Professional Semitic Epigraphy and Counterfeit Journalism
By Dr. Victor Sasson
I have recently watched an old classic film, one that I first watched many years ago. Robert Taylor, who acts as a professional archaeologist in Egypt, agrees to help a beautiful woman fulfill the dream of her late devout father and find an archaeological item that would confirm the story of Joseph in Egypt, and so ‘confirm the Bible’. He, of course, does not believe in such stories and calls himself a scientist. “I have a weakness for facts”, he says at one point in the film.
Valley of the Kings was filmed on location in Egypt and has everything that one could wish for in an adventure film. Mr. Taylor is not only a famous archaeologist but also an epigrapher who can read new hieroglyphs at a glance. He is an incredible fighter with physical stamina, a taskmaster, directing an excavation (Moodeer), with a stick in his hand, shouting orders left and right, highly intelligent, and of course, a great lover. On top of that, Mr. Taylor can speak good Arabic, and even sing ‘ya-aziz aini ana biddi arawwah baladi - baladi ya-baladi’ with the local Egyptian workers.
This is of course a romantic and ideal picture of an archaeologist, in the tradition of Indiana Jones.
But let us get down to reality.
From what I know of field archaeologists, they are people with training in dating pottery and ancient walls, and passion and patience for digging. I don’t know if they care anything about the past, or the present. What they most care about is funding, money, for their excavations and an ardent wish to Heaven not to pour down rain until the work is finished. There are exceptions, of course - those who can deal with epigraphic finds. But I think those have been very few. Generally, when archaeologists venture into the field of epigraphy, they find themselves on very slippery ground.
I shall dwell on one example only.
The site of Horvath ‘Uzza in the Negev was excavated during 1982-88. On one occasion a bowl inscribed with some 13 lines in what seemed to be Biblical Hebrew was discovered. Since the archaeologist who found it could read and write in Modern Hebrew, he thought he could offer a translation and a commentary on the text. What he produced was amateurish, to say the least (see Tel Aviv 20, 1993). He considered the text to be some sort of business receipt, documenting a transaction, with the name Gedalyahu appearing in the inscription. Realising his shortcomings as an epigrapher, he gave the text to F. M. Cross of Harvard. This last recognised the literary nature of the text and offered some very brief notes – some correct, some wrong - without making a coherent sense of the whole. The archaeologist (and we shall leave his name unmentioned) decided to put the word ‘literary’ in the title of his article, when in fact his translation and his analysis show that he stuck to his original interpretation in taking the inscribed bowl as a business receipt.
Within two weeks of seeing that text myself, I managed to decipher it and also find for it a biblical parallel, in the Book of Job. It turned out to be a literary text of the first order. In my detailed analysis, I found that the name Gedalyahu did not exist. The
letters were to be read gaddel yah (to magnify God). This is only one instance of misreading and misunderstanding the text. For various linguistic and other reasons that I have discussed in my study, I called the language used Edomite.
With the appearance of the Tell Dan inscription in 1994, I felt compelled to put that unfinished research on hold as it required further elaboration and clarity of presentation before I could submit it to a scholarly journal. I was teaching at the time and the Tell Dan inscription was a great sensation, with the bytdwd (House of David) appearing in it, proving the existence outside the corpus of the Hebrew Bible of a Davidic dynasty. But for years, while my research results about the Horvath ‘Uzza inscription were unpublished, that text was considered by biblical scholars to be some sort of a business receipt. No professional epigrapher took it up for analysis. No doubt it was considered too obscure. Only in 2003, I found the time to resume work on it and finally completed it. From the time it was submitted, it took two and a half years to appear in print (see my published study, ‘An Edomite Joban Text, with a Biblical Joban Parallel’, in ZAW 117, 2006).
