Hypostyle Hall of Ramesses II at Karnak Temple
Archaeology

Photography and Archaeology

Photographs are an important component to being a respected archaeologist.  When people come to your lectures, they are not nearly as interested in your rigorous scientific method and seed counts, as they are interested in your stunning photographs.  There is an old joke.  “What is the difference between a historian and an archaeologist?  The archaeologist has pictures.”  Like a lot of jokes there is more than a grain of truth to the punch line.

 

Photographic Needs of the Archaeologist

Most archaeologists who do photography are self-taught.  Many are simply handed a camera at a dig and told to take pictures.  However, photography is a skill like any other.  A skill that can be learned and can be done well or poorly.

In many ways the needs of the archaeology photographer are similar to the needs of the sports photographer.  Unlike the average photographer, both sports and archaeology photographers normally ply their craft in low light conditions and need cameras that can do low ISO shots.  Both benefit from fast, large aperture lenses.   And both often find themselves in situations where tripods and flashes are often impractical or prohibited.

In museums and tombs, an archaeologist may have to take photographs that are good enough for publication but are restricted by extreme low-light environments where tripods and monopods are not permitted.  When taking photography in temples, local administrators generally permit flash photography but may charge a hefty tripod “fee” if they see you carrying a tripod.

Sometimes you will have to carry your equipment for a good hike into mountainous terrain.  Not all archaeological sites are located conveniently by a shopping mall parking lot.  So anything you need, you may have to carry in and out of the camp site.  Sure, that all-aluminum Manfrotto tripod is rock solid, but it is also rock heavy especially after a 10 mile hike.

 

Camera and Lens Recommendations

When it comes to selecting the equipment for doing archaeological photographs, I would recommend that one begins with a good modern camera body.  A body that can do 24 megapixals and 25000 ISO is generally sufficient.  Whether one chooses a cropped sensor or a full-frame camera depends largely upon personal goals and tastes.  And there are advantages and disadvantages to either.

A good selection of lenses is a must.  I would recommend 2 low light lenses (a 50mm prime and a 17-50mm telephoto) with an aperture no greater than f/2.8. The 50mm f/1.8 lens is super cheap and one the best general purpose lenses that you can get for your camera.  For museum work, I typically use a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS lens.  While I don’t generally like or trust Sigma lenses–they are heavy, expensive, and unreliable–this particular lenses has been a solid work horse for me.

I would recommend one long telephoto lens.  I like the Tamron 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di VC lens because it is a good value for the money. This lens has a good reach but is not as crisp as 70-200mm lenses.  Nevertheless, a 70-300mm lenses is less than a quarter of the price and can focus in on those reliefs at the tops of the Egyptian pylons.  In other words, good enough.

I would also recommend a wide angle rectilinear (not fish-eye) lens.  No longer focal length than 17mm for cropped-sensor cameras and 25mm for full-frame cameras.  Because of their wide angles of field, these lenses are particularly useful for taking interior photos of small, cramped rooms, such as tombs.  I use the Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II VC.  Wide angle lenses are also wonderful for taking those dreamy shots of the exteriors of monuments–we need more of these photos in archaeology.

 

Miscellaneous Equipment and Final Thoughts

Additional gear you should consider would be a speedlight off-camera flash with a flash cord–important for taking clear shots of reliefs.  A solid, light, travel tripod, preferably made of carbon fiber.  A shutter cord–yes, they still make them for DSLRs and they are still useful.

Also consider a good gear backpack to haul all your stuff.  I prefer the backpack over the traditional camera bag.   When you start accumulating multiple lenses and camera bodies, a traditional camera bag becomes way too awkward and bulky to carry around with you.

Stunning photography and great discoveries keeps archaeologists in the public eye.  Many universities will teach you the rigor to make academically sound discoveries.  But when it comes to learning photography, you are pretty much on your own.  Yet, I’m hoping that this blog will be a helpful resource for those wanting to add photography to their archaeological repertoire.

 

 

Outside of Dra Abd el Naga in the Egyptian desert.
Bible

Understanding Genealogies in the Bible (part 2)

Toledot, or Hebrew genealogies, often operate under slightly different rules than Western genealogies.  Two weeks ago we discussed a bit about how genealogies work in the Bible.  However, we can say more, which is why a part 2 is necessary.

