era before Israelite rule, but the piece of pottery itself comes from a period during Israelite rule, specifically Iron IIa (10th century BC).

To me the script certainly looks very old. I’m not sure I’d label it ‘Proto-Canaanite’, though. On first glance I would say tenth century BC seems about right, with the script bearing some resemblance to Phoenician. This is, of course, a preliminary estimate, because although there is a hi-res photo of the inscription here, I’d need to see the pottery up close in person to make a more definitive evaluation.

Also, the statement says that the letters seem to be (left-to-right) mqphn, (possibly) l, and n—that is ן לנחפקמ. I would suggest a few other possibilities (again, this is only on first impression). The first letter (that is, the rightmost) seems to be the top half of a nun (נ) fairly clearly. Then, moving leftwards, there is a gap, followed by some strokes above the breakage that appear to be the upper portions of what may be a beth (ב) that does not quite join up at the top. However, these two strokes could belong to completely different letters, which is perhaps given more weight by the fact that there seems to be the bottom portion of an elongated stroke a little way below. If this matches up with the second of the strokes above the breakage, then I’d suggest it may well be a mem (מ). On that basis, I’d propose the previous stroke might belong to a lamed (ל).

Moving further left, the next letter, which is the first complete letter, is very problematic. It appears to have the shape of a nun (נ), but in reverse (compare it with the first stroke on the very right hand side). Other than nun, though, I can’t see what other letter this might be. So I’m going for it as an anomalous nun (נ).

The next letter seems to be a ḥeth (ח). The next two letters, however, are difficult to decipher. The first is touted as a pe (פ) in the media release, but I’m not convinced. Looking closely at the hi-res photo, I think the right part of the letter is not completely rounded, but has a kink at the point where it bends downwards. Also, I think there may be a small tail stroke on the bottom of that right hand portion. To me, this suggests a somewhat truncated form of tsade (צ), though I couldn’t rule out an odd-shaped taw (ת) either. The next letter was touted as a qoph (ק), and while this is a plausible suggestion, it looks more like a resh (ר) to me. The final visible letter appears unambiguously to be a mem (מ).

Thus, on a preliminary deciphering, I would propose the letters might be read ן למנחצרמ (n lmnḥṣrm). However, since I have not seen the fragment itself and only have the photo to go on, I won’t set that reading in stone (or ceramic!). It is purely a first impression. As I clearly learnt with the Tel Dan Inscription, you cannot rely solely on photographs of inscriptions, no matter how good the photos appear to be. Nothing beats an actual physical inspection made in person, because photos can unwittingly mask critical features (like the extra letter on the Tel Dan Inscription).

What might this preliminary rendering of the letters mean? Well it might refer to something coming from the ‘courtyards’ (ḥaṣerim: חצרים), perhaps of the temple or the palace. Alternatively, perhaps the pithos jar held something ‘from Hadramaut’ (lemin ḥaṣramawt: למן חצרמות)—the biblical Hazarmaveth. The first possibility would be significant in and of itself as providing some evidence of a royal and/or cultic installation in Jerusalem during the 10th century BC. The second possibility would be stupendous, providing evidence of contact between Jerusalem and southern Arabia during the tenth century BC. However, as enticing and sensational as these possibilities are, we have to wait further work on this ceramic piece and get the eyes of a few more epigraphers onto it. We also have to ensure we understand the stratum in which the ceramic piece was found properly. This will come with further excavations in coming years.

Nonetheless, even if this inscription doesn’t quite live up to the deliciously sensational possibilities I’ve just mentioned, it is still significant as evidence of officialdom in (most likely) 10th century BC Jerusalem. The average person generally did not write things into their newly made ceramic jars. It was usually an administrative authority of some kind that needed to do that kind of thing. So this inscription should make us sit up and take notice. It does not tell us who was in Jerusalem, but it suggests that there was someone there with enough officialdom to require large pithos jars to be labelled in some way. This would have been to distinguish the jar either for its source, its destination, its function, its content, or its owner. Thus, this little inscription is a very neat find of considerable historical significance.

