The Old Testament: Older than some thought

If you’re familiar with biblical criticism (i.e. the study of manuscript traditions and copies, textual variations, questions of dating and authorship of various books), you’ll be aware of two distinct tendencies. Whether it’s helpful (or accurate) or not, these two tendencies are often deemed “liberal” and “conservative.” Conservative biblical criticism generally regards the books of the Bible to have an earlier date of writing, closer to the time of the events that they depict. Conservative criticism is more likely to attribute the actual authorship of books to the author named in them, and is resistant to suggestions that any book containing a prophetic prediction was written after the fact predicted so that the original prediction can be doctored to fit the fulfilment. As liberal biblical criticism is sometimes associated with scholars who have an interest in denying the possibility of miracles (including prophetic prediction), any appearance of a successful prediction (for example when Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem within the lifetime of his audience) is explained by a very late authorship of the book in question where the prediction was inserted after the alleged fulfillment had already occurred.

The Old Testament history of Israel is frequently a target of liberal criticism. Large-scale migration from Egypt, the events of the conquest, even the very existence of key historical figures is called into question, and it is often said that the books themselves were written numerous centuries after the time that conservative scholarship would have us think. In other words, the Old Testament history of Israel is regarded by some liberal biblical critics as a re-written history that was not composed until centuries after the supposed fact. Positing a significant gap in time – the larger the better – between the events and the recording of them lends plausibility to the suspicion that there is little (if any) correlation between the actual history and the composed record of it.

Recently more extreme liberal biblical criticism took a hit, with the discovery and more recently the deciphering of the most ancient Hebrew inscription on earth.

Prof. Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa who deciphered the inscription: “It indicates that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research.”

A breakthrough in the research of the Hebrew scriptures has shed new light on the period in which the Bible was written. Prof. Gershon Galil of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa has deciphered an inscription dating from the 10th century BCE (the period of King David’s reign), and has shown that this is a Hebrew inscription. The discovery makes this the earliest known Hebrew writing. The significance of this breakthrough relates to the fact that at least some of the biblical scriptures were composed hundreds of years before the dates presented today in research and that the Kingdom of Israel already existed at that time.

He adds that once this deciphering is received, the inscription will become the earliest Hebrew inscription to be found, testifying to Hebrew writing abilities as early as the 10th century BCE. This stands opposed to the dating of the composition of the Bible in current research, which would not have recognized the possibility that the Bible or parts of it could have been written during this ancient period.

Prof. Galil also notes that the inscription was discovered in a provincial town in Judea. He explains that if there were scribes in the periphery, it can be assumed that those inhabiting the central region and Jerusalem were even more proficient writers. “It can now be maintained that it was highly reasonable that during the 10th century BCE, during the reign of King David, there were scribes in Israel who were able to write literary texts and complex historiographies such as the books of Judges and Samuel.” He adds that the complexity of the text discovered in Khirbet Qeiyafa, along with the impressive fortifications revealed at the site, refute the claims denying the existence of the Kingdom of Israel at that time.

Read more about this here, and read the University’s press release here.

Hat tip to Christian News New Zealand for bringing the link to my attention and to Johnny King for bringing the CNNZ article to my attention (he did so on Facebook).

Glenn Peoples

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5 thoughts on “The Old Testament: Older than some thought

  1. Pingback: History and faith
  2. From the best I can piece together, it would appear that this case is not so cut-and-dry, with competent folks denying Galil’s claims about his reconstructed text. In fact, some of Galil’s co-workers on this excavation project have even written an open letter which accuses him of unreasonable conclusions and ethical misconduct with regards to the handling. I’d be inclined to think of this as more of an embarassment to what is commonly known as conservative scholarship than proof of the oldness of the Hebrew Bible.

  3. Mitchell, clearly the discovery cannot possibly be an embarrassment to conservative scholarship, since if it’s not what I have said it is, then it has nothing to say about a conservative view at all.

    As for Galil’s critics, it’s easier to pose criticisms of a finding (whether good or bad criticisms) than to do the work involved in the find and its deciphering.

    Where are their findings? I’ll have a look at them. Thank you for bringing them to my attention.

  4. OK, having done some looking, what I have discovered is that Dr Galil’s colleagues did not propose an alternative date of composition of the material discovered.

    They did write the open letter referred to above, most of which does not raise any questions about the conclusions drawn, but rather about whether or not Galil should have taken credit for the work done. Here is that letter in full:

    The Khirbet Qeiyafa expedition would like to draw your attention to a number of problematic statements that appeared in the Haifa University press release, dated January 10, 2010 (http://newmedia-eng.haifa.ac.il/?p=2043). These statements raise several problems of ethics and scholarship, which unfortunately have created a serious public misunderstanding concerning the Qeiyafa ostracon.

    Ethics

    1. While the expedition is run by two directors, only one (Yosef Garfinkel) is mentioned. This is surprising, as last year co-director Saar Ganor spent some time on guiding a tour of Khirbet Qeiyafa for you and other members of the Department of Biblical Studies of Haifa University.
    2. The letters that appear on the ostracon were deciphered by the epigraphist Dr. Haggai Misgav, who has published his reading in Hebrew and English. In the press release, however, you are presented as the person who deciphered the inscription, taking full credit for the entire reading. Again, this is surprising, as last year Haggai Misgav gave a presentation on the inscription at the Department of Biblical Studies of Haifa University.
    3. In a few cases you give alternative readings of the inscription that were published by Dr. Ada Yardeni. These, again, are presented as your original reading.
    4. From the very first reading of the inscription, the words ?? ??? were understood by Haggai Misgav as an indication that the language of the inscription is Hebrew. In the press release this understanding is presented as your original contribution.
    5. Prof. Shmuel Ahituv suggested in his publication that ??? (worship) is another indication for Hebrew. In the press release, however, this is presented as your own contribution.
    6. When you examined the ostracon, you requested permission to take a few photographs for your personal use only. One of these photographs appears in the press release.

    Scholarship

    Your contribution consists not of reading or deciphering the inscription, but rather of speculative reconstruction of “missing” letters and words. Most of the third line and the center of the fifth line of the ostracon are illegible and the letters you suggest are entirely speculative. The main words that support your thesis (?????, ????, ?????) are reconstructed and do not appear as such in the legible parts of the ostracon.

    On the basis of your own reconstruction, you draw conclusions, among others, about when the Bible was written. Does this sound like a scientific methodology?

    SOURCE

    Plagiarism is a serious matter, so I take the concerns raised seriously. Credit must be unreservedly given to those who deserve it, and if Dr Galil has fallen afoul of this principle then he should certainly be taken to task for it.

    This was a major piece of work achieved at the university of Haifa, but as the critics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem point out, it’s also worth noting that there was speculation involved in deciphering some of the words, something that I suspect is an inevitable feature of this sort of archaeology. Of course, speculation here does not mean guessing or just making it up, but something more like drawing conclusions based on what evidence we have – conclusions that are capable of being mistaken but at least do have a basis. At the risk of being a little cynical, I also think it’s fair to say that each of these two universities would very much like to have the reputation of being the ones to have the last scholarly say about what has and has not been shown here.

    So yes, there’s an embarassment over Dr Galil’s integrity in not giving credit where it is due, but hardly an embarrassment over the actual substance of the research or findings. It’s business as usual there.

  5. The Hebrew Bible constantly proves its critics wrong, as shown by archaeology. Time and again, archaeological discoveries prove that the text of the Hebrew Bible is historically accurate. If nothing else, people should realize that the Hebrew Bible is an accurate depiction of the events it describes.

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