With the Jehoash tablet, matters have proved differently. Many persons who have had nothing to do with Hebrew and Aramaic epigraphy; scholars who had never published a research study on a single epigraphic Hebrew text, decided to jump in on the wagon and broadcast their results. And so, overnight we were flooded with newfangled ‘epigraphers’ who, generally speaking, kept repeating each other’s ‘findings’. With the wonder of the computer and the Internet, Epigraphy has become the occupation of many dilettantes. We even have an Akkadian scholar who has independently published an un-refereed article of his on the Internet (we shall leave his name unmentioned). That article would certainly not be accepted by any reputable scholarly journal, because the author’s treatment of the Jehoash text shows him to be an Akkadian scholar, not a professional Hebrew and Aramaic epigrapher. In other words, the Hebrew text of the Jehoash is treated as an Akkadian text – hence, it is sort of an exercise in Akkadian philology. And yet, this person has been interviewed left and right, even by the BBC, repeating his suspect ‘research’ to the unsuspecting public!
And now we see some nimble journalists who have decided to join the ranks of these mushroomed epigraphers. This new phenomenon is one of the most clear and outrageous forgeries of the twenty-first century. These are the people who should be chased after by the Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem. For a fake epigrapher will pronounce a genuine inscription fake, and a fake inscription, genuine.
What is of paramount importance in professional epigraphic research is the language of the inscribed text – the words, the syntax, the historical allusions, the imagery used, if any, and so forth, but above all, the language employed. Amateurs
who have tried to deal with the text of the Jehoash inscription blundered, since they are oblivious to this basic but most important fact. It is extremely difficult to fake a convincing language of about three thousand years ago - assuming that we know how 9th century B. C. E. Biblical Hebrew looked like. Anyway, a serious and sophisticated forger, intent on making thousands of dollars, if not millions, would take all possible precautions not to use any modern lexical terms or expressions. Nothing would be used that is even remotely suggestive of these (the terms bedeq bayith are in fact biblical themselves). He has all the time at his disposal, all the thinking that has to be done, and the necessary preparations for his project. He would have to know thorough Biblical Hebrew and, in connection with the Jehoash, a good knowledge of Hebrew epigraphic texts and of biblical history. And yet, those who claim the Jehoash text is fake, also claim that it was done by a native speaker of Modern Hebrew, who foolishly blundered in using a modern expression.
F. M. Cross, in his short (and I must say, cavalier treatment of the text), has mentioned seven disciplines in which his supposed forger was proficient. If we accept this conclusion about such specialised knowledge, then the author of the tablet can hardly be a forger. Further, the script of the tablet has some problems – but these problems may be our own problems, not necessarily problems originating with the author himself. On the other hand, if the text is the work of a forger, he would definitely not have used any kind of reference that is obscured in the text, any allusion that is highly difficult to decipher, since that would defeat his purpose as an impostor. For indeed there are several biblical/historical elements embedded in the text of the Jehoash inscription, which have eluded the few professional epigraphers in the field of Hebrew and Aramaic Epigraphy, including Cross himself. I have already discussed these elsewhere, in my published research, in Ugarit-Forschungen 35, 2004.
A professional, effective analysis of the language used in an inscription is therefore very important. Without the text, the stone is just a stone that tells us
little except, perhaps, how old it is. Language is both science and art. Expertise in a language is time-consuming, very difficult to attain. Only those who have spent years reading a particular language in its various historical/textual stages, and have had the necessary academic training, having also proved their knowledge with other genuine epigraphic texts, possess the necessary expertise to discuss a controversial epigraphic text with authority.
In my own published analysis of the text of the Jehoash inscription, I have advanced the possibility of the text being an ancient replica or copy of an original one. I based this possibility on a reference in the Tell Fakhriyah inscription, of the same age
(see my long, detailed study, The Aramaic Text of the Tell Fakhriyah Assyrian-Aramaic Bilingual Inscription in ZAW 97, 1985). Several years after the publication of my Jehoash
research, some scholars have in fact accepted this thesis, not always acknowledging their source.
Some new textual evidence that I wished to present to the court in Jerusalem, in the trial of Oded Golan was deemed inadmissible by the prosecutor, who claimed he was not prepared for any new evidence. (See my essay ‘The Trial on Trial, and Unholy Hoaxes by a Nimble Journalist’).
There is a world of difference between concluding that the Jehoash text is definitely fake, and concluding that it may be genuine.
