Sunday, November 23, 2008

A disturbing book

The following remarks pertain to a recent volume by the Israeli scholar Israel Jacob Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages" (University of California Press, 2006; an English translation of a Hebrew original of 2000).
The central theme of this important book is a challenge to the common perception that Christianity is the daughter of Judaism. Instead, Yuval maintains, both arose in response to historical circumstances: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE. As we know them, the two faiths are siblings.

In keeping with the dominant trend of modern scholarship, Yuval holds that the rabbinical Judaism that took shape in the Mishnah (after 200) and the two Talmuds was essentially a new creation--as was Christianity. More controversially, the Israeli scholar holds that when there are similarities between Christianity and rabbinical Judaism--they are much more numerous than is commonly admitted--they are most likely the result of Jewish borrowing from Christianity. This is what one might expect in the relationship of a minority culture and a majority one, a reality that became evident with the emperor Constantine’s sponsorship of Christianity in the early fourth century: “minority cultures tend to adopt the agenda of the majority culture,” The “one-way influence of Christianity on Judaism” is Yuval's working hypothesis.

With all the recent hoopla about “ethnicity” in contemporary America it is easy to lose sight of this fundamental dynamic. Let us take Mexican Americans in California and Puerto Ricans in New York. In both cases, the Anglo host culture produces overwhelming pressures for assimilation. By the third (or even the second generation), knowledge of Spanish is minimal and North American popular culture is pervasive. Doubtless Yuval has observed a similar process of assimilation in today’s Israel.

In fact, the first indications of acculturation in the Jewish world date back to the closing centuries of the Second Temple period, when the attractions of Hellenism loomed increasingly large. Many Jews--and not just in the diaspora--adopted Greek names and customs. Philo of Alexandria, the greatest Jewish thinker of the period, wrote exclusively in Greek.

To set the scene for his assertions, Yuval employs a somewhat complicated parable chosen from the bible itself. He holds that the Jacob–Esau typology (Gen. 24–32) has been of major importance for Jews’ and Christians’ perception of themselves and each other (as “other”) from antiquity until today. Both Jews and Christians identified themselves with Jacob as the chosen one. For Jews, Esau was Edom (= Rome), and eventually the Christian-Byzantine empire. For Christians, Esau was “the archetype of the Jew” who had allegedly lost his birthright to his younger brother, the Church. In this way Judaism and Christianity came to adopt diametrically opposed interpretations of the same biblical story. The identification with Jacob also entailed the “claim to ownership of the Land of Israel on a divine promise,” which Christians sought to fulfill in the First Crusade by freeing Jerusalem from Muslim domination. In keeping with his overall methodology, Yuval assumes that both interpretations emerged at the same time, after the destruction of the Second Temple, and that the Jewish exegesis embodied in rabbinic Midrash drew upon the Christian one: “the Jewish position is reactive and defensive,” showing apologetic traits.

Yuval maintains that the rabbinic notion of Oral Torah was developed because rabbis feared that otherwise their teachings—like the Written Torah—could be appropriated by Christians and universalized; “[t[the Oral Torah is, in the deepest sense, a Jewish answer to the Christian Torah, the New Testament.” It is true that Christians have never shown any interest in the highly problematic notion of the Oral Torah as the copartner of the Written Torah, but indifference on their part does not exclude the possibility of its adoption by the rabbis as a defensive bulwark.

Yuval highlights significant similarities between Passover and Easter in Jewish and Christian tradition and practice. In particular, he links the theme of redemption to some of the symbolic foodstuffs of the seder table. In his discussion of the Jewish–Christian controversy in the Middle Ages (chapters 3–6), the author develops the argument that Christian accusations against Jews were based on a misinterpretation and representation of actual Jewish practices and beliefs. Not only was the roasting of the Passover sacrifice associated with the annihilation of Esau/Christianity, but the burning of the leaven could be seen as a desecration of the Host. The theme of vengeful redemption, which was already part of the Passover rite, was seen by Christians as an expression of Jewish hatred of humankind in general and of Christianity and its messiah in particular. Yuval regards the afikoman matzah at the end of the Passover seder as a symbol of messianic redemption, as “a kind of Jewish Host,” the outcome of a “Jewish internalization of Christian ritual language.” Thus there flourished a covert dialogue among symbols, gestures, and ceremonies--a dialogue suffused with polemics, hostility, and feelings of superiority over the respective “Other.” For this reason, “the inner context of the ceremonies is completely different in each religion. “

The second main part of the book concentrates on Ashkenazic Jewry, the field of Yuval’s particular expertise. “How did medieval Jewish apologetics deal with Christianity’s standing as the dominant and successful religion? What religious formulation enabled the Jews to adhere to their faith in the election of Israel despite the political reality that every day seemed to demonstrate that God had hidden his face from them? These questions must be understood in the broad context of the connections and interrelations between Jews and Christians. . . .

