A response to critiques of btdwd in the Mesha Stele
In our article “Mesha’s Stele and the House of David” (Biblical Archaeology Review, Winter 2022), we showed that new photographs of the stone and the paper squeeze of the ninth-century BCE Mesha Stele confirm the reading of btdwd (“House of David”) in line 31 of the inscription. In the subsequent Spring 2023 issue of BAR, scholars Matthieu Richelle and Andrew Burlingame raised objections to our reading in their article “Set in Stone? Another Look at the Mesha Stele.” According to them, two of the five letters of btdwd—the taw (X-shaped letter) and the first dalet (triangle-shaped letter)—as well as the last word divider (dot) do not appear on the stone or the squeeze. This led them to conclude that “while the reading btdwd is not impossible, it remains purely hypothetical” (p. 57). Here we consider and respond to their arguments in detail.
Richelle and Burlingame write that the alleged marks of the taw (the second letter of btdwd) on the stone consist only of striations and small depressions and are not actual letter strokes made by a craftsman’s tool. To our great surprise, they do not consider that these observations may derive from the very poor condition of the stone itself. As is well known, the local Bedouin of Dhiban (ancient Dibon) preferred to shatter the stone into pieces rather than give it to German authorities.[i] The taw falls right at the extremity of one of the small pieces that forms the bottom of the stela (that is, right next to a major break; see fragments 19–22 in Bonora-Andújar 2018).[ii] Admittedly, the traces of the taw are eroded and not obvious at first glance. Nevertheless, they were already detected more than a century ago by Mark Lidzbarski and René Dussaud.[iii]
Given these conditions, we did not judge it appropriate to extend the right diagonal of the taw above the nose of the bet, which contrasts with the form we reconstructed on the squeeze (compare Fig. 1, Images A and C, and as noted by Richelle and Burlingame in the third endnote to their article). This stroke, as well as the left diagonal stroke, may in fact continue higher, while the relative position of the intersection of the diagonals has the exact same position in relation to the nose of the bet.
Richelle and Burlingame further consider the marks on the squeeze as “too tiny to be convincing” (p. 54). The condition of the squeeze is also problematic in certain places. When it was originally created, it was ripped and folded before being allowed to fully dry. We should expect, therefore, that the traces of certain letters will be more difficult to read, particularly in line 31. Nonetheless, the squeeze remains our sole witness of the stela in its original condition and should be privileged in any discussion of line 31. The work of an epigrapher does not stop at identifying clear and complete letters. S/he also has to interpret, within certain limits, what are sometimes incomplete and partial letters.
Finally, the taw that we have proposed in btdwd fits the standard measurements of this letter (height, width, angle, orientation) where it appears elsewhere in the inscription.[iv] It is particularly close to the form of the taw in bhltḥm in line 19 and ḥmt in line 21 (Fig. 3a). Other attestations of the sequence bet–taw further substantiate our reading (Fig. 3b).
According to Richelle and Burlingame, the orientation of the first dalet (the third letter of btdwd) differs from the second one, while the lower left diagonal of the triangular figure may be the result of a long wrinkle or crease (in the squeeze) rather than a deliberate mark. While the orientation of the dalet is indeed slightly different, small variations are often observed in the same inscription, as even Richelle and Burlingame note (p. 55). With only eight dalets attested in the entire stela, the comparative data are rather limited but still of some use. The dalet of mgdlth in line 22 corresponds to the expected form of the first dalet in btdwd, as the measurements for both letters are very similar (Fig. 4). We have also reconsidered our reading with a probable second option for this dalet, which may be proportionally smaller, as the left oriented upright diagonal seems to emerge from the diagonal downstroke before its end (see green and red triangle in Fig. 4).
Regarding this downstroke, Richelle and Burlingame claim that it extends farther down on the right, noticing a long series of dark traces, which may be the continuation of this downstroke. Careful examination of the squeeze actually reveals a small gap between the end of our reading and the series of marks noted by Richelle and Burlingame (see nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 on Fig. 1: Image D, and Fig. 5 below), which they differentiate from the straight diagonal downstroke.
Some of these “dark marks” are the bottom extremities of the two diagonals of the previous taw (nos. 2 and 4), as we have already discussed. The straight stroke on the left of this series appears clearly enough on the squeeze and resembles the strokes for the following waw (fourth letter) and dalet (fifth letter). Despite what Richelle and Burlingame claim, a crease or wrinkle could not leave the marks evidenced on the backlit photo of the squeeze. One only has to consider the entire squeeze under regular light, which is full of creases and wrinkles (Fig. 2), to immediately notice that they are rarely discernable on the backlit photograph. Finally, a comparison of the sequence dalet-waw-dalet in line 31 and line 12 (dwdh) validates our reading (Fig. 6).
Richelle and Burlingame also doubt the existence of a second word divider (in the form of a dot) following btdwd. Its shape would be somewhat different from what we find elsewhere on the stone, and its marks on the squeeze are less dark than the first undisputed word divider before the bet. However, it is clear that here the stone is highly deteriorated (see fragment 20 in Bonora-Andújar 2018). The same can be said of the squeeze, as the traces of the second word divider fall right on a major fold at the bottom of the paper. The marks have clearly been affected by the conditions of both media and are not the direct result of these conditions, as Richelle and Burlingame claim. We let the readers judge for themselves between the two forms (see Fig. 1, Images B and D). It seems to us that the small difference between the two word dividers is easily explained by the state of both the media on their left part, which is more eroded.
As a final note in their article, Richelle and Burlingame mislead readers with the photograph appearing at the bottom of p. 56 and presented as a “high-resolution photo of the squeeze from 2019” (see Fig. 7). The caption is also silent on the limitations and purpose of this photograph within their argumentation. This image of the squeeze was taken with light from above, even though it is well known that raking light and backlight are the only two viable options to decipher the squeeze. Readers only have to compare this photograph to Fig. 1, Image C (above)—the first is mostly illegible. Additionally, their picture from p. 56 shows the side of the squeeze that was in contact with brushes (see traces), not the side that was in direct contact with the stone. One could rightfully think that there was a blank between the bet and the waw if we only had this picture to work with, but it is far from being the case.
Although we all agree that the reading btdwd in line 31 of the Mesha Stele is difficult and that the taw and the dalet are not obvious at first look, the new images of the stela and the squeeze render the identification of taw as highly probable, the dalet as practically certain, and assure the presence of a final word divider after btdwd. We maintain that the reading “House of David” in line 31 of the Mesha Stele can now be confirmed.
Authors’ Note: As requested by the Editor of BAR, this will be our last intervention concerning the reading btdwd “House of David” in the Mesha Stele. Therefore, we will not be able to respond to future objections.
[ii] For an image showing the original position of the preserved fragments that make up the Mesha Stele, see Isabel Bonora-Andújar, “La reconstruction de la stele de Mésha,” in Thomas Römer et al., eds, Mésha et la Bible : Quand une pierre raconte l’histoire (Collège de France, Paris), p. 27.
[iii] See Mark Lidzbarski, “Eine Nachprüfung der Mesainschrift,” Ephemeris für semitische epigraphik. Erster Band 1900–1902 (Giessen, 1902), p. 9; René Dussaud, Les monuments palestiniens et judaïques Paris: Louvre, 1912), p. 5.
[iv] For the complete measurements, see Delorme and Lemaire’s forthcoming article, “An Epigraphic Contribution to the Debate Surrounding btdwd in the Mesha Stele.”
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