Research on ancient writing linked with modern Mideast conflict

CHICAGO – Professorial colleagues think Ron Tappy has made a landmark breakthrough in our understanding of the world of the Bible. He himself is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

This week, Tappy will formally unveil his discovery at the meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Normally a presentation titled “The 2005 Excavation Season at Tel Zayit, with Special Attention to the Tenth Century BCE” would hardly be noticed beyond the scholars who will gather at the Hyatt Penn’s Landing hotel in Philadelphia.

This year’s convention, though, has the potential for a media circus. Narrowly, Tappy’s research involves the history of writing. He apparently has found a missing link in the evolution of the alphabet.

Because he found it in the Holy Land, his lecture will raise tempers. Archaeologists generally are gentle folk. But biblical studies imperceptibly shade over from scholarly pursuits to modern-day passions inflamed by contemporary struggles of Israelis and Palestinians. One camp, “the maximalists” implies the other harbors anti-Semites. The “minimalists,” in turn, charge their accusers with confusing Zionism with scholarship.

“In the Middle East, you can start a mini war over who got there first,” said William G. Dever, professor emeritus of the University of Arizona and a fierce opponent of the minimalists. “This isn’t about ancient Israel. It’s about modern Israel and the Palestinians.”

Philip Davies, professor emeritus at the University of Sheffield in England, is generally considered the founding father of the minimalists – most of whom are European-based. He is coming to the Philadelphia meetings prepared for battle with his American colleagues.

“When I fly the Atlantic, I feel like a gladiator,” Davies said. “Tappy’s research is going to be a football, kicked around from one side to the other.”

Over the summer, Tappy was excavating at Tel Zayit, an archaeological site southwest of Jerusalem, with his scholarly partners, P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University, Bruce Zuckerman of the University of Southern California and Marilyn Lundberg of the West Semitic Research Project. He noticed a stone inscribed with letters on an ancient wall. They didn’t form words but were arraigned in alphabetical order. He realized they connected the biblical age with the contemporary world.

“A word printed in a book today is linked to the scribes who worked on that stone,” said Tappy, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Scholars have long recognized that alphabetical writing was a one-time invention. It was created by the Phoenicians, who lived in what now is Lebanon. The Greeks borrowed it from them. The Romans picked it up from the Greeks, and the Latin alphabet became the writing vehicle of the European peoples and their overseas colonies from the New World to Australia. To the East, the Phoenicians’ invention became the basis for writing Arabic and languages of India and Southeast Asia.

But until now, scholars couldn’t see the process by which the Phoenicians’ breakthrough was adopted by other ancient peoples. Tappy’s stone seems to supply the missing evidence: Phoenician letters used to represent an early form of the Hebrew language. Tappy dates the site to the 10th century B.C.

And there’s the scholarly – and the political – rub. By the Old Testament account, the 10th century was an era of the great kings David and Solomon, who built a mighty temple in Jerusalem. To Israeli nationalists, that version of the story gives their cause title to the Holy Land.

But minimalist scholars think the biblical account inflated; they argue that, in the 10th century, the Hebrews were wandering tribes, not nation or temple builders.

That account suits Palestinian nationalists just fine, because they claim Jerusalem as theirs.

“The minimalists argue that the ancient Hebrews didn’t know how to write, so they couldn’t have had a real state, a kingdom,” noted Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archeology Review. “But Tappy’s discovery shows they were already writing in an outlying settlement. Imagine what you must have had in Jerusalem.”

Tappy – who considers himself a mild maximalist – is bemused by the battles swirling around him. He still is on a scholarly high from his initial reaction to that alphabet on a wall at Tel Zayit.

“What a giant leap forward for humans, I thought,” he said. “I was speechless. I realized the irony: Here were all the letters of the alphabet, and I couldn’t put two or three together to make a single word.”

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