Let us now turn to palaeography. While palaeography and the physical aspects of the stone are of importance, they are of less importance than the textual, for palaeography and patina can have various possible, even probably, explanations, relating to accidents of time and place. Now since the Jehoash script has some problems, the extant text could be an ancient copy of an original text, as I have mentioned before – and why not? All of our existing texts of the Hebrew Bible are in fact copies of copies. And of course the Dead Sea Scrolls are copies of copies of copies. Ancient Middle Eastern Jewish scribes
kept copying texts over and over again over a period of many centuries.
In the Jehoash inscription, the script is not immaculate. If the text were a forgery, we would expect the script to be perfectly crafted, or nearly so. But it is not perfect. For that reason, it has been called ‘mixed’. There could be all sorts of good reasons for that - reasons of which we do not know.
In an article titled ‘Faking Biblical History’ (Archaeology 56:5, 2003), two scholars, Y. Goren and N. A. Silberman, state that in this day and age, with the wonder of the computer, even a teenager could resize the script of 9th century B.C.E. Hebrew, to look perfect on the Jehoash tablet! They are foolishly unaware, however, that this defeats their own claim that the script of the Jehoash is the work of a sophisticated forger! This is what happens when a scientist, Goren, and a historian, Silberman, meddle with Epigraphy and co-author a piece about faking biblical history. Neither of them has ever published a single research study on the language of a minor or a major Hebrew or Aramaic inscription. The article they co-authored presented nothing more than a rehash of some other scholars’ claims that the Jehoash is a forgery. Hence, they are not professional epigraphers. And hence, it is they themselves who have engaged in distorting, if not faking, biblical history.
In response to my article regarding her opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Nina Burleigh, a reporter, makes false remarks, which are diversionary and irrelevant to the issue of biblical antiquities and epigraphy. This proves how unprofessional and desperate a reporter she is. Since she can not deal with Hebrew and Aramaic Epigraphy - a highly specialised area, completely beyond her knowledge and comprehension - she resorts to making false personal statements. (See L.A. Times of 29th November, 2008; and my two-piece essay, ‘The Trial on Trial and Unholy Hoaxes from a Nimble Journalist’, and her response to that last essay in Bible and Interpretation).
Ms. Burleigh rushes in where angles fear to tread. She is unaware that Biblical/Semitic Epigraphy is a mine field, discreetly avoided by many biblical scholars or, if tackled, approached very gingerly.
As a professional epigrapher, normally I would not respond to dilettante articles by newspaper reporters who do not know what they are talking about. But since I am also a writer, it is necessary, indeed essential, to respond to her sham journalistic mediocrity, which is bound to mislead the general public.
On account of the mixed serious and comic nature of Burleigh’s articles on my specialised field, I find myself dealing with it accordingly. This part of my essay will therefore treat what is serious seriously, and what is comic, satirically.
Here are some of the blunders she commits:
Ms. Burleigh reports – based on my British spelling – that I reside in London.
This is not true (even though at one time in the past I considered myself a Londoner). Since I am British-educated, I have chosen to use British spelling in all my scholarly and literary writings.
When she writes that I wrote a novel about my ex-wife, she is violating a sacred rule of Journalism: not to divert attention by making false personal statements. That particular book is not autobiographical; it is fiction. It is a novel about all cunning feminists, like Potiphar’s wife, Job’s wife, Jezebel, Vashti, Lady Macbeth, and the likes of Nina Burleigh.
Confessions of a Sheep for Slaughter is a novel of ideas, literary allusions, and linguistic associations – which, I very much suspect, would be too demanding on Nina Burleigh’s intelligence, knowledge, and imagination. It is about feminists who have no regard for family values, and who are willing to do anything to advance their careers. But what has this novel of mine to do with the issue of biblical antiquities and the Jehoash inscription? Nothing at all. Still, she chose to mention it, yet cunningly omitting that part of the subtitle which, in full, reads: Memoirs of Feminist Wolves and their Little Crimes. She purposely omitted the Little Crimes because she was about to commit some herself.
When she reports that I am “a scholar”, she deliberately omits the fact that I am a specialist in Semitic Epigraphy, a field in which she is a complete cipher.
