The Moses Controversy: More So-called Patterns of “Evidence”

Here we go again.  Tim Mahoney has produced another Patterns of Evidence film.  This time called The Moses Controversy.

Mahoney’s method of film-making is pretty straight forward.  Gather together an ensemble cast of legitimate scholars, then lionize some fringe loon on the outskirts of the academic radar.  Last time around it was David Rohl.  This time it looks like Mahoney if going to lionize Douglas Petrovich.  Petrovich’s thesis is that the Bronze Age Semitic inscriptions found in the Sinai contain Hebrew as well as the names of three persons in the Bible: Asenath, Ahisamach, and, of course, Moses.

In the months to come, I know that my inbox is going to fill up with inquiries about the quality of Petrovich’s research and this movie.  Since I have not yet seen the movie (it’s not being released until March 2019), I can’t comment on it directly.  I saw the last Patterns of Evidence movie, and it blithely ignored practically everything we know about Egyptian chronology.  If past results are any indication, I don’t have much hope for this film.

Nevertheless, I can comment on the quality of Petrovich’s research.  From the trailer, The Moses Controversy looks like it will be based largely upon the Petrovich’s book The World’s Oldest Alphabet.  Last year, I reviewed that book for The Review of Biblical Literature.   The Review of Biblical Literature is the leading publication for the review of Bible literature and scholarship.  So, instead of commenting directly upon the quality of Petrovich’s scholarship, I am going to reprint my 2018 review below and let the reader decide the quality of Petrovich’s scholarship.


Review of The World’s Oldest Alphabet: Hebrew as the Language of the Proto-consonantal Script

Book by Douglas Petrovich.  Reviewed by David A. Falk.

Published by Carta Jerusalem, 2017.  Pp. xvi + 262.
Hardcover. $84.00. ISBN 9789652208842.

The premise of Douglas Petrovich’s The World’s Oldest Alphabet is that Hebrew is the language that underlies the early alphabetic inscriptions that were found in Egypt, which Petrovich calls proto-consonantal inscriptions (7). While not stated until the end of the book, by showing that Hebrew underlies these early inscriptions Petrovich seeks to prove that the exodus took place in 1446 BCE (195).

Chapter 1 (14 pages) sets out to discuss background matters to the early alphabetic inscriptions. In this section, Petrovich explains how he arrived at the view that “the world’s oldest alphabet, is Hebrew” (10). He starts with the assumption that the exodus occurred as a historical event in 1446 BCE and asserts that Joseph’s son Manasseh was Ḫebedeb, one of the “Hebrews” who wrote the Serâbîṭ el Khadîm inscriptions. He states that “the goal of the present work is to demonstrate that Hebrew is the language behind the original proto-consonantal script, and to translate 16 inscriptions from the Bronze Age that validate this claim as true” (11).

Chapter 2 (61 pages) contains translations of Middle Kingdom texts Sinai 115, 376, and 377, Wadi el-Hôl 1 and 2, and the Lahun Bilingual Ostracon. Chapter 3 (111 pages) has translations of New Kingdom texts Sinai 345a/b, 346a/b, 349, 351, 353, 357, 360, 361, 375a, and 378. This is a surprisingly small data set for a book of this nature. Further, when one considers the amount of cognate material available, perhaps more surprising is that no early alphabetic inscription from the Levant is referenced that might have supported the argument.

Petrovich works through each text with a “background to the inscription,” “paleographic decipherment,” “translation and orthography,” and “potential historical value.” His contribution is to review the epigraphy of previous scholars and supply his own readings.  The bulk of the book involves the thought process of deciphering the alphabetic letters for each inscription. The decipherment of each letter is compared to how other epigraphers have read the letters, often disagreeing with more mainstream scholars.

Despite the small data set used, I found issues in the treatment of most of the texts. Some errors are relatively minor, such as the transcription of the Egyptian text for Sinai 377, which should be ʿnḫ mἰ rʿ ḏt instead of ʿnḫ(w) ḏt (30). Other issues are more serious or undermine the credibility of his thesis, such as his handling of the Hebrew. Several readings deviate from standard Hebrew. Finally, some readings appear forced, resort to eisegetic glosses, or rely upon extended explanations for support.

Given the highly subjective and visual nature of decipherment work, it is difficult to critique an epigraphic process without plunging into a highly detailed critique that focuses on only one example. Instead, I have selected a few of the sixteen  readings to demonstrate some of these issues.

Sinai 376: “The house of the vineyard of Asenath and its innermost room were engraved.  They have come to life” (65). Petrovich says that this “almost certainly was a posthumous reference to Joseph’s wife” (72) without broaching the possibility that this Asenath may not be the same person found in the Bible. He explains that “the house of the vineyard of Asenath figuratively would be brought to life with these engravings” (71), yet he forgets to discuss the inconsistency between his reading and the archaeological context. Egyptian houses were made of mudbrick and decorated by painting, not engraving.

Sinai 346b: “because of the favor of the abundance of the son’s sheep” (96), a reading that proposes perhaps the longest chain of nonconstruct genitives discovered in so-called Hebrew. This grammatical construction would be highly peculiar in ancient Hebrew.

Sinai 357: “A curse of 100-fold has passed through our people. A swooping has befallen us” (145). Petrovich explains “a swooping” as follows: “Just as an eagle swoops down on its prey at enormous velocity … the Hebrews fell victim to an overwhelming force that attacked them without any warning” (152). This explanation does not clarify what is a strange word choice and seems more like ad hoc reasoning.