“Gerson Cohen . . . noted the ‘blatant contrast between the election of Israel and their subjection on earth,’ a contradiction aggravated in times of religious persecution. To explain this, Jews interpreted the harsh political reality as temporary, postponing its resolution until the messianic era. Hence, the events anticipated in the messianic era serve as the key to understanding Jewish apologetics in the present. How did the Jews portray the long-awaited victory over Christianity? How did they envision the future routing of the Gentiles?”

Yuval points out that much historical scholarship has been devoted to studying the expressions of Christian hatred for Jews, but relatively little to its Jewish counterpart. For example, he cites texts incorporated in the Morning Prayer of Yom Kippur. “These are texts that demonstrate the abyss of hostility and hatred felt by medieval Jews towards Christians. And we have here not only hatred, but an appeal to God to kill indiscriminately and ruthlessly, alongside a vivid description of the anticipated horrors to be brought down upon the Gentiles. These pleas are formulated in a series of verbs--”swallow them, shoot them, lop them off, make them bleed, crush them, strike them down” and so forth. One might expect such strong language as a response to persecution, but as Yuval points out such invective goes back to late antiquity, and is a constant, even in periods of relative peace between Christians and Jews.

This material is disturbing. Yet there is more, for Yuval suggests that the Christian blood libel of the Middle Ages may be based on Jewish martyrs’ killing of their own children. The Jewish martyrdom chronicles of 1096 present self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of one’s loved ones to avoid apostasy as Kiddush ha-Shem (sanctification of God). Christians who heard of such acts were horrified by them, citing them as evidence that Jews were a murderous people. Yuval sees these tragic events as the source of the blood libel and the accusation of ritual murder that was most widespread from the twelfth century onward. The blood libel represented the distorted Christian view of Jewish martyrdom: according to the Christian version, Jews would kill Christian children, when in reality they killed their own. The dissemination of the blood libel in the years after the First Crusade may thus reflect Christian knowledge of the Jewish martyrdom acts—or rather rumors about Jews sacrificing their own children for the purposes of vengeful redemption.

In the final chapter, Yuval seeks to show how Jewish messianic ideas associated with the “end of the millennium” (the Christian year 1240 corresponds to the year 5000 in the Jewish calendar) had an impact on the Christian world. France and Germany were the centers of messianic ferment at that time, and calculations similar to the Jewish ones are found in Christian sources, though the chronology suggests that the influence traveled from Christian writers to Jewish ones. Jewish apocalyptic recapitulates three features of Christian Joachimism: the idea of the millennium, the conception of history of the Six Days of Creation, and the tripartite division of history. As Norman Cohn has shown, all these ideas have deep Christian roots.

To be sure, the Jewish messianic idea was connected with the hope for Jewish resettlement of the land of Israel, whereas Christians sought to appropriate the Holy Land for themselves, undertaking the Crusades for that purpose. The different messianic expectations show a “tragic asymmetry”: Jews anticipated the destruction of Christianity while Christians expected the conversion of Jews to their own religion: “the Jewish Messiah is the Christian Antichrist, and vice versa.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

American bitterness

During the 1930s some fifty books were published in Italy concerning America. While some bright spots were found, the dominant theme was “America Amara,” America as a bitter place. These writers were appalled by the power of the machine and by the apparently unregulated nature of American society. Accordingly they offered a series of doleful visions of a civilization where human beings live in hellish urban environments, enslaved by the machines that they have created. Even Mario Soldati, one of the more thoughtful writers, concluded that “America is monotonous, arid and sinister. The puritanism of the Americans has repressed and atrophied those instincts which make life worth living: love, conviviality, idleness, eating. The Devil, chased from the body, has re-entered the spirit.”

