Scholarly publication of controversial tablet finally appears
This is an update to our original coverage of the Mt. Ebal inscription as first published in Bible History Daily on April 25, 2022.
In early 2022, a research team led by scholars from the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) announced the discovery of a lead tablet from Mt. Ebal that they claim contains the oldest extant Hebrew inscription. Now, after more than a year, a peer-reviewed article presenting one part of the inscription has been published in the journal Heritage Science.1
According to the team, the inscription, which they date to the Late Bronze Age II period (c. 1400–1200 BCE), is a legal text and curse that invokes the Israelite deity Yahweh. The team believes the tablet is one of the most important inscriptions ever found in Israel, predating the previously earliest known Hebrew inscription by several hundred years, and one that could drastically alter our reconstruction of ancient Israel’s earliest history. Even with the team’s long-awaited publication of the tablet, however, serious questions remain, and many scholars are dubious about whether the tablet even features an inscription at all, while others continue to highlight the problematic circumstances surrounding its recovery and analysis.
First announced during a press conference in March 2022, the tablet comes from the West Bank site of Mt. Ebal, which was first excavated by archaeologist Adam Zertal in the 1980s. The site consists of two large stone installations, one circular and one rectangular. Zertal interpreted the site and the earlier circular feature to be the location of Joshua’s altar (Joshua 8:30), though many dispute this identification. The tablet was only recovered in 2019, however, when archaeologists with ABR began a project to wet sift the soil dumps from the Mt. Ebal excavation in hopes of identifying artifacts that had been missed during the original dig.
According to the team, the lead tablet contains writing on both its inside and outside. Measuring less than 1 inch square, it appears to have been folded in half after being written. This makes it impossible to read the interior without advanced digital scanning, which was carried out in Prague by the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. According to the article in Heritage Science, which presented only the writing from the Mt. Ebal tablet’s interior, the inside text contains as many as 48 letters written in a meandering boustrophedon style, although Pieter van der Veen, a team epigrapher and professor at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, is more cautious and suggests there may actually be fewer letters present.
As translated by the team, the tablet reads:
You are cursed by the god yhw, cursed.
You will die, cursed—cursed, you will surely die.
Cursed you are by yhw—cursed.
The team claims the inscription is written in an archaic script, similar in style to other early alphabetic inscriptions known from the southern Levant, which they term proto-Hebrew alphabetic. Furthermore, they suggest that the use of the name Yhw, a shortened version of the divine name Yahweh (YHWH), is clear evidence that the text is an early Hebrew inscription. If true, this would make the tablet hundreds of years older than previously known early Hebrew inscriptions.
According to the team, the Mt. Ebal tablet is a type of legal text, which threatens curses upon individuals who transgress a covenant. They connect it directly to the covenant renewal ceremony on Mt. Ebal, described in Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8. Moreover, the team claims the tablet is evidence that certain books of the Hebrew Bible could have been written down hundreds of years earlier than most biblical scholars previously thought. As stated by the ABR’s Director of Excavations, Scott Stripling, during the initial press conference, “One can no longer argue with a straight face that the biblical text was not written until the Persian period or the Hellenistic period, as many higher critics have done, when we clearly do have the ability to write the entire text [of the Bible] at a much, much earlier date.” One of the project’s epigraphers, Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa reiterated the point, saying, “The scribe that wrote this ancient text, believe me, he could write every chapter in the Bible.”
While the publication of the tablet’s interior has made headlines in Israel and been widely discussed on social media, the inscription continues to be met with skepticism from many scholars, with some going so far as to propose that the entire inscription is a figment of the team’s imagination.
“This article is quite troubling from many aspects,” Aren Maeir, professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, told Bible History Daily. “The object and its context are problematic; the data presented is of a very poor or even misleading character; the understanding of the archaeological context and its dating is lacking; the suggested reading is very hard to accept; and the generalizations and conclusions brought forward by the authors seem to be totally baseless.”