The language of the inscription is difficult to ascertain from so few letters, but there is good reason to think it is probably Hebrew. First, it was found in Jerusalem! Second, the ceramic piece probably dates to the tenth century BC. Third, the (visible) mem (מ) might be the masculine plural substantive ending. Fourth, we might have the preposition מן (‘from’) in a form with the preposition ל—a construction known from biblical texts (cf. Micah 7.12) While these last two reasons are still speculative at this stage, it seems sensible, given the first two reasons, to propose that this is a Hebrew inscription—one of the earliest we have (cf. the Tel Zayit Abecedary, Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon, and Gezer Calendar).

Feel free to interact with or challenge my suggestions here. As I’ve mentioned, they are only first impressions, so I’m very open to correction, improvement, or updating.

Here now is the official media release from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem:

Inscription From the Time of Kings David & Solomon
Found Near Southern Wall of Temple Mount
in Hebrew University Excavations

Jerusalem, July 10, 2013 —Working near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar has unearthed the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city.The inscription is engraved on a large pithos, a neckless ceramic jar found with six others at the Ophel excavation site. According to Dr. Mazar, the inscription, in the Canaanite language, is the only one of its kind discovered in Jerusalem and an important addition to the city’s history.

Dated to the tenth century BCE, the artifact predates by two hundred and fifty years the earliest known Hebrew inscription from Jerusalem, which is from the period of King Hezekiah at the end of the eighth century BCE.

A third-generation archaeologist working at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Mazar directs archaeological excavations on the summit of the City of David and at the southern wall of the Temple Mount.

The discovery will be announced in a paper by Dr. Mazar, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Dr. David Ben-Shlomo of the Hebrew University, following their extensive research on the artifact. Prof. Ahituv studied the inscription and Dr. Ben-Shlomo studied the composition of the ceramic materials. The paper, “An Inscribed Pithos From the Ophel,” appears in the Israel Exploration Journal 63/1 (2013).

Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar displays a jar fragment unearthed near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount bearing an inscription in the Canaanite language. Dated to the tenth century BCE, it is the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; photographed by Oria Tadmor)

The inscription was engraved near the edge of the jar before it was fired, and only a fragment of it has been found, along with fragments of six large jars of the same type. The fragments were used to stabilize the earth fill under the second floor of the building they were discovered in, which dates to the Early Iron IIA period (10thcentury BCE).  An analysis of the jars’ clay composition indicates that they are all of a similar make, and probably originate in the central hill country near Jerusalem.

According to Prof. Ahituv, the inscription is not complete and probably wound around the jar’s shoulder, while the remaining portion is just the end of the inscription and one letter from the beginning. The inscription is engraved in a proto-Canaanite / early Canaanite script of the eleventh-to-tenth centuries BCE, which pre-dates the Israelite rule and the prevalence of Hebrew script.

Reading from left to right, the text contains a combination of letters approximately 2.5 cm tall, which translate to mqphn, (possibly) l, and n. Since this combination of letters has no meaning in known west-Semitic languages, the inscription’s meaning is unknown.

The archaeologists suspect the inscription specifies the jar’s contents or the name of its owner. Because the inscription is not in Hebrew, it is likely to have been written by one of the non-Israeli residents of Jerusalem, perhaps Jebusites, who were part of the city population in the time of Kings David and Solomon.

Excavations at the site are conducted in collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the East Jerusalem Development Company. The site is in the national park surrounding the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, near the southern wall of the Temple Mount compound. The Israel Antiquities Authority maintains the excavation site as a national park open to the public.

The excavations are made possible through a generous donation by Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman of New York. Participants in the dig include Israeli students and workers, along with students or alumni of Herbert W. Armstrong College sent to Jerusalem from Edmond, Oklahoma to participate in the excavation.

For more information:
Dov Smith

Hebrew University Foreign Press Liaison
02-5882844 / 054-8820860 (+ 972-54-8820860)
dovs@savion.huji.ac.il

Here also is a YouTube clip featuring Eilat Mazar and Shmuel Ahituv talking about the inscription and their understanding of it as a Canaanite (non-Hebrew) text.