Emilio Cecchi, whose 1939 book is actually entitled “America Amara,” considers American society to be based on the puritanical principles of the founding fathers. In addition, he sees these principles as having been moulded by the struggle “to colonize the new land” and by the “impact of extreme natural forces.” In Cecchi’s opinion, the society has degenerated to such an extent that it can no longer provide a framework of general ideas for interpreting the experience of the individual. The best way of describing the situation is that of a prison or a madhouse.

Today these writers are little known, even in Italy. But their negative views find an echo in several famous recent American writers, who (one might think) should know better.

The journalist Studs Terkel died a few days ago in Chicago at the age of 96. The dramatists Arthur Miller and David Mamet are currently undergoing revivals on Broadway. All share a vision of American society as heartless and unforgiving, grinding down its hapless inhabitants, who must inevitably end with their pride and self-esteem shredded. This sad situation is, it seems, the inescapable outcome of untrammeled capitalism. Throughout his life Terkel thought that the answer lay in socialism, a view echoed by Miller in his earlier days. In Mamet, who is still living and working, the view degenerates into cynicism: “let me screw you before you get a chance to screw me.” In different ways, these three writers argue that the American dream is really a nightmare.

Louis (“Studs”) Terkel was born in New York City, but at the age of eight he moved with his Russian-Jewish parents to Chicago, where he spent most of his life. Terkel’s world view received an early stamp from the various marginal types who passed through his parents’ rooming house. During the Depression, Terkel joined the Federal Writer’s Project, working in radio. Later he became well-known for his radio program that aired on WFMT in Chicago between 1952 and 1997. He published a number of books which purport to be oral history. In fact, they carefully massage the material so as to convey his view of America as a kind of evil stepmother who destroys her children.

One feature I share with him is that Terkel never learned to drive.

A balanced picture, exposing Terkel’s weaknesses, emerged in an obituary column by the brilliant New York Times writer Edward Rothstein (November 2, 2008). As Rothstein correctly points out, “Terkel anticipated the academic movement of recent decades to tell history from below—not from the perspective of the makers of history but from the perspective of those who have been shaped by it. He once said he was interested in the masons who might have built the Chinese Wall, or the cooks in Caesar’s army.”

Tellingly, Rothstein goes on to say, “[b]ut if you look closely at these oral histories, you can never forget who has shaped them and to what end. It often seems easy to guess whom Mr. Terkel liked and who is there to make a particular point or provide ironic contrast. . . . The most admired are those who, because of personal gifts, transcend the monotony of working life; the most respected are those who come to recognize those horrors most clearly and speak of them. The interviews fit the intellectual framework set up by the “Working” introduction: ‘This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body.’ . . . This vision of work, though, is an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor—the sense of disassociation that comes from the capitalist workplace. The most transformative accomplishment would be to recognize the causes of that alienation, because that would help usher in a new world; this is what Mr. Terkel seems to cherish in his most admired laborers and what he hopes to accomplish in the book itself.

“It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel’s political vision from the contours of his oral history. You grow more cautious as you keep reading. Mr. Terkel seems less to be discovering the point latent in his conversations than he is in shaping the conversations to make a latent point.
“This is not something often recognized about these books. Yet when Mr. Terkel’s 1970 oral history of the 1930s Depression, “Hard Times,” was reissued in 1986 in the heart of the Reagan administration, Mr. Terkel’s new introduction worked strenuously to show how the two eras were comparably nightmarish—though the 1980s never had anything like the 25 percent unemployment of the earlier era. Mr. Terkel writes: ‘In the ’30s, an administration recognized a need and lent a hand. Today an administration recognizes an image and lends a smile.’ Similarly, Mr. Terkel’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Good War,” has a title in ironic quotation marks because the emphasis, again and again, is on World War II’s shadows and injustices, with allusions, in the words of one interviewer singled out for attention, to a contemporary ‘meanness of soul.’

“All this is saying, perhaps, is that Mr. Terkel was a man of the political left—something of which he made no secret. The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective, just a series of oral histories. But its perspective actually seems to guide its strategy, so one is no longer sure what is being omitted and how much is being fully seen. No part of history or human experience should be ignored, but all of it needs to be placed in a larger context.

