The famous Siloam Inscription, originally carved into the wall of Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Jerusalem to commemorate the tunnel’s completion, does not date to the late eighth century B.C.E., as universally accepted until now, but rather to a half millennium later, “strongly suggest” two English scholars in the cover story of the September 1996 issue of Biblical Archaeologist, the semipopular journal of the American Schools of Oriental Research.
If authors John Rogerson and Philip Davies of the University of Sheffield are right, the keystone has fallen from the carefully constructed structure of First Temple epigraphy—and with it such other inscriptions as the inscribed ivory pomegranate supposedly from the Solomonic Templea and the well-known Mesha stela, also known as the Moabite Stone.b “[P]aleographic use of the Siloam Inscription for dating other inscriptions should be abandoned,” our authors unequivocally advise.1 Moreover, if the Siloam Inscription dates to the Hasmonean period, the tunnel itself wasn’t built by the Judahite king Hezekiah, as commonly accepted.
On the surface, it would seem to be a simple matter to distinguish the script of a late-eighth-century Hebrew text from that of a Hebrew text dating to the Hasmonean period (152–37 B.C.E.). Before the Babylonian Exile, beginning in 586 B.C.E., Israelites used what scholars call Old Hebrew script, sometimes also called paleo-Hebrew.c When they returned from exile, they brought with them the square Aramaic script that is still used today.
The catch is that the Old Hebrew script was not entirely forgotten. During periods of great national pride—when an independent Jewish state was reestablished in the Hasmonean period, and during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, sometimes called the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.)—the old script was 043sometimes used, and it continued to evolve. We know it especially from coins, but it is also used on some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In non-Biblical scrolls, the name of God (Yahweh) is sometimes written in the older Hebrew script. Among the scrolls are even several fragments of Biblical texts and an entire Biblical book (or at least as much as has survived) written in this old script. When this pre-Exilic, or First Temple period, script is used in later periods, it is referred to as archaizing, or paleo-Hebrew, script.
According to Rogerson and Davies, we can’t really know whether a particular inscription, like the Siloam Inscription, was written in pre-Exilic Old Hebrew or in archaizing paleo-Hebrew script of the Hasmonean period. As they state: “[I]t is frequently not possible to prove on paleographic evidence alone whether a text in paleo-Hebrew dates from, say, the eighth-seventh century or is Hasmonean or later” (emphasis in original).
Anyone reading this article would now assume that a major crack has developed in the dating of ancient Semitic inscriptions and that we can no longer be confident of the date of our most important, supposedly pre-Exilic Semitic inscriptions. But that is not the case at all.
Rogerson and Davies’s argument assumes that paleographers (neither Rogerson nor Davies is known as a paleographer) cannot tell the difference between pre-Exilic Old Hebrew and post-Exilic archaizing paleo-Hebrew. But they are wrong—very wrong. The science of paleography—the dating of scripts by the shape, form, stance, stroke order, and direction, as well as by other telltale diagnostic indications—can now date these scripts within a century and sometimes even closer. Contrary to Rogerson and Davies, paleographers can distinguish between pre-Exilic Old Hebrew and post-Exilic paleo-Hebrew. Rogerson and Davies admit, in fact, that the Siloam Inscription’s waw, yod, kap and qop do not fit well into a second-century B.C.E. script chart, and this should have been enough to tip them off to the problem with their argument. They include in their article a chart from 1897 that compares the Siloam script with Hasmonean and Herodian scripts, but the chart is misleading in that it draws many more similarities between the Siloam script and paleo-Hebrew scripts than are obvious from an examination of the materials themselves. More recent and better-drawn charts show the clear differences.
Rogerson and Davies’s special pleading in their last paragraph makes clear that they are not on familiar turf: “We 044also anticipate that paleographers will resist our attack on the authority that their science tends to enjoy.” Perhaps a good offense is the best defense, but paleographers will point out that Rogerson and Davies are attacking the conclusions of some of the same scholars whose dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, has been confirmed by other scientists using carbon 14 analysis.d Paleography, when done well and in proper detail, can be devastatingly accurate.
