Sinai 115 and Historical Canaanite Phonology

Welcome, dear reader, to the first entry of Warlord and Scribe: Northwest Semitics in Context. I’ll have a post up soon about the name of the blog and, for those of you who stick around for that, I hope you enjoy it. Keep an eye out, too, for my forthcoming article on the Qubur al-Walaydah bowl in BASOR 377.

Now, on to more pressing matters: Sinai 115.

The Egyptian inscription was photographed by Sir Flinders Petrie during his expedition to the Sinai in the late 19th century. The negatives from the expedition are currently held by the Egypt Exploration Society. My contact there, Carl Graves, was incredibly helpful in allowing me access to digital versions of the photographs they have of Sinai 115 as well as in granting me permissions to post the photos here on my blog. So, to Carl and the EES, I give my heartfelt thanks. The first thing I hope to do in this post is exhibit Sir Flinders Petrie’s images and discuss both these photographs’ intrinsic value and, more broadly, the role of standard photographs in epigraphy/palaeography.

Furthermore, Sinai 115 has recently taken up a central role in discussions on the origin of the alphabet. Douglas Petrovich presented part of Sinai 115 at the annual national meetings for ASOR in San Antonio. I was in attendance at the presentation. Of course, the title (The World’s Oldest Alphabet: Hebrew as the Language of the Proto-Consonantal Script, to be published as a book by Carta) caught the attention of many of us who regularly engage in conversations about Northwest Semitic epigraphy and palaeography. (As a personal note, I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed engaging the Early Alphabetic materials. Further, I have colleagues and friends who are expertly skilled at working with these materials and I have always enjoyed their work, finding it to be lively, erudite, and quite productive.)

Petrovich’s presentation and the basic thesis of his book is centered on the notion that the epigraphic materials found in the Sinai that contain inscriptions written in the Early Alphabetic script represent the Hebrew language.[1] Prof. Christopher Rollston has already offered two different (and rather thorough) responses to Petrovich. They can be seen here and here. Rollston was joined by Egyptologist Thomas Schneider, who addressed Petrovich’s contention that the word “Hebrew” can be read in Sinai 115. Schneider’s simple, trenchant post may be found here.

Rollston and Schneider have both offered solid responses to Petrovich’s claim and I am in firm agreement with their assessments. I hope, in the latter portion of this post, to augment their discussions with a few of my own thoughts, adding additional data. What I’ll discuss here is certainly nothing new or groundbreaking. Rather, I simply wish to present,in addition to the photographs of Sinai 115, a few additional problems Petrovich’s thesis encounters (as evident in his responses posted to his page here, here, and here). While I have not read Petrovich’s book, the problems characteristic of what he has revealed thus far are so fundamental that it is entirely unlikely that the monograph will solve them (more on these below).

On Epigraphic Method: Caveats and Concerns

In his response to Prof. Schneider’s statements on the reading of Sinai 115, Petrovich stated, “I confirmed Černý’s reading by studying (under varying degrees of magnification) the black-and-white photo of the Egypt Exploration Society, which simply must be consulted before attempting to read these lines with confidence” (emphasis mine). Elsewhere, Petrovich suggests taking “a careful look at the [Egypt Exploration Society] photo….” In the comments section of his second response to Rollston, Petrovich also stated, “I saw several [N.B., “several,” not “all”] of the inscriptions that went into [my] book. As for Sinai, I was advised that it’s a bit too ‘hot’ there to risk a trip to Serabit” (emphasis mine). By his own admission, it would appear that Petrovich has never actually inspected Sinai 115 personally. Rather, he has only had access to a 100+ year old black and white photograph provided to him by the EES alongside drawings executed by Gardiner and Černý respectively. As Heather Parker and I have noted in the Festschrift for Jo Ann Hackett (see esp. pp. 210-213), epigraphic/palaeographic method is best done in a two-step process. While consultation of photographs is a helpful exercise in analyzing ancient inscriptions, there is no substitute for interaction with the original material culture object itself. Furthermore, while I certainly do not discount the contributions made by scholars photographing inscriptions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it should come as a surprise to no one that our imaging technologies have improved far beyond those available to early photographers of inscriptions. So, it would appear, by his own admission, that Petrovich has not actually interacted with Sinai 115 himself and is, instead, relying solely on a single, 100+ year old negative from the work of Sir Flinders Petrie. Thanks to Carl Graves and the EES, I have found the picture Petrovich cited and have been granted permission to post the picture here on my blog. While I have not confirmed with Petrovich that this is the photograph, it is the only photograph of Sinai 115 in the possession of the EES and, therefore, must be the photograph Petrovich cites as a necessity when analyzing this inscription. (N.B.: This link will take you to an IMGUR album of full resolution images.)