Deviations from standard Hebrew present an obstacle for a thesis trying to prove Hebrew as the underlying language of these texts. It would have helped the reader if Petrovich had explained—or at least recognized—these idiosyncratic features of early Hebrew and relate them to other known Semitic examples.

Furthermore, the epigraphy is curious. With Sinai 115, Petrovich muddles the Egyptian p with the early orthography of the letter bet to read ἰbr (19). He implies that this orthography equals ʿibrî, “Hebrew” (23). While this might seem esoteric, this epigraphic argument is one of the central pillars of the case presented by this book (191). However, this reading is strange given that the Egyptian is not equivalent to the Hebrew ayin.

Petrovich’s argument that the channel-cut style of the glyph means that this letter cannot be an Egyptian p (19) is special pleading. Numerous examples of a channel-cut Egyptian p exist, including from within the formal Egyptian text in the upper portion of Sinai 115 itself. Besides, context alone makes this reading implausible because the so-called Semitic letter occurs inside a text of otherwise uncontested Egyptian letters, making the Egyptian p more plausible.

Petrovich further claims that the Egyptian gb-ἰtw in Sinai 115 really means “Bethel.” He justifies this claim with a “historical” explanation instead of a linguistic explanation. Since God wrestled Jacob “on the ground” (27), Ḫebedeb would have associated the God of Jacob with the Egyptian earth-god Geb. Therefore, “‘the house of (the) God (of / on the earth)’ (=Bethel)” (28).

For Sinai 357, Petrovich reads the seventh horizontal letter as an ox-head aleph. Petrovich states that “the antlers consist more of jagged lines than of a continuous curve” (144) but has not seemed to grasp that oxen have horns, not antlers. This error is made consistently through the book (32, 49, 67, 82, 102, 107, 109, 110, 128, 132, 134, 146, 148, 155, 177, 183, 190). He defers to previous epigraphers to justify this reading even though the Sinai 357 letter is actually two letters, nun and kaph, written close together.

Sinai 361 is read “Our bound servitude had lingered. Moses then provoked astonishment.  It is a year of astonishment because of the Lady” (160). Petrovich acknowledges that he has to depart from normal Hebrew syntax to read “Moses” in this text (165). By ignoring normal Hebrew syntax to find the name Moses, this strongly suggests confirmation bias. While the reading of the first letter is better than most readings, with Petrovich correctly discerning the vertical stroke on the right side of the character, he reads it as a bet instead of a yod when polynomial texture mapping reveals that the bottom horizontal line extends beyond the vertical line. This would make the main verb יחש , “empty,” and preclude the identification of Moses in this text.

Sinai 375a (HSM 1935.4.7) is read as a dual Egyptian/Hebrew inscription, “The overseer of minerals, Ahisamach. The one having been elevated is weary to forget” (175). Besides a translation that makes little sense, the reading infers an Egyptian y that the epigraphy cannot support after a Hebrew khet in “Ahisamach” and ignores a string of characters (ayin, lamed, zayin) that follow immediately after the supposed yod, traces of which have been noted by other epigraphers[1] and that can be easily seen under strobe examination of the stela.

The translation of the Egyptian portion of Sinai 375a is doubtful. Petrovich reads Gardiner Sign M42[2] as an abbreviation for ἰmyw, “minerals,” citing Vygus’s online self-published word list as his source without reference to the exact entry or page number (174). However, no word ἰmyw meaning “minerals” is in Vygus[3] or any other standard Egyptian dictionary.[4]  Petrovich provides no evidence that Sign M42 was ever used as an abbreviation for “minerals” (179).

Although the epigraphy is a problem, Petrovich’s dating is more so as it relies on circular reasoning by assuming the conclusions he is trying to prove. He starts with the premise that the name Ahisamach appears only in the book of Exodus (181). Then he begs the question by leaping from “if the Ahisamach of Sinai 375a is the same man as the lone biblical personage of that name” (182) to “the significance of Sinai 375a to the present study cannot be underestimated … due to its identification of an obscure biblical character [Ahisamach] of this latter date in an historical context” (182).

Not content to stop there, he assumes an early exodus view, dates the stela according to that assumption, then claims the date of the stela as proof for an early exodus. According to Petrovich, the exodus dates to 1446 BCE, so Sinai 375a must date to about thirty years earlier to circa 1480 BCE (182). Then he concludes that the dating of the early alphabetic inscriptions “is the refutation of errant views of Biblical chronology, such as the late exodus view” (195).

Chapter 4 (15 pages) offer “concluding thoughts,” where Petrovich states that the early alphabetic inscriptions “can be equated with Hebrew confidently” for three reasons: (1) the presence of the noun “Hebrews” in Sinai 115; (2) each early alphabetic letter has a Middle Egyptian “hieroglyphic exemplar”;[5] and (3) the presence of “three biblical figures who have names used of only one person in the Bible” (191). However, these reasons seem unrelated to the central thesis that Hebrew is the language that underlies the early alphabetic inscriptions, and no attempt is made to deduce a conclusion from linguistic arguments. Instead of discussing the overarching nature of the inscriptions and the Hebrew within them, Petrovich shifts his argument to using the supposed presence of Hebrew as proof that the exodus took place in 1446 BCE and as support for the historical events that took place in the books of Exodus and Genesis (186–87, 195–99).