 

Rules of the Toledot

Unlike what is commonly found in western genealogies, toledot often exclude intermediaries.  These intermediaries were descendants that either did not reproduce or weren’t significant to the overall outcomes.  Let’s take for example the toledot of Moses in Exodus 6:

And these are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations: Gershon and Kohath and Merari; and the length of Levi’s life was one hundred and thirty-seven years.  The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei, according to their families.  The sons of Kohath: Amram and Izhar and Hebron and Uzziel; and the length of Kohath’s life was one hundred and thirty-three years.  And the sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi.  These are the families of the Levites according to their generations.  And Amram married his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses; and the length of Amram’s life was one hundred and thirty-seven years.  [Exod 6:16-20]

Exod 1:5 states that 70 men entered Egypt who descended from Jacob.  When the Israelites left Egypt, those 20 years or older were counted to number at least 603,550 according to the weight of the half-shekel redemption offering [Exod 38:26].  If we look at the generations of the toledot of Moses, we see three generations being born in Egypt.  Levi begat Kohath, Kohath begat Amram, and Amram begat Moses.  Many of the toledot from this period in the book of 1 Chronicles are quite short, usually three or four generations.  The text makes it clear that Exodus 6 is naming the “families of Levites” or clans and not specifically the individuals involved per se.

 

The Unconventional Lifespans

If we took the toledot at face value, this becomes a demography problem.  According to the CIA World Factbook 2016-2017 edition, the country with the highest fertility is Niger with 6.76 children/woman.  So assuming that each person of the seventy original descendants of Jacob had both a wife and children, then it would take between 6 and 7 generations to produce a population of around 500,000.

The other thing one might notice is the unconventional length of the lifespan of the Moses’ ancestors.  Levi lived to 137, Kohath to 133, and Amran to 137 years.  There does not appear to be anything symbolic about these numbers.  These numbers are not numerologically significant factors; such as 7, 12, or 40.

Now, I wouldn’t say that people living to 137 years is out of the question.  Early calendar systems had idiosyncrasies that could account for some extended dating.  Not to mention that the wages of sin could have accelerated death by diminishing potential lifespans.

But I think that a simpler solution is also possible.  In many toledot, the chronicler may not be using the length that the person was alive.  For example, in Exod 6:20, the chronicler says that the “years of the life of Amran were seven and thirty and a hundred.”  The “years of the life of” may refer to living memory, which is the years that others have a living memory of the person.  This would abbreviate the genealogy for the authors while using a definition for life that is part of the repertoire of the ancient Near East.

 

 

Painting from the tomb of Nebamun showing cattle being herded and storage chests.
News

A New Book with Hendrickson Publishers

I am happy to announce that I have signed a book contract with Hendrickson Publishers.  The book will be on the Egyptian context of the Ark of the Covenant.  This will be a context study that will show where the Ark fits in the narrative of the ancient Near East.  I will be writing the book for the non-expert. Yet, I will include lots of detail for those who want to see the trees as well as the forest.

I expect the book to be about 300 pages with lots of illustrations and photographs.

 

A torah scroll.
Bible

Understanding Genealogies in the Bible (part 1)

About 15 years ago I led a small Bible study group.  We would take a book of the Bible and study it one chapter at a time.  When I came to the end of the book, I would ask the group, “Which book do we study next?”  And of course, nobody wanted to decide what the next book would be.

So, I would say “If nobody can decide what book we are going to study next, I get to pick.  And my choice would be the book of Numbers with all those lovely genealogies.”  No sooner would I say that, and someone would propose a book (a different book) to study.

The typical Bible reader has an aversion to genealogies.  Modern readers often see genealogies as the “boring bits” that one needs to buzz past to get to the interesting stuff.  I think that this outlook is unfortunate because genealogies were the literary device of choice that ancient writers used to give us the really juicy info.

 

The Purpose of Genealogies

In the ancient Hebrew, genealogical lists are called toledot.  An important consideration is that toledot are not quite the same as what we call a “genealogy” in the West today.  Knowing the technical difference between a toledot and a genealogy can help us navigate the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the West, genealogies normally trace the ancestors of a person going as far back as possible.  Hebrew toledot sort of do the opposite.  Toledot start with a well-known person and attempt to trace that person’s descendants.  The purpose of a toledot is not to establish pedigree as much as it is to show the person’s posterity.  So, in effect, the ancient Israelites believed that the actions of a person would have outcomes that would manifest generations down the line.

Ancient writers used these toledot for didactic purposes.  Often the toledot sets up the historical context, but the writer could also use it to convey a moral lesson.  Most western genealogies lack this didactic component.

