Using well-established principles of form-criticism, as well as the findings of Biblical archaeology and other methods of modern Biblical scholarship, I have discovered that the Superman stories—commonly thought to be of purely American origin—are in fact rooted in ancient Hebrew institutions.
The well-known folk tale centers on a hero figure commonly called “Superman.” The Superman cycle is made up of four distinct strata (commonly denominated P, E, J and D), the most recent of which, D, is comprised of three identifiable genres literaires: (1) the comic book, (2) the radio, and (3) the television versions.
The term “Superman” reflects a strong Jewish influence, though of a relatively recent date. This can be seen most clearly in the suffix –man, a suffix common to many contemporary Jewish names (e.g. Silverman, Freedman, etc.). This suffix was probably added by a late redactor. With this observation, however, we are admittedly a long way from proving that the origins of this saga can be traced to ancient Israel.
The simplified form “Super” also shows traces of later modification, for, if one considers the triliteral root of the word,aspr, it is obvious that this root is related to the Hebrew root SPR which, I submit, was originally vocalized SOPHER. One may ask how this changed vocalization came to be and how the first vowel was changed from a defective holem (pronounced “oh”) to a shureq (pronounced “oo”).b The answer becomes apparent if one thinks back to the time when matres lectionis (or rudimentary vowels) were in common use (as, for example, in the Dead Sea Scrolls).c In those times, the word would have been written SOPHER. A later editor, (not 025surprisingly), perhaps from the time of the Masoretes, must have mistaken the holem for a shureq, with the subsequent change of the vocalization from “sopher” to “supher.” The tradition was perpetuated and we now have the modern word “super.”
SOPHER (the origin of Super) means “scribe.” The scribes of ancient Israel who bore this title were among the most highly educated people of their time. They were versed in what the illiterate masses must have regarded as an almost magical skill. For administrative, legal and tax purposes, writing had become vital in royal circles, and the scribe’s position was naturally one of great power and influence.
Comparing the scribe with the modern hero of the Superman tale, we find the same characteristics are reflected in remarkable detail, although in the modern tale these characteristics are greatly exaggerated, as we would expect in folklore: power to the point of super strength; invulnerability (“more powerful than a locomotive”); influence to the point of world fame; skills to the point of being able to fly (“faster then a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound”); wisdom to the point of X-ray vision.
One might ask, what of the function of the ancient scribe—what has the art of writing to do with the image of the modern Superman? One has only to recall that Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, was in daily life a mild-mannered reporter—modern scribe—for the Daily Planet, the largest and most influential newspaper in the great city of Metropolis.
At Israelite Megiddo archaeologists have found a six-chambered Solomonic gate. Most scholars believe that the chambers of this gate functioned as guardrooms, town meeting places, or as places where legal judgments were rendered. However, in my view (following a suggestion of Lawrence A. Mitchel) these chambers were in fact telephone booths. Some may of course ask why, if these were telephone booths, no telephones have been found at Megiddo. The answer becomes clear when one considers that Megiddo was destroyed by the Assyrians who had no telephones. The Israelite telephones of Megiddo were no doubt carried off as booty after the Assyrian conquest and sack of Megiddo by Tiglath Pileser III in 734/33 B.C.
These phone booths at Megiddo have left their trace, as we shall see, in the Superman cycle. Moreover, the Superman cycle will help us to resolve a debate concerning the excavations at Megiddo that has been consuming archaeologists for years, namely, whether certain long rooms at Megiddo which the excavators identified as royal stables are actually stables or simply storerooms. (See “Megiddo Stables or Storehouses?”BAR 02:03, by Yigael Yadin, James B. Pritchard et al.)
