earliest hebrew inscription reported found

Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon

Professor Gershon Galil of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa claims this inscription on a pottery shard discovered in the Elah valley dating from the 10th century BCE is the earliest example of Hebrew writing. Courtesy of the University of Haifa

researchers at haifa university are claiming that the ostracon discovered in 2008 at khirbet qeiyafa contains the earliest example of hebrew writing. professor gershon galil of the department of biblical studies at the university of haifa has translated the text of the faded ostracon. according to a press release:

The inscription itself, which was written in ink on a 15 cm X 16.5 cm trapezoid pottery shard, was discovered a year and a half ago at excavations that were carried out by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel at Khirbet Qeiyafa near the Elah valley. The inscription was dated back to the 10th century BCE, which was the period of King David’s reign, but the question of the language used in this inscription remained unanswered, making it impossible to prove whether it was in fact Hebrew or another local language.

galil’s english translation reads as follows:

1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

galil uses the ostracon to argue that hebrew was established much earlier that most scholars date the origin of the language. while the gezer calendar, which dates to approximately the same period is a simple text telling the reader when to plant and when to harvest and may have served as a school text, this qeiyafa ostracon echoes some of the teachings that would later be found in the bible, such as caring for slaves, widows, orphans, infants, foreigners, and the poor.

a few comments and questions should surely be asked:

  1. what was the context of the sherd? this is instrumental in ruling out forgery. the ostracon came from the elah fortress excavation. the new york times’ ethan bronner wrote an article highlighting the excavation. there is an excellent timeline of the discovery of the ostracon.
  2. is the translation accurate? scholars will no doubt debate each letter of the transcription and translation. stephen smuts has blogged about a youtube video where professors hagai misgav and yosef garfinkel discuss their translation of the ostracon. galil’s translation will be sure to continue the debate.
  3. does this prove the existence of king david? the answer is no (nor does it arge against his existence). what it does show is that hebrew (if it is determined to be, in fact, hebrew and not some canaanite dialect) writing was practiced in the 10th century bce. this would support the presence of literate hebrew scribes at qeiyafa. whether the presence of scribes in a smaller coastal town supports the existence of an even larger israelite presence in jerusalem is yet to be seen. we cannot assume that just because someone in a small town southwest of jerusalem can write in hebrew means that there are even more people writing in a capitol in jerusalem. what it would tell us is that literacy was more common and widespread at an earlier period than previously thought. of course, none of this lends any evidence to the existence or absence of king david, but a widespread literacy of hebrew in the 10th century bce could be used as evidence of an established or coordinated scribal system in israel.
  4. does this mean that the bible was written earlier than we thought? no. because the text of the ostracon only makes references to themes that would later appear in biblical books, and does not cite them specifically, we cannot say that the bible was composed at any earlier of a date than the 7th-to-1st century bce periods that scholars already date the bible. conservative scholars argue that some portions of the bible were written as early as the 8th century reign of king hezekiah (with some archaic hebrew songs and poems perhaps dating a bit earlier), and other scholars date the composition of the bible to the 6th and 5th centuries bce, during and after the exile to babylon. still other minimalist scholars date the composition of the bible to the 3rd and 2nd centuries bce. (some books like daniel and esther were written even later and date to the second and first centuries bce). thus, we cannot state that this ostracon requires us to date the biblical texts to an earlier period. what we can say is that the themes of social justice and care of the poor and marginalized that would later be echoed in the torah and by the prophetic books were already in the consciousness of the peoples that would later com to identify themselves as jews.
  5. does this prove the story of david and goliath is true? no. better yet, not on your life! the story of david and goliath claims to have taken place in a valley where this ostracon was discovered. here’s a great rule of thumb in archaeology: just because something – anything – was found in a place where a legendary story is said to have taken place does not prove the story. it does nothing. it’s as if i told you that i floated in mid air unaided at ucla. you then traveled to ucla and found a flip flop that said ‘rainbow’ on it. you then tell the world that you discovered a rainbow flip flop in the same place that cargill claims to have floated in mid air. this does not make my story valid, it just means that the place i claimed to have done something exists. likewise, the discovery of this ostracon in the place where david was said to have battled goliath does not in any way lend evidence to the historicity of the legend. it only means that there is a place named the valley of elah. this, of course, won’t stop reporters form mentioning david and goliath.






16 Responses

  1. […] When you are done reading the article, skip on off to Dr. Cargill’s blog to read his well placed entry. […]

  2. […] hebrew inscription? 7 January 2010 — art dr. robert cargill has posted the information regarding the earliest hebrew inscription extant…all depending on whether a) it is proven to be genuine and b) the language is proven to be an […]

  3. Its strange that this press release doesn’t mention that this ostracon has already been published by Hagai Misgav with responses by Yardeni, Ahituv, and Demsky. His reading is fairly different from their’s, other than some key words (to do, judge, slave). It was found in situ, in a clear very early Iron IIA context.

