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WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 24, 2020)—In the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Mitka R. Golub of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem addresses whether personal names on archaeological materials from ancient Israel and Judah can shed light on when the Bible was written. 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.
Rather than comparing only individual names, Golub 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). To execute her study, she developed www.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. With 950 names in total and 367 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 that the distribution of the different groups of Judahite names in the Book of Jeremiah and Iron Age II archaeological materials align. The distribution of the prefixed and suffixed yhw in personal names in the Book of Jeremiah and Iron Age II archaeological materials also align. However, 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.
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