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.



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3:15 AM  

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