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Ophel inscription: oldest Hebrew writing in Jerusalem corroborates biblical history

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Published: 17 August 2013 (GMT+10)
Ophel-inscription
Reconstructed Reading of the Ophel Inscription (suggested by Douglas Petrovich)

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 (Early_Aramaic_character_-_yuds). The letter after “smooth” is “from”. The word before “wine” only reveals its last letter, which either is a mem (Early_Aramaic_character_-_mem) or a nun (Early_Aramaic_character_-_nun). Several readings are possible, but the most likely one, written with a nun (Early_Aramaic_character_-_nun), is this: “[In the ?? (regnal) year, firs]t (month): smooth [win]e from [the Garden of ??]”.

plan-mazars-Ophel-excavations

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 (Early_Aramaic_character_-_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.

Ophel-Location-PP

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.

Reference

  1. 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.

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