Ophel inscription: oldest Hebrew writing in Jerusalem corroborates biblical history
Published: 17 August 2013 (GMT+10)
A team of Israeli archaeologists, led by Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University, made an important discovery in 2012 at the Ophel in Jerusalem, which is located between the Temple Mount and the City of David. They uncovered the foundations of a building that roughly dates to 1000–900 BC. This building was constructed on bedrock, but since there was a dip at one point in the bedrock underneath it, 7 large storage jars (called pithoi, singular pithos) were placed in this depression in order to help stabilize the building.
One of the storage jars, Pithos 1 (see drawing left), was inscribed with writing along the rim. This is now called the Ophel inscription. The text was written in a script with parallels from a number of other sites in Israel during the Israelite monarchy. Strangely enough, several very qualified scholars called this script Canaanite, and Mazar suggested that the inscription likely was written by one of the non-Israelite residents of Jerusalem, such as the Jebusites.
However, the Ophel inscription clearly was written in a form of Hebrew that far predates the script found in any Hebrew Bible. This early Hebrew script actually follows approximately 22 Egyptian hieroglyphs, though the ancient Hebrews assigned their own sounds to the hieroglyphs—which became letters for them—and adopted a simpler way of writing these hieroglyphs than the Egyptians drew them. Only 6 of these letters are found on what remains of the Ophel inscription, though originally there were more letters to the right and left of them.
Two of the six letters were repeated, giving a total of 8 letters that have been preserved. Two of the letters (letters 2 and 3) were poorly preserved, due to a break in the storage jar that left the majority of these letters impossible to see or read. The brilliant work of an Israeli scholar named Gershon Galil, a professor at Haifa University, has helped us to restore these letters properly. The letters are two Hebrew yod’s, which make a sound no different than the English y.
Galil also correctly proposed that the inscription reads from right-to-left, and that it represents a label for a commercial product, using this formula: (1) year-date of a king’s reign, (2) kind of product, (3) place of production, and (4) owner’s name. This type of labeling was used in Egypt from the 15th –12th centuries BC and in Israel during the time of the monarchy. As an example, one Egyptian wine-jar label reads, “Year 5: Sweet wine – from the Estate of Aton”.
One word on the inscription that can be read fully is “smooth”. The word that comes before it is “wine” (Hebrew yayin), which can be read after Galil’s restoration of the two yods (s). The letter after “smooth” is “from”. The word before “wine” only reveals its last letter, which either is a mem () or a nun (). Several readings are possible, but the most likely one, written with a nun (), is this: “[In the ?? (regnal) year, firs]t (month): smooth [win]e from [the Garden of ??]”.
Clearly some year of an Israelite king’s reign originally was recorded, but what is not known is whether a month was written after it or not. Many such commercial labels on ceramic jars included a numbered month, but certainly not all of them. If no month was recorded, the year of the unknown king’s reign almost undoubtedly was the 1st, 20th, 30th, or 40th year.
Since the house built over the 7 storage jars dates to the 10th century BC, the jars most likely date to the first half of the century, or possibly the early part of the second half of the century. If “1st Year” was inscribed on the storage jar, David’s reign could not have been the year of manufacturing, because he did not conquer Jerusalem until his Year 8 (2 Sam 5:5), which translates to ca. 1002 BC. Solomon’s Year 1 (971 BC) thus would be the most likely candidate.
If letter 1 of the inscription is a mem () instead, an unknown year from Year 20–40 must be read, which would restrict the vessel’s production to the reign of David or Solomon, with no realistic exception, because no other Israelite king experienced a 20th regnal year until the 9th century BC (King Asa).
A scholar named Christopher Rollston correctly observed that the script of the Ophel inscription traces back to the so-called proto-consonantal script of the Egyptian New Kingdom inscriptions at Serabit el-Khadim (in Sinai), which are dated from ca. 1550–1450 BC. Ancient Egypt controlled this remote site, where their laborers mined turquoise for the Egyptian crown.
