Overview:

A recent discovery of an ancient tablet seems to show Hebrew writing and the use of "Yahweh" are much older than previously thought. Does this show the Bible is older than we think?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Christians and Jews have been excited as of late due to an archaeological discovery that has caused quite a stir. A tablet, which contains the words of an ancient Hebrew curse has been found in Israel that pre-dates the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, whose oldest fragments and scrolls date back to the 3rd century BCE, were found in caves in Qumran on the West Bank. Because they are considered to contain the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the biblical canon, the Dead Sea Scrolls are seen to have supreme archaeological, historical, religious, and linguistic importance.

Recently, a team headed up by Dr. Scott Stripling, the Director of the Archaeological Studies Institute at The Bible Seminary in Katy, discovered a small, folded tablet on Mount Ebal, also on the West Bank.

The folded lead tablet, 1 square inch in size, contains the following warning in proto-Hebrew:

“Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God Yahweh. You will die cursed. Cursed you will surely die. Cursed by Yahweh – cursed, cursed, cursed.”

This is the first time curse tablets have been found in the West Bank, and this one was discovered using wet-sifting (washing sediments with water) of material that was previously discarded from excavations that took place 30 years ago.

Of course, if the dating is correct, it proves next to nothing about biblical historicity and certainly about authorship. Proving that some Hebrew was written is not the same as proving the Hebrew Bible was written.

“But this text is not just a curse. It is actually a legal text,” Gershon Galil, a professor of biblical studies from the University of Haifa, stated at a press conference. “Not just a legal warning—[it] is a kind of sentence. It is a legal document … similar to other ancient middle eastern legal economic inscriptions.” 

So why is this find so important to Christians?

The initial dating for this concludes that it was inscribed in 1500 BCE, which makes it some 200 years older than any other extant Hebrew text, and 1250 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Christian media sources see this as a serious problem for biblical skeptics. For example, Premier Christian News reports the finding as “a blow for those who attempt to disprove the Bible, by suggesting Hebrew scribes would have been unable to write the Bible at such an early date.”

The point here is that biblical literalists and “maximalists” (people who affirm the historicity of the claims in the Bible such that what the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible claims are synonymous with history) claim that the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) was written by Moses somewhere between 1450 BCE and 1200 BCE.

Skeptics have often claimed this was impossible since there was no evidence of written Hebrew at this time, and that there was such literary capability. Many archaeologists and historians, and particularly biblical “minimalists,” believe that the Hebrew Bible was constructed predominantly in the period of Jewish exile (roughly 600 to 540 BCE) in Babylon and in the centuries thereafter.

If the dating of this newfound tablet can be confirmed, this finding supposedly puts that minimalist claim to bed.

Indeed, the title of this piece is in reference to the Premier Christian News piece title “Newly-discovered Hebrew tablet could prove Bible is older than initially believed” (our emphasis).

Of course, if the dating is correct, it proves next to nothing about biblical historicity and certainly about authorship. Proving that some Hebrew was written is not the same as proving the Hebrew Bible was written.

What we do have, of course, is a reference to Yahweh. Though early understandings of Yahweh are a long way away from what is now understood in the Bible. But, as Dr. Stripling has said, “We now have the name ‘Yahweh’, the biblical God of Israel, in an inscription dating from (Late Bronze Era II), which is earlier than many skeptics would argue that the Bible existed or that there was even the ability to write down a sacred text.”

Stripling appears to belong more to the maximalist camp and one hopes that this doesn’t adversely affect the quality of his conclusions since such a position can mean that one starts with erroneous axioms—assuming the dating and events of the Bible are correct and then using them to historically benchmark. This is a case of arguing from the Bible rather than to the Bible.

“In general, I am irritated by sensational claims of discoveries which ostensibly change everything that we know about the Bible and the history of ancient Israel.”

Dr. Stripling continued, “One can no longer argue with a straight face that the biblical text was not written until the Persian period or the Hellenistic period as many higher critics have done, when here we do clearly have the ability to write the entire text at a much, much earlier date.”

Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Dr. Kipp Davis, on the other hand, told OnlySky that this claim of Dr. Stripling’s is an overstatement:

“For one thing, while we can now confidently see that there was Hebrew writing much earlier than we at once anticipated, what was discovered is not a biblical text. Another way to look at this discovery is that it hints at one aspect of the biblical story (Moses and Joshua’s actions on Mt. Ebal), and how it potentially developed from a long-standing cultic tradition in which YHWH was invoked for curses on this mountain. Of course, it remains entirely possible that these stories (while based on actual, very early traditions attested by the artifact) did not develop into tales featuring fictional characters like Moses and Joshua until many centuries later. Likely earlier than the Persian period, yes, but not necessarily much earlier than 700 or 800 BCE.”

In IFL Science’s reporting of this story, they observe:

Of course, Stripling may be biased – the Associates for Biblical Research, where he acts as Director of Excavations, describes itself on its website as a “Christian Apologetics Ministry Dedicated to Demonstrating the Historical Reliability of the Bible through Archaeological and Biblical Research.” While he hopes the curse tablet will help prove the historical accuracy of the stories of Moses and Passover, other archeologists accept that little to no evidence has ever been found of a real-life Exodus.

Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman concluded in their seminal classic Thre Bible Unearthed that the evidence is just not there for biblical accuracy and historical primacy in remotely the way maximalists hope. Live Science expresses Finkelstein’s doubts:

He also questioned the proposed dating, noting that comparison of the Mount Ebal site to other sites dated by radiocarbon analysis suggest it may date from the 11th century B.C. — perhaps two centuries or more later than what was claimed — and he suggested the decipherment of the inscription on the tablet could also be subject to interpretation.

“In general, I am irritated by sensational claims of discoveries which ostensibly change everything that we know about the Bible and the history of ancient Israel,” Finkelstein said. 

Dr. Kipp Davis, as mentioned, when conceding (if the dating is correct) that a “biblical text” is theoretically possible, believes that this does not get us all the way to the existence of a biblical text at the time of Moses and Joshua. He told us, “First and foremost, this discovery is critical and I think most useful in the fields of linguistics and paleography. It is a primitive alphabet that still retains the more obviously pictographic features from which each Hebrew letter developed. But, of course,” he continued, “this discovery is also likely important for the study of ancient Canaanite religion, and the biblical texts.

Rather than support the maximalist thesis (which, at best, the find merely fails to disconfirm it), the tablet potentially creates problems for those who hold rather strictly to ideas about inerrancy. Dr. Kipp Davis argued:

This is because in Joshua 8 the text rather explicitly states that the curses spoken by Moses were entirely preserved in the surviving text, and that there was nothing added, nor taken away. Well, the artifact does not align with the text in the Bible, which would then contradict the claim made by the Bible in this instance.

The find is certainly interesting, perhaps even hugely important, but I am not sure it does what Christians claim it does.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...