Even though much of the final chapter is devoted to the early dating of the exodus, a sizeable portion is also devoted to irrelevant issues such as the gender of the golden calf (199–200), why only those with his specialized education have “the ability to contribute to the topic in any truly significant manner” (188), and why his methodology is beyond questioning: “even if someone were to receive the appropriate training … archaeologists and ANE scholars would then turn around and accuse that researcher of applying improper methodology” (188). However, this defensive posture draws attention to Petrovich’s methodology.

Petrovich used publication photos magnified to 400 percent in Microsoft PowerPoint (xii, 86), a method no modern epigrapher would recognize. Petrovich did not use specialized (multiple light or multispectral) photography and strobe lighting. Advanced imaging software such as DStretch or Photoshop was not used. The best recent photographs and polynomial texture maps were not used. Petrovich did not examine most of these inscriptions in person, nor did he use the most recent epigraphic tools. This has led to epigraphy that is inferior to Hamilton’s readings of a decade ago.

In addition, Petrovich cites himself thirty-nine times, which shows inadequate interaction with prior scholarship. Some citations refer to ideas that other authors said long ago; for example, he states that “the exodus pharaoh (Exod 5:1) is Amenhotep II (Petrovich 2006)” (197), when that same idea was claimed by James Orr and J. W. Jack.[6]  If Petrovich
had cited Orr and Jack’s identification of Amenhotep II in the 2006 article, then these citations may have only been weak scholarship; however, neither this book nor the 2006 article cite Orr or Jack.

Some of the self-citations conceal an original source (28, 74, 152, 195); for example, compare “which totaled 101,128 (Petrovich 2006: 102, 104–106)” (28) with “The figures given totaled 101,128,” taken from ANET. In this case Petrovich cited original sources in his article then cited his own article with no reference to the original sources.[7]  Source materials with easily available citations were handled in a sloppy manner.

Eighteen self-citations are to an unpublished, unfinished work. This is regrettable.  Given the bold claims of the book, having so many citations dependent upon a work that may not come to fruition is deeply unsatisfying.  Some of these come at critical junctures in the book when evidence would have been really useful. For example, Petrovich states that “Asenath was the wife of Joseph and the mother of Ephraim and Manassah, the two sons who departed from their father’s house when their grandfather (Jacob) informed Joseph that he was confiscating them and taking them to live among their uncles as their equals (Gen 48:5, 15–20), which can be demonstrated archaeologically (Petrovich: in prep)” (70).  If it can be demonstrated archaeologically, surely an adequate citation must exist.  Would not that evidence be germane to the central argument?

Ultimately, Petrovich never supplies proof that his translations are from Hebrew as opposed to any other Semitic language. Nor does he compare the early alphabetic inscriptions with earlier Semitic languages such as Akkadian. This is baffling, given that Eugene Merrill, who wrote the preface, lauded him for “His acclaimed expertise in … comparative linguistics and literature” (vi).

Even though pastors and teachers may consider purchasing the book, these audiences might find the content unsuitable. The writing style employs dense prose and makes comparisons only specialists with experience in epigraphy might comprehend. The level of detail could overwhelm the nonspecialist while the lack of evidence would likely disappoint those expecting a quality academic work.  All things considered, the best thing about this book is that the publisher, Carta Jerusalem, brought its experience as a mapmaker to create a volume with beautiful typography and flawlessly printed graphics.

After carefully reading The World’s Oldest Alphabet, I cannot recommend this book. This work is deeply flawed, with many examples of confirmation bias, logical fallacy, and failure to engage the existing scholarship. The translations are based upon an inadequate methodology, a doubtful epigraphy, and a poor understanding of ancient languages. The evidence that the book presents is insufficient to warrant the hyperbolic claims, and the tone of the writing does not seek to convince as much as forcefully assert its conclusions.  The problems with the book are plentiful and easy to discover, and the work does not advance existing scholarship.



1. E.g., Gordon J. Hamilton, The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2006), 374–75.

2. Gardiner Sign M42 was often confused with Gardiner Sign Z11 in ancient Egyptian orthography, with Z11 eventually replacing M42; however, the two signs are not exact phonetic equivalents. Petrovich probably means Z11 (ἰm, wn) instead of M42 (wn). The inability to keep graphemes and phonemes straight is, unfortunately, systemic in the book.

3. Mark Vygus, “Middle Egyptian Dictionary,” 1097–1099 and 2258–2267. http://www.pyramidtextsonline.com/MarkVygusDictionary.pdf.

4. E.g., Rainer Hannig, Großes Handwörterbuch Ägyptisch–Deutsch (2800–950 v. Chr.) (Mainz: Zabern, 2009), 77. The closest phrase that means “minerals” is ἰmyw tꜣ, “that which is from the earth,” but no reference is made to this expression in the book.

5. The idea that the early alphabetic letters are derived from Middle Egyptian hieroglyphic characters is not a claim new to this book. However, this book does not address this subject until appendix 1, where the treatment is somewhat idiosyncratic compared to other epigraphers who have worked on the topic, such as Goldwasser and Hamilton.

6. James Orr, The Problem of the Old Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 422–23; J. W. Jack, The Date of the Exodus in Light of External Evidence (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1925), 117.

7. “The Asiatic Campaigning of Amen-hotep II,” translated by John A. Wilson (ANET, 247 n. 48), which is quoted in Douglas Petrovich, “Amenhotep II and the Historicity of the Exodus-Pharaoh,” TMSJ 17 (2006): 102 n. 114.

