November 21, 2005

Alphabet wars: an update

When it was first revealed that an abecedary from the 10th century BCE had been unearthed near Tel Zayit, Israel, initial coverage in the New York Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (as well as a follow-up from the Chicago Tribune wire service) suggested that a major scholarly conflict over the artifact's interpretation was looming. The showdown was supposed to have taken place this past week when Ron E. Tappy of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and his colleagues presented their findings at conferences in Philadelphia, first for the American Schools of Oriental Research on Nov. 16, and then for the Society of Biblical Literature on Nov. 20. From the initial reports of conference attendees, it appears that Tappy and his co-presenter, P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University, took a cautious approach, largely avoiding the contentious debates over biblical history seized upon by the media.

As before, the "biblioblogs" have kept the rest of us informed about the latest news. The first presentation at ASOR did not generate much discussion among the bibliobloggers, though Paul Nikkel of the Deinde blog shared his rough notes on the session. (Among the tantalizing details mentioned by Nikkel is McCarter's explanation that the Tel Zayit stone is not, in fact, an abecedary. Nonetheless, McCarter continued to refer to it as an abecedary for the rest of his presentation on the inscription's paleographical aspects. [*]) The ASOR presentation was apparently rather short (part of a general panel on ASOR-affiliated excavations), without much time for discussion afterwards.

The SBL presentation, however, was the main attraction for those interested in the Tel Zayit stone. Jim Davila reports on his PaleoJudaica blog that the session was held "on Sunday evening from 7:00 to 9:00 in a stifling, standing-only crowded room with several hundred attending." Davila gives a fine summary of the presentation and discussion, as does Christopher Heard on Higgaion. According to Heard, "both Tappy and McCarter stayed away from 'interpreting' the inscription in their prepared remarks, though they were urged to do so, in different ways, during the Q&A." Some audience members were vocal in claiming that the abecedary is proof of a literate state, identified by biblical scholars as the "united monarchy" of Israel and Judah under the reign of David and Solomon. Heard characterizes these interpretations as "jumping the gun," but credits Tappy and McCarter with taking a more even-tempered approach with regards to the artifact. However, Jim West on Biblical Theology asserts that "Tappy seems to draw conclusions that reach beyond the evidence." Joseph Cathey, meanwhile, feels that Tappy and his colleagues will ultimately be vindicated, despite objections from "minimalists" who question the historical reliability of biblical narratives. (Heard responds to Cathey here.)

Finally, one of the participants in the excavation, Michael Homan, shares his first-hand account of the Tel Zayit stone's discovery. Homan does a good job of conveying the excitement that the team experienced when they realized that the scratches on the stone actually constituted a complete Hebrew (or proto-Hebrew) alphabet.

[* Update: On the Ancient Near East mailing list, Peter Daniels questions Nikkel's account and says that McCarter never suggested that the inscription wasn't an abecedary. But the purpose of the abecedary remains open to intepretation, Daniels notes.]

[Update 11/22/05: The Jewish Exponent, a Philadelphia-based newspaper, reports on the Nov. 20 presentation and provides some background on the minimalist/maximalist debate.]

[Update 11/25/05: Christopher Heard provides a thoroughgoing critique of the Jewish Exponent article here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 21, 2005 03:02 PM