  4. good point, owen. it wasn’t found this year, but last, and has indeed been translated elsewhere by misgav and garfinkel. i’ve added a timeline of the discovery of the sherd. thanx again. i’ll update the post. bc

  5. But Bob – I *did* find the rainbow flip-flop on campus a while back … you can’t possibly suggest that this is not a compelling piece of evidence for your flying around campus?!?!

  6. Bob,

    I agree with Owen.

    You seem unaware that this inscription was published and discussed at length months ago. That the numerous issues in terms of reading its content have been discussed at some length online before this.

    I put up a summary post near the end of October of last year, summarizing the scholarly debate up to that time (between Misgav, Yardeni, Ahituv, and Schniedewind) provided by Aren Maeir, the foremost blogger of things archaeological in the land of Israel.

    Gershon Galil is a fine Assyriologist, and I’m sure he knows Hebrew well, but his results should at least be compared with those of some of the foremost epigraphers in the field. Since the discrepancies are not minor, You might consider providing your readers with a more comprehensive picture of the state-of-the-question.

    Here’s my link (and go back from there):


    For the rest, I would note that it is waste of time to pretend that this inscription, whatever its exact contents, is not a game-changer. It is not too much to say that it sounds the death-knell of minimalism as we know it. Don’t worry, though. Minimalism will be revived in some other shape or form, not because the evidence points in that direction, but because it satisfies the intellectual needs of quite a few people.

    As for the maximalism you take issue with, you’re right: people who want to think that way are not going to learn to think like a critical historian any time soon.

  7. john,

    am i missing something, or are you suggesting that i’m not familiar with what schniedewind thinks about this inscription? lol.

    i agree with owen too.

    published? ok. discussed? sure. i’m at sbl and asor too. but that didn’t stop galil from re-releasing this as a new piece of news. sorry i missed your summary post from a few months ago.

    as for taking issue with maximalism, no, i don’t buy much of the conservative/evangelical/maximalist argument, but neither am i a minimalist. david and goliath is legend, but that does not mean that portions of the bible were not written under hezekiah. daniel and esther are obviously late, but that does not mean that all books are late. likewise, this is probably a genuine inscription (little doubt in my mind), and i’m confident that it is evidence of hebrew literacy near jerusalem. this, however, does not prove that david existed (even though i believe he did). it does demonstrate that literacy was widespread and, as we see with lachish 3, socially fashionable and expected to some. and, as i said above, it does support ‘evidence of an established or coordinated scribal system in israel.’

    and as for ‘sound[ing] the death-knell of minimalism as we know it,’ probably not. it also depends on what you’re calling ‘minimalism.’ does this hurt finkelstein’s argument of no 10th century israel? sure. does it mean the bible was written earlier than we already think? no.

    thanx for your comments. -bc

  8. Bob,

    I failed to remember that you and Schniedewind are colleagues. Perhaps you can do us a favor and see if he’s willing to make a few remarks on Galil’s readings for the blogosphere.

    I really think highly of Galil as a scholar, don’t get me wrong. I wish his recent book on Assyria and Israel would be translated pronto into English. It stands a chance to move the field significantly, in the same direction that Schniedewind has been urging. But it’s important to compare Galil’s proposals on this inscription with those of Misgav and the others who took a good long hard look at it.

    Finkelstein is actually a moderate in comparison to card-carrying minimalists like Lemche, Davies, and Thompson. F has carefully distanced himself from them in print. But now F has gone on to advocate some seriously minimalist positions for the Persian Period. An energizer bunny, he; I think he makes a great contribution to the field even when (as happens) I think he is out to lunch.

    I realize I’m not saying things you didn’t already know; I’m thinking of those who will be reading this thread.

    The importance of the inscription is enormous because it was found in situ in a massive fortress on the border with Philistia in an Iron Age stratum dated by pottery assemblage and C-14 dates to sometime between the time of Saul and Solomon in terms of biblical chronology. For a variety of reasons, the most plausible date for the site is the reign of David, with now overwhelming evidence that it was an Israelite site. This despite the fact that the kingdom of David was supposed by minimalists to be basically a myth. It doesn’t look that way any longer. It never really did, but it’s amazing what can be argued on the basis of absence of evidence.

    I say that not because I am a maximalist. I am not. I’m convinced for example that David did not slay Goliath but someone else did, as in fact the Bible says elsewhere: maximalists love to overlook idsy-bitsy problems like that one.