Update

Christopher Rollston has given his own analysis. I also have some further thoughts in light of his.

Gershon Galil also elaborates on his own suggestion.

Aren Maeir also gives his preliminary perspective.

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The (new) earliest attestation to Israel in the historical record?

The Merneptah Stele

When people ask for the earliest attestation to Israel in the historical record, the usual answer given is Pharaoh Merneptah’s stele (c. 1205 BC). In this inscription, the Egyptian Pharaoh boasts of having destroyed ‘Israel’ such that ‘his seed is not’. In other words, he claims to have wiped Israel out. Although there is some doubt about the reading ‘Israel’ in the inscription, the vast majority of scholars agree that the reference is to a people group named Israel located in the central highlands of Israel-Palestine.

However, now there may be an even earlier reference to Israel—and I stress the word may. In the Berlin Museum there is a Egyptian pedestal dating to the Nineteenth Dynasty (14th–13th century BC). The pedestal contains three cartouches (name rings), one of which is quite fragmentary. It’s this cartouche that some scholars are now claiming refers to Israel—a full century or two before Merneptah’s reference. Some scholars, such as James Hoffmeier, are denying the reference is to Israel on linguistic grounds. However, Manfred Görg and Bryant Wood are confident that it is an archaic form of the name ‘Israel’ in Egyptian. Since I’m not an Egyptologist, I’m relying on others to debate the issue and come to some consensus.

If this does, in fact, prove to be a reference to Israel, not only will it be the earliest attestation to it, but it will also spark discussion about Israel’s early development and interaction with other polities and ethnic groups in history. In particular, it will bring discussion of the Exodus and Settlement back into vogue.

Left: Inscribed pedestal with three cartouches. The fragmentary cartouche on the right is the one which may contain the earliest reference to Israel. Right: Another inscribed relief.

While this inscribed pedestal has been known to us for a long time, it’s only in recent years that scholars suggested ‘Israel’ as a possible reading of one of the cartouches. The following reference contains some of the discussion:

Veen, Peter van der, ‘Israel in Canaan (Long) before Pharaoh Merenptah? A Fresh Look at Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief 21687’, Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, 2.4 (Nov 2010), 15–25. (Click HERE for a pdf of the article).

Below is the abstract from this article:

In 2001, Manfed Görg published a new reading of a Fragmentary name ring on a topographical pedestal relief in the Berlin Museum (no. 21687). Although the inscription had previously been listed in topographical studies, the reading of the fragmentary third name ring had not received adequate attention. Görg suggested reading the broken name as an archaic form for “Israel” and argued that it could have been copied during the Nineteenth Dynasty from an earlier list. As his publication was in German, his proposal has so far been unavailable to a wider English- speaking readership. Two scholars, Bryant Wood and James Hoffmeier, have briefly discussed Görg’s proposal; while the former welcomed it, the latter rejected it on linguistic grounds. The present authors republish the relief fragment here in English and include new evidence that appears to support Görg’s original reading.

Let’s see what comes of this interesting development.

Restoring the Kingdom to Israel (Part 3)

In the previous instalments of this short series, we critiqued two views pertaining to the restoration of Israel. We first saw that the restoration has nothing to do with the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948. We then saw, through Paul’s theology, that the Church does not replace Israel. Rather, ‘Israel’ continues into the Church. I now want to draw the threads together and argue for a third option, namely that Israel is restored through the apostolic testimony about Jesus, as attested in the book of Acts. This option is, I believe, more in line with the Bible as a whole.

Let’s return, then, to the question that the Apostles posed to the risen Jesus (Acts 1.6). When does he restore the kingdom to Israel? We observed how Jesus doesn’t repudiate the notion of Israel’s kingdom being restored. He simply tells his apostles, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority.” (Acts 1.7) This sets up the expectation that Jesus will indeed restore the kingdom of Israel, albeit according to the timing determined by the Father. Yet Jesus does not leave the issue there. He goes on to say, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8) This is not some random prediction unrelated to the Apostles’ question. Rather, Jesus is clearly linking the restoration of Israel to the apostolic witness of him in the three classic loci of the nation of Israel: Jerusalem (the royal capital), Judea (that is, the southern kingdom of Judah), and Samaria (the northern kingdom of Israel).

