DISCOVERIES IN 2009
The discovery of ancient inscriptions often generates considerable public excitement. Earlier this year three such inscriptions were uncovered during archaeological excavations in Israel. One of these inscriptions, thought to be a small fragment of a commemorative plaque from the eighth century BCE, contains a tantalising sequence of letters that possibly represents part of the name of either the famed king Hezekiah of Judah or Hilkiah who was high priest at the time of king Josiah.1
A second inscription consists of several lines written in black ink on a piece of pottery. This oldest known Hebrew or Canaanite inscription dates to the time of the earliest kings of Israel and contains such words as king, judge and slave.2 The release of a full translation of the inscription later in the year is eagerly awaited by many scholars and ancient history enthusiasts.
The third inscription, consisting of two additional large fragments of the "Stele of Heliodorus" sheds considerable light on the time between the Old and New Testaments, in the period leading up to the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian Greeks.
Also, in the last few days there has been the announcement of the recovery of a papyrus document from around the time of Jesus, with writing similar to that of the Dead Sea scrolls.
INSCRIPTIONS BY THE THOUSAND
Around 15,000 inscriptions dating from the Persian, Greek and Roman periods of Jewish history (approx. 500 BCE to 614 CE)3 have been discovered in Israel and Palestine. Some of these inscriptions were chiselled into stone monuments and plaques, whilst others were inscribed on clay tablets, written on shards of pottery or included in tiled floor mosaics. The inscriptions vary in length from several hundred words to just three or four letters of the alphabet but together they contribute greatly to our knowledge about the political and social background of the Old and New Testaments and thereby enhance our understanding of the nation God chose to be a witness to his wisdom, love and power.
God willing we plan to include in this website during the next few months descriptions of the most interesting inscriptions from Israel and adjoining countries, arranged according to the approximate dates they were produced, together with a brief explanation as to why they are of significance in Biblical archaeology. We begin this month with two stele, a stone and a tablet.
1. The Merneptah Stele
This impressive black granite plaque, which was found in Thebes in Egypt, is the first known inscription to mention the people of Israel. It dates to approximately 1208 BCE and was set up by the Egyptian king Merneptah to celebrate his military victories over various enemy peoples, including particularly the Libyans and the "Sea Peoples". On the reverse of the stele, referring to a military campaign in Canaan, Merneptah boasts that "Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer is seized, ... Israel is laid waste; its seed is no more".
The particular encounter between Israel and Egypt that is mentioned in the Merneptah stele doesn't correspond to any specific event recorded in the Old Testament. However the inscription is important because it clearly indicates that not long after the presumed time of Israel's exodus from Egypt and entry into the land that God had promised them, the descendants of Jacob were regarded as an identifiable group of people who still posed a serious military threat to the Egyptians (no surprises there!), as we read in the books of Joshua and Judges.
As for Merneptah's claims of Israel having been completely destroyed, well the Egyptian (and many other) kings were well known for somewhat misrepresenting the truth on many of their victory monuments, for example Raamses II's false claims of having won a great victory against the Hittites in their famous battle at Kadesh..
Whatever the truth may be about the episode mentioned by Merneptah, the stele remains an important document in the history of the relationship between the two nations.
2. The Zayit Stone
Named after the town in which it was discovered, this ‘stone' is in fact a large limestone boulder, which is inscribed with an alphabet consisting of at least 22 letters written in an early Canaanite script. The date of the inscription is uncertain but it is certainly older than the 10th century BCE wall in which it was discovered, and it might be as old as the mid 11th century BCE, i.e. late in the Biblical time of the Judges.4
Detail of the Hebrew alphabet on the Zayit Stone, showing the letters
waw, he, het, zayin and tet(reading right to left).
(Photo: Wikipedia Commons)
The inscription, which was possibly a scribe's practice "page", reveals that some people, most likely members of the more privileged classes, were quite capable at this early time in Israel's history of producing written records such as those found in the first books of the Old Testament.
3. The Gezer Calendar
(From the Internet. source unknown)
Found in the Biblical town of Gezer, this limestone tablet is thought to date from around the time of Solomon (early 10th century BC). It is inscribed in an early form of the Hebrew language by someone named Abijah (word at lower left of the tablet) and is a list of the number of months allocated to different agricultural activities during the year. Its purpose is uncertain but it has been suggested that it might have been a song or memory verse for schoolchildren, or it might have had some ritual purpose associated with ensuring fertility of the land or have been used for the collection of taxes. The tablet reads as follows:
"Two months of harvest
Two months of planting
Two months of late planting
One month of hoeing
One month of barley-harvest
One month of harvest and festival
Two months of grape harvesting
One month of summer fruit" 5.
This is the earliest known Jewish calendar and it reveals the organised nature of farming practices in the region at this early period of the Jewish monarchy and as is also reflected in several of the Psalms. Similar sentiments are expressed in Ecclesiastes 3 v 1-2, which dates to around the same time as the Gezer Calendar:
"To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, And a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted."(NKJV)
4. The Stele of Mesha (also known as the Moabite Stone)
In Old Testament times the nation of Moab was located due east of the southern Jewish kingdom of Judah and the Dead Sea. The subjection of the Moabite king Mesha by king Ahab of Israel and Mesha's rebellion following Ahab's death are recorded in 2 Kings 3. Mesha's own account of how he threw off the shackles of Israelite oppression around 846 BCE is recorded in his stele, which was discovered in Jordan in 1868. It provides considerable additional background to the Biblical record from the Moabite perspective, including the various cities conquered by Mesha, but it fails to mention his defeat at the hands of the coalition of Israel, Judah and Edom, nor of the fact that he sacrificed his son on the wall of the city in which he was under siege from the kings of Israel, Judah and Edom.
The monument contains the first extra-Biblical reference to the name of the God of Israel, Y-H-W-H, and is also thought by some scholars to contain the first reference to the "House of David" or Kingdom of Judah, although the reading of this expression is disputed by others.
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)
In our next article we will go on to look at the next four exciting inscriptions in our list, including a possible forgery and a "photograph" in stone.
Whilst all of these ancient records are fascinating and illuminating however, in the end they are not the most exciting inscriptions to be produced in the Middle East. That title belongs instead to a collection of inscriptions which give testimony to the missionary work of the early apostles and elders of the Christian faith, a group collectively described in the New Testament as the ekklesia or church of God.
Writing to the ecclesia in Corinth the Apostle Paul says "You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart." (2Corinthians 3 v 2-3 NIV)
In this passage Paul contrasts the faith and witness of the early Christians with that greatest of Jewish inscriptions, the 10 commandments written on the two tablets of stone that God gave to Moses (Exodus 32 v 15-16). And his message to these early believers and to us is that whereas that old message based on the Law of Moses ultimately led all people to death, the Gospel message, the Good News of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, is able to lead us into a process of transformation into living inscriptions who reveal the image and glory of God himself to people who don't yet know him. Now that's a wonderful message!!
1. Israel Antiquities Authority press release. April 2009
2. Mail Online. April 22, 2009
3. Israel/ Palestine Inscriptions Project. http://www.stg.brown.edu:8080/exist/inscriptions/about