Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Tel Dan Inscription

I've stayed out of the discussion about the Tel Dan inscription, but since Stephen Carlson is showing signs of hospitality to the idea that it is a forgery, I'll put in my two cents.

I think it is most unlikely that the Tel Dan inscription is a forgery. Speaking as an Aramaist, I would say there is nothing in this inscription that disqualifies it linguistically, in contrast, say, to the Jehoash tablet, which has several irregularities that connect it to Modern Hebrew.

The inscription was discovered in situ by reputable archaeologists. All the efforts to dodge or finesse this fact seem like special pleading to me and, and in my opinion, should not be given the slightest bit of credence. Outside the adherents of the Copenhagen school, no one doubts the authenticity of this epigraph.

What would be the point of such a forgery? Forgeries are created to make money and typically appear on the antiquities market. Did someone want to "prove" the existence of David? Someone who wished to do that would forge an inscription mentioning David himself, not a stele from centuries later that uses his name in a geographical reference.

That Andre Lemaire has written on the Tel Dan inscription is nothing to the point. Despite his lapses in the matter of the James ossuary and the ivory pomegranate, Lemaire is a master of North-west Semitic epigraphy; I still hold him in very high regard professionally, and so does everyone else in the field. He is not the one who discovered or authenticated the stele, in any case.

I don't think the Tel Dan stele would ever have been doubted if it had not proven difficult for the Copenhagen school to fit into their theories. Personally, I would not have any hesitation about using it historically or linguistically.


Jan-Wim Wesselius said...

The sad reality is that, except for really amateurish efforts or texts which are to be fitted in an extremely well-known context, the being genuine or not of written texts can only be proved on grounds which are external to epigraphy in the narrow sense. In this area of uncertainty, we attempt to find arguments for this or that position, often guided by our own position in the scholarly world, our own ideas about the past, the Bible and religion etc. But usually there is no real certainty. One example. Long ago, I identified half of the Syriac text of St. Ephrem the Syrian’s lost Commentary on the Diatessaron (the story is in the late L. Leloir’s introduction to his edition). Now it seems quite impossible to imitate Ephrem’s distinctive style and constitute a Syriac text which corrects the mistakes of the Armenian translator. And still, one cannot exclude entirely that a great scholar took ancient parchment and hired a perfect forger, in some way discovered that I knew this text rather well and... Qal wa-homer for all the texts which I ever wrote something about. Even if you evidently improve on an earlier reading or interpretation, it may well be that you are just following the forger’s lead. All the arguments are relative, except when you enter an appartment and find the forger in his toolshed, and even then some people will refuse to recognize that they have been cheated. On the other hand, once one becomes suspicious, arguments for the assumption of a forgery are usually readily available, just as you are bound to find something once you assume that the Presidents Lincoln or Kennedy were the victim of a conspiracy. Knowing that André Lemaire has apparently been duped several times, I am inclined to look at the texts in his Tablettes araméennes of 2001 with great suspicion, though this may be entirely unjustified, and the same goes for all pieces of uncertain provenance in the Moussaieff collection. So, to return to the Dan inscription, I agree with you that it is extremely unlikely that it was forged and buried in the ruins of ancient Dan, while recognizing that arguments can be found even for basically untenable positions.
Jan-Wim Wesselius, Theological University of Kampen, Netherlands

Jim said...

Hi Ed!
The "Copenhagen School's" case about the history of Israel is not affected by the Tel Dan inscription, and hence "disproving it" is pointless. The Tel Dan inscription is important because, as Cryer, Lemche, and Gmirkin have convincingly shown, there are questions about it that need to be answered before we can be satisfied that it is authentic. Authenticity has to be demonstrated before it can even be brought in as evidence one way or the other regarding the history of Israel. As Joe Zias made clear on ANE- stuff does get planted on archaeological sites- so unless someone can verify that a guard was posted at the spot and there was never any chance that someone did plant the slabs, the question can rightly be raised. Especially, indeed, especially since the recent spate of forgeries have come to light. It would be poor scholarship indeed which did not at least raise the question, even if only to dismiss it after an enquiry.

Michael Turton said...

Ed, Jan Wim is correct. The epigraphic data simply tells you about the quality of the forgery. By saying that the inscription is "authentic" what you mean is that it falls within a certain range of variation that you are willing to accept, whose edges are fuzzy (naturally!).

There are two problems with that point of view. First, any good forger will do his homework and insure that the forgery falls within that 'range of authenticity'. That is true of almost any kind of forgery. Thus determining that it is authentic is really pointless in determining whether it is a forgery; all the epigraphy can do is rule out authenticity, it can never confirm it. Only physical tests can do that. And curiously, we find ourselves blocked on that front, for the artifact will not be released for testing. Strange, eh?

To carry this point further, in order to ensure that the forger remains within the range of acceptable variation, the forger is stuck using extant texts. Thus, for example, the Hitler Diary forger used extant examples Hitler's speeches to make his diary entries. Similarly, the Chinshan Diary of the Boxer Rebellion was made using Imperial Chinese government announcements. The James Ossuary inscription follows a similar one in the Rahmani catalogue. The forger is forced to work from existing models and extrapolate to the forged inscription itself. Thus, Garbini's strongest argument is not his claims about Aramaic. It is his claim that whoever forged the Tel Dan inscription knows the Mesha Stele. The forger would have needed a model, and there are precious few.

This brings me to my second point. Because of the widespread forgery in antiquities, the *range of variation is much wider than it should be.* When scholars compare inscriptions from different artifacts to uncover affinities in hand and usage, at least some of the artifacts in question are forgeries, certainly from the same gang (it is likely that several gangs are in operation doing this, since the money is good and the chance of getting caught nil if the objects go to a private collector). Hence, the data is *biased in favor of 'authenticity'*. This was a factor in the acceptance of the Hitler Diary. When "authentic" samples of Hitler's handwriting were provided, 3 of the 5 samples were actually forgeries from the same forger! No wonder they matched. That is the situation we are looking at now with the epigraphy. Even after the objects are removed from museums, and then from the textbooks, their influence will linger in people's minds.

I urge you to bone up on the very similar cases of the Hitler Diaries (see Harris' _Selling Hitler_) and read _The Hermit of Beijing_, Trevor-Roper's wonderful book on the famous forged Ching-shan Diary.

Michael Turton

EMC said...

Michael, you are begging the question. You are assuming the stele is a forgery and then looking for other examples of forgery. As Jan Wim pointed out, under that assumption everything starts looking like a forgery. The place to look for forgeries is on the antiquities market, not in excavations.

Of course, the Tel Dan inscription is in some ways like the Mesha stele, the Zakkur inscription, and every other memorial stela from Syria-Palestine. What else would it be like? But it's not very much like the Mesha stele, as anyone can plainly see.