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Sensational claims about the Jerusalem Stone ‘Inscription’: Not so fast!

Gershon Galil announced (on July 7, 2022) that he has “deciphered the Jerusalem stone tablet”. Various press outlets have reported on Galil’s “decipherment,” including the Times of Israel. Within this blog post, I will cite Galil’s own statements, rather than the citations of him in press stories. This will ensure that his views are being conveyed with precision. I will also convey my concerns about his readings and interpretations. Indeed, I am far from convinced that this is an “inscription.” In fact, one could make an entirely plausible case that these are not letters but striations and decorative motifs on the stone.

In terms of background, Galil has that this “inscription” was discovered by Eli Shukron in 2010 “in a compound of the Temple near the Gihon Spring.” Galil states further: “In these excavations, a temple and a pillar were also unearthed.” As for this putative “inscription,” Galil states that “the inscription was written on a rectangular stone tablet 26.7 cm wide and 20.8 cm long.” He states further that “the edges of the stone have only been partially preserved, but the inscription has been found in its entirety, and its preservation is excellent.”

In terms of date, Galil states that “the stone slab, which dates to the end of the Middle Bronze Age IIB or to the Late Bronze Age, is deliberately perforated, with about ten holes arranged in a round outline that resembles the shape of a head.” Galil goes on to state that the “inscription” “consists of 20 words, and 63 letters” and he states that the script is the “ancient Proto-Canaanite script.”

Here is Galil’s transliteration of the text which he believes he can read on this stone: “ARWR, ARWR, MT TMT; ARWR, ARWR, MT TMT; SR H’R, MT TMT; ARWR, MT TMT; ARWR, MT TMT; ARWR, MT TMT.”

Here is Galil’s English translation of it: Cursed, Cursed, you will surely die; Cursed, Cursed, you will surely die; Governor of the City, you will surely die; Cursed, you will surely die; Cursed, you will surely die; Cursed, you will surely die.”

Background:

Before turning to detailed citation of Galil’s interpretation of this “inscription” and his understanding of its significance, I would wish to state the following: Although it is perhaps possible that there is some sort of “inscription” here, these readings and translation of Galil’s are not at all convincing. Furthermore, it is worth emphasizing that Early Alphabetic inscriptions (nota bene: I generally prefer the term Early Alphabetic to the term Proto-Canaanite) are notoriously difficult to read. Part of the reason for this is that the alphabetic script was not really standardized during this period, and so the morphology, stance, and rotation (etc) of alphabetic writing exhibited fairly dramatic variation (i.e., prior to the standardization of the alphabet, as attested, for example, in the Early Royal Byblian Phoenician inscriptions). In addition, the direction of writing was not fixed in Early Alphabetic Writing and so Early Alphabetic inscriptions could be written, and were written, in various directions, namely, dextrograde (left to right), sinistrograde (right to left), boustrophedon (literally: “as the ox plows,” that is, with one line written dextrograde and the line after that sinistrograde, and then the next line dextrograde, and so on), and columnar (i.e., vertically). In addition, spacing between letters was not all that consistent in Early Alphabetic. And these are just some of the problematic features of Early Alphabetic. In any case, the convergence of these sorts of factors results in enormous difficulties in positing readings that are accurate or translations that are entirely compelling. In short, caution must be the modus operandi. Sensationalism is especially problematic, and sensational interpretations just do not stand the test of time.

Citation of Gershon Galil’s Dramatic Statements regarding this “inscription.”

Galil states that “This is the earliest and most important inscription discovered to date in Jerusalem.” I suspect that some might contest Galil’s dating of this “inscription” (including me), and I suspect that the same is true regarding Galil’s statement regarding the premiere importance of this “inscription.” As for me, I consider the Amarna Letters from Jerusalem to be among the most important, for a number of reasons. Significance, though, is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.  If this were Galil’s most sensational assertion about this “inscription,” I would probably not be terribly troubled. After all, he would not be the first scholar to exaggerate the importance of some archaeological find. But Galil’s assertion about this putative inscription’s importance pales in comparison with some of the rest of his claims. Let’s move along to some of these.

