A New Seal that DOES NOT refer to Bethlehem

The Israel Antiquities Authority is reporting the discovery of a clay bulla (a seal originally impressed into soft clay) during sifting of soil and debris from the City of David excavations. According to excavation director, Eli Shukron, the seal dates to the seventh century BC and is our earliest evidence for Bethlehem. But, quite frankly, I don’t buy it.

Download a high resolution photo of the bulla (zipped)

The newly discovered bulla from the City of David excavations

Shukron claims the bulla reads as follows:

בת לחם

He transliterates this as:

bat lechem

He gives the following interpretive comments for this:

…it seems that in the seventh year of the reign of a king (it is unclear if the king referred to here is Hezekiah, Manasseh or Josiah), a shipment was dispatched from Bethlehem to the king in Jerusalem. The bulla we found belongs to the group of “fiscal” bullae – administrative bullae used to seal tax shipments remitted to the taxation system of the Kingdom of Judah in the late eighth and seventh centuries BCE. The tax could have been paid in the form of silver or agricultural produce such as wine or wheat… […] this is the first time the name Bethlehem appears outside the Bible, in an inscription from the First Temple period, which proves that Bethlehem was indeed a city in the Kingdom of Judah, and possibly also in earlier periods.

In other words, it seems that Shukron is translating the bulla as follows:

In the seventh (year).
For the king.

Once again, however, it seems that we have an Israeli archaeologist jumping to inordinate conclusions that simply do not reflect the actual evidence, all so that they can make a sensational political statement about Israel or Judah in antiquity. There are a number of issues with Shukron’s proposal:

  1. The first register (line) of the bulla is quite fragmentary, with the beginning and end of the line no longer extant. If Shukron’s reading of the third register as למלך (‘for the king’) is correct, then there is ample room for at least one or two letters before the initial extant ב (b). If this is the case, then it opens up the possibility that the first register does not relate to the number seven (Heb: שבעת), but could instead be a name, perhaps beginning with אב (Ab—).
  2. After the ש (sh) in the first register, Shukron reads ע. However, given the shape of the other letters, which seem to resemble Hebrew letters of the seventh to sixth centuries BC, one would expect this ע to be represented by a plain circle—the standard shape for this letter in that period time. But this does not appear to be the case here. On the contrary, the shape of this letter seems to resemble a narrow floating figure ‘7’. This shape is much closer to the relevant forms of letters נ ,ו, or פ, (w, n, p). though in each case, the letter would still be an unusual shape. Now it simply could be that the photograph is masking the true shape of the letter. This type of photographic distortion certainly occurs, as I found out first hand when I discovered an extra letter on the Tel Dan Inscription that simply did not show properly in photographs. So, we’ll reserve final judgement on this until we have the testimony of other skilled epigraphers who have the chance to inspect the bulla personally. But, going by the current photograph, Shukron’s reading here doesn’t seem to match what’s there.
  3. In the second register, Shukron reconstructs the first letter, which is mostly broken off, as ב (b). This is certainly possible, but not necessary. In fact, it looks to me as though ר (r) is a slightly better fit for this fragmentary letter. Nonetheless, let’s give Shukron the benefit of the doubt here. The next two letters are not problematic. They unambiguously read תל (tl). However, Shukron claims the next letter is ח (ḥ). However, there is one big problem with this: normally the letter ḥeth has two vertical strokes, one on each side of the three horizontal ‘rungs’, producing a kind of ladder shape. But there is clearly no vertical stroke on the left side of this letter. What we are left with is, rather, the classic ‘brush’ shape of the letter ה (he). This means that the bulla simply cannot be referring to Bethlehem (בת לחם), for that would require the letter ח, not ה. But we clearly here have a ה. Add to this the fact that the word division in this seal (as is the case with most others) is not actually apparent, and the connection to Bethlehem becomes even more stretched. So what has happened here? Has there been an absolute bungle of epigraphic analysis here? Did Shukron and the IAA totally miss the fact that this letter is he, not ḥeth? Or are they trying to make the bulla read what they want it to say and hope that the non-epigraphy-skilled public just go along with it? Whatever the reason behind it, this just simply does not refer to Bethlehem—unless the published photograph is not just distorting something, but actually fibbing. What the bulla does refer to is unknown—we’ll have to do some more thinking on that. But I am not a little astonished at the reading offered by Shukron.
  4. Given that the second register almost certainly does not refer to Bethlehem, it’s just possible that the second register is a patronymic for a woman. If, as Shukron suggests, the first letter is ב (b), then it could read […]בת לה (bt lh…): daughter of Lah[…]. Seals of prominent women are not unknown, but it would suggest that the owner was most likely royalty—either a wife or daughter of the king. This reading is a distinct possibility, but ultimately cannot be verified.
  5. The third and final register has but one extant letter: כ (k). This could certainly be part of the word למלך (‘for the king’), as Shukron suggests. It seems he is being led here by the other fiscal bullae we have discovered, in which the word למלך is clearly there. If this is the case, then as is the norm, this bulla may well represent a stamp indicating the origin of some commodity sent to the king of Judah in the seventh or sixth century BC. However, as I’ve suggested above, there is just as much chance that this is a personal seal mentioning someone’s name. If this is the case, then perhaps the extant end of the first register reads בן (‘son of’). But that’s more of a guess than a hard-and-fast observation.

It seems we need to wait for some more reliable and unsensational epigraphic analysis to be done on this bulla. Unless I’m very much mistaken(1), it seems fairly clear from the published photo that this bulla does NOT refer to Bethlehem. I lean towards seeing this as the seal of a prominent woman, though ultimately I can’t even be sure of that. Could a decent epigrapher please go and have a look at this seal, or could a generous benefactor pay to fly me over to inspect it?

Links to other reports about this bulla can be found below. You can see from some of the links how quickly news of this find is being disseminated as ‘proof’ for Bethlehem. The thing is, we don’t need this bulla as evidence for Bethlehem’s existence. It’s all rather unnecessarily sensationalist.

UPDATE: More news here.

(1) I have been known to be wrong before. I remember it well, actually. It was a Wednesday.


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.