 

The Genesis 5 Toledot

One example of a toledot comes from Genesis 5 where we find the posterity of Adam (of the Garden of Eden infamy).  We see in Genesis 5 the following structure:

And <Person 1> lived <Number A> years and became father of <Person 2>,  And <Person 1> lived <Number B> years after he was father to <Person 2>, and he had other sons and daughters. So all the days of <Person 1> were <Number A+B> years and he died.

The writer repeats this structure from Adam to Jared six times.   Then on the seventh generation, Enoch doesn’t die but it taken away instead [Gen 5:24].  This disruption of the normal (intentionally monotonous) pattern using antithesis shows what this toledot is really about.  The subject is that mankind is now beset with death without relief.

Adam sinned and fell from grace largely causing the mess on what we call planet Earth.   God created Adam in a perfect world that had no death.  The toledot in Genesis 5 is to show the reader Adam’s posterity–his actions which caused death to rule unchecked.

 

Who’s Who

The other thing that genealogies can do is establish why something happened.  In 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah was struck dead by God after touching the Ark of the Covenant [2 Sam 6:7].  The difficulty here is that touching the Ark was not in and of itself an offense.  Priests had handled the Ark several times in its history with impunity.  So what gives?

The first thing is that the reader may notice is that the Ark was placed on an ox-cart [2 Sam 6:3], which was forbidden since it was to be carried only by its poles [Exod 25:14].  But this alone probably would not have resulted in condign action.

The other thing we are told is the genealogy of Uzzah in verse 4.  He was the son of Abinadab.  Abinadab was the son of Jesse and brother of King David [1 Sam 17:13, 1 Chr 2:13], which makes Uzzah the nephew of the king.  Moreover, this makes Uzzah from the tribe of Judah.  Only Israelites from the tribe of Levi and of those only descendants of Kohath were permitted to carry the Ark [Num 4:15].  Although one offense may have been overlooked, two impious actions were seen as irreverence [2 Sam 6:7].

Toledot can give the modern Bible reader fascinating information if we take the time to try to understand them.

 

 

An ancient Egyptian stone quarry at Hatnub. These quarries were sometimes used as jails.
Bible

Crime and Punishment in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian society generally had no laws.  Instead, the Egyptians governed their society by an ethical concept called Maat, “order.”  This concept led to a pretty permissive society.  If an act did not disrupt the community and was not an act against the king, it was generally permitted.

 

Punishment for Crimes

We have to remember that Egyptian ruled by a brutal military dictatorship.  So magistrates maintained order by force and corporal punishment.  Acts against the king were usually met with the death penalty.  But for lesser offenses beatings were commonplace.

However, magistrates did not only use beatings to punish crime but also as an interrogation method.  The way the Egyptians used beatings was that they would beat you first before asking any questions, ask their questions, then beat you again if they felt like you needed it.   Interrogators only believed that they got honest answers when an interrogation first started with a beating.

 

Egyptian Jails

If the magistrate or king could not decide what to do with you, they would send you to jail.  In Genesis 39, we read about Potipher’s wife falsely accusing Joseph of rape.  As a slave, this crime would earn more than a beating.  But if the accuser was less than reputable, it would not necessarily warrant the death penalty.  Perhaps, Potipher understood the character of his wife.  So Joseph was sent to Egyptian jail [Gen 39:20].

Now, the Egyptian concept of jail might not be what you expect.  The Egyptians used their rock quarries as jails.   Quarries existed that were the operated by skilled professional stone cutters [see featured image].  However, quarries were also used as prisons.

Egyptian jails had no doors, bars, or walls.  Succinctly put, these jails needed no restraints.  Quarries typically were found in remote locations with very little water.  If anyone tried to escape, they would be subject to the heat of the desert and die of dehydration in short order.  This was strong incentive to stay and do one’s time.

 

The "Dream Book" a papyrus held in the British Museum. A catalog to interpret dreams.
Bible

Dreams and their Interpretation

The Egyptians believed that dreams could foretell the future.  And as such the interpretation of dreams played an important part of ancient Egyptian culture.  In fact, the interpretation of dream persists among modern Egyptians today.

 

The Dream Book

Two so-called “dream books” have survived from ancient Egypt.  Perhaps the most interesting is Papyrus Chester Beatty III, a fragmentary papyrus written in hieratic.  This papyrus is a catalog of dreams and their interpretations.