A cat hunting ducks from the tomb of Menna

Ancient Egyptian Cats

The role of ancient Egyptian cats is quite fascinating.  Claudio Ottoni wrote an interesting article this week on the domestication of one of humanity’s favorite companions.  Ottoni suggests that the relationship between cats and humans began as a commensal relationship established during the early development of agriculture.

During the neolithic period, humans were domesticating grains in Turkey.  As humans gathered these early grains, the harvests attracted rodents looking for an easy meal.  The African wildcat (Felix silvesterus lybica) started to encroach upon human settlements.  And humans discovered that their new partners had added benefits beyond vermin control.

Despite the commensal relationship cats had formed with humans everywhere, the Egyptians would complete the domestication of the modern house cat (Felix silvesterus catus).   While the African wildcat was still hanging out on the fringes of early European settlements, the Egyptians had already invited cats into their homes as pets.

However, one specific aspect to Egyptian cats that may seem strange to us is that the Egyptians trained their felines.  You only thought cats trained their humans, didn’t you?   The Egyptians trained these felines to hunt.  For sport, the Egyptians used trained cats to flush out game while the hunters hurled throwing sticks (see painting above).  Early cats were the Egyptian equivalent to the golden retriever.

A Levantine Asiatic with a colorful coat from tomb 3 at Beni Hasan.

The Tomb of Joseph, Good or Bad Biblical Scholarship?

One of the occupational hazards of being both an Egyptologist and a Bible scholar is that one is frequently confronted with fringe theories.  And typically I don’t feel the need to pay those views a lot of attention.  Yet, some views have been affirmed by otherwise respectable scholars that are not so good.  Thomas S. McCall (a ThD in Semitic languages and Old Testament) published an article affirming the work of David Rohl who claimed that the tomb of Joseph had been discovered.  But is this good or bad biblical scholarship?


David Rohl and his “New Chronology”

McCall in his article endorses a view of chronology held by Rohl.  Both believe that the Exodus occurred around 1450 BC, a date consistent with the “early Exodus” perspective. Unfortunately, McCall is not alone in his support of Rohl.  Many Christian ministries have endorsed Rohl’s views.

For most Egyptologists, a 1450 BC date would place the Exodus during the reign of Thutmosis III (mid New Kingdom).  However, McCall and Rohl have a divergent view of chronology.   Rohl believes that the Exodus occurred instead during the reign of Dudimose (a king that reigned 2 years at the end of the Middle Kingdom). 

This “new chronology” blithely ignores all the synchronistic evidence.  And there is a lot of evidence that precludes Rohl’s chronology from serious consideration (e.g. the Amarna letters).  Rohl is definitely outside of the mainstream of modern archaeology and scholarship.


The Tomb of Joseph?

But what about the so-called tomb of Joseph?  Regrettably, all that remains are fragments of a single statue.  These fragments suggest part of a Semitic hair style and a varicolored tunic.  From the account of Joseph having a varicolored tunic (Gen 37:3) and this being the tomb of an important Semite, McCall and Rohl conclude that this must be the tomb of Joseph.

I think that there are problems with how McCall and Rohl arrived at this conclusion.  First is the problem of Joseph’s varicolored tunic.  Joseph had a varicolored tunic that was a gift from Jacob.  But his brothers took Joseph’s tunic and they covered it in goat’s blood to prove to their father that Joseph was dead (Gen 37:23, 31-32).  Nothing in the biblical text suggests that Joseph obtained another varicolored tunic.

The other issue is that many Semites had varicolored tunics.  For example, from tomb 3 at Beni Hasan, a painting portrays an Asiatic wearing a varicolored tunic while he tends an ibex (see featured picture).  This is a problem since the location of Rohl’s so-called tomb of Joseph was at Avaris, a predominantly Semite culture.  Many people could have had varicolored tunics, and thus a varicolored tunic would not have been an identifying symbol.

How can we know that this is the tomb of Joseph versus any other Hyksos or Asiatic official?  We can’t.  The evidence is simply insufficient to determine one way or the other.


Scholarship Gone Bad

So why does McCall accept Rohl’s chronology?  Because what Rohl says fits with a chronology that McCall expects from the Bible.  The problem here is confirmation bias.

Biblical studies is by no means alone in having confirmation bias.  But when bible scholars seek to take an apologetic approach to their research, the desire to prove what they already think is true often becomes a driving imperative.  This often leads them down wrong paths by ignoring contradictory evidence in the pursuit of evidence that supports their position.

Now, I think that there is evidence that supports various aspects of the biblical texts.  However, making the purpose of our scholarship the finding (or manufacture) of evidence does more harm than good.  As responsible scholars, we must carefully weigh the evidence both for and against whatever hypothesis we may hold, and then go with the evidence.  This way we can learn about biblical texts in ways that may not have even occurred to us.

I honestly think that starting with specific dates and looking for evidence that fits is really poor scholarship. What if your chronology is wrong?  What if we are reading the biblical texts in a way that is different from what the ancient writer intended?  What if by some chance you find the real Joseph?  In McCall’s case, his acceptance of Rohl’s defective chronology is almost certainly wrong.

McCall and Rohl are looking to find Joseph, and that is what both find in spite of the evidence.  While I believe that Joseph was a real person, I just don’t think that either Rohl’s chronology or his evidence is sound.  This is why confirmation bias is such a terrible thing.  Confirmation bias blinds us to any hard truths or bad scholarship that might be before us.

