When Did the Hebrew Bible Start Taking Shape?

Perhaps at the time of King David (tenth century BCE). In other words, earlier than most contemporary Bible scholars have previously assumed. Below is a quote from a report on a tenth century BCE pottery shard recently discovered with Hebrew words on it. The pottery shard was discovered by University of Haifa Professor Gershon Galil:

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.”

Before jumping to conclusions (“The Bible was written hundreds of years earlier than current scholarship supposes!”) I would suggest two cautions:

  • How archaic is the Hebrew on the shard? In other words, is it Hebrew that looks like the Hebrew of the Bible, or Hebrew that looks several centuries earlier? In other words, just as there are big differences between, say, Chaucer’s English, Shakespeare’s English, and our own contemporary English, I’d like to know if anything in the Hebrew Bible reads like the Hebrew on the pottery shard.
  • The pottery shard contains no biblical verses, and so it is only an inference that parts of the Bible had been started at this time. We don’t have any actual evidence that they did.

Still, it’s interesting. But fundamentalists shouldn’t be leaping on this as an example of archeology proving the Bible.

Here’s the English translation of the text discovered on the shard:

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.

Whoever wrote this, he (or she) sure doesn’t sound like a Republican.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to When Did the Hebrew Bible Start Taking Shape?

  1. Sirrahc says:

    Good points, Santi. Similar to ones I have made about the ‘Joseph Coins” and similar finds.

    The article indicates that Prof. Galil’s translation is still waiting to be “received”, which I take to mean that other paleolinguists and/or experts in Semitic languages are reviewing the text and Galil’s methodology.

    If he is correct, the significance of the find is stated right at the top of the eurekalert article: ‘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.’

    In other words, contrary to what some (many?) scholars have been claiming, the Kingdom of David and associated Hebrew writing both existed at the time the Bible indicates that they did. On the one hand, that would be a significant corroboration in itself and should not be dismissed. On the other hand, let’s not get carried away and think it “proves” more than it does.

    Sirrahc
    AViewFromTheRight.wordpress.com

  2. TomH says:

    First, we should be cautious and let the archaeological evidence be examined by several scholars. Second, even if the claims hold, this doesn’t prove that the Bible was present during David’s reign. The only thing it would prove is that Hebrew existed as a separate language five centuries before certain liberal scholars were claiming as the earliest date, so their claims would be invalidated (along with their bogus thinking, in my view–free rhetorical aside).

    One of the articles indicated that several words in the inscription were unique to Hebrew; if so, that would be conclusive that at least as early as David’s reign Hebrew existed as a separate language. The possibility exists that these shards are forgeries, so we shouldn’t jump the gun. Even if the shards are accepted and support an early date for Hebrew, I wouldn’t rely on this “evidence” since it lacks provenance. I don’t see any compelling reason to reject the historical books of the Old Testament, so it seems to be quite reasonable to accept its history at face value without needing to rely on helps like these shards, which lack provenance, for confirmation.

    Santi, maybe you can tell the story, according to liberal scholars, about how they believe that the Hebrew religion came into being? What are their views about Abraham and Moses? Do they think that they are historical? And how did the Passover come to be reenacted in every Jewish household on a yearly basis?

  3. Alan Lenzi says:

    The article has certainly overstated this ostracon. Though it is an important find, it’s not going to revolutionize the field. That’s nonsense. Some of the so-called “minimalists” in Biblical Studies won’t be happy. But it’s easy to predict their reactions to stuff like this. For a balanced, early assessment by one of the foremost Northwest Semitic epigraphers, see here: http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?p=56. Rollston is not convinced, at this point, that the shard contains Hebrew.

    For future reference: Anytime a scrap of writing is found in an Iron Age context in Israel everyone goes crazy! Most people, including a lot of scholars, seem to default to “overstate its significance” mode. Rollston is not one of those scholars.

    P.S. I’m a biblical scholar (PhD from Brandeis).

  4. santitafarella says:

    Alan:

    Thanks for the link, and the expertise you bring to the question. It’s clarifying.

    —Santi

  5. santitafarella says:

    Tom,

    You ask a very involved question. In short, my understanding is that most contemporary scholars have concluded that the ancient Hebrews are an offshoot of the Canaanites; that is, they are a local people, not a group that swept in from Egypt and overthrew Canaan (ala the Book of Joshua). As to Abraham and Moses, there is speculation. One of the better books (in my view) laying out the basic secular narrative for the Hebrew Bible is Finklestein’s. Here’s are links to his book and DVD:

    http://www.amazon.com/Bible-Unearthed-Israel-Finkelstein/dp/B001VDSSCW/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1264002778&sr=8-3-spell

    http://www.amazon.com/Bible-Unearthed-Archaeologys-Vision-Ancient/dp/0684869136/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1264002778&sr=8-1-spell

    —Santi

  6. TomH says:

    From my reading, minimalism is not a majority position.