All of this tells us something important about third rate reporters. Either they fail to check their facts, or they obscure them, or they distort the truth to suit their own hidden agenda, or make false personal statements. Ms. Burleigh has committed all these misdemeanours, and the evidence, in my opinion, is sufficient for an objective person to disrobe her of the title ‘journalist’. In fact, she disqualifies herself. Readers, therefore, are advised to go to original sources and not to rely on the suspect and self-serving articles of this reporter who, obviously, has a cheap opinion of her profession and its ethics.
Confronting the truth about her sham, irresponsible reporting with anger, she reacts like a child, hitting left and right. Understandable, but not excusable.
It is clear N. B. has not taken the trouble to read my published epigraphic research on the Jehoash inscription, nor any of my less difficult literary novels. My study on a biblical feminist – Job’s wife – would be of particular interest to her (see ‘The Literary and Theological Function of Job’s Wife in the Book of Job’, Biblica vol. 79:1 – 1998). As a militant feminist, she will find this research stimulating and relatively easy to understand, aside from the possibility – albeit remote - of reforming her. Here is an opportunity for N. B. to beat her breast and come clean. But I do realise the unlikelihood of that to happen.
Regarding the Jehoash inscription, she again disparagingly refers to specialists in Semitic Studies as if they were wishy-washy newspaper reporters. She has no idea what authentic, scholarly, time-consuming research is. She gives her lay readers an example of wishful thinking, with the name Madoff in it. They are told it is a joke, illustrating simple-minded specialists, who “want” to believe (want to believe!) that a present-day fabricated item is an ancient one. Thus, Hebraists, philologists, and Semitic Epigraphers, who have spent years in study, research, and publications, are dismissed as if they were gossip reporters for teenage girls (Nina Burleigh’s expertise). Instead of admitting she has previously blundered, plunging into specialised fields beyond her knowledge and comprehension, she again feeds her unsuspecting general public with well written trash. She is unaware of the dangers of what she is doing, using sham reporting to distort the truth. She does not possess the training, knowledge, and experience to tackle the linguistic and textual issues involved - not even on a very elementary level. Hence she resorts to a childish analogy and to personal innuendoes, even false statements, to compensate for her intellectual and imaginative disabilities.
The example she gives is fallacious because the name Madoff and a certain supposedly controversial expression in the Jehoash tablet (wa’a’as bedeq hab-bayith), in reference to Temple repairs, do not correspond to each other. It is for epigraphers, linguists, Hebraists, and philologists, to discuss this expression and other textual/linguistic matters, not for a reporter of a popular magazine to take sides or pass judgement.
Let us turn the Tell Dan Old Aramaic inscription. This inscription was unearthed in July 1993. As soon as it appeared in print some time later, I started working on it, and spent a whole year analysing it, eventually publishing a detailed research study (‘The Old Aramaic Inscription from Tell Dan: Philological, Literary, and Historical Aspects’, Journal of Semitic Studies 40:1, 1995). The discovery of the stone was made under supervised excavation, and although the majority of scholars, including myself, considered it genuine, some others considered it a forgery. Now if a major epigrapher considers an inscription a forgery, others in the same field must evaluate the evidence he presents with the seriousness it deserves, and then come to an informed conclusion. When a popular magazine reporter, a lay person – who happens to be a cipher in Biblical and Semitic Epigraphy – dares to broadcast her personal opinion about it, we possess the right not only to dismiss it publicly, but also to accuse her of spreading misinformation, thereby misleading the unsuspecting readers.
Now in the Tell Dan inscription we find two words combined into one, without a separating dot, bytdwd (the House of David), which must refer to a dynasty headed by King David of Judah. One young scholar, who has spent several years studying the inscription (especially its palaeography) has proposed a different interpretation of this. He considers it to be in reference to ‘a small principality’, the ancient city of Jerusalem and not to a person or dynasty. (For my review article, critiquing his book – based on a doctoral thesis – see ‘The Problems of a New Minimized Reading of the Tell Dan Old Aramaic Inscription’, Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol. L, No.1, 2005). As a result of his adoption of the Deconstructionist/Minimalist approach to the Hebrew Bible, the kingdoms of David and Solomon disappear from our view. We are told they had never existed. One could put up with this thesis - provisionally. But how can one stand idle when this man (who, incidentally also teaches Greek) down-sizes and devalues the Hebrew Bible – one of the greatest literary achievements, not only of Middle Eastern ancient Jewry but also of World Literature?