According to Galil’s own readings and translations, there are no economic terms in this “inscription,” not a single one. And there is no reference to a temple. Nor to a palace. Nor to a king. Nor to a priest. And there are no references to levies. And there are no references to temple grants. Nevertheless, Galil speculates that the operative context for this “inscription” was “perhaps about economic or personal issues such as levies, temple grants, etc.” And he speculates further that there was perhaps a conflict between the governor of the city (a term he reads in this “inscription”) “and other priests or officials of the king of Jerusalem.” Alas, when my undergrad students attempt to do such things in a class, I remind them that this is eisegesis, that is, reading something into a text which is actually not present in the text.

But Galil goes still further than eisegesis. According to Galil, “the new inscription proves that Jerusalem was not only a fortified city, but also a very important cultural and cultic center.” I too believe that Jerusalem was an important urban center at this time, and I believe that Jerusalem was fortified during the 2nd millennium BCE (the period from which this “inscription” putatively hails). However, according to Galil’s own readings, this “inscription” does not mention any city or its fortifications! So, yet again, even if someone were to embrace Galil’s readings, the “inscription” cannot carry the freight with which he is saddling it.

Galil goes on and states that it was “excellent scribes and sophisticated magicians [who] managed to write this important monumental inscription, as well as hold voodoo ceremonies” (ceremonies which Galil posits because of some perforations in the stone and his speculations about it). Of course, if this is to be considered an inscription, someone obviously wrote it (i.e., a scribe of some sort). But to assume that we must have had “sophisticated magicians” and “voodoo ceremonies” of some sort does not follow from the inscribed content which Galil considers to be present.  And to compare this “inscription” with the Egyptian Execration Texts (Berlin or Brussels group) is hardly apt, for all sorts of reasons (including the very precise content of the Execration Texts, something not at all present in anything approximating the same fashion here in this Jerusalem Stone “inscription,” even according to Galil’s readings).

Then Galil states the following “Being the earliest known inscription of this sort in Canaan, it must have served as a model for other writers and priests in later periods and in different places in the land.” This is quite a statement as well. And it is pure speculation that it could have been some sort of a model for later periods.

It is also worth emphasizing that Galil posits the presence of internal matres lectionis in this “inscription.” Within the field of Northwest Semitic languages, the use of consonants as vowel letters is an attested phenomenon, and consonants used in this fashion are referred to as matres lectionis (I discuss this phenomenon at some depth, with reference to additional secondary literature in my article entitled “Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 344 [2006]: 47-74, with one section devoted to the subject of final matres lectionis and internal matres lectionis). In any case, suffice it to say that matres lectionis are not attested in Iron Age Phoenician. And internal matres lectionis are not attested in Hebrew or Aramaic until much later (e.g., in Old Hebrew, they first begin to be used in the late 8th century BCE, as attested in the Royal Steward Inscription from Jerusalem). Galil refers to Ugaritic as a parallel, but this is not correct. Ugaritic never uses a consonant as a vowel letter (i.e., no matres lectionis are used). Rather, in Ugaritic we have three different forms of the letter aleph, and these three letters can represent an “aleph plus vowel combination” (See Stanislav Segert, A Basic Grammar of Ugaritic, p. 22 [section 21.4]), but this is entirely different from the phenomenon known as matres lectionis. And the fact that Galil believes there are some seven examples of a vav mater lectionis in this “inscription”….well, this erroneous assumption entirely erodes any confidence in his readings and translation.

Galil also understands there to be a definite article in this inscription (i.e., h). It’s perhaps also important for me to mention that I also find the reading of the definite article in this “inscription” to be problematic (note that the article is not present in Ugarit). Moreover, Randall Garr, in his authoritative work on dialectical features of the Northwest Semitic languages (e.g., Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, Moabite, Ammonite) has noted that “the definite article is a morphological innovation which appeared during the early first millennium BCE” (Garr, Dialect Geography of Syria-Palestine: 1000-586 B.C.E., p. 89). I agree. Thus, I find it very difficult to believe that the definite article is present in this “inscription,” and I also find Galil’s drawing of the putative article to be terribly schematic and quite distant from the photo.

“Same Song Second Verse, a little bit louder, a little bit worse.”

