Friday, May 12, 2023

A peer-review article on the Mount Ebal tablet

PUBLICATION: Scholars Expound on Mount Ebal Curse Tablet with Oldest Hebrew Text (Etgar Lefkovits, The Jewish Press).
(JNS) A lead tablet found at a site where it is believed the Israelite leader Joshua built an altar, contains the oldest Hebrew text ever found in the Land of Israel as well as the name of God, an academic article published Friday concludes.


This popular article will give you the background from the last year or so.

The academic article has been published in a journal called Heritage Science, which I have not heard of before. It is an open-access, peer-review journal with publications paid for by author subvention (which is not unusual for open-access publishing). Its focus is material science in relation to cultural artifacts (my paraphrase). The article:

“You are Cursed by the God YHW:” an early Hebrew inscription from Mt. Ebal (Scott Stripling, Gershon Galil, Ivana Kumpova, Jaroslav Valach, Pieter Gert van der Veen & Daniel Vavrik, Heritage Science volume 11, Article number: 105 [2023])


In December 2019, an expedition on Mt. Ebal to examine the discarded material from Adam Zertal’s 1982–1989 excavation yielded a small, folded lead tablet. The east dump pile, from which the object emerged, contained the discarded matrix from two structures that he interpreted as altars dated to the Late Bronze Age II and Iron Age I. The earlier and smaller round altar lay underneath the geometric center of the later and larger rectangular altar. The tablet could not be opened without damaging it. A team of scientists performed X-ray tomographic measurements with different scanning parameters. The tomographically reconstructed data were subjected to advanced processing to reveal the hidden text. Epigraphic analysis of the tomographic data revealed a formulaic curse written in a proto-alphabetic script likely dating to Late Bronze Age II. The inscription falls within the literary genre of Chiastic Parallelism and predates any previously known Hebrew inscription in Israel by at least 200 years.

The main area of interest is the supposedly-inscribed inner surface, "Inner B." Due to deformations in the shape of the object, it was not possible to produce a single image of that surface. Instead, the researchers took scans of 46 "planar tomographic slices" of it. There are thus images of many individual supposed letters and a drawing of the whole surface.

When I look at the photos, I sometimes think I can see the "letters," sometimes not. In the best-case scenario, the bits add up to a reconstructed inscription. In the worst case, natural irregularities in the surface are providing a Rorschach test of the epigraphic imagination of the observer. In other words, there are no letters. I honestly don't know which or where in between.

It seems like it would help to see the 46 slices assembled into a single image, but I don't know how possible that is. But looking at individual letter images and trying to place them on the drawing makes it hard to judge whether there is a real inscription there. It doesn't help that the lines of the supposed inscription go right to left, left to right, up to down, down to up, and "boustrophedon" (back and forth in alternate lines, "ox plow" direction).

One point that bothers me a lot is the spelling of "cursed," ארור, = 'rwr = (vocalized) 'arȗr. The spelling I would expect in this period is ארר, 'rr. The vav/w should not be there. Internal long vowels were not spelled out in the Canaanite languages until many centuries later. They appear late in the First Temple period sporadically and only become normal after the Babylonian Exile. I think they may appear earlier in Aramaic, but not that much earlier. I don't think the article addresses this problem adequately.

Anyway, that's my first impression as a rusty epigrapher who is not an expert in the script period in question. I am keeping an open mind at present. I look forward to hearing the judgment of experts like Christopher Rollston.

Meanwhile, I congratulate the authors for getting the first peer-review publication out. Now the conversation can start.

For PaleoJudaica posts on the Mount Ebal tablet, start here and follow the links.

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