“Part of Mr. Terkel’s wide appeal was that he seemed to be a scrappy liberal in his choice of causes and concerns, but look more closely and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism. Though Mr. Terkel was not a theorist, nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seem to fit models shaped by Marxist theory; he even wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class.”

Most revealing is the fact that late in life Studs Terkel provided a blurb touting the memoirs of William Ayers, about whom we have heard much lately. To be sure, there is not much connection between Ayers and president-elect Obama, but Ayers has never disavowed his days as a bomb-throwing radical, or his support for America’s enemies. Terkel thought otherwise. “A deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world,” he bizarrely opined. “Ayers provides a tribute to those better angels of ourselves.” (I’m pretty sure that Abraham Lincoln would strongly disagree.)

Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in New York City, the second of Isidore and Augusta Barnett Miller's three children. His father had come to the United States from Austria-Hungary and ran a small coat-manufacturing business. His mother, a native of New York, had been a public school teacher.

He was graduated from the University of Michigan in 1938, having won several awards for playwriting. Because of an old football injury, he was rejected for military service, but he was hired to tour army camps to collect material for a movie, “The Story of G. I. Joe.” His notes from these tours were published as “Situation Normal” (1944). That same year the Broadway production of his play “The Man Who Had All the Luck” opened, closing after four performances.

Miller's career blossomed with the opening of “All My Sons” on Broadway in 1947. A kind of modern tragedy, the play won three prizes, drawing audiences across the country. Then his signature work, “Death of a Salesman” (1949), brought Miller the Pulitzer Prize for drama, international fame, and an estimated income of two million dollars.

A caustic attack on American materialism, “Death of a Salesman” centers on the main character, Willy Loman. At the age of sixty-three, Willy has been a traveling salesman all his life. Despite his hard work and grueling schedule, the Lomans have always lived on the edge of poverty and Willy has always been an underling in his company. Yet Willy constantly tells himself and his family that the "big break" he deserves is just around the corner. He has raised his two sons, Biff and Happy, to also believe that somehow life has cheated them and insists that one day they will get their due. Linda, Willy's dutiful wife, lives under the thin veneer of denial that her husband has so long tried to keep from collapsing.

When he finds that because of changing economic conditions the company has no further need for his services, Willy is devastated. Despite his protests otherwise, Willy knows he is a failure. He begins to slowly kill himself by inhaling gas fumes from a hose in the garage, an act that relieves his mental anguish and gives him a brief high. The gas also muddles Willy's mind, conflating past, present, and future. He had sought desperately to be "well liked.” Yet without the status of being a manager who makes more money, the dream is impossible. He dies as he has lived, a failure in the eyes of society.

Miller's third Broadway play, "The Crucible" (1953), was set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, during a witch-hunting craze. In fact Miller's play was present-minded, for its subtext is the purported similarity to Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations of anti-American activities during the early 1950s. Both activities were reprehensible, but in fact the comparison is strained. People lost their jobs as a result of McCarthy, but no one was burned.

Miller wrote many other plays, but none had the success of these three. They all share the ambition of puncturing the American dream. The last, “The Crucible,” unconsciously picks up the Italian theme that American was ruined by puritanism.

Born in 1947, David Mamet was brought up in a Jewish section on the South Side of Chicago just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. He is the author of nearly thirty full-length plays, numerous one-act plays and radio dramas, sixteen scripts, three novels, and four collections of essays. He shares Terkel and Miller’s claim that the American dream has failed, devastating people’s lives. A special feature of his writing is the coarseness, as his dialogue tends to be liberally laced with profanity. He portrays an America that is falling apart. It is sometimes said that Mamet portrays the degradation of business ethic into deception and betrayal; this is untrue because he believes that business has always been corrupt and venal. A more general theme is the breakdown of communication between people; in his view, relations between men and women are always conflicting and discordant.

Mamet's first success in the theater was his scatological play, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” Some attendees must have been initially disappointed, because the title is misleading. The play does not dramatize obscure sexual practices. but focuses on the four characters’ inability to build meaningful love relationships. What is missing from their world is any intimacy, any shared perception of the possibilities generated by human connection and empathy. Both sexes lack a usable language or a shared understanding. The kaleidoscopic and fragmented structure of the play both reflects and induces a similar sort of haste and shallowness apparent in the human relationships that lack any depth of intimacy or emotion. Setting a kind of Strindbergian sexual battle against backdrop of the fast-spaced rhythms of the society, the play argues that the logic of capitalism-–possession and consumption–destroys any possibility of human solidarity. Mamet thinks that our national character makes violence take precedence over love.

