Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Ealriest Hebrew Inscriptions?

I recently received a request to evaluate a news report claiming that the earliest Hebrew inscriptions have been discovered in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions.These inscriptions have been known for more than a century, so the inscriptions are not new. I was not there for the presentation so it is difficult to evaluate. This is what I wrote:
It is really difficult to assess a scholarly argument presented in a news story since reporters often garble the essential information. With only that to go on, I offer the following comments for your consideration.

(1) I do not know Petrovich or his previous work. His scholarship might be solid or shaky or anything in between. I do know Christopher Rollston (who is cited in the story). He is a good scholar and very conscientious. I would take anything that he says seriously. He sounds dubious and so there may be very good reasons to be skeptical of the claims presented in this story.

(2) From the story, it sounds like Petrovich is working from some basic assumptions about this script which is usually called Proto-Sinaitic. Most scholars assume that the writing is a Semitic language. One of the problems is that almost nothing in the script can actually be read. Some of the assumptions that Petrovich seems to be using have recently been challenged by Karl-Theodor Zauzich who has a very thought-provoking book on the origin of the alphabet. Zauzich points to fact that almost nothing makes sense in Semitic as an indication that the standard assignments (which Petrovich seems to follow) cannot be correct. He suggests others. If Zauzich is correct, Petrovich is probably not. I know Zauzich and he is also a very good scholar, although I am still considering his arguments.

(3) I think that it is probably best to wait until Petrovich's book comes out and his arguments and evidence can be fairly evaluated. Until then, take them with a grain of salt. The media likes sensational stories but is not very good at evaluating them.
Fortunately Christopher Rollston was at the presentation and has written a preliminary report on his blog. Those interested in the topic should consult it. Given what Rollston says about Petrovich's interpretation of Egyptian, I would be interested in seeing the argument.