Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bible written earlier than thought

Have you seen this? (I first saw it on Jesus Creed):

Here's the text of the story:

Scientists have discovered the earliest known Hebrew writing - an inscription dating from the 10th century B.C., during the period of King David's reign.
The breakthrough could mean that portions of the Bible were written centuries earlier than previously thought. (The Bible's Old Testament is thought to have been first written down in an ancient form of Hebrew.)
Until now, many scholars have held that the Hebrew Bible originated in the 6th century B.C., because Hebrew writing was thought to stretch back no further. But the newly deciphered Hebrew text is about four centuries older, scientists announced this month.
"It indicates that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in the 10th century BCE and that at least some of the biblical texts were written hundreds of years before the dates presented in current research," said Gershon Galil, a professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel, who deciphered the ancient text.
BCE stands for "before common era," and is equivalent to B.C., or before Christ.
The writing was discovered more than a year ago on a pottery shard dug up during excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, near Israel's Elah valley. The excavations were carried out by archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At first, scientists could not tell if the writing was Hebrew or some other local language.
Finally, Galil was able to decipher the text. He identified words particular to the Hebrew language and content specific to Hebrew culture to prove that the writing was, in fact, Hebrew.
"It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as asah ('did') and avad ('worked'), which were rarely used in other regional languages," Galil said. "Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah ('widow') are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages."
The ancient text is written in ink on a trapezoid-shaped piece of pottery about 6 inches by 6.5 inches (15 cm by 16.5 cm). It appears to be a social statement about how people should treat slaves, widows and orphans. In English, it reads (by numbered line):
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.
The content, which has some missing letters, is similar to some Biblical scriptures, such as Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, and Exodus 23:3, but does not appear to be copied from any Biblical text.

What do you think? I'm not a Bible scholar but I'm aware that much has been made of the Bible as written post-Babylonian captivity and thus as viewing Israel's history through the prism of that event. Obviously, parts of the OT were written post- captivity. But here we have an apparently pre-captivity fragment. Does anyone who knows more about this want to weigh in?


Hystery said...

Out comes one of my old textbooks (Understanding the Old Testament by Bernhard Andersen). :-) As I understand it, the traditional view has long been that there is much material in the Bible that is pre-captivity. There was the oral period (1200-1000 B.C.E.). In the Old Epic Period, there's the J source, (a Judean source that used the name Yahweh or Jahweh) which dates from around 950 B.C.E. and then the E source (which uses the name Elohim for God) which dates from 850 B.C.E. This period was followed by the Deuteronomic tradition which draws from Josiah's reform. That is supposed to date from 650 B.C.E. and later. Finally, there is the Priestly work which came after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. The Priestly authors did editing work and filtered the older traditions but they were certainly not wholly responsible for the stories and attitudes found in the Bible.

kevin roberts said...

Presumably many OT records were long-standing oral traditions. Finding older and older ostraca just dates the earliest records of the writing, not the composition, I would think.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, dates back to 1952, but in one of the first articles in that volume, “Text and Ancient Versions of the Old Testament” by Arthur Jeffery, I find this passage:

“The alphabetic use of cuneiform signs in the Ras Shamra texts, the alphabetic adaptation of Egyptian signs in the Sinai inscriptions from Serabit el-Khādem, the possibility that the acrophonetic system of reading hieroglyphics in Egypt may have given rise to an alphabetic system of signs there earlier than the Eighteenth Dynasty, and the evidence adduced by Dunand ... suggesting that the Phoenician alphabet may go back as far as the fifteenth century B.C., make it not only possible but even probable that in Mosaic times an alphabetic script would have been used in Palestine for recording religious documents. It is thus beside the point to discuss whether our Old Testament may in places present features of documents transcribed from originals which Moses wrote in cuneiform on clay tablets, or from documents on papyrus, in some form of hieratic script, in which he brought from Egypt the story of the bondage and recorded the tale of the desert wanderings and the laws given at Sinai. Literary criticism suggests that the earliest material we actually have in our Old Testament documents dates from the tenth century B.C., and as we have several examples of writing in an alphabetic script from Palestine of the early Iron Age (ca. 1200-900 B.C.), examples which suggest that writing was then used for everyday purposes, it is reasonable to assume that if our documents took written form in this period, they would have been written in the same way.

“References to writing in the Old Testament are not numerous. ...But in Exodus the JE document represents Moses as practicing the art (Exod. 17:14; 34:28). The more frequent references in the Prophets indicate that writing was common in their time.”

Although Jeffery is arguing inferentially, I think his logic is reasonable.

Moreover, within the Bible itself, we have the story of the rediscovery of the Mosaic Law in King Josiah’s time. As the books of II Kings and II Chronicles both record, the young king ordered the restoration of the temple of YHWH, which had fallen into disuse, and in the course of that restoration someone found a copy of the Law, which had been lost and forgotten. This led, say the books of Kings and Chronicles, to a rebirth of the moribund Hebrew religion.

Now, this found copy would have had to have been a written copy, and the time of the event was roughly 622 B.C. The Exile did not even begin until 598 B.C. And the written copy of the Law that Josiah’s workers found must have been created long enough before their time to have been forgotten after it was hidden. This too points to the conclusion that key portions of written Hebrew scripture must be considerably older than the Exile.

Diane said...

Thanks for all the information.

Roger Reynolds said...

One one comment:

This from the "Snake" book I referenced earlier, on Dan Everett's experiences in the Amazon with the Pirahãns (this from the review on Amazon):

"The Pirahãns did not accept Jesus because they had never met Him. Their simple view deeply affected Everett, who had been well trained as a missionary to confront and overcome almost any challenge --- superstition, malaria, filth, alligators. But this startling way of looking at life as entirely evidential shook his faith and eventually caused him to confess that he had lost it. Everett not only shocked his missionary peers and fractured his marriage; he sent ripples through the linguistic establishment with his claims about the construction of the Pirahã language, saying it did not build upon itself and was not recursive, which challenged the theories of the great Noam Chomsky. Chomsky's linguistic doctrine postulates a universal grammar, ever-increasing, ever able to branch out and express ever more complex concepts. Everett was saying that, perhaps unique in the world, here in the Amazon was a group of people whose language did not grow, whose experience did not expand with increased contact with the outside, and who liked it that way."