November 14, 2005

Alphabet wars

Controversy has been brewing since last week's announcement that a team of archaeologists had discovered an ancient alphabetic inscription on a stone unearthed near Tel Zayit, Israel. The leader of the excavation project, Ron E. Tappy of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has claimed that the inscription is evidence of an Israelite state with widespread literacy in the 10th century BCE, a time that biblical scholars associate with the kingships of David and Solomon. As Ron Grossman reports in an article for the Chicago Tribune wire service, this interpretation plays directly into a volatile debate between "minimalists," who view biblical narrative as an unreliable guide to the history of the era, and "maximalists," who seek to bring the archaeological record into alignment with the stories of the Bible.

Rather too glibly, Grossman breaks down the significance of Tappy's claim not just for biblical minimalism and maximalism, but for opposing ideologies in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

By the Old Testament account, the 10th century was an era of the great kings David and Solomon, who built a mighty temple in Jerusalem. To Israeli nationalists, that version of the story gives their cause title to the Holy Land.

But minimalist scholars think the biblical account inflated; they argue that, in the 10th century, the Hebrews were wandering tribes, not nation or temple builders.

That account suits Palestinian nationalists just fine, because they claim Jerusalem as theirs.

The terms of this dispute should perhaps be unsurprising given the highly politicized nature of archaeology in the Holy Land (see, for instance, the work of Nadia Abu El-Haj on archaeology's role in shaping Israeli national identity). Nonetheless, it's a bit disturbing to read of the dueling accusations sketched out by Grossman (with no actual attributions): "One camp, 'the maximalists' implies the other harbors anti-Semites. The 'minimalists,' in turn, charge their accusers with confusing Zionism with scholarship."

It's difficult for someone outside of this debate to know how overstated Grossman's characterizations might be. But we should know soon enough, as Tappy and his colleagues will be presenting their findings at the meetings of two scholarly organizations in Philadelphia this week: the American Schools of Oriental Research on Nov. 16, and the Society of Biblical Literature on Nov. 20. Some attendees are already girding themselves for a serious clash, according to Grossman:

Philip Davies, professor emeritus at the University of Sheffield in England, is generally considered the founding father of the minimalists — most of whom are European-based. He is coming to the Philadelphia meetings prepared for battle with his American colleagues.

"When I fly the Atlantic, I feel like a gladiator," Davies said. "Tappy's research is going to be a football, kicked around from one side to the other."

There are some "biblioblogs" that are useful for keeping tabs on the debate, such as Tyler F. Williams' Codex Blogspot, Jim Davila's PaleoJudaica, Jim West's Biblical Theology, and Christopher Heard's Higgaion. On Joseph Cathey's blog there has been some interesting back-and-forth on the relevance of the discovery to the minimalist/maximalist debate. Scholarly mailing lists have also been active in discussing the Tel Zayit artifact, particularly ANE, b-hebrew, and biblical-studies. For first-hand accounts of the excavation, see the blog of dig participant Michael Homan, as well as this article in the Colorado State University newspaper about Dan Rypma, the CSU undergrad who actually uncovered the Tel Zayit stone.

Finally, I should note that in the online version of the article that broke the news of the discovery, the New York Times eventually put up an informative photo and caption that wasn't available at the time of my first post (in which I included a cropped version of a wire-service photo):

Courtesy of The Zeitah Excavations and Israel Antiquities Authority

Detail of the "ABC" Inscription from Tel Zayit, showing the letters waw through tet. Note that the letters are out of the traditional order: going (right-to-left) waw, he, het, zayin, tet rather than the expected he, waw, zayin, het, tet.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 14, 2005 01:19 AM