He talks of “the biblical record” as “an unknown quantity at best and a pure fabrication at worst” (p. 299 in his book).
We shall not discuss this man’s religion or his politics - they may all be Greek. He is not aware that his “New” Testament is one big fabrication itself, the greatest swindle of all times, in that it appropriated the Hebrew Bible, based itself upon it, then rejected it at the same time. I wonder if he has the guts to make a public statement that this “New” Testament of his is ‘a fabrication’. He would find himself excommunicated and unemployed.
Friedrich Nietzsche recognised, even in German translation, the power, majesty, and glory of the Hebrew Scriptures, and considered these to be unparalleled in any other literature, including the Indian and the Chinese (see his treatise, Beyond Good and Evil, section 52). Unknown to him, the original Biblical Hebrew, particularly of the Prophets, is a hundred fold more awe inspiring and powerful than any translation. He rightly lambasted the “New” Testament as a laughable attachment to the Hebrew Bible.
We now need to get back to Nina Burleigh and to her false epigraphic analogy.
She appears to have consulted amateurs or would be ‘epigraphers’, and repeated what they had told her.
Let us suppose that in addition to finding bytdwd in the Tell Dan inscription, we happen also to find two Semitic (Hebrew or Aramaic) letters, corresponding to English NB. What could such two mysterious letters be in reference to? We could surmise them to be the initials of Napoleon Bonaparte. That interpretation would show the text to be a relatively modern fabrication by a foolish and slovenly forger, because Napoleon lived about two hundred years ago, not in biblical times. We could of course conclude it is in reference to one Noona Boor-lye – a prototype American Indian feminist who, having deserted her husband and children to advance her career, travelled on a flying horse to Jerusalem, where she conducted interviews with King David about his liaisons with Bathsheba. No doubt even in those days people were interested in such stories. Since NB spoke a native language, possibly Chinook, and could say nothing in Biblical Hebrew, she must have used sign language to communicate with the great King. But that would be before America was discovered, before the suffragettes arrived on the scene, and long before women were granted equal rights, or ventured into journalism – professional or dilettante. It was also before any female could think independently, let alone write an opinion piece – straight or crooked – in the newspapers. Moreover, in those days magazines for people were not in fashion, and so NB would have to stand for something completely different (to use the jargon of Monty Pythons Flying Circus).
We must leave this hypothetical epigraphic conundrum unsolved for the time being. There is nothing wrong with that. Even the police must on occasions leave unsolved murder cases on hold till new evidence comes to light, if it comes to light at all.
Ms. Burleigh refers to my scholarly novel about the Jehoash inscription, King Jehoash and the Mystery of the Temple of Solomon Inscription in a derogatory manner. I may safely assume she has not read it. Had she read it, she would have learned a few things about epigraphy in general, and about the Jehoash inscription, in particular – general things that would have been instructive and of benefit to her. For my novel, in fact, is more non-fiction than fiction, and her non-fiction - Unholy Business – is more fiction than non-fiction. I am basing this conclusion on the superficial, confused, and ridiculous statements she has made in her newspaper article, and in her response to my essay, ‘Unholy Hoaxes from a Nimble Journalist’.
Finally, N. B. informs us that during her interviews with biblical and Semitic scholars, she has encountered all sorts of ‘characters’ – by which she probably means weird ones. This statement, coming from a feminist about-town who is no doubt in her fifties, is incredible, because anyone who has lived for some thirty years on this Planet Earth would know that there are ‘characters’ in every field of human activity, including journalism. And this is fully illustrated by the ‘character’ of N. B. herself. Happily, I must count myself fortunate for not having been one of those characters she interviewed. Clearly, she had no inkling whatsoever of my own existence, even though I had written a doctoral thesis on early Hebrew inscriptions in the Seventies, and published numerous epigraphic studies over a period of some thirty years!