Image of Sinai 115, Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

I’ll note first that, all things considered, this photograph is rather clean and most of the inscription is legible. The upper two-thirds of the stele are clear and the glyphs discernible. As we approach the bottom, however, we encounter several problems that hamper the usefulness of the photograph. Not only is the photograph developed from late 19th c. negatives, the bottom portion of one version of the photo (see below) is clearly overexposed, and the upper left hand corner of the area in question is heavily damaged. Gardiner and Peet collated Sinai 115 with both a squeeze of the inscription and a photograph (presumably the same photograph displayed here), as noted in the 1917 Egyptian Exploration Fund publication. So, it would appear that Gardiner and Peet had access to the very same data (veritably, even more data, given their access to a squeeze of the inscription!) and yet they differ with Petrovich on how to read the end of Sinai 115, leaving the upper left hand corner of their drawing appropriately blank, having understood the area as far too abraded to contain any discernible glyphs. Let’s take a closer look at the portion of the inscription Petrovich focuses on, where he attempts to read “Hebrews.” Because Petrovich claims that he viewed the photographs under various levels of magnification, let us also reproduce the process, looking at the images under various levels of magnification.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Image of Sinai 115, Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

As we can see, simply from zooming in on the bottom of the stele (see above, figures 1 and 2), the images have already begun to pixelate. Not only are the images increasingly more difficult to read with certainty, it is well nigh impossible to distinguish between what is a glyph and what is abrasion in the upper left hand corner of the register. When one considers the fact that a significant portion of the lower third of the stele has undergone heavy damage over time coupled with the fact that this damaged area extends down the left side of the stele, it becomes clear that we do not have enough data remaining in the text to draw definitive conclusions beyond the judicious patronymic that Schneider has suggested. Furthermore, while conferring with Prof. Schneider, I came to the recognition that the relationship between the text immediately above the iconography and the iconography itself is at least somewhat unclear. It is possible that the final lines of the inscription could be describing the iconography. Alternatively, it is entirely possible that the final lines of the inscription are a continuation of the list of officials in the legible text above the abraded area. We can conclude, due to a constellation of contextual data mined from the very photograph Petrovich cites as paramount, that his reading is untenable. While older photographs are oftentimes helpful, they are also necessarily limited insofar as the amount of data recoverable. Preferable, now, would be analysis of digital images–especially Reflectance Transformation Imaging.

A note here is warranted on the usefulness of line drawings of inscriptions. Petrovich relies heavily on the epigraphic drawings of others in order to develop his own conclusions. This is the case both here as it pertains to Sinai 115 as well as to his understanding of both the Ophel inscription and the Kh. Qeiyafa ostracon (see comments below on the latter two). Analysis of another scholar’s drawing is of course a helpful exercise when studying ancient epigraphs. A drawing, however, is still a drawing and is, by necessity, interpretive. Consultation of a line drawing is by no means an adequate substitute for study of the original inscription or, when personal collation of an object is not possible, high quality images of that object. I’ll add here, that it would even be beneficial to consult the squeeze of Sinai 115; however, the EES has informed me that the squeeze could be in the possession of either the Petrie Museum, or the Griffith Institute, or it could be lost altogether. I have not as of yet contacted the Petrie Museum or the Griffith Institute.

Furthermore, I follow Rollston in his cautious admonition that serious epigraphic analysis should not proceed on the basis of reconstructions. I cannot stress this enough. That is, we can only draw firm conclusions on the basis of text that is observable in a given inscription. If there is no text then there is no proof. Of course, Petrovich is not in any way averse to relying on reconstructions–as is evidenced by his staunch reliance on Gershon Galil’s faulty reading of the Ophel inscription (see PEQ 147:2 [2015]:130-145 for Petrovich’s approach as it pertains to reconstructions and palaeography). I refer the reader to that article simply as another example of Petrovich’s desire to force the “square peg” of Canaanite inscriptions into the “round hole” of Hebrew.[2]

I can summarize this section with the following points:

  • The photograph that Petrovich cites as indispensable for deciphering Sinai 115 is itself insufficient for drawing any major epigraphic conclusions beyond the work of Gardiner, Peet, and Černý.
  • Epigraphy/palaeography is best done in consultation with the original object itself, not only images.
  • Viewing images at “various levels of magnification” does not lend greater credence to palaeographic analysis when the images are of insufficient quality.
  • Unless appearing in highly formulaic contexts, epigraphic reconstructions are unreliable.