A relief of Tiglath-Pileser III. Photo taken at the British Museum.

His Name will be Immanuel

For today’s blog, we are going to discuss the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-16:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  “Look, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will be call His name Immanuel.  He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”

Pastors often quote this prophecy during the Christmas season as a foretelling of the coming of Christ.  This is no coincidence since Isaiah links chapter 7 to the text in chapter 9.

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us. And the government will rest on His shoulders.  And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.  There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.” (Isa 9:6-7)

Many people are familiar with this prophecy with respect to the New Testament.  Few however are familiar with the historical context of this passage.  The events of Isaiah 7-9 take place during the Syro-Ephriamite War.  The prophet Isaiah wrote in the days of king Ahaz (ca. 732-716 BC) of Judah.  Ahaz was a king in trouble.  He was facing a potential invasion from an alliance between Pekah king of Israel and Rezin king of Aram.

In response to the impending invasion, Isaiah tells Ahaz to do nothing except believe the Lord’s word (Isa 7:9).  And as sign that his word comes from the Lord, a virgin was to conceive a son.  If the result were to be favorable, the Lord would name the son Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

However, Ahaz didn’t listen to the prophet.  Ahaz sent an envoy to Tiglath-Pileser III king of a Assyria.  He sent all the gold that he could to put pressure on Pekah and Rezim to withdraw (2 Kings 16:7-9).

While the meaning of “virgin” is uncertain in its original context, Isaiah visits the “virgin” who happened to be a prophetess.  She gives birth.  But instead of the favorable sign, the Lord names the child Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isa 8:3).

“For before the boy knows how to cry out ‘my father’ or ‘my mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (Isa 8:4).

While this might sound a positive outcome for Ahaz on the surface, it was a condemnation of Ahaz’s precipitous actions.

Look, the Lord is about to bring on them the strong and abundant waters of the Euphrates… then it will sweep on into the Judah (Isa 8:7-8).

Tiglath-Pileser III was probably planning on putting pressure on Pekah and Rezim anyway.  But now, the Assyrians, whetted with a taste for gold, believed they could invade Canaan to fund their ever expanding empire.  Ahaz’s act of faithlessness sets into motion a course of events that ultimately led to the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (2 Chr 28:16-22).

Despite the historical context of this passage, we must remember that Israelite prophecy is a form of amphiboly.  Amphiboly is a literary device where an author writes about two things at the same time.  It is a form compressed language.  Amphiboly was very common in Egyptian writing where a writer could leverage the pictorial and homonymic aspects of the language to refer to multiple things at the same time.

Israelite prophecy was no different.  The prophets could discuss current events as one aspect of their writing.  This could make plain the understanding of complex times for a living audience.  And at the same time, a prophet could allude to something in the future which would have meaning to some future generation.  Writing for this effect was not an accident; it is a complex form of writing that took tremendous skill, not to mention foresight.

This is why at the end of this fiasco by king Ahaz we get a rejoinder in Isa 9:6-7 that doesn’t make a lot of sense to a strict historicist reading.  The regional powers were about to subjugate Judah, but God was still sending a promised son.  Isaiah injects a secondary reading into the text that was the real point he was trying to convey.

Despite Ahaz’s treachery and faithlessness, God is still faithful.  A son called Immanuel would still come.  But he was going to be more than a resolution to a local geopolitical dispute.  He was going to be Immanuel–literally “God with us.”  Merry Christmas.



A digital reconstruction of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak.

Improving Scholarship with Digital Humanities

Some of us can relate to the following conversation with a student.  A student proposes a dissertation where he or she wants to catalog all the instances of some niche topic.  And then you pose that terrible question.  What do you hope to get out of aggregating all that data?  The student’s heart sinks.  And you receive that deer in the headlights look as if this question had never occurred to the student.

The sciences use computers every day to answer meaningful research questions.  The digital humanities and digital archeology have become the new norm in academic scholarship.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of digital humanities projects use computer technology for primarily data aggregation.

The Problem with the Digital Humanities

Without the same history as the sciences, the humanities have not developed a methodology to maximize utility of computer technologies.  Many digital humanities projects involve building large databases or open access publication of data sets in the hopes that if we build it, they (the researchers) will come.  And like our hypothetical student, many digital humanities projects have conflated scholarship with publication.

Too often magical thinking invades a project by throwing a bunch of data into a database and hoping that the computer will conjure a meaningful result.  Computers are not wizards that live inside a little metal box.  Computers crunch mathematical formulae at amazing speeds but understand none of it.  Any understanding that a computer has is only present because a human being has programmed that understanding into the machine.

Overlooked are the foundational questions.  What problem are you trying to solve?  Do you have access to the funds, time, and talent to see the project to completion?  What are you expecting the computer to do that a human being cannot?   How do you expect a computer to go about solving the problem?

A Better Approach to the Digital Humanities

I would suggest a methodological approach that I hope will raise the bar for the digital humanities.  And that method is simply to ask a research question that requires the help of a computer, see if that question is appropriate for a digital humanities project, and have the researcher and computer together solve the problem.

Experiments done with chess players and computers have shown that a good chess computer can beat almost any human player.  But a human player using a chess computer can beat practically any chess computer on its own.  This is the next step in the digital humanities: the digital and the human engaging difficult research questions that neither alone is capable of solving.

update, ark in Ethiopia is a replica

Beyond Indiana Jones: Backpedaling on Ark Claims

After my blog last week expressing skepticism over the news story announcing the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant, LiveScience.com has walked back its story.  The fact is that, lurid tales of killer priests and fabulous treasure aside, a Western professor has seen the ark in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.


