Note here for the promised link to a related essay on the alphabet.
A review of Douglas Petrovich, The World’s Oldest Alphabet: Hebrew as the Language of the Proto-Consonantal Script, with a contribution by Sarah K. Doherty and introduction by Eugene H. Merrill (Jerusalem: Carta, 2016).
Shortly after Douglas Petrovich’s book on the early alphabetic texts appeared at the end of 2016, I was asked to deliver a guest lecture on the topic during my last sabbatical. Before the request, I wasn’t aware of Petrovich’s monograph, though I had noticed various online comments and essays (even interviews) he’d given on the subject.
I will admit that I found it odd that Petrovich should be weighing in on the discussion since he studied no Hebrew grammar or Northwest Semitic epigraphy with me at the University of Toronto, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on Near Eastern archaeology.
And so the lecture was an opportunity to consider in detail the argument Petrovich mounted about the early alphabetic texts, which I’d not previously given a great deal of thought beyond discussing them during the first week in my Hebrew epigraphy seminars.
My initial impressions of Petrovich’s book were threefold. First, as with most Carta products, the production quality was high. The maps are wonderful, the illustrations clear and useful, and the paper is both heavy and high quality. Second, the amount of research that went into this study was striking. Which brings me to the third impression—it was mind-boggling that all this effort was spent on an argument that was explicitly tied to Petrovich’s assumptions about the Bible as an accurate historical resource and his desire to bolster the traditional chronology for the Patriarchs and Moses.
And as I continued the book, I was deeply disappointed that a work with so many flawed notions of Hebrew grammar would have been published. (And, as I soon discovered, the analysis of Egyptian was equally problematic.) Moreover, Petrovich’s writing style often reads more like a set of course lectures and he often cites sources in an exaggerated way if he wants to impress the reader with their authority.
Petrovich’s argument has been responded to by Alan Millard, Christopher Rollston, and on Rollston’s blog also the Egyptologist Thomas Schneider (links provided further below). I will also soon be addressing the topic on another online forum (and when it appears I will insert a link here). But none of these responses address the serious flaws of Hebrew in Petrovich’s analysis. This is what I will cover in this post.
See my review below …
1. Book Summary
In his 2016 volume on the early alphabet epigraphs from Egypt and the Sinai in the second millennium, Douglas Petrovich argues that the language of the “proto-consonantal” script used in a scattering of epigraphs from Wadi el-Ḥôl, Lahun, and Serâbîṭ el-Khâdim is a Hebrew antecedent to the language of the Bible and that this provides linguistic support for the historicity of Moses and his composition of the Pentateuch “by 1406 BC, the year of his death and the beginning of the conquest of Canaan” (195). Beyond the complex issues presented by the text themselves, Petrovich presents his work as the dawning of a new day in biblical studies, as the springboard for a serious challenge to the “critical-scholarly world [that] has cleverly built an impenetrable force field around the evidence” for “the historical credibility of the biblical account of the Israelites in Egypt from Jacob’s day until that of Moses” (188, 186).
Besides an introduction (Chapter 1) and conclusion (Chapter 2), Petrovich’s book consists of two chapters in which he works through the primary artefacts with “proto-consonantal Hebrew” (PCH) writing. In Chapter 2, he covers the inscriptions he assigns to Egypt’s Middle Kingdom: Sinai 115, 376, 377, Wadi el-Ḥôl 1, 2, and the Lahun “bilingual” ostracon. In Chapter 3, he introduces the context of the Sinaitic epigraphs found at Serâbîṭ el-Khâdim and then analyzes Sinai 345a,b, 346a,b, 349, 351, 353, 357, 360, 361, 375a, and 378. After the conclusion, Petrovich includes four appendixes: (1) on the original 22 letters of the PCH alphabet, (2) the “additional” five proto-alphabetic letters, (3) a declining and parsing guide for Middle Egyptian and PCH words, and (4) a chronology of relevant ancient Egyptian dynasties.
Petrovich concludes that the language of the “PCH” script can be confidently identified as ancient Hebrew, for three distinct reasons (191). First, Petrovich has identified the proper noun “Hebrews” in the caption text of Sinai 115. Second, “every single proto-consonantal letter was found to have a ME hieroglyphic exemplar from the ME sign list, and to match with a corresponding Biblical Hebrew (BH) word that is logically and acrophonically connected to the meaning of the pictograph.” And third, in three separate texts Petrovich reads three proper names he identifies as biblical persons:Ahisamach(Sinai 375a; Exod 31:6), Asenath(Sinai 376; Gen 41:45), and Moses(Sinai 361; Exod 2:10).