There is another profound weakness in Rogerson and Davies’s position: orthography, the science of spelling. Spelling, too, changes over time. As rudimentary Semitic vowels (h, y and w as vowels) developed, they were used more widely. Thus, spelling often provides clear evidence of the date of an inscription. Here’s the way we would expect several words in the Siloam Inscription to look if it had been written in the second century B.C.E., as Rogerson and Davies contend:
In lines 2 (twice) and 4 of the Siloam Inscription, va (õsá ‘man’) would have been spelled vya (õysá) in the second century B.C.E.
In line 2 of the Siloam Inscription, vlv (sálsá ‘three’) would have been spelled vwlv (sálwsá) in the second century B.C.E.
The next word in line 2, tma (’mt, ‘cubits’), would have been spelled twma (’mwt) in the second century B.C.E.
The last word in the inscription, mbxjh (hhsbm ‘the hewers’), would have been spelled with two extra letters, mybxwjh (hhwsbym), in the second century B.C.E.
And so on.
There is, of course, an entire bibliography dealing with the spelling of pre-Exilic and post-Exilic Hebrew. Rogerson and Davies seem unaware of all this. How else to account for such an amateurish analysis? Unfortunately, because it has appeared in such a prestigious magazine, it may well mislead many, many unsuspecting readers.
The one orthographic item Rogerson and Davies deal with is the use of w to signal the third person masculine singular possessive suffix (‘his’). In other pre-Exilic inscriptions, this suffix, pronounced “o” or “uh,” is written with a final h to signal that the suffix is there. Unfortunately, even here Rogerson and Davies’s lack of familiarity with linguistic processes has led them astray. They have chosen a word ([rr‘, ‘neighbor’, ‘friend’, ‘fellow’, ‘[the] other’) that is notoriously difficult to explain and used it to make claims about the more regular words in the inscription.
[r, r‘, is the only word in the Siloam Inscription that surely contains the suffix ‘his’ (in lines 2, 3 and 4), and this word is a bit odd, even in Biblical Hebrew. With one exception in the Biblical text, ‘his friend’ is always expressed wh[r (reµôeµhu) not w[r (reµôoÆ) as one might expect. Biblical Hebrew was starting with a form like *ri‘ayuhu, which very early became *riôeµeµhu, whereas most Hebrew nouns plus ‘his’ (the third person masculine suffix) started out with *-uhu for the suffix. In its many occurrences in the Bible, then, this particular noun plus ‘his’ looks different from most nouns plus ‘his’. So it shouldn’t be such a surprise that the same thing happens in pre-Exilic Judahite Hebrew, like that of the Siloam Inscription: r‘ plus ‘his’ looks different from other nouns plus ‘his’. It was the early shape of the word that caused the suffix to look like *-eµhu rather than the expected *-uhu. And the expected resulting form of this *-eµhu suffix in Judahite Hebrew, where h is lost between vowels, would be –eµw, hence the unusual w to signal the ‘his’ suffix. In other words, as odd as it might sound, this w is not the same as the post-Exilic w that Rogerson and Davies want to compare it to. It arises from different processes and is perfectly at home in pre-Exilic Judahite Hebrew. (The w that is used after the Exile for ‘his’ is there because ‘his’ had come to be pronounced “o” at the end of a noun, and w was already in use for “o” in the middle of words. The w simply got transferred and was used at the end of words also.)
The text of the Siloam Inscription is printed in “The Siloam Inscription Ain’t Hasmonean.” A careful examination of this material—the complete lack of internal vowel letters and the script itself, when compared to accurate drawings of the paleo-Hebrew scripts—should enable anyone with a little patience to understand why this cannot be a Hasmonean inscription.
The famous Siloam Inscription, originally carved into the wall of Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Jerusalem to commemorate the tunnel’s completion, does not date to the late eighth century B.C.E., as universally accepted until now, but rather to a half millennium later, “strongly suggest” two English scholars in the cover story of the September 1996 issue of Biblical Archaeologist, the semipopular journal of the American Schools of Oriental Research. If authors John Rogerson and Philip Davies of the University of Sheffield are right, the keystone has fallen from the carefully constructed structure of First Temple epigraphy—and with it such other inscriptions […]
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Following Frank Moore Cross, I reserve the term “paleo-Hebrew” to refer to post-Exilic archaizing script—that is, script written deliberately to resemble pre-Exilic Old Hebrew without being identical to Old Hebrew.