The form of this script at Serabit, dating about 500 years before the Ophel inscription, represents a much earlier version of the exact same alphabet and script that is found on the Ophel inscription and other contemporary Hebrew inscriptions from throughout the same part of Israel, such as the Qeiyafa ostracon, which probably dates to the reign of King Saul.
In my article on the Ophel inscription1 that is uploaded onto ABR’s website, I demonstrated carefully and methodically how each one of the 6 different letters on the inscription both cannot be traced back to the Canaanite language, and can be traced back to Egyptian hieroglyphics as the source-script.
This fact ties the origin of the inscribers to Egypt and vehemently argues against Canaan as the crucible where the written language of the Hebrew-speakers was formulated. Currently I am writing an unprecedented book that will trace both the script used at Serabit and the writers of this script back to the ancestors of the Israelites who first moved to Egypt under Jacob.
What is the significance of the Ophel inscription for the devoted student of the Bible? Most significant is that—since the inscription certainly was written in Hebrew and dates to the 10th century BC—there was an Israelite king sitting on the throne during the century in which David and Solomon reigned. The inscription does not provide any insight about the size of the Israelite monarchy, the location of its capital, or the name of its king at the time.
Thus the inscription cannot verify that David and Solomon reigned or possessed powerful kingdoms that were centered in Jerusalem. However, it does show that Jerusalem probably was controlled by Hebrew-speakers, and certainly that an Israelite king was in power over Israel during the century when biblical chronology demands that these two kings would have reigned.
The storage jars under the house were of two types, one of which preceded the other. Pithos 1 was of the latter of these types. Since these storage jars contained wine and consisted of two successive types, obviously a thriving wine-making industry existed for an extended period of time, implying a high level of stability in Israel, as such an industry could not have existed for such a long time if conquerors were invading and performing the normal ritual of destroying all of the crops of the people whose territory they had invaded.
Therefore, the discovery of the Ophel inscription is a tremendous asset to biblical history, since it confirms that Israelites lived in and around Jerusalem during the time when David and Solomon reportedly reigned, and that Israel was ruled by a Hebrew monarch. The inscription also argues for an extended period of peace and stability within the kingdom, which is perfectly in keeping with the picture painted by the biblical text. Thus in relation to the period of the biblical monarchy of ancient Israel, the Ophel inscription is one of the most important discoveries ever made.
- Petrovich, D., New find: Jerusalem’s oldest Hebrew inscription, 25 July 2013, biblearchaeology.org/post/2013/07/25/New-Find-Jerusalems-Oldest-Hebrew-Inscription.aspx. Return to text.
If things in the bible have been proven.Do you guys think you could argue that the stuff that has been proven,can be taught in history classes?If ID is not allow in science classes because its "unscientific" [according to evolutionists]then at the very least you guys should be able to teach the proven parts of the bible as history.
James, certainly the historical gleanings that can be derived from the discovery of the Ophel inscription qualify as that which can be taught as history in any educational institution. The same would go for examples such as Hekeziah's tunnel confirming the measures that took place during the Assyrian siege on Jerusalem (cf. how Hezekiah brought water into the city, per 2 Kgs 20:20). The challenge, however, is finding teachers and professors who are willing to affirm events of biblical history as having been validated as historical. In most classrooms, teachers actually are looking for ways to invalidate biblical history, even if the basis of their argumentation is faulty to begin with.
The Bible Archaeology article cited gives the dating as Iron Age IIA. To match that with David or Solomon means they're using the orthodox chronology.
Colin, if you look at footnote #1 for the longer article I wrote for ABR, you will see that I note 3 views for the chronology of Iron IIA: 1) NEAEHL, 2) A. Mazar, and 3) Finkelstein. This pretty much covers the gambit of views. Neither in the ABR article nor here in the CMI article did I have space or opportunity to articulate what I consider to be the right view or critique what I consider to be the wrong views. This would require a journal article of its own, if not an entire book. However, while I vehemently oppose Finkelstein's down-dating, which is followed gushingly by source critics and others, I certainly acknowledge its validity as a view. There is a ton of reasons why Iron IIA should not be dropped into the divided monarchy as Finkelstein et al. have suggested, especially the findspot for the 7 pithoi found by Mazar. When some of these pithoi are of Type A variety, the notion of placing the archaeological context into the divided monarchy borders on absurd. For one of the most thorough debunkings of Finkelsteinian late-dating as it relates to clearly definable excavational strata, I recommend for you to read Megiddo 3, by Timothy Harrison. There is good reason to stick with what you call orthodox chronology.