On the Phonemic Inventory of Northwest Semitic and Its Tochtersprachen

It is common practice in historical linguistics for specialists within a given language family to reconstruct hypothetical “proto-languages” whence later languages were derived. This is the case in Semitics. While only hypothetical, the Proto-Semitic alphabet is frequently cited and discussed when dealing with issues pertaining to the historical development of various Semitic languages (e.g., Akkadian, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, etc.). This Proto-Semitic phonemic inventory most likely contained 30 /phonemes/–29 of which have been preserved in Arabic. A comparison of the various phonemic inventories of Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Arabic, and Proto-Semitic can be seen here (click link for full resolution):

Chart made by N. E. Greene, adapated and truncated from J. Huehnergard, The Historical Grammar of Classical Hebrew: An Outline, 5.

A brief note on style: angle brackets 〈h〉 are used to indicate graphemes, slashes /h/ are used to indicate phonemes, and square brackets [h] are used to indicate phones.

Phonemic mergers (as shown in in the chart above), are just one tool of many that allows us to determine when we are dealing with one language or another. That is, the phonemes can be used as “linguistic isoglosses” to determine whether one is dealing with Aramaic as opposed to Hebrew (just as one example). To provide some indisputable evidence, the *Proto-Semitic form *ˀarɬ̣’u became ʾarṣʾu in Hebrew (written ארץ), but ʾarḳʾu in Aramaic (written ארקא in Old Aramaic and ארעא in Imperial Aramaic; the final u on each form is the old nominative case ending). If one consults the chart posted above, it will be noted that the Proto-Semitic phoneme represented by צ in Hebrew but by ק/ע in Aramaic is /ɬ̣/ (Arabic ض). What this provides scholars is an indispensable tool for determining the language in which an inscription is written. We might also readily consider things like the morpheme for the definite article (〈h〉 prefixed to a noun in Hebrew, 〈ʾ〉 suffixed to a noun in Aramaic, the alif-lam (ال) prefixed to a noun in Arabic, etc.), the morphology of plural forms of nouns (-m as indicative of the masculine plural [or, perhaps dual] in Hebrew, –n in Aramaic and Moabite, and even the broken plural in Arabic [cf. [buyūt] بيوت as the plural of [baytu] بيت, “house”], etc., as other determining factors that allow us to classify a given text in a particular language (not to mention linguistic quagmires like the Deir ʿAlla plaster texts!). This is wholly distinct from the issue of what script is employed to write a text (and that script’s origins), however. As Rollston points out in Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, a script can be used to write any number of languages (p. 3). He provides as examples quotes in French, Dutch, and Latin, all written in the Latin script; but, however, all three quotes are in different languages. Although graphemes used to represent a language’s phonemes are frequently used to identify the language of a text, they do not necessarily provide direct access to the linguistic system in use. For example, Judeo-Arabic writes Arabic in Hebrew graphemes. To wit: language and script are two wholly different issues.

The Value of Ugaritic. Ugaritic was deciphered in the late 1920s. While the script (an alphabet-based cuneiform) is wholly distinct from the pictographs of the Proto-Sinaitic corpus in both style and origin, the languages represented by the respective corpora are both demonstrably Semitic. Now, why does this matter for dealing with Petrovich’s claim that the Proto-Sinaitic corpus was written in the Hebrew language? Let’s take a look at what Petrovich has stated about his [mis]understanding of Ugaritic[3]:

In his first response to Rollston, Petrovich states,

For Rollston’s second point, he states that the initial alphabet contained 27 letters, which is five more than the 22 consonants of Hebrew. It is true that the proto-consonantal (PC) script long has been dubbed as having 27 letters, and was then reduced to 22 by the 13th century BC (Naveh 1982: 42; Rollston 2012: 34–35). The articulation of these alleged 27 PC letters is best presented by Hamilton (2006). Probably this long-held assumption is due to both the earliness and the large number of consonants of the Ugaritic alphabet. However, in Appendix 1 of my book, I spent 25 pages of painstaking analysis to discuss the Middle Egyptian hieroglyphic precursor to every one of the 22 original PCH letters. In every case, a proper Hebrew word perfectly fits each and every pictograph representing that consonant. Additionally, in Appendix 2, I demonstrated how each one of the alleged five additional letters is not actually part of the original PC alphabet. Moreover, I prove this paleographically [sic], not with theory or erudite argumentation. The evidence in these two appendices simply needs to be studied and evaluated empirically, and not dismissed a priori.

And in his second response to Rollston, Petrovich suggests,

The post-Grimme discovery of Ugaritic’s alphabet actually has nothing whatsoever to do with the decipherment of the PC script. The fact is that nearly 500 years elapsed between the advent of the pictographic alphabet in Egypt—not the wedge-shaped signs borrowed from the cuneiform script(s)—and Ugarit’s inscriptional attestation to a consonantal script, so the mysteries of the PC script’s origins have nothing remotely to do with Ugaritic or the site of Ugarit. Moreover, Byblos was Egypt’s primary training [sic] partner during the MBA and deep into the LBA, not Ugarit. Nor do the existence of consonants at Ugarit that number beyond the 22 of the original alphabet have any relevance to the question of the script’s origins.