Let us hope – against hope probably – that no more dilettante reports on Semitic Epigraphy will issue from the pen of Ms. Burleigh, for while she may claim they are authentic, we can definitely, and with ease, prove them rehashed, fake. Unfortunately for her, she is not even aware how childish and ridiculous her reports on Epigraphy and Biblical Antiquities look to professionals like myself. It appears therefore that we shall see more of her clever fabrications which, when all is said and done, do afford some entertainment, albeit not of a quite harmless nature, to put it mildly.
And my prophecy, alas, has in fact just come true. For lo and behold, my misgivings have proved right! Nina Burleigh, yes, has struck again. It now appears she has decided to assume the mantle of an official reporter on epigraphic discoveries and biblical antiquities. For only last night I happened to come across a piece by one, N. B.,
about the newly discovered tablet, The Vision of Gabriel. The few sentences I brought myself to read said something about Biblical Forgeries!
In no time I myself began to see prophetic visions, fearful omens that this world of ours is indeed coming to a sorry End. With the global warming, the collapse of the global economy, the cheapening and deterioration of formal education in general, and of journalism, in particular, and the onslaughts of feminists on Semitic Epigraphy, prophetic visions will definitely increase and multiply. The End of Days and the Final Judgement are at hand. The Gates of Repentance are sealed forever. Noah’s Ark will be of no avail; for there will be no escape.
There is no peace for the wicked, says the Lord!
Journalism is an honourable profession. At its best it is the voice of the people by the people, for the people. But it carries with it great responsibilities. Integrity of reporting is one of its sacred principles. A journalist, worth his or her salt, tells truth to power. This is what George Orwell professed and practised.
When a reporter engages in a specialised field she knows nothing about, she is taking short cuts, where short cuts do not exist, or cannot work.
We have seen the dangers of bad reporting, of propaganda, of mass indoctrination. These lead to mass hysteria and to unnecessary, cruel wars. We have seen it with the Communists, the Nazis, and more recently in the West, and in certain other countries. We have seen it when the media acquiesce and even actively support the government, any government. When truth is violated, when there is no integrity in reporting, many people suffer and, in the worst scenarios, thousands of lives are lost and cities go up in flames.
I recall how Bernard Levin, a prominent English journalist in the 1960’s, supported wholeheartedly the war against North Vietnam. By sacrificing our men over there, he kept saying, we can sleep safe and sound at night over here, and our way of life is secure. The Vietnamese, who were nothing on the world stage, were painted as evil incarnate. This is what gossip is - empty but dangerous words, trash clothed in convincing jargon aimed to fool the masses. Nowadays, the Vietnamese – who chose to fight for their own nasty ideology - are working very hard to provide cheap labour and cheap merchandise for the relatively prosperous West. They turned out to be good, nice people – much better than the generally detested G. W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and the torturers of Guantanamo Bay prison.
I am not suggesting that Nina Burleigh is about to instigate World War III by her suspect reports on Epigraphy and Biblical Antiquities. What I am suggesting is that sham, irresponsible journalism can in fact lead to wars – make no mistake about it – by drumming up lies and mass hysteria. As a reporter, N. B. is setting a bad example to younger journalists. Today it is biblical antiquities, tomorrow it could be another Vietnam war she would support. She is a voice of the government, not of the people – and that is suspect! For government is power, and power corrupts.
Sooner or later, N. B. will realise the need to go back to school – as a freshman - and study ethical journalism, the fundamentals of truthful, responsible reporting. She will learn about integrity. A good school of journalism will teach her that it never pays to fake it. Only then can she go out into the world and write about issues she knows, and serve the Public and the Truth.
Such a public servant was George Orwell. Here is an example to follow.
29th March, 2009
Copyright © 2009 by Victor Sasson
Dr. Victor Sasson grew up in Baghdad. He is British-educated and holds degrees from the University of London and an American Ph.D. He was Senior Lecturer in Semitic Languages at the University of South Africa, Member of the Society for Old Testament Study, and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. A biblical scholar and specialist in Hebrew and Aramaic Epigraphy, he has also published four novels, including King Jehoash and the Mystery of the Temple of Solomon Inscription, which is based on his published research on the Jehoash tablet.