As we read on through the first eight chapters of Acts, that is precisely what we see happen. Starting with Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2), we see the Apostles testifying about Jesus in Jerusalem and, after being scattered by persecution (Acts 8.1), throughout Judea and Samaria as well. As this occurs, people from the disparate parts of Israel hear their testimony and come to acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. In other words, in the first eight chapters of Acts, we witness the reunification of Israel under its Davidic king. What the prophets of old had looked forward to now becomes reality as Jews and Samaritans both put their faith in Jesus as ruler, saviour, and Messiah, for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 5.31, 42). Here, then, is the beginning of Israel’s restoration. What’s more, this occurs with a fullness never before experienced, as those who would otherwise have been excluded from the inner ranks of Israel, such as the lame (Acts 3) and the eunuch (Acts 8), are enabled to become full citizens of restored Israel (cf. Isa 56). Only once the restoration of Israel under its rightful king, Jesus, is truly underway do we then observe the gospel going out to the Gentiles. In fact, the rest of the story of Acts (chs. 9–28) is the story about how the king of Israel, Jesus, becomes the king of the world, as the gospel eventually reaches the imperial capital, Rome.

The leaders of Israel at this time were the Jewish Sanhedrin. Luke describes them as ‘the full senate of the sons of Israel’ (Acts 5.21). They, however, fail to recognise Jesus, the one they had executed, as ruler, saviour, and Messiah (Acts 5.29–32). By this rejection of the apostolic testimony they are seen to be illegitimate rulers. Ironically, one of their number, Gamaliel, convinces the Sanhedrin to release the Apostles after their arrest, arguing that if their message was merely ‘the work of men’, it would die out, as many other movements within Israel had (Acts 5.38). The tragic irony here is that it was not the apostolic movement that died out, but the Sanhedrin itself. In rejecting Jesus, the Sanhedrin revealed itself as ‘the work of men’. When Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, it went the way of the other failed movements within Israel.

The implication of this is that the portions of Israel that failed to recognise Jesus’ kingship forfeited their status as ‘Israel’. Indeed, this idea seems to be behind Paul’s important statement in Romans 9.6 that ‘not all who are descended from Israel are Israel’. Paul views only those in Israel who have believed (or will believe) in Jesus as members of the true Israel. As such, when Paul states in Romans 11.26 that ‘all Israel will be saved’, he is not talking about everyone descended from Abraham. Rather, he is implying that only those ethnic Jews who believe in Jesus (following the example of Gentiles who do the same) are true Israel.

There are a number of implications that arise from our considerations.

Firstly, true Israel is no longer defined by geography or politics. If we take Paul’s view, true Israel is defined as those of Jewish ethnicity who believe in Jesus as Messiah. That being the case, we must conclude that the modern state of Israel has no particularly special place in the grand scheme of things. It should not be privileged above any other state entity. It should, rather, be treated as any other modern nation state.

Secondly, we should not be expecting a mass conversion of Jews to Christianity marking the last days of history as we know it. Paul was not envisioning such a thing in Romans 11.26. Rather, Paul was pointing out that because many Jews rejected the apostolic testimony about Jesus, the gospel was able to go to the Gentiles. And as Gentiles believed in Israel’s Messiah, Paul hoped that these Gentiles would then take the gospel back to the Jews. In other words, Paul was not predicting a sudden eschatological conversion of Jews against all previous expectations, but was rather advocating some good old evangelism. The entire gospel message is, after all, native to Israel—it is for the Jews first, and then also for the Greek (Rom 1.16).