The problems here are pluriform and I will do my best to delineate why, exactly, they are problems. Phonemes always merge permanently; they do not merge and then unmerge into the same constituent parts. To this we may apply Occam’s Razor. Furthermore, the most glaring and insurmountable problem Petrovich faces is the fact that the issue at hand is not about the origin of the Early Alphabetic Script vis-à-vis the Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform. After all, the center of his own thesis is language (it’s in the very title of the book!). We may for a moment set aside the issue of scripts and their origins and focus solely on the languages represented by the Early Alphabetic and Ugaritic textual corpora. A judicious and reasonable read of both corpora shows that the languages are related and that they utilize a comparable phonemic repertoire. /ð/ and /θ/ appear (in no uncertain terms) in both the Early Alphabetic texts as well as at Ugarit. Etymological /ð/ and /z/ are represented using distinct graphemes in Sinai 345 (see more on this below). It is typologically unlikely for writing systems to have two different graphemes for the same phoneme, as Petrovich would appear to argue. Hebrew never utilized distinct graphemes to represent these phonemes (as Petrovich himself admits, albeit somewhat tacitly). In Hebrew, /ð/ and /θ/ eventually merged with the phonemes /z/ and /š/ respectively. Although it is possible that Hebrew preserved a distinction between these two phonemes longer than did Phoenician, from which Hebrew borrowed its writing system, we have no epigraphic evidence to that effect. Thus, even if one surmises that the origins of 〈ð〉 and 〈θ〉 are not Semitic, their appearance in a Semitic language context militates against classifying the language as Hebrew.

Related is Petrovich’s imprecision as it pertains to how and why Semitists have long theorized that there were 27 graphemes in Ugaritic, each representing distinct phonemes–a phonemic repertoire indeed larger than that of Hebrew. The presence of the phonemes /ǵ/, /ð/, //, //, and // (and the distinct graphemes used to represent them), which appear in linguistic contexts consistent with languages cognate with Ugaritic, affirms that these phonemes were not only operative in Ugaritic, but original to the Semitic language family as a whole. To that end, Petrovich’s appendixes to his book are, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Allow me to explain: the source/origin of the 5 graphemes representing 5 phonemes beyond the 22 of Hebrew is of no consequence by virtue of the fact that whoever wrote these inscriptions was utilizing these phonemes as a part of their written language. As just one example, we might consider the pictograph of two parallel lines that represents /ð/ (see Hamilton, The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts, pp. 145-154 for a discussion). The simple fact that this phoneme appears in the Early Alphabetic corpus, in predictable linguistic contexts and comparable to contexts in which the phoneme appears in a variety of Semitic languages, strongly suggests that we cannot classify the language of the Early Alphabetic inscriptions as Hebrew. There is no epigraphic or transcriptional evidence that Hebrew maintained /ð/ as a distinct phoneme at all. The Iron Age Hebrew script did not have distinct graphemes for /ǵ/, //, etc., Greek transcriptions and Masoretic vocalization show that spoken Hebrew did retain these phonemes well beyond the Iron Age. We might readily consider Greek transcriptions of the place name Gaza vis-à-vis Gilead: Hebrew עזה, Greek Γαζα, indicating an original /ǵ/, as opposed to Hebrew גלעד, Greek Γαλααδ, indicating an etymological ʿayin (for more examples, see Jo Ann Hackett, “Hebrew (Biblical and Epigraphic),” in Beyond Babel, ed. by Steve McKenzie and John Kaltner, pp. 147). In the case of /ð/, however, the Hebrew script did not have a separate grapheme nor is there any transcriptional evidence to suggest as much. In short, it is not “due to both the earliness and the large number of consonants of the Ugaritic alphabet” that Semitists have for so long theorized that the Early Alphabetic phonemic repertoire was so large. Rather, the data set is much larger. The theory is based on the fact that the Early Alphabetic phonemic inventory has been retained in various ways by a menagerie of Semitic languages. The fact that Arabic, Akkadian, Aramaic, Ethiopic, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew, and, yes, the Early Alphabetic inscriptions in question (not to mention many other Semitic languages) evidence a phonemic repertoire larger than 22 phonemes is what has led specialists to this conclusion. This is not an “assumption,” as Petrovich suggests it is. Petrovich’s red herring of the origins of the Ugaritic script are entirely beside the point, anyway. Is his argument not that the language behind the Early Alphabetic materials is Hebrew? That being the case, we must necessarily consider the full breadth of linguistic data at our disposal–this includes marshaling linguistic data from ancient Ugarit. I suppose, though, that Petrovich is right about one thing–that, by his own admission, he has not used “theory or erudite argumentation.”