    The whole question of the importance of a vast corpus of epigraphic Hebrew from the mostly 8th-6th cent. BCE has been handled masterfully by Seth Sanders in his recent book:


    The bulk of the Hebrew Bible was probably written in the 8th-6th cent. BCE, with some poetry in the Primary History and the Psalms and possibly elsewhere dating earlier, and an important subcorpus securely dated later (1-2 Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel).

    Maximalists and minimalists are the only ones who seriously disagree. But there are a lot of both out there, and they tend to drown out positions in the middle.

  9. […] Dr Robert Cargill covers the above and makes some excellent points here. […]

  10. Well, glad everyone agrees with me ;). I too would place myself somewhere in the middle, but as an archaeologist this whole site does have serious ramifications for the current high chronology/low chronology debate. It seems the pottery and carbon-14 dates match up nicely (dating to the late Iron I-early Iron IIA) and the pottery itself is clearly Judahite in nature (ie hill country-centric). Aren Maeir has stated that the corpus from the same period at Safi is completely different and Bill Dever has stated that the corpus at Qeiyafa is nearly identical to that of Gezer VII.

  11. […] Qeiyafa ostracon. Recent penetrating posts include Doug Mangum’s at Biblia Hebraica and Bob Cargill (see also the older post by John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry). What I find most […]

  12. Somebody help me out here. I’m in the middle of other projects and going on memory. But I cannot remember any non-biblical evidence other than the ostracon that marks 10th-century Qeiyafa as an Israelite site, as opposed to a Philistine site or a site connected with neither of these. John says the evidence is “now overwhelming” but for the life of me I cannot remember what it is—other than the conclusion that the ostracon is written in Hebrew (for which a strong, but perhaps not quite decisive, case has been made).

    More later when I have time to think.

  13. In the first line where you “′you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord]” this site has ”
    Do not do [anything bad?], and serve [personal name?]”

    Now, since Yahweh is nowhere mentioned in the text but must be assumed to be the missing personal name, this story is a non-story essentially. For all we know the missing name could be Baal. We don’t even know that the fragment supports Judaism and already smucks are saying “wow! It proves the Bible was written earlier than we thought.” Why are people so stupid?

  14. Chris,

    Like I wrote above, the consensus is that the corpus is definitely not Philistine (only a few random Philistine sherds have been found), but hill country in orientation. Now if you associate settlements in the southern hill country from the Iron IIA with the Israelites, then the pottery is a bit of strong evidence. The only other evidence that I can think of is Garfinkel’s claim that the site has to be Shaaraim due to the double gate, which is still a bit tenuous although a few historical geographers (like Anson Rainey) support this connection.

  15. Thanks, Owen. I couldn’t remember any details about the other stuff at the site, because the ostracon has so dominated the (popular) reports.

  16. Bob,

    I just skimmed some comments here. Let me help out in response? Foundation Stone played various roles in the excavation from 2008-2009.

    in a Sept 2008 meeting several dozen archaeologists viewed the pottery from that season and were unanimous that is was not Philistine- as Sy Gitin said, “It is not a coastal assemblage. ” The gathering included the excavators of Tel es-Safi, Ashkelon, Tel Batash, Tel Miqne, etc. I was there. All agreed early 10th Century for the dating, based on the pottery alone, eve before the carbon-14 results were in. Also, the petrography of the pots was of local soil from the valley.
    Prof Garfinkel published his 2008 ASOR presentation on his Qeiyafa website which lists 9 reasons why it is Israelite and not Philistine, based on the evidence at that time. He has also published his 2007-2008 report, available from the Israel Exploration Society.

    Now that the Second Gate has been excavated and restored, his contention that it is biblical Sha’arayim (Josh15:36, Sam. I 17:52, Chr. I 4) is stronger than when various scholars including Nadav Neeman of Tel Aviv U claimed that without excavation this was baseless. Their contention that the gate of the city only faces the safe side, and therefore the existence of a Western Gate facing Ashdod- Gat suggesting it is Philistine, is countered by the fact that the more massive gate- the most massive gate ever found in the country- directly faces Socho and Judah, towards Elah Valley.

    Prof Israel Finkelstein in accepting the Dan David prize proved the reformation of Hezekiah was clearly evident in 4 sites and should not be confused with the later reformation of Josiah, and is in agreement, as he stated in a BAR interview printed years ago, with the 8th century events, it is the David and Solomon and earlier accounts he has taken issue with.He says there definitely was an historical David,as evidenced in the Tel Dan inscription etc, but he was sort of a Bedouin chieftain whom the bible blows out of proportion. I have not heard him since recent developments have been presented at Elah Fortress- Khibet Qeiyafa, like the second Gate
    I include in a separate post some comments I wrote in response to Prof Galil’s article, and suggest watching our latest video accessible at http://www.foundationstone.org under “Rough Videos” in two parts.

    Barnea Levi Selavan
    Foundation Stone

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