On July 8, 2008, 17-year-old volunteer Oded Yair was digging with an archaeological team in the 3,000-year-old ruins of an ancient Jewish village called Khirbet Qeiyafa, just off Israel’s Route 38 overlooking the Eila Valley (the biblical Valley of Elah, where David fought Goliath). About ten o’clock that morning, Yair unearthed a six-inch near-square of broken pottery (“sherd” or “shard”) and automatically dropped it into a plastic bag holding other finds from the same room. That afternoon, when the team washed their artifacts, they discovered that the sherd was an ostracon, a piece of pottery containing writing. This ostracon contained five lines of ink text, now known to be a moral exhortation written in what is believed to be very ancient Hebrew.
The place where the ostracon was found may prove symbolic if the opinions of its translator, Gershon Galil, are correct. Galil, who is senior lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern history and chairman of the Department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa, says the verbs used and the forms of various words clearly show that by the reign of King David (1,000 B.C.), Jewish scribes were composing complex literary texts (such as Judges and Samuel), writing in well-developed Hebrew.
If Galil’s conclusions prove solid, this six-by-six-and-a-half-inch ostracon becomes tangible evidence contradicting wide-held arguments that the Hebrew Bible could not originate earlier than the 6th century because the Hebrew language was not sufficiently developed before then for writing anything but simple texts. Carbon-14 tests have corroborated Galil’s 10th-century dating of the ostracon, but some scholars question his linguistic arguments for the date.