How do ancient Israelite and Judahite personal names—collected from archaeological materials—contribute to the study of the Bible’s historicity?
Can personal names on archaeological materials from ancient Israel and Judah shed light on when the Bible was written?
In the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Mitka R. Golub of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem addresses this very question of biblical historicity. In her article, “What’s in a Name? Personal Names in Ancient Israel and Judah,” she compares the names of people in the Book of Jeremiah with those inscribed on archaeological material dated to the end of the Iron Age II, that is, the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. Since the Book of Jeremiah describes events from the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., we would expect the names in it to be similar to those recorded on archaeological material from the same period.
Although other scholars have investigated biblical names in the archaeological record, Golub takes a unique approach by focusing on naming characteristics. Rather than comparing only individual names, she analyzes elements of names, such as if a personal name contains part of a divine name and, if so, where that element appears within the name (e.g., at the beginning or end).
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If naming characteristics in the biblical text and archaeological record align, it supports the historicity of the Bible—meaning that the biblical book in question was likely written near the events it describes and reflects genuine names of the respective period. However, if the naming characteristics differ, it might suggest that the biblical book was written or edited at a later date. Golub explains that biblical editors were less likely to alter personal names than events with theological importance, which makes personal names a good barometer for historicity.
To execute her study, Golub developed onomasticon.net, a database for personal names attested on epigraphic artifacts (i.e., objects with inscriptions) dated to the Iron Age II (c. 1000–586 B.C.E.) from the southern Levant. This resource is free and available to the public. Although this onomasticon contains all the Iron Age II names from excavated materials, it is not exhaustive and does not represent the totality of Iron Age II names. Other names that were never recorded in inscriptions—or in the Bible—certainly existed. Nevertheless, with 950 names in total and 367 specifically from the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., the onomasticon permits some conclusions about biblical historicity to be drawn.
In the Book of Jeremiah, there are 92 personal names, the majority of which are theophoric names (names compounded with part of a deity’s name or appellative). The most common theophoric names in Jeremiah contain part of the divine name of Yahweh. This divine name appears as yhw, yh, and yw within names. These elements are both suffixed and prefixed to personal names. Other theophoric names, such as those with the divine name El, hypocoristic names (abbreviated theophoric names where the theophoric element has fallen away), and names with no religious meaning also appear in the text.
When comparing the naming characteristics in Jeremiah to those in the digital onomasticon’s seventh- and sixth-century B.C.E. entries, Golub discovered three things:
(1) The distribution of the different groups of Judahite names in the Book of Jeremiah and Iron Age II archaeological materials align.
(2) The distribution of the prefixed and suffixed yhw in personal names in the Book of Jeremiah and Iron Age II archaeological materials align.
(3) The distribution of Judahite Yahwistic elements (yhw, yh, and yw) in personal names in the Book of Jeremiah and Iron Age II archaeological materials differ. In the biblical text, the Yahwistic element yhw appears 53% of the time, the Yahwistic element yh 42% of the time, and the Yahwistic element yw 5% of the time. Yet in the epigraphic record, yhw appears 98% of the time, yh 2% of the time, and yw does not appear.
These similarities suggest that the Book of Jeremiah was written close to the events it describes, in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. However, the difference of Yahwistic elements within personal names in the Book of Jeremiah and Iron Age II archaeological materials hints that at some later point an editor may have modified some of the names in the text—possibly believing that the Yahwistic elements yhw and yh could be used interchangeably, whereas in actuality only the Yahwistic element yhw appeared with frequency in the epigraphic record of the day. The results of this study show that personal names can help illuminate when the Bible was written.
Explore onomasticon.net for yourself and deepen your study of ancient Israelite and Judahite names in Mitka R. Golub’s article “What’s in a Name? Personal Names in Ancient Israel and Judah,” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
The Name Game: Dating the Book of Judges I have examined the seven personal names mentioned in Judges 5 and compared them to evidence from the archaeological record. It turns out that the elements that make up these seven names have been attested mainly in other personal names from the period of the Judges, rather than from other periods. This confirms the antiquity of the names and their context that would be highly unusual if the story were composed centuries after the events it recounts.
The Name of God in the New Testament: Did the earliest Gospels use Hebrew letters for the Tetragrammaton? Many early copies of the New Testament abbreviate sacred words (nomina sacra). The earliest of these abbreviations stand for “God,” “Lord,” “Christ,” and “Jesus.” Abbreviations of these words were formed by writing their first and last letters and placing a line over them. Thus, using English to illustrate, “God” would appear as G÷D÷ and “Lord” as L÷D÷.
The Book of Jeremiah: a Work in Progress The Book of Jeremiah (or should we say the Books of Jeremiah?) provides us with a unique opportunity to explore how a biblical book developed over time. That is because we can compare in detail two quite different versions that have come down to us.
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