A recent announcement of an archaeological discovery has been described as “the most important inscription ever found in Israel.” Professor Gershon Galil’s words have been reported in news outlets around the world, but caution is required when evaluating what is being claimed.
The discovery is a tiny 2cm x 2cm folded lead tablet bearing an inscription which may tie in with biblical history. It was found by archaeologists involved in an excavation at Shiloh in the West Bank.
While there is some evidence of letters on the outside of the tablet, the inscription itself is on the inside. The folded lead has proven impossible to open without risking its destruction but a photographic scanning technology has been used to reveal a text inside: a curse using a typical style of Hebrew writing called parallelism: “Cursed, cursed, cursed, cursed by the God Yahweh. You will die cursed Cursed you will surely die. Cursed by Yahweh – cursed, cursed, cursed.”
What makes this discovery so important is that it would be a very early example of Hebrew writing and early use of the holy name of God, Yahweh. If the dating is accurate, this tablet is 1350 years older than the Dead Sea scrolls, meaning it predates all other examples of ancient Hebrew writing.
The tablet was found on Mt Ebal where what is thought to be an ancient altar was discovered in the 1980s. The altar has evidence of belonging to the period of Joshua, c.1400-1200 BC, and is located where the Israelites performed a renewal of their covenant with God in the Promised Land.
Why the scepticism? While many media outlets have celebrated the announcement, scholars have generally given it a frosty reception. It is worth considering why they do.
No doubt some have political reasons: the excavations are in the West Bank, territory which is disputed between Israelis and Palestinians. Others have philosophical reasons: there is an antipathy toward anything that could confirm the reliability of the Bible.
However, there are some more serious reasons why we might want to hold fire on our judgement. First, it is unusual to make a public announcement without first subjecting a discovery to peer review through publishing the data. Second, the dating of the tablet is difficult as it was found out of any stratigraphical context in a dump of spoils. Adam Zertal, who found the altar on Mt Ebal, dated it in the range of c.1400-1200 BC but the earth removed in its excavation has lost all context. Therefore, the possible date range for the lead tablet is very wide.
Barney Zwartz is a member of the Presbyterian Church of Australia National Journal Committee and a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity