Thursday, March 16, 2006

Update on the Tel Zayit Abecedary

On March 8, 2006, Dr. Ron Tappy made a further presentation on the Tel Zayit abecedary. Here are some details from the Tel Zayit website which correspond to his talk.
    1. The Tel Zayit finding is an inscription that bears the oldest known securely datable example of an abecedary, that is, the letters of the alphabet written out from beginning to end in their traditional sequence.

    2. The inscribed stone might have been built into the wall because of the ancient belief in the alphabet's magical or apotropaic power, that is, its ability to ward off evil.

    3. The stone bearing the Tel Zayit Inscription comprised part of a wall belonging to a structure that dates to the late tenth century BCE.

    4. Preliminary results suggest that in the tenth century BCE Tel Zayit was associated with the highland culture of southern Canaan, not the coastal culture of the Philistine plain, and therefore it very well may have functioned as part of the new state being formed by Kings David and Solomon, with its capital at Jerusalem.

    5.. The early appearance of literacy at Tel Zayit will play a pivotal role in the current discussion of the archaeology and history of Israel and Judah in the tenth century BCE.

    6..It raises the possibility that formal scribal training at the outlying site of Tel Zayit was a result of a rapidly developing Israelite bureaucracy in Jerusalem.
Some find that there is a series of abstract leaps here from one thing to another. I find that the extension from the original inscription on stone to a bureacracy is somewhat bold. Maybe they both existed, but the connection seems tenuous.

Here are four statements from the Wikipedia entry.
    1. It was found in-situ in a stratum dated to the 10th century BCE by a fire dated to approximately 900 BCE.

    2. Until this discovery, critics could say inhabitants of this region at this period were illiterate and could not have recorded events mentioned in the Bible.

    3. It not only preserves writing--simple graffiti--but an abecedary, an educational tool for literate people (although there are 4 pairs of letters swapped from their traditional alphabetic order, and possibly 2 other misplaced letters were aborted; indications that reflect negatively on the scribe's skill level).

    4. The site is located in a region not central to the government of the Israelite monarchy (Jerusalem), which suggests that if people in this agricultural community could write, certainly people in the government were equally capable.
However, Paul Iverson, of Case Western Reserve University recently sent an e-mail regarding Dr. Tappy's March 8th presentation at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Iverson has a particular interest in Greek epigraphy and philology. He sent this email to Chris Heard on Higgaion.

Iverson states,

    His arguments that this inscription is an abecedarium that provides evidence for an alternate official order (I can't understand the claim on the website of a "traditional sequence" since it clearly isn't the traditional order as Tappy pointed out several times) of the letters is also rather rash.

    I would offer two other more likely explanations: either it was a novice who was practicing and thus made mistakes (quite common on Greek examples), or it was someone who was more concerned with practicing the shapes of the letters rather than the order (i.e., it's not really meant to be a abecedarium).

    I incline toward the latter explanation as the letters seemed to be of high quality. Some scribe who's interested in practicing or giving an example of his letter strokes does not worry so much about inscribing them deeply or in their proper order - just give them all and inscribe them deep enough to practice the shapes. Again, on comparative material from the Greek world, one often finds abecedaria with peculiar orders in the letters or shapes, even as late as the fifth century BCE.
And he sums up his arguments as follows,

    To recap: the inscription was probably reused into the wall without some apotropaic [magical]purpose, hence it cannot simply be assumed to date at the time the wall was built -- rather it dates before the wall was built.

    Only a small fraction of the Tell has been excavated, so it cannot yet be claimed with certainty that there was nothing going there in the 11th century and thus that inscription has to be during the 10th century.

    It was found in a context where there was both coastal and highland culture so as of yet, so far as I could tell, it cannot fairly be claimed to incline toward the highland (i.e., it cannot be said to be the earliest example of a Hebrew alphabet).

    It cannot even be said that this was meant to be an abecedarium in the sense that it was used to display the official order of the letters of the alphabet, since we do not know the purpose of it.
There is a post on Abnormal Interests on the order of the inscription, and Dr. Joe Cathey comments here. An ealrier post on Higgaion makes some excellent points.

I would like to add my own little comment. I worked for several years on a study of literacy among the James Bay Cree. There are many conflicting and contradictory theories on the origins of this literate tradition, and I think some of them could possibly be cleared up in my lifetime. But that story starts in the 1800's .

Note: Image from the NY Times.

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