The Man who Saw the Ark

Edward Ullendorff saw the ark inside the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.  Ullendorff was a professor at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).  He also served as an army officer attached to the British armed forces in 1941.  And he was with them, when British forces took Ethiopia from the fascist Italians.   With soldiers to his back and no one to stop him, Ullendorff had access to the ark within the church.

When he was still alive, Ullendorff gave an interview to the L. A. Times in 1992 debunking Graham Hancock’s claims.  Ullendorff stated that he saw “a wooden box, but it’s empty.”   He described it as a “Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc.”  He maintained that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion possessed a medieval period replica of the ark.


Ethiopian Replicas

These replicas are a common feature of Ethiopian Coptic churches, and none of them are the real Ark of the Covenant.  They serve an important role as an idealized place of veneration and religious focus.

These arks function like the altars in Roman Catholic churches.  In Roman Catholic churches, the altar is not really a place were consecrated offerings are incinerated with fire — they are technically offering tables that are called altars.

The tabot (or “ark”) in Ethiopian churches serve a similar purpose.  The word tabot comes from the Aramaic tebuta, which descended from the Egyptian tbt, “box, chest.”  The purpose of the tabot is to remind the onlooker of the Mosaic law and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

But this is not a the first time an outsider has seen an Ethiopian ark.  In 2002, a Scottish church returned a tabot to Ethiopia.  Photographs of these tabot show that they are nothing like the original Ark of the Covenant.  They are small wood boxes that a single priest carried over his head.  In contrast, the original Ark was 2.5 cubits (45 inches) long by 1.5 cubits (27 inches) wide and high (Exod 25:10) and the priests carried it on poles (Exod 25:13-14).

No doubt exists that these Ethiopian arks remain important religious and historical artifacts.  But they are only historically significant to the medieval world of Axum, not the late bronze age world of Israel.


A computer render of the Ark of the Covenant

Beyond Indiana Jones: A Dodgy Ark of the Covenant Claim

Few bible topics seem to attract as much prurient excess like the Ark of the Covenant.  Studies on the Ark have typically followed two unhealthy extremes.  These studies either follow the path of extreme skepticism after Julius Welhaussen, Gerhard von Rad, and the biblical minimalists.  Or they follow the treasure hunting of Ron Wyatt, Graham Hancock, and a large host of other weird players.

What makes this issue timely was a story on Fox News yesterday re-announcing that “Bible scholars believe the legendary Ark of the Covenant may have landed in Africa…”  The ‘scholar’ who announced this was Bob Cornuke who is a self-styled adventurer after the likes of Indiana Jones.  He has searched for Noah’s Ark, the biblical Golgotha, the ‘real’ Mount Sinai, and now the Ark of the Covenant.


Treasure Hunters

Treasure hunting is hardly new when it comes to the Ark.  In AD 1899, Freemasons and British-Israelites destroyed the archaeological site of Tara in Ireland looking for the Ark.  More recently, the upsurge of dispensational premillennialism in the 1970s renewed interest in end times events.  That interest in eschatology also kindled an interest the Temple and Tabernacle inviting an influx of speculative theories.  Ron Wyatt fed upon this fervor in the late 70s and into the 1990s.

Graham Hancock (1993) used the legend in the Kebra Negast and sterile speculation to suggest Solomon impregnated the Queen of Sheba.  The son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba returned to Axum (Ethiopia) to take up his throne.  Solomon, loving his son, made a copy of the Ark for the son to take back with him.  But the alleged son swapped out the real Ark with the fake.  The son returned to Ethiopia and the Ark ended up in a church where it supposedly still resides today.

The problem with the Kebra Nagast is that it is a mashup of unrelated historical characters and places that could even make the plot lines from Doctor Who seem plausible.  Part of that mashup confuses kingdom of Axum with the unrelated kingdom of Saba.  Axum is a region in northern Ethiopia that did not become a kingdom until ca. AD 100.  Saba was a southern Arabian kingdom that began ca. 1200 BCE and lasted until ca. AD 275.   Axum and Saba are in no way related historically or geographically.  It is historically impossible for the Queen of Sheba to be monarch of Ethiopia.

Many others writing on the Ark have regurgitated selections of Hancock’s hypothesis.  Bob Cornuke and David Halbrook repeated this hypothesis in 2002, Stuart Munro-Hay in 2003, and Randall Price in 2005.  These books typically involve an ‘expedition’ to Ethiopia to meet the Guardian, an enigmatic figure connected to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.  The Guardian verbally affirms that the church holds the true Ark of the Covenant.   Heaven forbid that any of these scholars make an extended expedition to a library.  Needless to say, Hancock’s hypothesis is perhaps the most plagiarized hypothesis when it comes to the Ark.

Moreover, these treasure hunters take their readers on vicarious voyages of faith, confusing truth with possibilities.  Voyages of faith are a necessary aspect in how we come to believe.  But such voyages without a firm foundation in fact neither educates nor illuminates.  Thus, such literature has degraded into the pulp fiction of biblical publishing.


Problems with  Cornuke’s Hypothesis

Cornuke apparently holds a Ph.D. in Bible and Theology from Louisiana Baptist University.  However, questions have been raised about the quality of that dissertation, “Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant and Mount Sinai in History and Tradition.”  Some have suggested that his dissertation was a mishmash of Ron Wyatt’s and Graham Hancock’s theories.  Credentials aside, Cornuke’s hypothesis and the related news article have serious problems.