And so, we can return to Petrovich’s theory of historical Semitic phonology, where he states:

A better scenario is that the Hebrew alphabetic script “began things” with a 22-letter alphabet in the middle of the 19th century BC, then several centuries later Ugaritic expanded that count due to its greater number of consonants, then the 22-letter alphabet resurfaced in inscriptions of the late 2nd millennium BC.

It should be clear by now, however, that the Early Alphabetic corpus was produced with a phonological repertoire more similar to that of Ugaritic than to that of all preserved dialects of Hebrew. This has nothing at all to do with the origins of scripts–rather, it has to do with the mechanics of language. Further, I have not even broached the role of Old South Arabian and the phonemic repertoire available to the people responsible for those inscriptions! The insurmountable problem facing Petrovich is that in general, older Semitic languages tend to have larger phonemic inventories because they’ve had less time to undergo consonant mergers. Akkadian from the Old Babylonian period onward is a notable exception, but its reduced phonemic inventory is due to contact with Sumerian.

To add to the ever growing pile of examples where Petrovich fails to understand the mechanics of historical Semitic phonology, in attempting to argue for the presence of an Egyptian transcription of “Hebrews” (עברים) at the end of Sinai 115, Petrovich completely misrepresents John Huehnergard’s 2003 argument concerning the possible existence of an additional Proto-Semitic phoneme preserved in West Semitic as // and in East Semitic as //. Huehnergard’s proposed phoneme is a “glottalic/ejective velar fricative, IPA [], or, in Semitistic form, ” (Huehnergard, “Akkadian and West Semitic *,” Orientalia: Papers of the Oriental Institute, Issue III, p. 115). Petrovich misappropriates a statement made by Huehnergard in the same article. Here is the quote from Petrovich:

When discussing the lack of consistent correspondence between Akkadian ḫ and Western Semitic consonants, Huehnergard (2003: 112) said this: “When confronted with such a situation, where two co-equal branches of a language family exhibit a large set of cognates in which one of the consonants differs consistently in the two branches, and yet no conditioning factors can be found to account for the difference, the historical linguist is justified in suggesting that the cognates reflect mergers in the two branches of an earlier, now lost, third consonant.” Given all of this, it seems that a number of consonants can actualize in Akkadian as ḫ, and that the reed leaf on Sinai 115 [i.e., an Egyptian inscription] may preserve some hint of that third, now lost, consonant.

The logical gymnastics performed here by Petrovich are not only puzzling to this Semitist, but to Prof. Schneider as well. The problem here is that Huehnergard was not discussing “the lack of consistent correspondence between Akkadian ḫ and Western Semitic consonants.” Neither was Huehnergard arguing for the presence of a lost Proto-Semitic phoneme in Egyptian, as Petrovich seems to think. Rather, Huehnergard was explaining just the opposite: a series of breakdowns in the otherwise consistent correspondence between the Akkadian phonemes /ø/ and /ḫ/ and the West Semitic phonemes // and //, respectively. Huehnergard was highlighting the fact that the correspondence is actually very consistent and predictable. However, Huehnergard also isolated some correspondences between Akkadian /ø/ and either Proto-Semitic // or /ʿ/. What Huehnergard was saying was not that “a number of consonants can actualize in Akkadian as ḫ” as Petrovich suggests. Rather, Huehnergard detailed the fact that the nature of traceable correspondences between these phonemes strongly suggests the presence of an additional Proto-Semitic phoneme // in order to explain the otherwise seemingly random correspondences. This proposed additional phoneme accounts for the variations in phonemic correspondences between West and East Semitic as it pertains to /ø/, //, //, and /ʿ/–this has nothing at all to do with non-Semitic (i.e., Egyptian) phonology. While Petrovich was technically correct in stating “a number of consonants can actualize in Akkadian as ḫ,” it was irrelevant to cite Huehnergard in the first place due to the fact that Huehnergard’s article deals with natural linguistic developments and not loanword borrowing. That is, Huehnergard’s argument does not allow one to draw willy-nilly conclusions about how the word for “Hebrew” might manifest in Egyptian! After all, Egyptian had its own method of transcribing Semitic–as Schneider pointed out in his original post–and that method was notably consistent. It is vital to note here that Petrovich has misappropriated Huehnergard to draw conclusions about the Egyptian language–which was (a) not Semitic and (b) did not follow the same phonological rules as Akkadian!