His later plays are much the same. In more recent years Mamet has been working in Hollywood, where he finds (surprise!) that money and personal ambition dictate everything. This view informs his 1998 play “Speed the Plow,” currently being revived on Broadway.

Something of a departure from his usual themes appears in "Oleana" (1992), where he dared to take on the orthodoxy of political correctness concerning sexual harassment--real and imagined--in the universities. The play concerns a college professor, whose career is destroyed by a female student, who falsely accuses him of sexual impropriety. Some of Mamet’s former admirers turned on him, dismissing his work as a manifestation of backlash sexual politics characterized by outrage and hostility towards the agenda of contemporary feminism. Having seen the play when it was first produced, I found it a courageous early warning against a trend that was quickly getting out of hand.

In this vein Mamet has written recent essays revising his earlier views, causing him to be labeled--falsely, I believe--a neo-conservative. Instead he has shown signs of a new maturity. It is uncertain though whether he will be able to give his current insights sustained attention in the form of plays and films.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Ich bin ein Karaiter"

Were I ever to convert to Judaism, I might become a Karaite. Sometimes falsely charged with being heretical, Karaites rightly insist that they are Jews. In Israel, where most of them live, they are so regarded. Their marriages are accepted as valid by the state, while those of Conservative and Reform rabbis are not.

Of all the branches of Judaism that exist today, the Karaites strike me as by far the most faithful to the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. Bravely independent, they scoff at that Supreme Fiction, the Oral Law, and its lumbering, egregious vehicles the Mishnah and the Talmud. They feel no need to assume the huge burden of allegorical interpretation generated by rabbinical sciolism, often conducted in covert imitation of Christian hermeneutics, that has been imposed on Jewish life.

Karaites staunchly reject the authority of the rabbis, and view many aspects of rabbinic Halacha as contradictory to the plain meaning of the Torah. When interpreting the Tanakh, Karaites strive to adhere to the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text. This approach stands in stark contrast to rabbinical Judaism, which employs a fourfold menu of p'shat, remez (“implication” or “clue”), drash ("deep interpretation," based on breaking down individual words) and sod ("secret," the deeper meaning of the text, drawing on the Kabbalah). As I have shown in an earlier posting, this baroque exegetical quartet stems from a similar Christian foursome invented some centuries earlier.

Eventually, in the course of the nineteenth century, Christian exegetes had sense enough to discard this nonsense. The Karaites, however, were way ahead of them, as they had never accepted these devices in the first place.

Such interpretive complexities long served to enhance the mystique of the rabbis. The Karaites thought differently. Instead of relying on a rabbi, one should read and interpret Scripture for oneself. How refreshing!

Of course some people are more learned than others, and there is no reason for not talking to them about Scripture. We are, after all, social beings. In fact, Karaite authorities recommend that one should consult with as many people as possible where there is a question of uncertainty. [Today, the Internet makes that practice much easier than heretofore.] One can take the advice of a hacham (an especially learned member of the community), but that advice is not binding and the hacham has to be able to prove his or her view from the Torah.

"There are three main concepts that Karaite practice is based on," explains Rabbi Moshe Firrouz of the Karaite synagogue in Beersheba. "There is the written word of the Bible, logical interpretation, and tradition."

Firrouz stresses that one is not allowed to make any sort of rule that contradicts the Torah, and if one gives an explanation for one of the passages, that explanation must not contradict any other part of the Torah.

Such interpretive methods foster practices that raise eyebrows among rabbinic Jews. For example, Karaites decline to wear tefillin. (Tefillin, also called phylacteries, are a pair of black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with biblical verses.) Karaites read the biblical passage from which that commandment is derived metaphorically, and consider the actual wearing of tefillin to be an "over-literalization" on the part of the rabbis. Karaites also have no problem eating milk and meat together (as long as both the milk and the meat are kosher), for they reason that the passage that commands Jews "not to boil a kid in its mother's milk" is an explicit prohibition against a pagan fertility ritual practiced by the Canaanites, and not a law enjoining a universally applicable dietary practice.