First, the idea that bible scholars believe the Ark landed in Africa is ridiculously weak.  The article makes it seem that there is consensus among bible scholars that the Ark is in Ethiopia.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact is that most bible scholars don’t believe that the Ark existed at all, let alone resides in Africa.

The other fact is that the actual number of scholars that specialize in the Ark is remarkably small.  These scholars normally complete of a Ph.D. dissertation on the Ark or its related archaeology or literature.  Among scholars that have done this there are less than a half-dozen subject matter experts worldwide; I happen to be one of them.  Of real experts on the Ark, none to my knowledge believe the Ark is (or ever was) in Ethiopia.

Also, the hypothesis supplies a narrative but no evidence.  Cornuke believes the Israelites transported the Ark up the Nile during the reign of King Manasseh.  He believes that Israelites stole the Ark when they established a colony at Elephantine.  He thinks this took place when Manasseh introduced pagan worship into Israel.  Where is the evidence for any of  this?

Furthermore, the biblical text contradicts the hypothesis.  2 Chr 35:3 quotes King Josiah ordering the priests to bring the Ark into the Solomonic Temple.  The priests removed the Ark and placed it in temporary housing when the Temple fell into disrepair.  Josiah ordered the restoration of the Temple (2 Chr 35:20) and the Ark returned to its place.


What Became of the Ark… And Why it Doesn’t Matter

Finally, the Prophet Jeremiah records in Jer 3:16:

“It shall be in those days when you are multiplied and increased in the land,” declares the Lord, “they will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ And it will not come to mind, nor will they remember it, nor will they miss it, nor will it be made again.”

Jeremiah was active from the 13th year of Josiah until after the destruction of the Solomonic Temple.  His writing stating “nor will it be made again” implies that the Ark no longer existed.  In other words, Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the Ark and no one would rebuild it.  And like the people who mourned over the destruction of the Temple, some mourned over the destruction of the Ark.

After the priests brought the Ark into the Temple, the Lord’s glory departed from between the wings of the cherubim, and the glory of the Lord filled the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 8:11).  After that, the Ark was no longer important.  The thing that made the Ark special was not its physical existence or its value in gold.  The  truly valuable thing about the Ark was the presence of God dwelling in the sacred space between the cherubim.

The Ark does have a rich ancient history.  And as an artifact, it is an object worthy of study.  But to get something meaningful from such studies, we need go beyond both beyond extreme skepticism and beyond Indiana Jones.

A Mount Tabor Oak tree. The other vanilla flavor source. Photo © Jean Stephan.

Not So Sweet Vanilla

At the 2018 ASOR conference, Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University gave the paper “Long Distance Trade: Vanillin as a Mortuary Offering in Middle Bronze Meggido.”  In this paper reported by Science News, Linares used organic residue analysis to find vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde on three small jugs.  These jugs were recovered from an elite tomb at Meggido that dated to the middle bronze age (ca. 1650-1550 BCE).

A Vanilla Hypothesis

Linares notes that seed pods of the vanilla orchid contain both vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde compounds.  She claims that the current belief that the vanilla was first domesticated in the New World is wrong.  And she concludes that vanilla flavoring must have originated from Africa, India, or southeast Asia.

From the results of her organic residue analysis on three jugs, Linares constructs a vast global-wide middle bronze age trading network in vanilla.  And there is no denying that such vast trade networks could (and probably did) exist.  But there is a problem with her theory.

Another Source of Vanillin

Vanilla is not the only source of vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde.  Oak trees also contain vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde.[1]   A quality we see used today in alcohol production.   For example, bourbon is aged in oak barrels to impart a vanilla flavor profile.

And the fact is that oaks are native to the Levant.  The varieties of oak trees found in the Levant include the kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), the Palestine oak (Quercus calliprinos), Aleppo oak (Quercus Infectoria), and the Mount Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis).  And these trees have been in the Levant since ancient times.

The ancient Israelites used oaks as landmarks (Gen 12:6, 13:18) as such trees could reach 18 meters in height.  Because of their use as landmarks, people passed by these trees frequently, which also made these areas desirable for graves (Gen 35:8; 1 Chr 10:12).  And other ancient peoples even used oak groves for divination (Judg 9:6).  So the oak was a well-known tree in the Levant.

A Less Sweet Bias

I would not go as far as to say that the ancient Levantines used oak wood to age the substances stored in these middle bronze age jugs.  Nevertheless, they could have used oak containers and utensils in a wide variety of industrial processes.  Oak as a source of vanillin seems to me much more likely than the hypothesis proposed by Linares.

While Linares may be correct that the source could be the vanilla bean, she is a long way from proving it.  And in whipping up this elaborate hypothesis, Linares has become mired in a confection of confirmation bias.   And this produces research that is a lot less sweet.



1. Philip J. Spillman, Alan P. Pollnitz, Dimitra Liacopoulos, George K. Skouroumounis, and Mark A. Sefton, “Accumulation of Vanillin during Barrel-Aging of White, Red, and Model Wines,” Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 45 (1997): 2584-2589.   Jose Miguel Oliva, Felica Sáes, Ignacio Ballesteros, Alberto González, Maria José Negro, Paloma Manzanares, and Mercedes Ballesteros, “Effect of Lignocellulosic Degradation Compounds from Steam Explosion Pretreatment on Ethanol Fermentation by Thermotolerant Yeast Kluyveromyces marxianus” in Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals: The Twenty-Fourth Symposium, eds. Brian H. Davison, James W. Lee, James D. McMillan, and Mark Finkelstein (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2003), 150.

