Epigraphy is not a word you toss out over a Starbucks. It’s one of those specialty words, a bit of academic jargon in Biblical studies and archaeology. It is the study of inscriptions (epigraphs), which means ancient writing usually on materials that last through the ages: stone, metal, clay tablets, etc.
There are a number of ancient inscriptions that have bearing on the Hebrew Bible. Some teach us about languages related to Biblical Hebrew. Others fill in our knowledge of culture and customs in times and places near to Ancient Israel. Still others do more than that — they provide some corroboration for or even information about the history of Israel and the Biblical stories.
What sort of epigraphic evidence (evidence from ancient inscriptions) might we expect for the Hebrew Bible? Will we find a hieroglyphic account of Pharaoh’s chariots drowning in the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds/Red Sea)? Will we have a missive from Jericho asking for help from the Egyptians as Israelites march around their walls for seven days?
The archaeological record is sparse. Civilizations are built over the same spot and older evidence is erased by new cultures as they obliterate precious remains we only wish we could find.
But consider some things we do have:
–A mention in 1220 B.C.E. (very close to a leading possibility for the date of the Exodus in 1250) of Israel in an inscription commissioned by a Pharaoh, and this inscription mentions Israel in a form suggesting they are a distinct people group.
–A mention of the “House of David” c. 850 B.C.E. by a Syrian ruler (probably Hazael) and references to Joram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah.
–Two early uses of the Aaronic benediction (Num. 6:24-26) in abridged (in one case in slightly altered form) from c. 800 and c. 600 B.C.E. — the earliest examples of any written scripture from the Hebrew Bible!
That is just a taste of the good things we find in the inscriptional record. In this post, I will list a few of the finds and give a little information and ask a few questions (the questions are partially intended for me to do further research myself, since there is more material about these finds than I have access to as I am writing this post).
The information here is drawn from the second chapter of The Face of Old Testament Studies (ed. David Baker and Bill Arnold). This chapter is written by Mark Chavalas and Edwin Hostetter. It is poorly written in the sense that it reads more like a grocery list than an article explaining the significance of these finds. Nonetheless, it is a place to find a lot of information distilled in a short form.
The Merneptah Stela
Also spelled Merenptah Stela, this stone is carved with a hieroglyphic account from 1220 B.C.E., commissioned by Pharaoh Merneptah to boast of his conquests. This stela mentions Israel specifically. Moreover, the Israelites are mentioned in a form that indicates a foreign people. This is the earliest mention of Israel outside of Biblical texts. It suggests that the Israelites were already seen as a distinct people (and that 1250 may be too late a date for the Exodus if the account of 40 years in the wilderness is accurate). QUESTIONS: What more do we know about Merneptah? Are there any geographical indicators where his encounters with Israelites happened? Why don’t the minimalists (who say the Exodus and conquest stories of the Bible are fiction) accept this as evidence?
The Tel Dan Stela
Three pieces of basalt with some of the original text lost due to breakage, these inscriptions from c. 850 B.C.E. mention the “House of David” by name and corroborate the idea that the Judahite monarchs derived their authority from their connection to the dynasty of David. The likely source behind the inscriptions is Syrian king Hazael and the kings referred to are likely Joram and Ahaziah, reflecting perhaps the events of 2 Kings 8:28-29. QUESTIONS: Are Joram and Ahaziah mentioned by name? Why don’t minimalists accept this as evidence? Do they say that “House of David” as a title for the dynasty of Judah is a fiction these monarchs propagated to give themselves authority?
The Ketef Hinnom Scrolls and the Kuntillet Ajrud Fragments
Imagine finding small silver leaf mini-scrolls with the Aaronic benediction written on them from c. 600 B.C.E. These scrolls were worn rolled up and attached to a necklace like pendants or amulets and are known as the Ketef Hinnom scrolls. The words written on them are like a short and slightly altered form of the Aaronic Benediction. Even earlier are the Kuntillet Ajrud fragments, plaster fragments fallen off of a wall, which refer to Adonai of Teman and Adonai of Samaria (an idea of God having local forms like Baal?). One of the fragments has part of the Aaronic blessing, “May he bless you and keep you,” and is from c. 800 B.C.E. These could be regarded as the earliest written scriptures ever found. QUESTIONS: What exactly is the form of the benediction on the Ketef Hinnom scrolls? Is this evidence of Numbers existing already by these dates or an early recension of a still-developing text of Numbers? Why do we hear little about this as evidence of the antiquity of Torah?
Quick Summary of a Few Other Finds
In the Arad ostraca (pottery sherds with writing on them) we find one that mentions Adonai’s temple in Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. Why is this given little press when people deny that Adonai had a temple at that time? The Deir Alla texts found in Jordan mention Balaam the Seer in stories told centuries after the fact (c. 750). These prove nothing and could be local legends about a figure known from Israelite history. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note them as possible evidence. The Khirbet al-Qom inscriptions mention Adonai’s consort (wife, concubine) Asherah, confirming the idolatry said to be rampant in Israel and Judah (c. 760 B.C.E.). The Lachish letters (c. 589) confirm the general Biblical picture of Babylon’s campaign against Judah which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The Siloam Tunnel inscription confirms Hezekiah’s building project (c. 702).