October 31, 2008

Oldest Hebrew Text Uncovered By Israeli Archaeologists

Archaeologists in Israel have reported the finding of the oldest known Hebrew text in a fortress city overlooking a valley where the Bible says David slew Goliath.

The Hebrew inscription found on a 3,000-year-old piece of pottery could provide insight that suggests Biblical accounts of the ancient Israelite kingdom of David could have been based on written texts.

Israeli archaeologist Yossi Garfinkel reported on Thursday that the pottery shard bearing five lines of characters was found near the stairs and stone washtub of an excavated home at Hirbet Qeiyafa. It was later discovered to bear characters known as proto-Canaanite, a precursor of the Hebrew alphabet.

He said the relic is strong evidence that the ancient Israelites were literate and could chronicle events centuries before the Bible was written. This could suggest that some of the Bible's accounts were based on written records as well as oral traditions - adding credence to arguments that the Biblical account of history is more than myth.

However, since the Israelites were not the only ones known to use the proto-Canaanite characters, some scholars suggest it is difficult to prove the text is Hebrew. Garfinkel based his identification on a three-letter verb from the inscription meaning "to do," a word he said existed only in Hebrew.

"That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found," he said.

Other words have been deciphered, including "judge," "slave" and "king."

Hirbet Qeiyafa sits near the modern Israeli city of Beit Shemesh in the Judean foothills, an area that was once the frontier between the hill-dwelling Israelites and their enemies, the coastal Philistines.

The site overlooks the Valley of Elah where the Bible retells the epic battle between Israelite David and Philistine giant Goliath.

Carbon-14 analysis of burnt olive pits found in the same layer of the site as the pottery shard helped archaeologists date it to between 1,000 and 975 B.C., the same time as the Biblical golden age of King David's rule in Jerusalem.

Garfinkel believes the text could provide new insights into life during the time of King David.

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

If his claim is confirmed, it would add further evidence to the case for the Bible's accuracy by indicating the Israelites could record events as they happened, transmitting the history that was recorded in the Old Testament several hundred years later.

If the inscription is Hebrew, it would connect the Hirbet Qeiyafa settlement to the Israelites and make the text "one of the most important texts, without a doubt, in the corpus of Hebrew inscriptions," said Aren Maier, a Bar Ilan University archaeologist.

Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar said the inscription was "very important", as it is the longest proto-Canaanite text ever found "“ almost 1,000 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls.

"The differentiation between the scripts, and between the languages themselves in that period, remains unclear," he said.


Image Caption: The archaeological site called Elah Fortress, or Khirbet Qeiyafa, in an aerial photograph released by Hebrew University. 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. REUTERS/Sky Balloon/Handout


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