Let’s now summarise. In the revelation of Christ and the granting of the Spirit, we see the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament fulfilled: the Messiah had come and God had poured out his Spirit, resulting in the restoration and, indeed, the transformation of his people, Israel. Yet, so monumental is this salvation that it affects all of humanity. Salvation occurs within Israel, but not just for Israel. The gospel breaks out beyond the confines of Israel and spills out to the nations. As the apostolic testimony of Jesus goes forth, the Church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, is built. The Church is not Israel renovated with an extra room out the back for Gentiles, for Gentiles are not called to become a part of Israel. Nor does the Church do away with Israel, for Jesus is the King of Israel, and the gospel is for the Jew first. Rather, both Jews and Gentiles together form one body, the Church, and together have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit (Eph 2.18). The Church is a truly international entity.

The scene that John depicts in Revelation 7 is perhaps a fitting way to wrap things up. In that scene John sees the multitude of the saved gathered around the divine throne. There are people there from every people group and language—so many that they cannot be counted. But at the forefront of this multitude John sees 144,000 people from Israel. This is a symbolic number, indicating both numerical size as well as the fullness of Israel (there are twelve tribes in Israel, and multiples of twelve abound in the symbolic number). In other words, we see what Paul describes as ‘all Israel’ (Rom 11.26). Here, then, is a magnificent picture of the Church: the fullness of restored Israel standing alongside a multitude of Gentiles before the throne of the Lamb who was slain for them all.

Restoring the Kingdom to Israel (Part 2)

A second widely held view about the restoration of Israel is what might be termed the ‘Replacement’ perspective. This view states that the Church has replaced Israel in the purposes of God and has taken over all the prerogatives that Israel once enjoyed as the people of God. In other words, the Church is the ‘New Israel’.

There are some significant implications that stem from this view. For example, the actual ‘Promised Land’ (what is today the State of Israel and the territories of the Palestinian Authority) is no longer of any theological consequence in the scheme of God’s plans. Rather, biblical statements about the physical land are spiritualised either to refer to any place where God’s people meet, or to heaven, or to a recreated earth after the Day of Judgement. Also, if the Church is the ‘New Israel’, then spiritually all Christians are ‘New Jews’. However, this is where I believe the view comes unstuck. Let me explain.

Galatia

The Gentile churches in Galatia that Paul had founded during his journeys faced a significant problem after Paul left them. Apparently, Jewish believers came to them and demanded that they be circumcised (Gal 6.12). The point of this was to turn these Gentile Christians into Jews and, thereby, make them part of the covenant people of God, who alone had access to the special salvific blessings God had bestowed. After all, Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. This ‘Judaising’ view initially seems quite in line with the classic promises of God in the Old Testament, which were made specifically to Israel. However, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul was at pains to demonstrate to these Gentile Christians that they had already received God’s Spirit as Gentiles and, as such, were already party to the fullness of salvation without the need for becoming citizens of Israel (Gal 3.1–5). Now, the Judaisers, who were demanding a change of ethnicity in these Gentiles through circumcision, were not claiming that the Church had replaced Israel. They were, in fact, implying that Israel was the Church. However, in critiquing this ‘Judaising’ view, Paul also effectively critiques the Replacement view, for he denies that there is any ethnic (racial or spiritual) dimension to salvation. On the contrary, anyone who believes in Jesus, whether they are Jewish or Greek, male or female, slave or free, are saved children of God (Gal 3.28).

Artistic Reconstruction of the Roman Forum

Paul effectively faced the opposite problem with the Gentile Christians in Rome. Most of the Jews in the imperial capital, as throughout most of the Roman Empire at the time, did not acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s long awaited Messiah. In the eyes of Rome’s Gentile Christians this was just another sign of Israel’s continued history of obstinacy towards their God. They believed that God had finally abandoned Israel once and for all and now offered salvation to Gentiles. In other words, they believed Jews were a lost cause, and that to be a Christian was to be non-Jewish. Paul corrected this view by pointing out that the Jesus-centred gospel was actually for the Jew first, and then for the Greek (Rom 1.16). He urged Rome’s Gentiles to become living sacrifices (Rom 12.1) who would give up their legitimate freedom in the gospel (Rom 15.1–2) in order to serve the circumcised, just as Christ himself had done (Rom 15.8). In other words, Paul wanted the Gentile Christians of Rome to live in a way that attracted Jews to the gospel and helped them to recognize Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. In so doing, Paul states that Israel is still very much within God’s grand plans. God had not abandoned Jews (Rom 11.1–2), but rather was using their ‘hardening’ as an opportunity for bringing the gospel to Gentiles who, in turn, could then take the gospel back to the Jews (Rom 11.11–27).