The format of the interpretations is quite formulaic.  All the dreams are predicated upon you appearing your dream.  The dream is then summarized.  The book then gives a one-word appraisal of the  dream, either “good” or “bad.”  And then the book predicts what’s going to happen to you.

A couple of examples from  the dream book are as follows: “[if a man sees himself in a dream] seeing the god who is above–good; it means much food.”  Or, “[…] seeing himself [in] mourning–good; the increase of his possessions.”  Or, “[…] looking in a deep well–bad; his being put into prison.”  Or, “[…] seeing an ostrich–bad; harm befalling him.”

The content of these dreams were not limited by propriety or societal mores.  Dream books provided interpretations for dreams involving drinking wine, engorged genitals, and copulating with one’s mother.  Also, some of these dreams could be quite cringe worthy, such as, drinking one’s own urine or blood, or copulating with a pig.  Counter-intuitively, the dream books considered some of these noxious dreams to have good outcomes.

 

Joseph and Dream Interpretation

One cannot refer to dream books without being reminded of the dream interpretations found in the Bible, most notably those interpretations done by Joseph.  Joseph was sent to prison where he interpreted the dreams of his fellow prisoners.  Joseph interpreted the dream of a cupbearer:

So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, “In my dream, behold, there was a vine in front of me; and on the vine were three branches. And as it was budding, its blossoms came out, and its clusters produced ripe grapes.  Now Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; so I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.”  Then Joseph said to him, “This is the interpretation of it: the three branches are three days; within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you will put Pharaoh’s cup into his hand according to your former custom when you were his cupbearer. [Gen 40:9-13]

The Chester Beatty papyrus has a similar dream.  “[…] seeing himself with one greater than he–good; it means his promotion by his (own) agency.”  The cupbearer saw himself serving the king, so a promotion or restoration of position was the expected interpretation.

 

Pharaoh’s Dream and the Dream Book

The cupbearer remembered Joseph as an interpreter of dreams and suggested to the king that Joseph could interpret his dream.   Joseph interpreted the king’s dream as foretelling seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  The king described his dream as follows:

Now it happened at the end of two full years that Pharaoh had a dream, and behold, he was standing by the Nile.  And lo, from the Nile there came up seven cows, sleek and fat; and they grazed in the marsh grass.  Then behold, seven other cows came up after them from the Nile, ugly and gaunt, and they stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile.  The ugly and gaunt cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. Then Pharaoh awoke.  He fell asleep and dreamed a second time; and behold, seven ears of grain came up on a single stalk, plump and good.  Then behold, seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them.  The thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.  [Gen 41:1-8]

The Chester Beatty papyrus has some favorable interpretations that reference bovines.  “[…] seeing a dead ox–good; it means seeing [the demise?] of his enemies.”   “[…] killing an ox–good; killing his enemies.”  “[…] carving up an ox with his (own) hand–good; killing his (own) adversary.”  And, “[…] bringing in the cattle–good; the assembling of people for him by his god.”

But there are also some unfavorable interpretations.  “[…] feeding cattle–bad; it means roaming the earth.”

Grain is also referenced.  “[…] seeing barley and spelt [given?] to those yonder–good; it means the protection of him by his god.”  “[…] measuring barley–bad; it means the arising of words with him.”

Likewise, dreams provided predictions for harvests.  “[…] seeing a large cat–good; it means a large harvest will come to him.”

 

What can we make of Dream Interpretations?

Although the Chester Beatty papyrus is far from complete, we can see that the interpretation of dreams was codified knowledge.  A lot of questions remain regarding how the ancient Egyptians interpreted dreams.  How did the Egyptians interpret more complex dreams?  How extensive were these dream books?  Did the Egyptians standardize dream books?  How many editions were in circulation?  Fortunately, the Chester Beatty papyrus gives us a tantalizing start to this fascinating subject.

 

A Sennacherib Historical Prisms that documented the siege of Jerusalem.
Bible

The Bible and its Reliability

The question of the Bible and its reliability is a loaded question.  Is the Bible reliable?  The short answer is yes.  The long answer is nuanced and revolves around many satellite issues of what the term reliable means.

 

Reliability and the Autographs

For example, is the Bible reliable because the Bible we have today may differ from that of fifteen hundred years ago?  Fortunately, we can easily answer that question.  Enough archaeological remains of Biblical texts exist that seem to point to singular source texts (or autographs).

Much of the autographs can be restored from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Masoretic Text, Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, and the thousands of New Testament manuscripts and fragments.  And even with unresolved variants, what variants do exist do little to change the meaning of the text.  Many of the variants are attributable to spelling mistakes, transposition errors, or accidental deletions caused by, for example, same endings (homoioteleuton).