I’m also struck by something else. Namely, not so very long ago, namely, on March 24, 2022 at Lanier Theological Library (in Houston, Texas), Scott Stripling (Provost of The Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas; and the Director of Excavations for the Associates for Biblical Research at Khirbet el-Maqatir and Shiloh, Israel), along with Pieter van der Veen (Johannes Gutenberg-University, Mainz), and Gershon Galil (University of Haifa) held a press conference to announce the discovery and putative decipherment of a 2 cm x 2 cm folded lead inscription. According to Stripling, Galil, and van der Veen, the forty letters on the inside of this folded lead object are not discernible via the naked eye. However, via imaging that was conducted in Prague at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, they (i.e., Galil and van der Veen) believe that forty letters can be seen, that these letters can be read, and the words that result can be deciphered. Here is their translation: “Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God Yhw [Yahweh], You will die cursed. Cursed you will surely die. Cursed by Yhw – cursed, cursed, cursed.”

And at that March press conference, there were some very sensational claims as well.  For example, on the basis of their reading of that inscription, Stripling stated that: “One can no longer argue with a straight face that the Biblical text was not written until the Persian Period or the Hellenistic Period, as many higher critics have done when we clearly do have the ability to write the entire text [of the Bible] at a much, much earlier date.” Galil makes the same basic statement: “No one can claim the Bible was written in later periods, the Persian Period or the Hellenistic Period.”  Similarly, Galil stated: “the person who wrote this was a genius, not only a scribe, but a theologian!” Stripling also stated that “our friends from the other side of the academic aisle have disparagingly spoken of us [that is, those] who believe that the Bible was written at an early date as this, because that was not [supposed to be] possible because there was no alphabetic script with which to write it. Clearly this [inscription] flies in the face of that.” Galil goes on to state that “the scribe who wrote this important text….believe me…he could write every chapter in the Bible.” Galil also goes on and states that this “is the most important inscription ever found in Israel.” These are some pretty sensational claims from Galil and Stripling! And it’s probably also worth observing that just a few months ago, Galil referred to some other inscription as the most important!

Moreover, as I mentioned back on March 26th, in a fairly detailed assessment of the sensational claims made then about that “inscription”, even if we assume everything that Stripling, Galil, and van der Veen state about the readings and translation is correct (and that’s a big assumption), they have told us that there are 40 letters, 30 of which are the word “accursed” (i.e., the trilateral root ‘rr).  And the remaining 10 letters are used to write “God,” “die,” and “Yhw.” If we do have those four words or roots: namely, “curse,” “God,” “die” and “Yahweh,” I’m happy to say that somebody back then and there could write, and hopefully somebody else back then and there could read that text. But to say that based on those four words or roots that somebody could write the whole Bible….well, that’s a bridge (way) too far for me. After all, there are 8500+ words in the Hebrew Bible (counting verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, particles, common nouns, proper nouns), and four is a pretty small fraction of the whole, therefore!

Some Conclusions about the Totality of these Claims

Ultimately, I’m particularly struck by the fact that in both cases (the Mount Ebal Lead “inscription” and this Jerusalem Stone “inscription”) we have (according to Galil) such similar content, namely, content revolving around the repetition of the same two roots: “curse” and “death,” and not much else at all in terms of other words! And we have one scholar connected with the readings of both: Prof. Gershon Galil. And there are some very sensational claims regarding both. And with regard to both of these putative “inscriptions,” the data on the ground just don’t support the high flying claims. In due time, scholars will have full access to these archaeological objects and sober, reasonable interpretations will come forth. But these sensational claims just don’t work, not for the Mount Ebal Lead Inscription and not for this putative Jerusalem “Stone Inscription.”

Prof. Christopher Rollston (Rollston@gwu.edu), George Washington University (Washington, DC), Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

About the Author
Professor Christopher Rollston is Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at George Washington University (Washington, DC). He holds an MA and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He publishes widely in the fields of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, especially the field of ancient inscriptions (in Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, Greek, Akkadian). He has held two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships (one in Israel and one in Jordan). For six years, he served as the co-editor of the Bulletin of the American Society of Overseas Research, and for twenty years, he served as the editor of MAARAV, a journal of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures.
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