What all these things show us is that God does not see saved Gentiles as a part of Israel, nor does he see the concept of ‘Israel’ replaced by a new concept called ‘Church’. The reality of ‘Israel’ continues into the ‘Church’, and yet Gentiles are not actually part of ‘Israel’. They are Gentiles! There is, in other words, a very clear distinction between Jews and Gentiles in the Church, and the distinction is such that the Church cannot really be viewed as a ‘New Israel’. In fact, the term ‘New Israel’ never appears in the New Testament. The earliest cognate we have for the term, as far as we can tell, is from Justin Martyr in the mid-second century AD in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. In this ‘discussion’, Justin, a Gentile Christian from Samaria, tells a Jew named Trypho that, because Jews had rejected Jesus, what had once belonged to Israel was now the preserve of Christians alone. For Justin Martyr, the Church had replaced Israel and become the ‘True Israel’ (Dial. Trypho 123; 135). I have little doubt that the Apostle Paul would have strongly objected to Justin’s view had they been contemporaries, since Justin’s view smacks of the elitism that Paul sought to correct in Rome a century earlier.

So where do we go from here? Hopefully, a way forward is beginning to suggest itself. But we’ll save a discussion of it until the next instalment in this little series.

Restoring the Kingdom to Israel (Part 1)

A couple of months back I wrote a short series for ThinkTank, the Moore College faculty blog. I’ve decided to post the series here as well. So here is part one of Restoring the Kingdom to Israel.

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The concept of ‘Israel’ is loaded with significance. From the pages of the Old Testament, we see Israel as the descendants of the patriarch Jacob. They are a national entity, God’s chosen people, the carriers of his promises, and the recipients of divine revelation who stand in a covenant relationship with God. In the Old Testament, Israel is ‘the people of God’.

For this reason, it should come as no surprise in the New Testament when we find the apostles asking the risen Jesus whether, having conquered the grave, he would now conquer Israel’s enemies and restore Israel’s kingdom (Acts 1.6). For the apostles, faith in Jesus as the Messiah was simply the capstone of Israelite faith. Jesus’ response to them is very interesting. He does not chide the apostles for asking the question about restoration. Indeed, the question was brimming with classic biblical expectation. Instead, Jesus informs them that the timing of such things is not to be disclosed to them. In other words, he does not answer ‘No’, but rather ‘In God’s good timing’.

This, of course, begs the question: Has the kingdom been restored to Israel, and if it has, when did it occur? Over the course of a few blogs, I want to consider briefly two widely held views on this issue, and then argue for a third view.

The first view I want to consider is that which says Israel was restored when the modern-day State of Israel came into existence in 1948. As a result of this ‘restoration’, many eagerly expect the imminent fulfillment of the Bible’s eschatological promises.

However, there are numerous problems with this view. Firstly, it assumes that citizens of the modern State of Israel are coterminous with the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, or at least with ancient Jews in a generic sense. Yet, they are vastly different. Consider the following factors:

  1. Ancient Israel/Judah was a monarchy ruled by the Davidic dynasty. Modern Israel is a democratic republic with a president elected by the Knesset (parliament) and a prime minister elected by popular vote.
  2. Ancient Jews saw themselves as being under the terms of a national covenant with Yahweh, their national God. Obedience to the terms of this covenant (the ‘Law’) was critical for Israelite identity. Today, however, Arabs make up approximately 20% of modern Israel’s population. The great majority of them are Muslims, while some are Druze, and others Christian. Furthermore, many Israeli citizens are agnostics or atheists. There is no ancient covenantal framework binding over modern Israeli citizenship. As such, the modern concept of ‘Israel’ and citizenship within it are quite different to the biblical concept.
  3. After the fall of the Davidic dynasty, the biblical prophets looked forward to its restoration. In fact, this was a common hope within mainstream Judaism for many centuries. However, there is no ‘constitutional’ room for a Davidic dynasty in the political structures of modern Israel today. If a Davidic descendant could somehow be found and his ancestry confirmed (which would be virtually impossible), the modern State of Israel would have to be dismantled in order to make way for a new Davidic Kingdom of Israel. As such, today’s State of Israel cannot be the long-hoped for kingdom.