Thank you for this article. This same Paleo-Hebrew script is also preserved on ancient Judean coins minted in Jerusalem during the Persian period and Hasmonean period. Paleo-Hebrew was used on the coins defiantly minted during the Jewish War and the Bar Kochba Revolt. Thank you again for all you do.
Dear Doug B., you are very welcome, and thanks for your encouraging note. Yes, the paleo-Hebrew script was in use before the Babylonian exile (587 BC), as well as finding its way into archaized uses that showed up after the post-exilics returned to the Holy Land from Mesopotamia. At the same time, the written Hebrew script evolved (if you will) during the centuries of its use. It remains to be seen whether this form of Hebrew used during the 10th century BC will--in the long run--be called paleo-Hebrew or not. Moreover, when (in my upcoming book) I argue that a form of this script from 1500 BC is actually Hebrew, one will not be able to deny that this script is quite different than the paleo-Hebrew script of the 7th century BC, for example. Thus it may become necessary to expand the terminology beyond simply 'paleo-Hebrew', since this term will be far too limited to encompass all of the forms of Hebrew that we see throughout time.
How do they know that the building the Ophel Inscription was found in dates back to 1,000 B.C.?
Daniel, this is an excellent question. The dating of the building is known from what we call diagnostic pottery. Ceramic styles were well defined according to various periods of time, with consistency in forms during any given period, and changes (slight or wholesale) clearly visible from period to period. This is true throughout the ANE (ancient Near East), not just in Israel. When potsherds with parts of the rims on them are found, we can recreate the size and style of the pot/jar/etc. with great precision. Pottery thus becomes the key component for dating various strata at a site. When comparing strata from different (nearby/regional) sites, often 1 or more sites will include more datable items, such as phaoronic scarabs. Thus absolute dates often can be fixed, with diagnostic pottery being connected to contemporary strata. Such pottery from the house from the Ophel helps us to date the house to a particular phase, which is this case is Iron IIA. For more, see my reply to Colin.
I would like to lovingly correct the archeologist, Israel Finkelstein. He mentions that 42,+++ Israelites returned to their land, using Ezra 2:64 as the substantiating reference. This verse refers only to part of the people of the Kingdom of Judah, which was composed of Judah and the tribe of Benjamin. The northern ten tribes which were separated from Judah in the days of Rehoboam, Solomon's son, were removed from their land by King Shalmaneser of Assyria when Hoshea was king of the Kingdom of Israel (the northern ten tribes). Shalmaneser scattered them in Assyria and the land of the Medes. See chapters 17 & 18 of II Kings. Hezekiah was king over Judah when this removal occurred. Judah remained in their land for about 160 years longer. Then God sent Nebuchadnezzer and his army to begin to remove Judah also because of the sins of King Manasseh. Judah ended up being carried to Babylon for the seventy years prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah. Ezra was bringing the first group of captives back to Judah in the days of Cyrus King of Persia. Please read chapter one and the first verse of chapter two of Ezra. Also read from the prophet Isaiah chapter 44:24 through to 45:6. This was prophesied between 180 and 200 years before Cyrus was born. It reveals that Jehovah named Cyrus at this time and told him how He would use him to help rebuild Jerusalem.
