Israeli archaeologists have confirmed that an inscribed pottery shard, reliably dated by Carbon 14 testing of organic material found with it to the 10th century BCE--the time of King David-- is in fact written in Hebrew, making the shard the oldest known Hebrew inscription. Moreover, both the location where the shard was discovered --the Valley of Elah, well to the west of the Judaen hills--and the translation of the ancient Hebrew text bolster the case of the "traditionalist school" of Biblical archaeologists against the "revisionist school," who have challenged the authenticity of the Biblical account of the history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. An account of the discovery and translation of the shard appears online in Science Daily, among other sites.
Another chapter now opens in a sometimes bitterly contested scholarly debate, which has raged at least since the birth of biblical criticism in the 19th century. As played out in the field of archaeology, the generation of traditional Biblical archaeologists, exemplified by Kathleen Kenyon and Yigdal Yadin, contended that their discoveries bolstered the historical accuracy of the Biblical narrative. Kenyon believed that she had discovered the ruins of the City of David in her Jerusalem dig. Yadin argued that his discovery of nearly identical six-chambered gates in the excavations of Gezer, Megiddo and Hazor authenticated the description of King Solomon's city building in First Kings 9:15:
“And this is the account of the forced labor which King Solomon levied to build the house of the Lord and his own house and the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem and Hazor and Megiddo and Gezer.”
However, a later generation of Israeli archaeologists challenged the interpretations of Kenyon and Yadin, arguing that their predecessors were influenced by a pro-Bible and Zionist bias. These revisionists argued that the archaeological record actually proved the opposite of what the traditionalists had held. The discoveries at Jerusalem, Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer, according to the revisionists, belonged to a much later era, the 7th century BCE, long after the supposed time of Kings David and Solomon. In their book "The Bible Unearthed," Professors Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, insisted that if Kings David and Solomon existed at all in the 10th century BCE, they were "little more than hill country chieftains." There was no golden age of a united kingdom under Kings David and Solomon, no magnificent capital of Jerusalem or Temple of Solomon, and no extensive empire that split into two rival kingdoms, Judah and Israel, after the death of King Solomon. The Biblical narrative, from Genesis through the Books of Kings, according to "The Bible Unearthed," was a myth, the product of a propaganda campaign launched by King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century BCE to further his geopolitical goal of absorbing the rival northern Semitic Kingdom of Israel.
Readers who want to delve more into this debate, as it stood prior to the discovery of the Elah shard inscription, can read "God's Ghostwriters," a New York Times review of "The Bible Unearthed" by Phyllis Trible, Professor of Biblical Studies at the Wake Forest University Divinity School; and "Did David and Solomon Exist?", by Eric H. Cline, Chair of the Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literatures at The George Washington University.
The Elah shard strikes a blow for the traditionalists. The revisionist school, exemplified by Professor Finkelstein, contended that the hill-country village tribes of David and Solomon would not have boasted literate scribes who could have written the biblical accounts of Kings David and Solomon and their successors found in the Books of Samuel and Kings. Also, as noted above, they challenged the very existence of a Davidic kingdom that had controlled extensive territories in the land of Israel beyond poor villages in the Judaen hills.
As noted in an editorial in the Jerusalem Post, the Elah shard would appear to prove that, contrary to the revisionist thesis:
• There was an expansive Kingdom of David which extended well beyond the hill country, out to the Valley of Elah.Why, the reader may ask, does an archaeological discovery become the subject of a newspaper editorial. Well, the Jerusalem Post is an Israeli newspaper and many Israelis, both religious and secular, Zionist and anti-Zionist, take biblical archaeology very seriously. But beyond that, the archaeological debate between the traditionalists and the revisionists has serious political implications. Past Israeli leaders such as Professor Yadin, David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan, although arch-secularists, believed that biblical archaeology testified that the Zionist enterprise and the establishment of the State of Israel represented the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. Conversely, the writings of the latter day revisionists, such as Professor Finkelstein, have provided scholarly ammunition for the anti-Zionist viewpoint that seeks to portray Zionism as an European colonial venture foisted on the indigenous Palestinian Arabs.
• The Hebrew language was sufficiently developed in the 10th century. It reinforces what many scholars have long appreciated - that parts of the Bible are very, very old.
• During the reign of King David there were scribes who were able to compose complex literary texts such as the books of Judges and Samuel.
• The find establishes that scholarship was taking place away from kingdom's hub, implying that even greater learning was going on at its heart.
Most striking to me, however, is not the political significance of the Elah shard, but rather the moral message of its text. The translation of the text of the shard echoes the ethical message of Moses, Samuel and the other prophets of Israel:
"You shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].Already in the 10th century BCE, the people of Israel were busy publishing their moral message to the world.
Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
[and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger."