Whose Stone Tablets?

8/19/2012 update: In an effort to minimize the amount of misinformation racing around the world wide web, I ask that if you read the following post, please also read Michael Pruitt’s response which follows immediately.

I have been a subscriber to Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) for several decades now. I don’t read every issue from cover to cover, but I always leaf through each issue, and, when I have the time, I read those articles that strike me as particularly interesting. I was flipping through the pages of the most recent edition (September/October 2012), and I found something extremely curious. Hershel Shanks, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society, wrote an editorial explaining how difficult it is to determine to which country any given ancient artifact belongs. For instance, does an ancient artifact belong to the culture that produced it? Does it more appropriately belong to the people who currently occupy the land where it was found? Does it belong to the culture that found it? Does it belong to the people who currently possess it? Obviously these are difficult questions.

The issue that gave rise to the editorial concerned a find made in the Sinai desert in 1969, just two years after the Six-Day War. A team of Israeli archaeologists was exploring one of the proposed locations of the biblical Mt. Sinai. While digging, they found a stone inscribed with a Hebrew letter. They continued to dig and eventually were able to find all of the pieces of two tablets except for a few pieces on the edge that contained no writing. Paleographers examined the writing and concluded that it dated to about 1200 BC.

When all pieced together, the text on the tablets was easily legible. It was the text of the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, it matched the text as recorded in Deuteronomy 5, which is slightly different from the text in Exodus 20. The scholars reached the obvious conclusion that these tablets were the ones Moses broke when he came down from the mountain and found the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. The scholars who found the tablets decided to stick them in a vault at the university and keep quiet.

The new Egyptian government found out about this discovery and sent a request to the Israeli government that the tablets be given to Egypt since they were found on land that is currently part of Egypt.

I find this very curious. In my thinking, the discovery of the original tablets of the Ten Commandments is a very significant find. But to my knowledge there have been no major news articles about this find; I have never seen anything else about it in BAR. So to see the story pop up in an editorial was very surprising, and I don’t know what to make of it. If this find is legitimate, it is a very amazing development.


3 thoughts on “Whose Stone Tablets?

  1. If your post is not tongue-in-cheek, I think that you were perhaps misled as I was. The “editorial” smelled fishy—the piece avoided any specific references to dates or names—so I fact-checked… and could find nothing.

    When I re-read the “editorial” as a fictional piece rather than a factual one I noticed the last paragraph:
    “In law school this is called a hypothetical; that is, a hypothetical case that tests the application of a legal rule.”

    As one who claims to be a former DC attorney, Shanks should know better. Yes, in the context of American law, a hypothetical is a counterfactual that is clearly introduced as such. To bury the lead this way seems to me ratger disingenuous.

    Is there a subtextual wink or a nod I’m missing?

    • How embarrassing!
      Thank you, Michael. You are absolutely right. I misunderstood what Hershel Shanks was doing in his editorial. I have re-read it, and he was, indeed, using the story about the finding of the tablets as a fictitious hypothetical case. Shanks was obviously toying with the reader in the way that he presented his hypothetical case. But I glossed over the sentence that you cite. Thank you for setting the record straight.

  2. I’m with you David – I read the same article, had the same reaction, and when I googled it I found my way here. I also read the hypothetical part and somehow it just didn’t click. (Or I thought he was referring to the second half of the article, not the first).

    Thanks Michael for pointing out the (semi) obvious.

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