Another View: Christopher Rollston’s Methodology of Caution

Yosef Garfinkel responds to Christopher Rollston's "What's the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?"

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In the May/June 2012 BAR, Christopher A. Rollston’s “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?” considered four contenders as candidates for the oldest Hebrew inscription. In the September/October 2012 BAR, renowned archaeologist and Khirbet Qeiyafa excavation director Yosef Garfinkel responded to Rollston. Read Garfinkel’s response below and visit the BAS scholar’s study page Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription for an additional response by senior Israeli epigrapher Aaron Demsky as well as Rollston’s original article.

In “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?” (BAR May/June 2012) Christopher Rollston discusses four different early inscriptions: the Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon, the Gezer Calendar, the Tel Zayit Abecedary and the Izbet Zartah Abecedary. He argues that none of them can be identified as Hebrew. However, Rollston does not suggest any alternative identification. Are these inscriptions Canaanite? Phoenician? Moabite? If they are written in Canaanite, did Canaanite people build the Iron Age cities of Israel and Judah in the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E.? If these inscriptions are Phoenician or Moabite, are there any indications of migrations of people from Lebanon or Transjordan to southern Israel during the Iron Age? At the end of the day, according to Rollston, we have inscriptions without a people and people without a language.

Rollston raises these other possibilities as a matter of “caution.” He subscribes to a methodology of caution. Let me give other examples of his methodology of caution:

In 2010 a small fragment was published of a Late Bronze cuneiform tablet in Akkadian from the Jerusalem excavation of Eilat Mazar.1 Only a few letters were preserved on the tiny fragment, so its content is not clear. In the publication it was suggested that this tablet represents an Amarna-type letter. Akkadian was the international language at the time (c. 1400 B.C.E.). Nearly 300 Akkadian letters sent from various Canaanite cities were found at El-Amarna in Egypt. These cities included, among many others, Lachish, Hazor and Gezer. In addition, Akkadian letters were found in the excavations of Taanach, Tell el-Hesi, Aphek and Kamid el-Loz. Six Amarna letters also were sent from Jerusalem. Hardly any other type of Akkadian document from this period has ever been found in the region. The scholars who published this little fragment from Jerusalem suggested that it probably was another Amarna-type letter. Christopher Rollston criticized this most reasonable interpretation and wrote an 11-page article concluding that “because there is such a dearth of preserved text on this tablet, it is best not to attempt to posit a historical context or even a genre”2—another example of Rollston’s methodology of caution.

Want to learn more about cult at Khirbet Qeiyafa directly from excavation director Yosef Garfinkel? Check out the BAS DVD The Sanctuary of Khirbet Qeiyafa. Garfinkel’s recent dynamic lecture includes illuminating slides highlighting evidence of the city’s unique early Judahite cult.

Naturally the ostracon found in 2008 at my site, Khirbet Qeiyafa, overlooking the Valley of Elah is of special concern to me. Our epigrapher, Haggai Misgav, suggested that the language was Hebrew based on the verb ‘sh (“to do”) in the inscription. In his BAR article (pp. 38–39), Christopher Rollston argues that the verb ‘sh (“to do”) is also found in Moabite (and possibly Phoenician) so the inscription is not necessarily Hebrew. If so, does the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription indicate a migration of Moabites or Phoenicians to Judah? We argue that Khirbet Qeiyafa is a Judahite site (and not Philistine or Canaanite) because of the urban planning of the site and because of the extremely large number of jar handles with stamped impressions (more than 520 found at the site). These two components of the material culture are known only in sites located within the Kingdom of Judah, and not in any other political unit in the region. As I see it, the Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon informs us about the language used by the local population of the site.

In his BAR article, Christopher Rollston gives the false impression that the scholars who published the Qeiyafa Ostracon argued that the text of the ostracon indicates urbanism and state formation in Judah. However, we made no such claim.3 Our claim for urbanism at Qeiyafa is based on its heavy fortifications, not the inscription.


Author Yosef Garfinkel’s excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa uncovered the Qeiyafa Ostracon, a highly debated inscription that Rollston contends is not Hebrew Script. Garfinkel questions whether Rollston’s caution is fruitful.