Regarding Petrovich’s suggestion that he happened to find “a proper Hebrew word [that] perfectly fits each and every pictograph representing that consonant” I will say the following. (1) The identification of several (or, even, many) of the pictographs in the Early Alphabetic corpus is not in question. The pictograph of a house, the grapheme for 〈b〉, is derived from the common Semitic [bayt]. The word is certainly attested in Hebrew. It is also, however, in Phoenician (cf. KAI §4), Aramaic (cf. Dan 5:10; Ezra 6:7), Arabic (see above), Moabite (cf. KAI §181), Akkadian, Ancient South Arabian, Geez, etc. The grapheme for 〈m〉 in the Early Alphabetic corpus, a wave of water, is not in question and derives from the common semitic word [may]: Hebrew מים, Aramaic מיא, Arabic ماء, Akkadian , etc. These two examples should show that the word for “water” and the word for “house” are common Semitic and are in no way diagnostic of Hebrew. Relatedly, Petrovich wishes to classify the enigmatic Qeiyafa ostracon as Hebrew as well. As in his article detailing his reading of the Ophel pithos, he follows Galil, further suggesting that the appearance of lexemes like mlk, špṭ, and ʿbd militate that the inscription must be Hebrew. Of course, not only do we not know which direction to orient the Qeiyafa ostracon, we also do not know which way the inscription was intended to be read–thereby problematizing any attempt to classify the language of the inscription. When we couple these facts with the fact that all three of those lexemes (mlk, špṭ, and ʿbd) are common Northwest Semitic, we can see that none of these words are distinctively Hebrew. √mlk, of course, appears throughout the Northwest Semitic languages (Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic of several varieties, Samalian, Hebrew, etc.). I would point the reader to the entry for √mlk in the Dictionary of Northwest Semitic Inscriptions compiled by Hoftijzer and Jongeling pp. 633-44 for the myriad of possibilities for this root. √špṭ, of course, enjoys a similar breadth, appearing in a nearly identical language distribution as √mlk (see, again, DNWSI). The same is also true for √ʿbd (see, again, DNWSI). To summarize: none of these roots are distinctively Hebrew nor is there any way to suggest that they are distinctively Hebrew. Therefore, neither the Qeiyafa ostracon nor the Ophel pithos nor, especially, the Early Alphabetic corpus can be classified as “Hebrew” by this (or, really, any other) method. I should note that part of the rationale standing behind this methodological caveat is that lexemes are easily borrowed between languages.

I should make a few summary points about this problem here:

  • Lexemes by themselves cannot be used to classify an inscription in a given language.
  • The epigraphic data set at our disposal is only a cross section of the languages they represent. We do not, nor will we ever, have access to the full lexemic inventory of Hebrew vis-à-vis Aramaic vis-à-vis Phoenician vis-à-vis Canaanite, etc.
  • If a given lexeme, e.g., √mlk, appears in a variety of Semitic languages, that lexeme cannot be used as evidence in favor of one language over/against another.

One final note about Petrovich’s claim to have reconstructed the “PCH [i.e., Proto-Consonantal Hebrew, Petrovich’s terminology, not mine] alphabet–there is no abecedary in the corpus of Early Alphabetic inscriptions. That is, there is no inscription in the corpus that contains the alphabet in the same way the Izbet Ṣarṭah abecedary contains the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age alphabet, nor in the same way the Tel Zayit abecedary contains the Phoenician alphabet, nor in the same way that the Ugaritic abecedary (KTU 5.6) does. There is no Early Alphabetic inscription that can be classified as an “abecedary.”

Apologetics and Rhetoric

Petrovich seems to think that critical biblical scholars don’t respect the biblical text. In no uncertain terms, Petrovich states that, “scholars mock the Bible” in the video on his Kickstarter page. Elsewhere, he has stated that biblical scholars treat the historicity of the Exodus as a “laughingstock.” From my perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. The best scholars of the Hebrew Bible have nothing but the highest respect for the text. A solid treatment of the biblical text is founded on respect for that same text and is born of a desire to see it analyzed honestly. Of course, the rhetoric here is not terribly unsurprising. Petrovich has been engaged in Christian apologetics for some time.[4]

In places where Rollston or Schneider disagree with Petrovich’s understanding of a given datum, Petrovich suggests that they must not have consulted the same resources he has. Of course, Petrovich has no way of knowing what resources his interlocutors have consulted. Petrovich’s logic here is rather easily broken down: (1) Petrovich assumes that he has developed objectively correct readings; (2) everyone else is, therefore, objectively incorrect in their analyses; (3) the only way this could have happened is that they did not consult the same things Petrovich consulted and/or they are not equipped to deal with the issue at hand. This is why I’ve provided the images of Sinai 115 above–because now we can see, by Petrovich’s own standards of evidence and scholarly inquiry, that his reading of the inscription is suspect. Ultimately, Petrovich’s approach may be aptly described as rhetoric of self-immunization and so it would seem that he is not in fact interested in scholarly dialogue or evidence in the first place. Suffice it to say for now, Petrovich has no way of knowing the full extent of the materials consulted by Rollston and Schneider and cannot, therefore, levy such frivolous charges of unpreparedness against them.