    Also, the expectation of evidence of an early advanced civilization seems highly pollyannish. It seems very strange that archaeology would ignore the prevalence of data-destroying processes, both natural and anthropogenic, which would have obliterated much evidence if the Bible were historically accurate. Both the southern and northern kingdoms were taken into slavery along with their possessions, so we would expect a great deal of destruction of evidence to result from this. Then there’s the standard looting that would inevitably have followed, along with the destruction of houses to take valuable stones for building newer and bigger buildings.

    The vacation of the kingdoms would have invited neighboring tribes to move into the vacant land, so that we would expect to see a recolonization of the lands when the enslaved peoples returned. This pattern seems to be a repeat occurrence even into the modern era.

    The King Josiah incident regarding finding the Law seems unusual. Apparently, assuming that the Bible is accurate, the priests abandoned the Law (kind of like a lot of liberal pastors today abandoning orthodox Christianity) and King Josiah was influenced by an old traditional priest and revived the worship. I still wonder how Josiah would have convinced Jewish families to remember a non-existent Passover in their own homes where nobody was watching. Sociologically, I would expect them to thumb their noses at the idea if there was no historical basis for it that they learned from their parents. Novelty tends to cause controversy, sociologically speaking.

  7. santitafarella says:

    Tom:

    As you might guess, Josiah is not high on my list of admirable people. He reminds me of the Taliban (I’m thinking, for example, of Josiah killing the priests of Baal and using their temple as a urinal). And there is a good deal of evidence that rural practices away from city centers were not “orthodox.” But like the fossil record, when it comes to ancient artifacts we’ve got what we’ve got, and the inferences that archeologists make from them can vary.

    As to your opinion about minimalism not being the majority opinion among academic archeologists, I agree. But there is a middle ground between minimalism (which might put the bulk of the Hebrew Bible at, say, 300-400 BCE) and a traditionalist view (Moses wrote the first five books in the late second millenium BCE and passed them onto Joshua, who wrote his book etc.). That middle ground is where most scholars are (putting the formation of a lot of the early texts in the reign of Josiah and the Babylonian exile). This video documentary, I think, is a pretty darn good summary of the current state of things (from a contemporary archeology vantage):

    http://www.amazon.com/NOVA-Bibles-Buried-Secrets-Nova/dp/B001IBCS2S/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1264028528&sr=8-1

    —Santi

  8. santitafarella says:

    Tom:

    Do you know of a book, by a noted archeologist, who holds the view that the Exodus of millions of slaves from Egypt (for example) actually occurred, or who holds that Joshua actually led armies in the destruction of Canaan? Contemporary archeology, in so far as I know, simply does not support these stories at all. I wonder how fundamentalists deal with how dramatically contemporary scholarship varies from their inerrancy beliefs.

    —Santi

    • TomH says:

      Sorry about replying to this so late.

      Archaeology and Bible history By Joseph P. Free, Howard Frederic Vos

      I can’t speak for all fundamentalists, but, for me, while some contemporary scholarship certainly varies from what the Bible claims, this isn’t a problem for me because I consider both the epistemology and the worldviews of those who vary from the biblical claims to be seriously flawed.

  9. Anonymous says:

    i want to know when did the bible has it own shape

  10. Tom says:

    One of the most complicated understanding is the formation of what we call the first part of the Old Testament which because the cornerstone and formed the profile for the rest of the Bible. That section is the TORAH which is the first books of the Bible. Several factors you MUST take into consideration when attempting to understand what happened and how God formed this WRITTEN account you have to ask that old question, What,Who,Why,How.
    The first answer is the facts concerning the author of the first five book of the Bible who was Moses. He was NOT raised as a Jew but as a part of the Pharaoh’s family as a son of kin in the family of the then Pharaoh. His training was quite extensive as he was trained in the best schools, military leadership, governmental order or better put how to run a nation.. The Old Testament clearly is written by one who used his skills to put into works the traditions and knowledge of the Jews in Egypt which may have up to this point been passed on by musical score. You will notice that the Bible has in It seven (7) Battles described that go from Genesis to Revelation, This makes the Bible one unit with a clear picture of God’s plan for the world. I will not get into the Battles as noted the Bible but thank my understanding of what God has done. The bible is a story of OUR AGE and how it will end and what its purpose is all about. The Cornerstone of the Bible is written by a man who is raise but critical to recording the ancient traditions of the people of Israel.

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