November 08, 2005

The oldest Hebrew alphabet?

The New York Times reports on a fascinating archeological discovery made in Tel Zayit, southwest of Jerusalem: a stone dated to the 10th century BCE inscribed with an abecedary (the letters of the alphabet written in their traditional order). According to Ron E. Tappy of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who directed the dig, this is the earliest known rendering of the Hebrew alphabet, distinct from Phoenician predecessors. Other experts are not so sure, though everyone seems to agree that the Tel Zayit stone is an important find.

Tappy's interpretations of this artifact and others from the excavation project fit into his controversial theory about the Israelite kingdom of the era, which he argues was a sophisticated political entity with extensive literacy. His arguments are apparently predicated on the Biblical history of David and Solomon. Tappy will report on his findings in Philadelphia next week at the meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Society of Biblical Literature. According to the Times, Tappy's critics are expected to challenge his conclusions at the meetings.

(The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has more on the controversy.)

[Update, 11/9/05: Tappy has held a news conference and has added information about the Tel Zayit inscription on the excavation website.]

[Update, 11/10/05: Tappy's hometown papers continue to provide the best coverage. See articles about the official announcement of the discovery in Pittsburgh's Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review. The latter identifies the actual discoverer of the stone: Dan Rypma, an undergraduate volunteer from Colorado State University.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 8, 2005 11:40 PM