Related is Petrovich’s assertion that Rollston is unequipped to handle Middle and Late Bronze Age inscriptions due to the fact that Rollston specializes in the Iron Age. In his second response to Rollston, Petrovich stated,

Given that Rollston specializes in the epigraphy of the Iron Age, and not the Bronze Age, his lack of precision in the dating of Semitic inscriptions of the MK/MBA (Middle Kingdom/Middle Bronze Age) is understandable.

In his 1982 article “Alphabets and Pots: Reflections on Typological Method in the Dating Human Artifacts” (Maarav 3: 121-136), F. M. Cross argued that palaeographic method requires an “eye for form.” Drawing a parallel with muscle car junkies’ ability to identify  car models on the basis of their physical features, he would go on to argue that any palaeographer worth their salt would have an intimate knowledge of not only the script type in which they specialize, but both that script’s antecedent and advanced forms as well. Rollston has steeped himself in this method throughout the duration of his career and, as a result, is more than capable of working with the Early Alphabetic materials. Petrovich’s charge against Rollston, then, is little more than ad hominem noise. I would add, too, that it was from Rollston that I first learned how to read Ugaritic, a language dated to the Bronze Age. So, the charge really is quite silly.

Ultimately, the kind of method exhibited by Petrovich can be weighed, measured, and found to be wanting even prior to his book’s full release. I do anticipate Petrovich to suggest that what has been stated in this post is a collection of “unmitigated personal attacks.” I should note, however, that all I’ve done here is present data: photographic and linguistic alike. It is my hope that poor method can be exposed honestly for what it is and that drastic, sensationalizing claims like those made by Petrovich can be muted by the voice of reason and data. Further, I look forward to reviewing Petrovich’s book in print and have begun that process already (more on that as it develops).

[1] – Although, see Garfinkel, Ganor, et al. in pp. 245-246 of Khirbet Qeiyafa, Vol. 1: Excavation Report 2007-2008 for why this could be a bit of a misnomer. Rollston also notes that we commonly refer to this script as “Early Alphabetic” or even simply as “Canaanite.” (back)

[2] – The only tenable case for reconstruction is in highly formulaic and repetitive texts, especially things like narrative poetry, where a text can be reconstructed on the basis of extant text elsewhere in an inscription. I am indebted to Rollston for teaching me this. (back)

[3] – Any markup in the following quotes is mine. I underline text that I intend to discuss; strikethrough is used to eliminate extraneous rhetoric not germane to Petrovich’s point. Any italics in these quotes belong to Petrovich. (back)

[4] – I might note here, that Petrovich’s treatment of the Ophel inscription is (a) entirely reliant on Gershon Galil’s reading of the sherd and (b) as a result, entirely reliant on reconstructions not actually present in the inscription. It is perfectly reasonable (even preferable) for the Ophel inscription to read dextrograde (i.e., from left to right, comparable to the Qubur al-Walaydah bowl [see my forthcoming article in BASOR]) and, as such, Rollston’s reading could work easily. I might also note that A. Demsky and G. Hamilton have treated the inscription recently in their own works. Suffice it to say for now, Galil’s interpretation of the Ophel inscription is unconvincing at best. This, in turn, undermines much of Petrovich’s suggestions in the linked write up, where he is adamant that the inscription is Hebrew. However, classifying the language of this inscription as Hebrew is impossible given the utter lack of linguistic isoglosses extant in the inscription. That is, there is nothing in the text that is unique to Hebrew. (back)


5 thoughts on “Sinai 115 and Historical Canaanite Phonology

  1. A number of interesting points. I have some questions.

    1. Will you/have you sent this to Petrovich himself?
    2. Will you read the book? It seems to me that this is the only way to get Petrovich’s full case into mind, rather than his quick responses to Rollston and Shneider on his academia page.
    3. Is it in your opinion that there is any possibility that some form of proto-Hebrew could be the worlds oldest language?


    • Hi, Jimmy. Thanks for the questions.

      1. Yes. Petrovich has seen this and he subsequently blocked me on Twitter as a result rather than actively engaging me in conversation/debate.

      2. If Carta is willing to send me a review copy, I would read it. I will not, however, pay out of pocket ($84!) for a book that is nothing more than an exercise in Christian apologetics, written to defend the idea of an historical Exodus. I am currently in the process of trying to get a review copy to do a formal, published review of the volume. I’m still waiting to hear back, however.

      3. No. There is no way that Hebrew was in any way, shape, or form the world’s oldest language (written or otherwise). The alphabetic inscriptions from the Sinai are nothing more than Canaanite, which is an ancestor of Hebrew. “Proto-Hebrew” is what we talk about when we discuss things like hypothetical reconstructions of early layers of the language and things of that nature.