Ramesses II defeating the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh.

Parting of the Red Sea

Movie versions of the exodus portray the parting of the Reed (Red) Sea as massive vertical walls of water that the Israelites passed between.  The Egyptians are shown blindly following after the Israelites, possibly out of fear of Pharaoh.  But I have to ask.  Who in their right mind would enter into a box canyon of water?

The story of the Reed Sea is more nuanced than it may first appear.  In a previous blog, we discussed that the Reed Sea was one of the marshy lakes located near where the Suez Canal exists today.  It was in the estuary where the Pelusiac branch of the Nile emptied into the Mediterranean.

But some details of the account are often overlooked that reveal much about the story.  The first is that the “wall” of water mentioned in Exod 14:22 and 29 is חוֹמָה, the type of wall surrounding a city (HALOT, 297).

Walls of Water

In ancient times, these walls could be anything from the great stone walls of Middle Bronze age fortifications to the sloped teminos walls that were not so much a barrier as impediment.  Teminos walls often marked the precincts of ancient temples.  They served as a warning to the uninitiated that they are trespassing upon holy ground.  If what we are dealing with is a teminos wall, then the height of the water would seem deceptively less intimidating to those passing through the midst of the walls of water.

The other thing to consider is that the bitter lakes were not that deep.  The water was probably no more than 20 feet in depth.  But this is more than enough to be deadly.  While the bottom of the lake was like dry land for those passing through by foot, Pharaoh’s army was using chariots.

Egyptian Chariots

The Egyptian chariot was a weapon of speed and intimidation.  A pair of soldier operated each chariot: a driver and an archer.  The driver would control a team of horses and focus on driving, while the archer could fire his arrows off in practically any direction.  The combination of driver and archer made the Egyptian chariot deadly and fast, a fearsome weapon.

The wheels on these chariots were thin, like the wheels on a ten-speed bicycle.  This was an adaptation of the Levantine chariot to Egyptian sandy conditions.  These chariot wheels were designed to cut through sand, and the carriages were made out of light-weight materials.  So if the chariot got stuck in sand, it could be lifted out of the sand easily.

However, this same design that worked so well in dry sand had the opposite effect in silt.  The wheels cut into the mud which caused them to get stuck and even caused the wheels to break off from their axils (Exod14:25).  And in the morning, the Israelites found the Egyptians dead on the seashore (Exod 14:29).  With the charioteers stuck and burdened with heavy armor, even 20 ft of water proved too much.

The polynomial texture map of Sinai 349.

Tools for Modern Epigraphy (Part 2)

Last week, we touched upon three new technologies that have revolutionized the field of epigraphy.  These technologies have changed the way epigraphers see their inscriptions.  Today, we will introduce another four technologies that have changed epigraphy in the 21st century.

Multi-Spectral Photography

With the proliferation of digital cameras, many people now have a second (or third) DSLR camera just lying around.  As epigraphers, we don’t need to have those old cameras go to waste.  Instead, we can send them to a conversion lab to have them converted for multi-spectral photography.

Most of the photodiodes in DSLR cameras are already sensitive to infrared and ultraviolet light.  This is normally a bad thing as these light wavelengths cause false colors with visible light photography.  So camera manufacturers add filters over the photodiode to screen out infrared and ultraviolet light.

By removing the infrared filter and adding a visible light filter, you can get an infrared camera.  Infrared cameras are useful for infrared luminescence.   By removing the ultraviolet filter and adding a visible light filter, you can get an ultraviolet camera.   Ultraviolet cameras are useful for detecting the pigments and minerals that fluoresce in the ultraviolet spectrum.

Multiple Light Photography

With advances in photography has also come advances in photographic setups and procedures to capture difficult to obtain information.  One of the most rudimentary of these is the multiple light setup.  With multiple light photography, the camera is kept in one position and the light sources are moved around the piece in progressive small angles.  Typically this this done in a 180 degree arc.

The advantage of this is that it can capture the fine details in the recesses of the piece, which can be exposed just by moving the light to another position.

Polynomial Texture Maps

This technique scans the surface of an artifact and recreates the surface of an object as a high resolution map of polygons.  Using this you can see the object from various angles and shine artificial lights upon the map to see the details.

Furthermore, the contrasting topography of a piece can be emphasized so that you can detect small details in the texture of the piece.  PTMs are often the next best thing to being able to see an object in person.  In the featured photo above, we see two images of Sinai 349 with the polynomial texture map to the right.

Strobe Lighting

Sometimes, none of the above techniques are all that helpful.  And the epigrapher just has to examine an artifact in person.  Perhaps, the contrast between the inscription and the matrix is too low.  Or maybe the inscription is too shallow to see or photograph clearly.  There is one more advanced technique that is helpful.  While not strictly speaking new, strobe lighting has recently found new usefulness in epigraphy.

When you look at a stela with only discrete color differences between inscription and matrix, your vision adjusts faster than your brain can figure out what you’re seeing. In a tenth of a second, your visual cortex becomes saturated and those discrete color differences between inscription and matrix wash out.

What strobe lighting does is prevents your visual cortex from saturating. This way you can continue to see the fine differences between the inscription and stone matrix. The net result is that visual features not seen previously begin to emerge.