In one final example Christopher Rollston displays a methodology of what I might characterize as the opposite of caution:

In 2011 Boas Zissu and Yuval Goren published an inscription from an unprovenanced ossuary reading “Miriam Daughter of Yeshua Son of Caiaphas, Priests [of] Ma’aziah from Beth ‘Imri.” According to the New Testament, a member of the Caiaphas family served as the high priest in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Yuval Goren identified traces of soil clinging to the ossuary as “Terra Rossa” (red soil): “This soil is deposited in Israel over hard limestone and dolomites in the sub-humid Mediterranean climatic zones, including the ‘Elah Valley [the location of Khirbet Qeiyafa] and the Judaean-Samarin Anticline.”4 In this identification, Yuval Goren erred. The local soil in the Valley of Elah, and in the Judahite lowland (Shephelah) is not red “Terra Rossa,” but brown soil called “Rendzina.” Yuval Goren apparently later recognized this error because in a subsequent Hebrew publication on the Miriam ossuary he did not mention this claim.5 Apparently unaware of this error and thinking that the Miriam ossuary came from the Elah Valley, the location of Khirbet Qeiyafa, Christopher Rollston suggested in a publication on his website that the name Caiaphas (mentioned in the Miriam ossuary) might be related to the name of our site, Qeiyafa: “I believe that one can make a tenable case that Qeiyafa (i.e., Khirbet Qeiyafa) is the place name preserved in ‘Caiaphas.’ There are, of course, Second Temple Period occupational remains at Khirbet Qeiyafa. I am not stating this definitively at this time, but do wish to mention it at this time as something that is arguably quite viable.”6

Click here to read an additional response to Christopher Rollston’s article by distinguished Israeli epigrapher Aaron Demsky. To visit the scholar’s study page “Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription,” click here.

This example raises an interesting question regarding Christopher Rollston’s methodology of caution: What is more speculative—to assume that a small Late Bronze Akkadian tablet uncovered in Jerusalem might be an Amarna-type letter (of which we have more than 300 examples) or that Khirbet Qeiyafa is associated with the name of the family of the high priest Caiaphas? Apparently, “caution” is something one may demand only from others, not from himself.

Another aspect of Christopher Rollston’s “caution” is to not really say much. In his BAR article on the earliest Hebrew inscription, previously cited, all he can say about the four inscriptions he considers is that they are not Hebrew. Is that all that can be said about the four inscriptions from Khirbet Qeiyafa, Gezer, Tel Zayit and Izbet Zartah—that they are not definitely Hebrew? Should we now expect other articles in this same genre, in which Christopher Rollston will argue that the four inscriptions involved are not definitely Canaanite, not definitely Philistine, not definitely Phoenician, not definitely Moabite, not definitely Greek and not definitely Latin?
In my judgment, the four inscriptions Christopher Rollston considers in his BAR article tell us about the language used by the local population at these sites during the earlier part of the Iron Age, probably an earlier phase of the Hebrew language, in which the great Biblical poems, like the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) and David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1), were written.

Interested in ancient inscriptions? Read Alan Millard’s assessment of the oldest alphabetic inscription ever found in Jerusalem in “Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem.”



1 E. Mazar, W. Horowitz, T. Oshima, and Y. Goren, “A Cuneiform Tablet from the Ophel in Jerusalem,” Israel Exploration Journal 60 (2010), pp. 4–21.

2 C.A. Rollston, “A Fragmentary Cuneiform Tablet from the Ophel (Jerusalem): Methodological Musings about the Proposed Genre and Sitz im Leben,” Antiguo Oriente 8 (2010), pp. 11–21.

3 See Haggai Misgav, Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor, “The Ostracon,” in Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor, eds., Khirbet Qeiyafa, vol. 1, Excavation Report 2007–2008 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2009), pp. 247–254.

4 B. Zissu, and Y. Goren, “The Ossuary of ‘Miriam Daughter of Yeshua Son of Caiaphas, Priests [of] Ma’aziah from Beth ‘Imri,’” Israel Exploration Journal 61 (2011), pp. 74–95.

5 B. Zissu, and Y. Goren, “The Ossuary of ‘Miriam Daughter of Yeshua Son of Caiaphas, Priests of Ma’aziah from Beth ‘Imri,’” Qadmoniot 44 (2011), pp. 84–87 (Hebrew).

6 C.A. Rollston, “The Ossuary of Mariam Daughter of Yeshua’ in Context: Limning the Broad Tableau of the Epigraphic and Literary Data” (2011),


Yosef Garfinkel

Yosef Garfinkel is the Yigael Yadin Chair of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has been directing the excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa since 2007. In addition to his work at Qeiyafa, Garfinkel has directed and codirected numerous excavations at Neolithic and prehistoric sites throughout Israel, including Sha’ar Hagolan and Gesher.

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