The Ophel pithos is a 3,000-year-old inscription on a fragment of a ceramic jar found near Jerusalem's Temple Mount (see Ophel) by archeologist Eilat Mazar. It was found in 2012 during excavations and the find was announced in summer 2013. It is the earliest alphabetical inscription found in Jerusalem. Eilat Mazar has dated the potsherds on which the inscription was written to the 10th century BCE. The interpretation of the fragment is controversial, with readings varying from sensationalist claims to minimalist scepticism.
Language of the inscription
The fragment comes from a pithos, a large neckless ceramic jar, discovered in a ceramic assemblage together with 6 other large storage jars that together comprised a fill that was employed to reinforce the earth under the second floor of a building, which the archaeologists excavating the site identified as contemporary with the biblical period of David and Solomon, and dated to the 10th century BCE. According to Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University, the inscription wound about the jar's shoulder, yielding the end of the inscription and one letter of its beginning.
Experts identified the writing as an example of linear alphabetic Northwest Semitic letters, Ahituv identifying it specifically as a variety of Proto-Canaanite or early Canaanite script predating the period of Israelite rule, and the earliest indisputably Hebrew inscription found in Jerusalem by some 250 years. Ahituv transliterated the text to read, from left to right:
M, Q, P, H, N, (possibly) L, N.
Thus transliterated, this combination yields no comprehensible meaning within any known West Semitic language. The archaeologists surmised that, since it was not written in Hebrew, the text might refer to the name of a Jebusite, the population inhabiting Jerusalem before the kingdom of David was established.
Christopher Rollston agreed with Ahituv's reading, in the face of some scholars who argue that the script was Phoenician, which some consider to be the mother tongue of both Old Hebrew and Aramaic. Rollston notes that in this period, the direction of writing in Northwest Semitic and Phoenician was standardized as sinistrograde (right to left), whereas the incised text is typical of Early Alphabetic, i.e., dextrograde (left to right) script. Rollston would date the text to the 11th century, which is on the early end of Ahituv's 11th–10th-century dating.
M, Q, L, H, N, (possibly) R, N,
yields a significant lexeme, or Semitic root, namely qop, lamed, het, meaning 'pot, cauldron'. He also conjectures that the succeeding nun might be followed not by L, but R, resh, suggesting a name attested in the Tanakh, namely Ner, as evidence for biblical Abner ben Ner, the commander of Saul's army.
Gershon Galil, to the contrary, takes the view that the text is Hebrew and should be dated to the second half of the 10th century BCE, considering that it reads sinistrograde, from right to left, and reportedly provides two alternative readings:
(a) [nt]n [tt]n ḥlqm
which would yield the meaning, [Your poor brothers – You sh]all [gi]ve them their share.
(b) […]m [yy]n hlq m[…],
yielding the meaning 'spoiled wine from…'. Galil's preferred reading (b) takes the initial m as the final letter in a regnal year formula, esrim (twenty) or shloshim (thirty); the double yod in yayin 'wine' as a clue to its southern Hebrew character, while halak would be a definition, typical of Ugarit's oenological classification, referring to the lowest quality wine. The implication would be that the jar contained poor wine used for the king's conscripted labouring class.
Douglas Petrovich agrees with Galil that the inscription is Hebrew, should be read sinistrograde, and that the remnant strokes only can be restored to yod-yod, as no other restoration is plausible. The main difference in his view is that he reads the initial visible letter (from the right) as a nun, rather than a mem. He also agrees that the inscription was written as a year-date/labeling formula for a commercial product (wine, in this case), as exemplified by the jar-handle inscriptions from Gibeon of the 7th century BCE, though he considers that the inscription likely reads, '[In the firs]t (regnal) year: pseudo-[win]e from [the garden of ??]'. He suggests that the pithos was created during Solomon's Year 1 since David did not control Jerusalem in his Year 1, and the reign of Rehoboam is probably too late for the archaeological context of the pottery assemblage.
A methodologically different approach was chosen by Lehmann & Zernecke from the Research Unit on ancient Hebrew & Epigraphy of Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. To avoid any presupposition and because the sherd has no decisive diagnostic lexeme that could give a hint about the language it is written in, Lehmann & Zernecke decided to analyse the script only with regard to the writing process itself and to reconstruct the broken letters on a strictly comparative palaeographic base alone. They suggest a reading either M-Q-P-Ḥ-N-M-Ṣ-N or N-Ṣ-M-N-Ḥ-P-Q-M, depending on the writing direction. This can not be set without a decisive clue about the language, which in Jerusalem at that time would not be restricted to only Hebrew.
- Ophel ostracon
- Archaeology of Israel
- Biblical archaeology (excavations and artifacts)
- Chronology of the Bible
- Cities of the Ancient Near East
- Alan Boyle, Inscription dates back to King David – but what does it say?, NBC News July 10, 2013
- Adam Hemmings, The Ophel Inscription Debate, Huffington Post, 10 March 2014.
- Nir Hasson, Israeli archaeologists dig up artifact from time of Kings David and Solomon, at Haaretz, July 15, 2013.
- Christopher Rollston,The Decipherment of the New ‘Incised Jerusalem Pithos’.
- George Athas, Gershon Galil: A Second Alternative Reading of the Ceramic Inscription, With Meagre Power blog, 18 July 2013.
- Gershon Galil: A Reconstruction of the Jerusalem Inscription, at Zwinglius Redivivus, July 17, 2013,
- George Athas, Gershon Galil’s Perspective on the Ceramic Inscription from Jerusalem, With Meagre Powers blog, 12 July 2013.
- Nir Hasson, Inscription on jar from time of King Solomon may refer to cheap wine, at Haaretz, 1 January 2014.
- Petrovich, Douglas. "The Ophel Pithos Inscription: Its Dating, Language, Translation, and Script,". Palestine Exploration Quarterly 147/2 (2015): 141.
- R.G.Lehmann & A.E.Zernecke, Bemerkungen und Beobachtungen zu der neuen Ophel-Pithosinschrift, in: Reinhard G. Lehmann und Anna Elise Zernecke (eds.), Schrift und Sprache. Papers read at the 10th Mainz International Colloquium on Ancient Hebrew (MICAH), Mainz, 28–30 October 2011 (KUSATU 15 / 2013), Waltrop: Spenner 2013, p. 437-450. See also a new drawing.