Monday, August 16, 2004

THE SBL FORUM had an article I've been meaning to comment on for some time:
A Royal Dignitary - Or a "Royal" Disappointment? Who's Who in Biblical Texts and Ancient Inscriptions
by Lawrence J. Mykytiuk
"To attempt to identify a biblical person in an extrabiblical inscription is to accept a number of challenges."

When you see the article or photograph, your eyes cannot leave the page for long. Your lips may slowly, silently form the word: Wow. Here is an inscription from a biblical time and place that seems to refer to someone mentioned in the Bible. You have experienced the wow factor.

Where are biblical persons named? Their names appear on ancient monuments, on their personal seals, in impressions made by their seals, and on pieces of broken pottery. Personal seals are small, rounded pieces of semiprecious stone or other hard material, with a drawing and/or the name of the seal owner carved on them, usually along with other identifying information. Impressions from personal seals appear on some jar handles and on bullae (singular, bulla). Bullae are seal-impressed lumps of dried clay affixed to official documents to seal them shut and to record the names of verifying witnesses.

We now have the names of more than 1,200 preexilic Hebrew persons from inscriptions of that era � plus many names from later eras and other biblical peoples. Yet despite this abundance of inscriptions, making a biblical identification (here abbreviated ID) in them is not easy.


He continues with a list of nine difficulties with identifying a biblical person mentioned in an inscription and concludes:
In the attempt to be objective, no one is going to completely rid Near Eastern archaeology of biblical influence anytime soon (even if that were seen as a desirable goal). Rather, when interpreting and evaluating discoveries that might tend to confirm or discount things to which biblical texts refer, one helpful method (used, e.g., by Klaas Smelik) is to interpret discoveries first in light of other discoveries, as much as possible without biblical input. Only then should they be compared with biblical texts.

I agree completely with this paragraph. He then lists six reasons why it is valuable to have such identifications and then gives as examples six or seven bullae that have been argued to mention biblical figures.

I have to say I am skeptical of all of these identifications except the first two, Gemaryahu and Shaphan, which appear in a seal impression that was discovered in a controlled excavation. Numbers 3, 4, and 5 are in the collection of bullae (clay seal impressions) published by Nahman Avigad in 1986 which were found on the antiquities market and are thus unprovenanced. I'm not familiar with numbers 6 and 7, but evidently Mykytiuk himself is not certain it is authentic (so I assume it too is unprovenanced) and the names may or may not be of biblical persons. (Stephen C. Carlson has some related thoughts on the Baruch bullae somewhere on Hypotyposeis, but I can't find the reference right now.)

For some time I have been following the question of forgeries of inscriptions supposedly from ancient Israel. It's generally agreed now that the "James Ossuary" is forged and it has been claimed that it was one of the productions of a "monster forgery machine" that may have flooded scores or hundreds of forgeries onto the antiquities market. I'm surprised that all this receives so little mention in the article (it's only touched on in difficulty #4).

It's a regrettable side effect, incidentally, that the Jewish-temple deniers are making capital of this problem.

The situation being what it is, it seems to me that, at least until we're quite sure what really happened over the last two or three decades, we should discount the evidence of unprovenanced epigraphic material that surfaced during that period. Unfortunately, that includes some of the most interesting material, such as the Ivory Pomegranate, but if that's what critical evalation of the evidence requires of us, that's what we need to do.

(See also the immediately preceding post, which has some related musings on archaeology and the "minimalist-maximalist" debate.)

UPDATE (20 August): More here

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