On paleographic matters, interested readers should visit Christopher Rollston’s blog and his two posts on the topic (here and here). It is also useful to read Alan Millard’s post on the ASOR blog “Ancient Near East Today” (here). Additionally, the guest post on Rollston’s blog by the Egyptologist Thomas Schneider is important (here), as is the fact that Petrovich’s Egyptian teacher, my U of T colleague Prof. Ron Leprohon, has called into question not only Petrovich’s readings, but also the presentation of at least one of the core texts (on Sinai #115, Leprohon pointed out to me how Petrovich cropped the text in a way that favors his reading but does not present the entire object and writing evidence).
Petrovich has responded to each of these reviews with lengthy comments posted on his academia.edu site. In fairness his responses should also be consulted.
In this post, I will will cover a number of issues that are not dealt with in any of the other reviews and not yet re-addressed by Petrovich: his flawed understanding of Hebrew grammar and the implications for his reconstructions.
2. Problems with Hebrew Grammar in Petrovich’s Analysis
At the core of Petrovich’s argument is not just his identification of the scriptas “Hebrew” but the wordsandgrammaras Hebrew, more specifically, a Hebrew that is nearly biblical in shape. For each text, he provides a BH transcription as well as a list of BH words (with biblical references) that he has identified in the text. Some of the claims about Hebrew grammar, however, raise doubts about Petrovich’s knowledge of the language as well as his understanding of the methods of comparative and historical Semitic linguistics. I will illustrate this with two of the more egregious problems.
My first concern primarily centers on Petrovich’s understanding of gemination, but this will lead us through a few other issues on the way. For instance, Petrovich reads the sequence of Middle Egyptian signs in Sinai 115 as G-B-Ỉ-T-U, for which he claims that the B was “doubled,” or “written once, but spoken twice,” with one segment ending the first word and the other segment beginning the second word. Based on this “perfectly legitimate Hebrew grammatical convention,” he interprets the sequence as gb [b]ỉtu “earth-god’s house,” which he equates with BH bêt-ʾēl (26-27). The phrase thus represents a Hebraized (note the BH word for “house”) Egyptian phrase (note the possessive noun in the first, bound position) in Egyptian writing. There are multiple issues to address here.
First, Petrovich’s explanation for the use of an Akkadian word /bitu/ instead of the expected Hebrew form /bayit/ is worth noting:
If Abraham truly originated from Ur (Gen 11:31), where he would have spoken Akkadian before departing for Canaan, presupposing Ḫebeded’s [the supposed author of Sinai 115] knowledge of Akkadian would be extremely plausible …. the Hebrews either used bitu for house, following Akkadian rather than Canaanite, or they simple chose Akkadian over Hebrew, since written Hebrew text was unknown to the world up until this point in time …. [If] the former option is correct, the initial vowel-class could have changed from i to e (bit to beṯ). The Hebrew Caption thus would be preserving a pre-formative moment in the Hebrew language, before bitubecame beṯ. (27, 29)
That Abraham spoke Akkadian versus, say, a West Semitic language like Amorite is debatable in the abstract, though the absence of any evidence at all for either view renders it wholly speculative. The equation of Canaanite and Hebrew is inaccurate at best (apart from the decidedly un-Hebrew language found in the second millennium el-Amarna texts, “Canaanite” refers to a first millennium dialect group) and spurious at worst, if intended to put the existence of Hebrew in the second millennium on firm linguistic ground by linking it to the el-Amarna artefacts. Moreover, authors and speakers do not “simply choose” to use one language or another at arbitrary points; research into multilingualism and code-switching indicates that there are clear patterns and motivations behind switching. The burden of proof for such a switch in the Sinai epigraphs lies solely on Petrovich, though none was given.
Also, his suggestion that the change of bitu to beṯcould simply reflect a dropping of the final a and a change of the word-internal vowels betrays an ignorance of both Akkadian phonology (i.e., the rule accounting for the change of *baytu to bitu) and the fact that Hebrew, as a West Semitic language, experienced a different history for the monophthongization of the –ay– in *baytu resulting in beṯ.
I strongly doubt that Petrovich’s complex phrase, which is neither Hebrew nor Egyptian, would have made any sense to either Hebrews or Egyptians in the second millennium. In any case, gemination does not work in the way that Petrovich presents it.
Gemination is not a “doubling” or copying of a sound segment, but the prolonged pronunciation of the segment. Admittedly, this is often obscured in typical Semitic transcription conventions, where, for instance, a geminated Bis written as two graphemes –bb-; the international phonetic alphabet convention more accurately signals that gemination remain a single grapheme by using the sign ː, hence a geminated Bis rendered bː.
There are two contexts for gemination in BH. First, the requirements of a word pattern itself may include gemination, such as with the middle root consonant in the Pi‘el: דִבֵּר dibːer. Second, the cliticization of the article haC– (with its indeterminate final consonant) or preposition min– result in gemination of the initial consonant of the host noun (presumably both due to anticipatory assimilation of the final consonant of the cliticized particle), e.g., *haC-bayit > habːayit ‘the house’ and *min-bêt > mibːêt ‘from the house of’).
The point of this for interacting with Petrovich’s claims is that gemination does notcreate a consonant that “was written once but pronounced twice” (157). Moreover, the lengthening of a consonantal segment occurs entirely within words, not across word boundaries. Even apart from the assertion that a dagesh forte was used in Sinai 345b—two millennia before the Masoretes developed their notational system!—it is simply ad hoc to argue that the “doubling” convention was used across word boundaries as “a much freer use hundreds of years before the oldest extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible are attested” (89).
If the phenomenon that Petrovich describes was operative in the phonology and represented in the writing system of those who wrote the early alphabet texts, it would be more accurate to identify it as a type of external sandhi, specifically, anticipatory sound assimilation across a word boundary (of course, sandhi could have been operative in the phonology of the language of these early inscriptions without it being represented in the writing system).
External sandhi, though, is rare in early West Semitic, and when it does occur, it appears to be related to set phrases, names, or titles. Consider, for example, Byblian Phoenician byḥmlk (for *bn yḥmlk) ‘son of Yḥmlk’ (KAI 6.1, 7.3; also KAI 8), Cypriot Phoenician mlkty ‘king of Kition’ (CIS I,11.2, but otherwise always mlk kty), and epigraphic Hebrew ḥyhwh ‘life of Yhwh’ (Lachish 3.9, Arad 21.5, but see Lachish 6.12, 12.3 for ḥy yhwh). Sandhi across word boundaries does not occur in the Hebrew Bible except in two names, יְרֻבַּעַל (<*yarûb-baʿl) in Judg 6:32 (+12x) and מְרִי־בַעַל(//מְרִיב בָּעַל) in 1 Chr 9:40. In general, see Lipiński 2001: 202-3; for West Semitic onomastica, see O’Connor 2004, esp. 450, n. 41, 465, n. 142; for Phoenician, see Friedrich and Röllig 1999: 56; Krahmalkov 2001: 124; Gzella 2013: 181; for the Canaanite dialects, see Garr 1985: 40-43.
Within the Sinai corpus, Wilson-Wright has argued that mʾhbʿlt in Sinai 345 is an example of sandhi and thus parallel to mʾhb bʿlt ‘beloved of the Lady’ in Sinai 374. Wilson-Wright suggests one additional example, mhbʿlt in Sinai 348, which is the same phrase but missing both the b of the sandhi process as well as the ʾof the root of the first word (2013: 142, n. 16). However, this particular artefact was lost in the early twentieth century and the best line-drawing is based on the squeeze, which casts serious doubt about our ability to use any data from this text (see Albright 1969: 17-18)
Since external sandhi operates on adjacent sound segments (i.e., no other consonant orvowelcan intervene), Wilson-Wright also proposes that this indicates that the language of these early texts reflect the loss of short final vowels, at least on bound words. He notes that this parallels the loss of case vowels on bound words in Old Akkadian but differs from Northwest Semitic. In this branch of Semitic, the final alefsin Ugaritic and the spelling used in early Byblian epigraphs suggest that short final vowels did not quiesce until the early first millennium. I am not convinced by Wilson-Wright’s argument, especially since his other arguments about the language of Sinai 345 draw heavily on parallels to Central Semitic and Northwest Semitic features.
In summary, of the five cases of “gemination” across word boundaries that Petrovich proposes, only three examples could actually qualify, though reconfigured as external sandhi: gbbỉtu in Sinai 115, mʾhb bʿlt in Sinai 345, and šnt tmhn in Sinai 361. The other two, bʾt tzzt =בָּאתָ תֹּזַזְתָּ and bšn nš = בְּשָּׁנָה נְשֹׁה, in Sinai 360 clearly do not qualify, since the consonants Petrovich takes as “doubled” are separated by a vowel that never quiesces in the respective paradigms of ancient Hebrew (2ms perfect verb affix and feminine nominal affix, respectively).
I could also include in this discussion Petrovich’s approach to the “doubling” involved with II-III or geminate root verbs. Thus, in Sinai 377 he claims that the sequence M-L is the verb מָלַל “he has scraped, inscribed,” for which the second L of the root “would have been written once but spoken twice, as practiced typically for geminate verbs during the Bronze Age” (33). This is not an accurate understanding of gemination or of the morphology of geminate verbs. See also similar explanations for verbs based on the root Z-L in Sinai 346a [92, 98] and Sinai 349 , S-Bin Sinai 351 [118, 123], Q-M in Sinai 353 [129, 137], ʾ-R,G-N, and ʾ-N in Sinai 357 [145, 151], B-Š in Sinai 361 [160, 169].
Moreover, given the un-Semitic structure of the proposed phrase gb bỉtu in Sinai 115 (with the possessive noun in the first, bound position) as well as the necessary conjecture regarding the loss of short final vowels (which does not occur this early in West Semitic outside of onomastica), I think it highly unlikely that external sandhi was a productive morphophonological rule in ancient West Semitic. It was either limited to names and titles, as it is in Amorite evidence (see O’Connor 2004), or the three possible cases in the Sinai corpus simply represent writing errors.
See also similar explanations Petrovich gives for gemination across a word boundary in Sinai 345a [83, 89]: mʾhb ʿlt (=mʾhb bʿlt מְאֻהָב בַעֲלָת [sic]); Sinai 360 [155, 157]:bʾt zzt (=bʾt tzzt בָּאתָ תֹּזַזְתָּ) and bšn š (= bšn nš בְּשָּׁנָה נְשֹׁה); and Sinai 361 [160, 169]: šnt mhn (=šnt tmhn שְׁנַת תִּמָּהוֹן).
Feminine Noun Morphology
The second grammar issue I will discuss concerns the affix attached to feminine singular nouns. Petrovich assumes that in second millennium Hebrew such nouns already had the inflectional -āh ending (with h as a mater lectionis) in the free form. Relatedly, he frequently claims that because matreslectioniswere not used until the first millennium, a number of identified nouns could be feminine in the absence of any inflectional ending (see pp. 43-44, 123, 136, and many other supposedly feminine nouns whose lack of a feminine ending is not explained).
Relatedly, note Petrovich’s reading of the sequence M-R-ʿ-T-W in Sinai 346a as the noun מַרְעִית “pasture” with an attached 3ms possessive pronoun וֹ “his.” What Petrovich seems to miss is that the waw in the BH form of the attached pronoun does not have a consonantal value; it is, rather, a mater lectionis, a place-holder indicating a vowel (which is specified as an /o/ in the later Masoretic notation of the holem over the waw).The problem this raises for Petrovich concerns the history of the writing system, since the use of matres lectionis was not a spelling convention in any NWS language of the second millennium. Even in Ugaritic, towards the end of the second millennium, there is no clear evidence for the use of matres lectionis; see Pardee 2003: 26-35. Though Deitrich and Loretz 2008, followed by Riley 2013, argue that Ugaritic spelling of Akkadian words suggests the use of matres, borrowed words are more often adapted to native spelling conventions than new spelling conventions created to accommodate borrowed words. Thus, the argument for Ugaritic matres remains weak.
While Petrovich is correct that matres lectionis were not employed until the first millennium, it is unlikely that he is correct on any other point. The evidence of Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite, and even some early Hebrew epigraphs (e.g., שׁת in the Samaria Ostraca) unequivocally demonstrate that the feminine singular free form ending was –(a)t in Northwest Semitic through the second millennium and into the early first millennium. In fact, even the briefest research into comparative Semitic research would have been sufficient to derail his argument if he had looked; for the interested reader, I suggest starting at page 236 in Lipiński 2001.
The ambiguity that Petrovich proposes does not work for the vast majority of nouns, which are clearly inflected as masculine or feminine. The masculine noun “calf” would have been written ʿGL whereas the feminine “heifer” would have been ʿGLT.