“I wish this were a 13th-century Hebrew inscription, but it is not,” said Christopher Rollston, a noted epigrapher from George Washington University.2 “Facts are facts, and this article is very short on facts and very long on boundless speculation. Anyone can look at the images of this ‘inscription’ that are published, and they can discern that there is no real connection between the published images of the ‘inscription’ itself and the authors’ drawing of the inscription. The published images reveal some striations in the lead and some indentations, but there are no actual discernible letters.”
In response to this criticism, van der Veen stated via Facebook, “I have worked with lead. I can assure you, what we see are NOT mere striations. Rather what we see is man-made and incised with a pen or stylus. The bulges seen on the back of the tablet prove that those letters are true letters indeed. They precisely match the signs on [the inside] and must be incisions to be actually visible on the back. These are not simple scratches or damage.”
In comments to Israel365 News, Stripling similarly defended the team’s reading of the text, saying, “As several interior letters can also be detected on the outside of the tablet, where pressure marks of these letters caused by the stylus appear, we can be certain that they are there and that in most cases, the incisions are undoubtedly man-made.”
However, since only the inside of the Mt. Ebal tablet has been published, it is difficult for other scholars to evaluate such evidence. “Supposedly, the outer inscriptions are easier to read,” said Maeir. “If the outer texts were easier to decipher, and assist in deciphering the inner texts, the fact that these outer texts were not published here, to demonstrate the validity of the very difficult reading of the inner text, is hard to fathom. Most of the images are very hazy, and it is often hard to see how a supposed letter was reconstructed from the respective, parallel image. While some seem possible, others do not.”
Partially conceding this point in his team’s defense, van der Veen responded, “The key to understanding [the inside] is [the outside]: As our discussion of [the outside] will show, letters, clearly incised with a stylus, can be clearly detected. We should have started with the outside before looking at the inside, which is so dependent on blurry scans which are so hard to read.” However, in communication with Bible History Daily, van der Veen stressed that “it is simply untrue that letters found on the outside are not shown in the [published] article.” Instead, he highlights the inclusion of a table in the article that shows letters from the outside of the tablet “with clear evidence of tooling,” although these letters were not discussed in detail in the article.
Even if the ABR team’s reading holds up under additional scrutiny, however, Rollston cautions against making too much of the tablet’s date and significance. He points out, for example, that alphabetic writing was already fairly well known by the late second millennium, likely having been invented sometime around the 18th century BCE. Furthermore, even if the team’s reading is accurate, the 40+ letters that make up the text were used to write just four unique words: “cursed,” “die,” “god,” and “yhw.” According to Rollston, “To say that based on those four words or roots that somebody could write the whole Bible … well, that’s a bridge (way) too far for me. After all, there are 8,500+ words in the Hebrew Bible … and four is a pretty small fraction of the whole, therefore!”
There are also serious questions about where the tablet was found and how it was discovered. As noted above, the tablet was not found during an excavation but rather while the ABR team was sifting the soil dumps from Adam Zertal’s earlier excavations. As such, the find does not come from a datable, stratified context, though the ABR team says it was able to associate the dump material where the tablet was found with Zertal’s excavation of the altar, which he dated to the time of Joshua. This corresponds to the team’s dating of the script, as well as the unpublished analysis of the tablet’s lead, which originated from a mine in Greece that was in use during the Late Bronze and early Iron Ages.
Perhaps even more significant is the fact that Mt. Ebal is located in Area B of the West Bank, just a mile north of the Palestinian city of Nablus, and, as such, its archaeology falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. As noted by Maeir, “If the excavators would have requested a license to excavate the dumps and sift the materials, they would have to have asked the Department of Antiquities of the Palestinian Authority (which they did not). Excavating without a permit, transporting an illegally excavated object over international borders, runs contrary to both national and international laws.” Members of the publication team assert, however, that both the excavations of the Mt. Ebal dumps and the export of the tablet to Prague for analysis were legal and fell under the original excavation license of Adam Zertal. However, regardless of the status of Zertal’s original license, as Maeir notes, “Without receiving permission from local authorities, such actions are ethically and legally unacceptable and should not be condoned.”
1 The online article presents images of the tablet along with the team’s drawing and interpretation of its interior inscription.
2 Christopher Rollston is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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