Although we can point to a Biblical autographic text, the question of reliability is far from answered.  If by reliable we mean that the Bible accurately reflects our understanding of what it means, the answer is a qualified not necessarily.  A lot of traditions and beliefs have been superimposed over the Bible.  These traditions may not necessarily reflect the way the original authors would have read the text.

 

Reliability and Literary Style

The Biblical authors used many literary devices that might be unfamiliar to the modern reader: retrojection, cyclic parallelism, and gematria.  Such devices were obvious to ancient readers but to us are a missing piece of the context.

For example, many people assume that Moses was a prince (“son of the king”) because his adoptive mother was the daughter of the king (Exod 2:5).  From the archaeological evidence, no reason exists to believe that Moses ever held that title or lived in a palace.  In all likelihood, the title was given to Moses’ adoptive mother retrojectively after her father assumed the throne and probably long after Moses had fled Egypt.  But if we read meanings into the text that are not actually there (eisegesis), can we make the claim that the Bible is unreliable when those meanings don’t pan out?  Unfortunately, this happens far too often.

Now, what if by reliable we mean that miracles happened and God appeared at certain times and places?  Possibly, but this is generally impossible to prove on way or the other.  Miracles and divine manifestations might leave physical after effects.  But how can one distinguish such effects from other physical phenomena?  One could suggest that the improbability of Israelite survival infers divine intervention, and it may.   However, this would only show that events like those described may have occurred, and therefore does not address reliability one way or the other.

 

Morality, Science, and History

What if we mean that the Bible is reliable for ethical and moral teaching?  Quite likely, since much of the functioning ethical systems of the world do reflect a Biblical origin.  Do not steal and do not murder remain universally good ideas.  Loving your neighbor is also an ethical good.  Some areas are gray; however, it seems some of the grayness often arises out of reading a passage out of context; for example, reading ritual laws as ethical imperatives.

What if we mean that the Bible is reliable scientifically?  Yes and no.  Again, context matters.  Some passages are not meant to be read as factual accounts or use definitions that have changed over time.  Applying a strict scientific idealism to an ancient text is anachronistic.  For example, sometimes a “year” was not exactly 365.25 days, and thus does not reflect an exact solar revolution around the sun.

Even the lower standard of does the Bible line up with “facts” can present a problem.  This is because what constitutes a fact can often be in the eye of the beholder.   For example, how years were counted in the books of Kings changed to reflect the shifting hegemony of Egyptian and Assyrian suzerains.  The Bible might reflect a political reality where a Western reader may expect a scientific reality; this is not a problem with the text as much as the reader’s expectations.

 

Is the Bible Reliable?

So can we say that the Bible reliable?  I think that this depends largely upon our approach to ancient texts.  We could read the Bible in its context.  We could present the Bible as it represents itself.  And we could treat the text without special prejudice just like we would any other ancient Near Eastern text.  If we approach the Bible in that manner, we can definitely glean historical information from it.  And that historical information has been confirmed by a large amount of secondary sources, e.g. the Sennacherib Historical Prisms (see featured image above) confirming the siege of Jerusalem.  Insofar as taking the Bible from a historical point of view, I have no doubt that the Bible is reliable.

 

Egyptology

Death of Memory

The latest from the excavation at Tell Edfu reported the discovery of a private shrine inside a home.  Such a find is normally rare as few private shrines have survived the archaeological record.  But more interesting is that someone scratched out the faces of the worshiped figures.  Modern scholars call this the damnatio memoriae, “the damnation of memory.”

The ancient Egyptians said that a person dies three times: death of the body, death of the memory, and death of the name.  First, one’s physical body dies.  Second, the memory of the person dies as those carrying a living memory of that person also die.  Finally, the person suffers a death of name as all traces of his name, when all traces of the name (or image) of that person perish.

An interesting block from Tell el-Amarna shows a relief of two Nubians and two Semitic Asiatics.  The faces of the Asiatics were chiseled out while the faces of the Nubians remained intact.  Workers took the block from one Akhenaten’s construction projects and used it as fill for a pylon during the reign of Seti I.  This means that the defacement took place between the reigns of Tutankhamun and Seti I.  The damnatio memoriae was an attempt to destroy the memory of the Asiatics to hasten their ultimate death.

 

Exodus

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 is 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.

 

Footnotes.

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
Egyptology

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.