Historically, Karaites flourished especially during the classical age of Islam, when it is estimated that about ten percent of Jews belonged to this group. Their actually origins are disputed, but clearly they split off not long after 200 CE, when rabbinic Judaism began its career of reshaping Judaism. Regrettably, there are but few Karaites in the world today--at most, 30,000. (They are not to be confused with the Samaritans, who have a different Bible from the one Karaites and rabbinic Jews use.)

The Israeli Karaite scholar Nehemia Gordon maintains an English-language Web site,, where he provides detailed explanations for Karaite beliefs and links to other resources.

So why, one may ask, if the Karaites actually descend from an unbroken chain of true scriptural observance established in early times, are their numbers so much lower those of rabbinic Jews?
"How many followers you have has nothing to with how right you are," declares Rabbi Firrouz. "[If you follow that logic], then you might come to the conclusion that the Chinese are the real chosen people of the world." [as in fact they may be--WRD]

The question remains: how is it that rabbinic Judaism, with its many absurdities and accretions, triumphed, while the right-thinking Karaites were left behind? All I can say is that the ways of the Lord are inscrutable.

Come to think of it, though, I doubt that I could become a Karaite. There are still those two pesky verses in Leviticus 18 and 20, the second of which calls for my death.


Saturday, November 01, 2008

Fakery amid the crockery

In an earlier posting I wrote about the illusion to the effect that “Biblical archaeology” supports the traditional interpretation of Israelite origins. While some of the artifacts and architectural forms recovered in digs in Israel and nearby countries have an intrinsic interest, their larger impact is minimal. They basically provide a backdrop and some staffage. However, these discoveries have failed to provide any confirmation of the biblical narratives themselves. Unsupported by any concurrent outside evidence, these scriptures are being increasingly exposed as a series of mythical constructs reflecting later interests and assumptions. They are simply not history in any meaningful sense of the term.

Despite much earnest searching, no evidence has emerged thus far for the existence of a great empire under David and Solomon. In fact there is no inscriptional documentation that would affirm that either of these worthies actually existed. (There is one text that has been claimed to refer to David, but probably does not).

Yet hope springs eternal. According to Matti Friedman, an Associated Press writer, “[a]n Israeli archaeologist has discovered what he believes is the oldest known Hebrew inscription on a 3,000-year-old pottery shard--a find that suggests Biblical accounts of the ancient Israelite kingdom of David could have been based on written texts.

“A teenage volunteer discovered the curved shard bearing five lines of faded characters in July in the ruins of an ancient town on a hilltop south of Jerusalem. Yossi Garfinkel, the Israeli archaeologist leading the excavations at Hirbet Qeiyafa, released his conclusions about the writing Thursday after months of study.

“He said the relic is strong evidence that the ancient Israelites were literate and could chronicle events centuries before the Bible was written.”

Note the use of the modal construction “could.” As the text has not yet been fully deciphered, no one knows what events it might hypothetically chronicle.

There are several steps in a chain of wishful thinking. A single pot sherd, written by who knows whom, demonstrates that the ancient Israelites were literate. How many of them were? And how many of these were engaged in “chronicling events” in formulations that made their way eventually into the Hebrew Bible? It is all a texture of coulds, woulds, and ifs. What is revealing about this speculation is its role in contemporary political discourse, serving to reinforce, however dubiously, the claims of the current regime to control “Eretz Israel.”

Although we are told that the find is the earliest Hebrew inscription, it is in fact written in characters known as proto-Canaanite, not in Hebrew letters. Since many other Canaanite documents are known from the earlier Ugaritic finds, the writing on this shard would scarcely be unique.

In responding to the find, prominent Biblical archaeologists have been warning against jumping to conclusions, and rightly so. Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar noted that calling the text Hebrew might be going too far. "The differentiation between the scripts, and between the languages themselves in that period, remains unclear," he said.

While the find may add another small item to the historical record, archaeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University said that the enthusiastic claims being made about it went beyond the strict canons of science. Finkelstein warned against what he said was a "revival in the belief that what's written in the Bible is accurate like a newspaper." [I remark that in that case the bar is not very high.]

In short, the inscription may turn out to have some epigraphic and philological interest, but there is no way--based on what we have learned at present--that it could serve to bolster the pseudohistorical narratives found in the Hebrew Bible.