Ophel inscription

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The Ophel inscription 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 is the earliest alphabetical inscription found in Jerusalem.[1] Eilat Mazar has dated the pottery to the 10th century BC. The interpretation of the fragment is controversial, with readings veering from sensationalist claims to minimalist scepticism.[2]

Language of the inscription[edit]

The fragment comes from a pithos, a large neckless ceramic jar,[3] discovered together with pieces of 6 other large jars which had been employed to reinforce the earth under the second floor of a building which the archaeologists excavating the site identify as contemporary with the biblical period of David and Solomon, in the 10th century BCE.[1] 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.[4]

Experts identified the writing as an example of linear alphabet Northwest Semitic letters, Ahituv identifying it specifically as a variety of Proto-or early-Canaanite script predating the period of Israeltic rule,[4] and the earliest indisputably Hebrew inscription found in Jerusalem by some 250 years.[3] Ahituv transliterated the text to read, from left to right:

M, Q, P, H, N, (possibly) L, N.


Thus interpreted, the combination yields up no meaning within has any known West Semitic language. The archaeologists surmised that, since it was not in Hebrew, the text perhaps might refer to the name of a Jebusite, the population inhabiting Jerusalem before the kingdom of David was established.[4]

Christopher Rollston has confirmed Ahituv's reading, in the face of some scholars who argue that the script was Phoenician, the mother script of both Old Hebrew and Aramaic. Rollston notes that the direction of writing in Northwest Semitic, and Phoenician at this period was stabilized as sinistrograde (right to left), whereas the incised text is typical of Early Aphabetic, i.e., dextrograde (left to right) script. Rollston would date the text to the 11th century, somewhat earlier than Ahituv's 11th-10th century.[4]

Rollston's transcription,

M, Q, L, H, N, (possibly) R, N.

yields a significant lexeme, or semitic root, namely qop, lamed, het, meaning 'pot', 'cauldron'. He also hazards the conjecture 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 example in the biblical Abner ben Ner, the commander of Saul's army.[4]

Gershon Galil, to the contrary, takes the view that the text must be dated to the second half of the 10th century BCE, that it is probably Hebrew, and must be read as 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.[6]


(b) […]m [yy]n hlq m[…].

yielding the meaning:'Spoiled Wine from…'.[7][8] Galil's preferred reading sees the final 'm' as a reference to a reign-year, "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 conscript labouring class.[9]

See also[edit]