Hallelujah or Caveat Emptor?

So once more we are treated to the spectacle of religious fundamentalism masquerading as “scientific” archaeology.  Another fairly competent archaeologist has hitched his career wagon to the star of “proving the Bible true.” And yes, the audience-aware journalistic summarizers of National Geographic and the New York Times will credulously report it; the usual scholarly heavyweights and blowhards will crow at the “death of minimalism;” and the champagne corks will be popping at the offices of the arch-cheerleader of the twin obsessions of biblical antiquities collecting and biblical literalism, the Biblical Archaeology Review.      

But does the ostracon (ink-inscribed pottery sherd) discovered in 2008 at Prof. Yosef Garfinkel’s excavations at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa in southern Israel really indicate “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”?       

Professor Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa suggests that the “contents of the text express social sensitivity to the fragile position of weaker members of society. The inscription testifies to the presence of strangers within the Israeli society as far back as this ancient period, and calls to provide support for these strangers. It appeals to care for the widows and orphans and that the king – who at that time had the responsibility of curbing social inequality – be involved. This inscription is similar in its content to biblical scriptures (Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, Exodus 23:3, and others), but it is clear that it is not copied from any biblical text.”      

These are all notable sentiments, no doubt, but their identification on an ancient pottery sherd is all a fantasy of wishful thinking that will thrill the faithful yet demonstrate little more than Galil’s clever crossword puzzle skill.  Here is the version included in the official press release:      

1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.      

But here is an earlier translation of the text that gives a better idea of the extent of the uncertainty of the reconstruction:      

1          Do not do [anything bad?], and serve [personal name?]
2          ruler of [geographical name?] . . . ruler . . .
3          [geographical names?] . . .
4          [unclear] and wreak judgment on YSD king of Gath . . .
5          seren of G[aza? . . .] [unclear] . . .       

Just look at the drawing Galil provided, with the extent of the uncertain (or non-existent) letters represented in outline:      

Drawing by Gershon Galil. Courtesy of the University of Haifa.


Science?  Or epigraphic Rorschach test?      

Shame on the University of Haifa for issuing this donation-harvesting press release with such sweeping, religiously loaded assertions.  Is this archaeology or a devotional exercise?  What’s the point of digging at all?

4 thoughts on “Hallelujah or Caveat Emptor?

  1. For myself there was no need for the first cut translation. The give away of a fake translations is in words like

    sla[ve] wid[ow] orph[an]

    Please tell me how a partial ENGLISH word can be represented.

  2. These were my sentiments as well.

    I do think that minimalism is going to die out. It’s quite ludicrous to think that the details in Kings and Samuel were fabricated out of thin cloth later on, though they were most likely exaggerated.

    Nevertheless, the reading of this ostracon is extremely speculative, and Hebrew is a very terse and thus malleable language.

    Also, if it’s Hebrew as is claimed, why is it being read backwards (left to right)? Do you ever get a dramatic direction shift like that in languages? Unless it’s a mirror image of an original writing or it was written by a foreigner, I don’t understand how that’s possible.

    One last point — I’m no expert, but it seems to me that quite a few of the readable letters are unknown to us, or at least borderline cases, making the crossword, as you call it, even more open to interpretation.

  3. Pingback: Talk About Circular Logic! « Searching for Authenticity

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