To understand how the Superman cycle can resolve this question, we must first clarify the various stories which make up the modern Superman cycle. The original source of the Superman cycle is denominated “P” for “Primary.” A second stratum was added to P by an editor of the 7th to 9th centuries A.D. (abbreviated “E” for “Editor”). Still later, certain Jewish elements (abbreviated “J” for “Jewish”) were also added; then, final polishing was done for comic books, radio and television, influences which are 026abbreviated “D” for the technical German term dreifach, meaning “threefold” and indicating the three literary genres (comic books, radio, and television) of which the modern D stratum is comprised.
In examining the various recensions of the latest stratum, we find a difference in one very significant respect between the recension traced to the early comic books and radio on the one hand, and the recension traced to television on the other. In the earlier recensions of the comic books and radio, when Superman hears of some diabolical plot about to be perpetrated by a scheming villain, he ducks into the nearest phone booth (compare the Megiddo chambers), stripping off his outer garments to reveal a predominantly blue, yellow and red caped outfit, bearing upon its breast in red the letter “S,” and off he goes.
In the later television recension, however, when Superman hears of foul play, he rushes down the hallways of the Daily Planet office building, loosening his tie and removing his glasses as he ducks into, not a phone booth, but a room marked “storeroom,” after which he is seen leaping from the window, to fly off and save the day.
If the comic book and radio recension, in which Superman ducks into a phone booth, is related to the phone booths at Megiddo, the later television recension may also be traced to Megiddo. If so, we have indisputable proof that the Megiddo “stables” are not stables at all, but are indeed storerooms—the same storerooms into which Superman ducks in the television recension!
From these considerations, we conclude that the Superman Saga originated among the ancient Hebrews at Megiddo in the late 10th–early 11th century B.C.
Had the excavators of Megiddo been more careful in the excavation of the phone booths and the storerooms, it is quite likely that in one of these two places, they would have discovered the deteriorated remains of a predominantly blue, yellow and red outfit, bearing upon its breast a red samekh on yellow background, the Hebrew equivalent of the letter “S”!
Using well-established principles of form-criticism, as well as the findings of Biblical archaeology and other methods of modern Biblical scholarship, I have discovered that the Superman stories—commonly thought to be of purely American origin—are in fact rooted in ancient Hebrew institutions. The well-known folk tale centers on a hero figure commonly called “Superman.” The Superman cycle is made up of four distinct strata (commonly denominated P, E, J and D), the most recent of which, D, is comprised of three identifiable genres literaires: (1) the comic book, (2) the radio, and (3) the television versions. The term “Superman” reflects […]
You have already read your free article for this month. Please join the BAS Library or become an All Access member of BAS to gain full access to this article and so much more.
Almost all Hebrew words have a root consisting of three consonants.
Holem and shureq are the Hebrew names of vowels pronounced “oh” and “oo” respectively.
In the earliest Hebrew inscriptions from the 10th century B.C. no vowels were indicated. Thus the words melek (king), molek (ruling), malak (he ruled), malkah (queen), malaku (they ruled), etc. would all be written simply as mlk. From the ninth to the sixth centuries B.C. (i.e. before the Babylonian Exile which followed the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.), the consonants y, w and h were used at the end of a word to indicate final vowels:
y=i (malki, my king) w=u (malaku, they ruled) h= any other final vowel (malkah, queen).
In the post-Exilic period, w and y were used as vowel indicators also inside a word, with slightly different values, although the letter h continued to be used only at the end of a word to represent certain final vowels. The three letters, y, w and h, when used as vowel indicators, are called matres lectionis (literally in Latin, “mothers of reading”) in traditional Hebrew grammatical terminology.
During the ninth and tenth centuries A.D. in the city of Tiberius, Jewish scholars, called Masoretes or traditionalists, perfected a system of vowel notation which was added to the earlier crude system of matres lectionis in order to indicate proper vocalization. Using the Masoretic symbols (mainly dots in various numbers and positions next to consonants) a large number of new combinations were created, among them holem (pronounced “oh”) and Shureq (pronounced “oo”).
In later use the matres lectionis were sometimes dropped from the inside of words where they had been used in combination with the Masoretic vowel indicators. This shorter spelling of words is called “defective.”