There is a lot more we could say about these factors. They certainly have significant political ramifications for how we should (and should not) treat the State of Israel today. Yet perhaps the most critical factor to consider is the status of Jesus himself. The apostles viewed him as the long awaited ‘King of the Jews’—the promised Davidic descendant. In fact, this is the very reason why they asked him about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Jesus’ status as Messiah, then, is totally unrelated to the modern political nation-state that today bears the name ‘Israel’. He was not foretelling the inauguration of the State of Israel in 1948. Jesus must have had something else in mind.

In the next blog, I’ll consider the second widely held view relating to the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Stay tuned.

Can we date biblical texts on linguistic grounds?

It’s an interesting question: Do the linguistic features of Biblical Hebrew allow us to figure out the date of biblical texts? Traditionally, the answer has been ‘yes’. And so Hebrew has been divided into ‘Early Biblical Hebrew’ (‘EBH’ — a.k.a. ‘Standard Biblical Hebrew’, or ‘SBH’) and ‘Late Biblical Hebrew (‘LBH’). As the terms suggest, EBH was viewed as an earlier stage of the language, usually dated to the pre-exilic era (i.e. before 587 BC), while LBH became more prevalent after this time.

Recently, however, a two-volume study, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008), by Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd, has called this hypothesis into question.

The hypothesis of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd is that the data usually shown as evidence for a linguistic transition from an early form of Hebrew to a later form can and should be reinterpreted. They argue that instead of being a linear development, both EBH and LBH were concurrent ‘styles’ of Hebrew that coexisted. As a result of this, biblical texts can’t really be dated in the manner previously done. In other words, it is a mistake to think that a text written in EBH is necessarily earlier than a text written in LBH. That would have to be established on other grounds beyond linguistics.

The ramifications of this for our study of Hebrew language and biblical texts are actually quite significant. For starters, if Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd are correct, then we would need to privilege non-linguistic data in determining (or at least trying to determine) the date of particular texts.

But are they correct?

Significant debate has ensued since the publication of LDBT in 2008. Some of it has been carried out in journals and academic conferences. But some of it has been conducted through online forums and blogs. You can find one such exchange being carried out between the authors of LDBT and two critics of their new take, John Cook and Robert Holmstedt. You will find the exchange on the Ancient Hebrew Grammar blog of John Cook and Robert Holmstedt, here:

Cook and Holmstedt disagree with the method and conclusions in LDBT. The discussion is quite heated at times, but that at least makes for interesting reading. You’ll also find John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry weighing critically into the debate.

For my part, let me lay my cards on the table in this debate. I was one of the proof readers for LDBT, and I have to say I found the arguments logically convincing. The critique of the linguistic approach of Avi Hurvitz was, especially, quite persuasive. I agree with Young (who was my PhD supervisor), Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd that too much has been made of linguistic data in the past, and that we cannot really date biblical texts based solely on linguistic grounds. I also agree that building a history of the language based on biblical texts is seriously undermined by the difficulties of thinking about redaction and scribal transmission.

However, there are numerous other questions that arise. If EBH and LBH are not successive stages of the Hebrew language, but rather concurrent ‘styles’, what exactly do they represent? Are they purely dialectal? Was ancient Israel/Judah/Samaria/Yehud a place where diglossia occurred? Is the linguistic divide between LBH and EBH based on geographic, social, or literary grounds—or even other grounds entirely? Do we need new terms to describe these two ‘styles’ of Hebrew?

It will be interesting to see how discussion develops.