      • Thanks for the thoughts. Recently, the American Schools of Oriental Research gave Petrovich space to write an article on his thesis on their website:
        and Petrovich landed a professorship at The Bible Seminary for his “groundbreaking research” on the PC script — so there is at least something to take into consideration here.

        The most I can do as a non-expert is, wait and see what happens. There are apparently some scholars who express support for Petrovich’s thesis so far (Eugene Merrill, Sarah Doherty, and unsurprisingly David Rohl) but others that have doubted it (you, Shneider, Rollston). I’d definitely read a review of yours on the book, if you write one. By the way, I found out that on, the price for the book was cut from $84 to $59, meaning it’s a lot cheaper (just letting you know).

        I’m kind of confused on the exodus thing — it does seem as if Petrovich sees this as the key-establishment of the exodus narrative, but I don’t see much of a point for this. To me at the least, I see little historical doubt for the idea that the Hebrews were once in Egypt and that there was some sort of exodus. At least according to the unofficial survey conducted by James Hoffmeir (Hoffmeier, James K. “Egyptologists and the Israelite Exodus from Egypt.” Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective. Springer International Publishing, 2015. 197-208) this is also the majority position of Egyptologists. I think the recent book ‘Did I Not Bring Israel Out Of Egypt?’ puts the nail in the coffin on this issue.

        Anyways, thanks for your response.


      • Happy to keep the convo going.

        I saw that Petrovich had landed the job at TBS as well as the ASOR blog post. I wish ASOR would put the kibosh on this nonsense. It’s not helping anything and is really a disservice to the field at this point.

        Some things to note about TBS: (1) they are *not* accredited by ATS; (2) they opened in 2011; (3) each of their faculty members are listed as “adjunct” on their website. The first point is the most important. The second should be taken into consideration, but doesn’t necessarily say or prove much. The third is fascinating to me. Regardless, it seems like the kind of fit for him.

        Good to know about the reduced price on Amazon. Interestingly enough, Carta has stated that they have disseminated all of their review copies and will not be sending along any more. So, I’m out of luck for a free version. (If anybody out there feels like throwing a young scholar a bone, shoot me a message! 😅)

        My hesitancy with viewing the Exodus as historical is tied to the utter lack of archaeological evidence from sites such as Kadesh Barnea. While absence of evidence is not evidence, it is rather telling that we have…well…nothing to support an historical exodus. I’m not certain what the Egyptological consensus is on the Exodus. Although, I don’t think it’s as certain as you make it seem.

        You can be sure that if I get around to doing a formal review of the volume, that I’ll post some form of it (or a link to it) on the blog.


      • I appreciate your further responses. I really don’t know what to think of Petrovich’s claims as of now. It will be definitely telling if scholarship simply ignores his book all together.

        I have some thoughts as well on the Kadesh Barnea thing. Many scholars suggest that the exodus population was much smaller than the purported 600,000 figure, because of some supposed translational issues with the number in the Hebrew language (Mendenhall, George E. “The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26.” Journal of Biblical Literature (1958): 52-66; Waite, Jerry. “The Census of Israelite Men after their Exodus from Egypt.” Vetus Testamentum (2010): 487-491). I am convinced by such hypotheses, especially when you take into consideration that the OT says that the Israelite’s were the “fewest of all the peoples” (Deut. 7:7), and that they were so few that they could not immediately populate the entire promised land (Exo. 23:29-30). Assuming an exodus population of, say perhaps 20,000-40,000, which is much more consistent with the biblical text, I’d suppose there’s much, much less reason to expect finding any remains after thousands of years, especially taking into consideration that the exodus was a semi-nomadic migration, not some permanent/urban settlement.

        The reasons why I consider the exodus historical are simple. For one, Egypt has always had a large amount of foreign slaves (as is revealed by the tomb of vizier Rekhmire c. 1460 BC), which is very consistent with the exodus narrative. It’s known that Egyptian slaves were forced to make mudbricks, construction and field work (cf. Exo. 1:13-14), and secondly, Kenneth Kitchen has demonstrated that Egyptian slaves had to meet quotas for their mudbrick production (Kitchen, Kenneth Anderson. “From the Brickfields of Egypt.” Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976): 137-147), a fact that is highly reminiscent of Exodus 5:4-19.

        Secondly, the number of Egyptian words and Egyptian influence in the Book of Exodus is very large. Here, I’d point you to the third chapter in ‘Did I Not Bring Israel Out Of Egypt?’, which was authored by Benjamin Noonan. I found an online link to the full chapter, just to let you know:

        On top of a number of other reasons, such as the fact that numerous Israelite’s in the OT have strictly Egyptian names, I find that the positive case for the exodus is much stronger than the negative one. I am thus very confident in its historicity.

        I’d also definitely read a review of yours on ‘Did I Not Bring Israel Out Of Egypt?’


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