Hey just read this article, sounds cool. one question: Ive read articles by people who say that Israelite Yahweh worship was an evolved form of Egyptian polytheism (the book of the dead, and Egyptian hieroglyphs) and stuff like that, not so much to do with the emergence from canaanite or babylonian religions. I know thats not true according to Scripture and scripture is Gods Word but how can we think consistently about the development of Israels alphabet from hieroglyphs and be consistent with progressive revelation. Im saying this as a Christian who fell onto some strange conspiracy theory ideas in the past that i dont know how to answer logically and Scripturally
R.P., Yahwism, as it's called in ANE fields, spawned neither from Egyptian polytheism nor from Mesopotamian polytheism. Instead, it was the result of direct revelation (Yahweh's appearance to Abram, Gen 12 etc.). However, we would be foolish to think that Egyptian polytheism did not directly impact the first Israelites. My upcoming book will show that Joseph's theophoric Egyptian name contains the name of the Egyptian god Sobek, and it will show that Joseph's son Manasseh attributed Jacob's wrestling with God at Bethel to the Egyptian god Geb, the earth god. Moreover, at biblical Rameses a temple to Set/Seth was built when the Hyksos arrived, in ca. 1657 BC, which was ca. 219 years after Jacob's arrival. The Hebrew writings at Serabit (in Sinai) from the lifetime of Moses include many statements (Sinai 346, 349) of loyalty to Ba'lat (cf. Baal of the Bible). The connection between Seth and Ba'lat should not be overlooked, as Seth was (among other things to the Egyptians) the storm god, while Ba'lat/Baal also was the storm god (cf. Syrian Teshub, with roots going back to Mesopotamia). Now, even if you don't buy what I'm telling you from years of careful study, please believe the Bible. According to Ezek 23:3, the Hebrew prophet wrote of Yahweh’s announcement to him that the Israelite people played the harlot in Egypt, while in their youth. Thus Ezekiel tells us that the Hebrews engaged in the worship of foreign gods while in Egypt (exodus in 1446 BC). As for Israel's alphabet coming from Egyptian hieroglyphics, why should this be any surprise to us? There is no conspiracy here, and nothing illogical. It's completely logical. Jacob's sons moved to Egypt with their own spoken language, but no written language. Thus Egyptian hieroglyphics is the ONLY script to expect.
Does the fact that this oldest Hebrew inscription traces its linguistic roots directly back to Egyptian hieroglyphics also declare for Hebrew residence in Egypt prior to settlement in Canaan? It would seem to corroborate Israel’s past history as well. Or was this Egyptian text the lingua franca of its day? Either would be interesting.
John, you have hit the nail on the head. The origins of Hebrew's written script are directly related to Israelite residence in Egypt prior to the exodus. My new book is going to rock the worlds of biblical studies and ANE (ancient Near Eastern) history because it attests to Israel's presence in Egypt archaeologically (including material culture) and epigraphically (including inscriptions referring to Joseph AND several written by Manasseh, among others). In addition, I have a chapter devoted to evidence for the exodus and the first Passover. Moreover, all of this history matches perfectly with conventional biblical chronology, without the need to practice historical revisionism on Egyptian history or biblical history. If one starts with sound biblical interpretation and proper determination of the original readings of the inspired biblical text where textual variants occur, which includes key chronological verses of the OT, it is amazing what rich synchronisms can be gleaned by careful study of ancient history. Back to your comment, yes, this absolutely corroborates Israel's past history, and it's time to fight back with a vengeance against the liberal scholars who have mocked the accuracy of biblical history. But no, Egyptian was not the lingua franca of its day. In fact, Akkadian was still the lingua franca, and it would be until the 1st millennium BC. All the best!
ok thanks Doug for the cool info, sounds great. conspiracy theories have a way of destroying whats real and replacing it with a void. with CMI's help I'm trying to come back from the brink with God's Grace.
R.P., you're very welcome. I agree with you completely about conspiracy theories, whether they relate to the Bible, UFO's, or the Kennedy assassination. I have no patience for them, and I have strong feelings about how they are used by speculators and snake-oil salesmen to deceive the untrained, especially when it comes to the sheep of God. Exposing these schemes and schemers is one of my callings from God, and I trust that the Lord will strengthen you with all strength, so that your spirit might be renewed and your mind freed from the grip of untruth.
My thanks to David Petrovich for his wonderfully informative answer to my question. I've come to view CMI as my first line of reference in dealing with creationists issues. This week especially, you have probably felt a little put out by the number of questions and comments I've sent your way, but this is just a symptom of how greatly I have come to depend upon your site for answers.
Thank you, Bro. Petrovich, and thank you, CMI.
Blessings to all!