Petrovich also treats the glides Y and W and the related issue of H as a final root letter in a similarly implausible manner. For every sequence that Petrovich identifies as a form of a verb that in BH is a III-H root, such as ʾ-P (supposedly אפה “to bake”) in Sinai 377 and Wadi el-Ḥôl 1, he explains the absence of the root-final H in the alphabetic text as “expected” because writing the H was a “later orthographic convention” (34). The historical development of originally III-Y verbs, which become III-H in BH, is quite complicated and the details of the process are not always clear. While small number of second millennium (Middle Babylonian) words do not exhibit an etymologically-expected final Y or W, the weight of evidence, including attestations in the earliest first millennium Phoenician and Moabite epigraphs, attest the written representation of a final Y or W. We cannot, therefore, simply assume that a proposed second millennium form of Hebrew would have the same morphophonology as its first millennium descendant. Petrovich’s treatment of this complicated issue does not reflect any awareness of the methods, data, or conclusions common to historical and comparative Semitics.
See also these examples adduced by Petrovich: Wadi el-Ḥôl 2:Y-G-K, which is supposedly “your afflicter,” a Qal 3ms participle of יגה with 2ms pronoun; Wadi el-Ḥôl 1: N-G for BH נֹגַהּ ‘light’, which is a true III-H verb in BH, making the absence of the H particularly unexpected; Sinai 349: ʿŠ for BH עָשָׂה, which is a III-Y verb and K-M for כָּמַהּ, but this root is a true III-H root and the final H should not be missing; Sinai 353: ʾ-T for BH אָתָה, which is a III-Y verb; Sinai 357: ʾ-N inflected here as an unattested Pual verb for BH אנה, a III-Y verb; Sinai 361: M-Š for BH מֹשֶׁה, which is related in the biblical text to the root מָשָׁה, a III-Y root; Sinai 375a: G-ʾfor the BH ms participle גֹּאֵה (note Petrovich’s incorrect pointing in the last syllable), a III-Y verb and ʿ-P for BH the II-Y root-based עָיֵף, a form in which the Y is consonantal and would have been written.
Reliance on Rare Hebrew Words
A final grammaticalobservation on Petrovich’s analysis concerns his reliance on biblical hapax legomenaor very rare words, whose meanings even in the biblical text are open to debate. Below I list, with Petrovich’s glosses, words he invokes that occur three times or less in the Hebrew Bible:
Lahun: רֹן “celebration” (1x, Ps 32:7); Sinai 345b: אֱיָל “strength” (1x, Ps 88:5); Sinai 346b: צֹנֶה ‘sheep” (1x, Ps 8:8); Sinai 349: שַׁעַר “measure” (1x, Gen 26:12), כָּמַהּ “to yearn” (1x Ps 63:2) and תְּלִי “quiver” (1x, Gen 27:3); Sinai 351: שֹׁקֶת “watering trough” (2x, Gen 24:20; 30:38) and צָבֶה “swollen” (1x, Num 5:27); Sinai 353: קוֹמְמִיּוּת “erect” (1x, Lev 26:13) and בלם “to restrain” (1x, Ps 32:9); Sinai 357: סָךְ “multitude” (1x, Ps 42:5) and טושׂ “to swoop” (1x, Job 9:26); Sinai 360: אשׁשׁ “to take courage” (1x, Isa 46:8); Sinai 361: בושׁ Polel “to delay” (2x, Exod 32:1; Judg 5:28) and תִּמָּהוֹן “confusion” (1x, Deut 28:28; Zech 12:4); Sinai 376: קלע “to engrave” (3x, 1 Kgs 6:29, 32, 35); Sinai 377: מלל “to inscribe, scrape” (1x, Prov 6:13)
Petrovich has also assigned a number of words lexical meanings derived from contextual use in the biblical text rather than a denotative gloss based on any clear lexicological principles. Consider the examples below:
Sinai 346a: זלל in BH as “to despise” occurs in the Hiphil, not the Qal (nor the Pual, as proposed for Sinai 349) and סוּג does not mean “an apostate” by itself (in Prov 14:14 it occurs within the phrase סוּג לֵב); Sinai 349: תזזin the Qal is not causative in BH; Sinai 351: סבב is never used with a temporal entity as the subject, i.e. “a year turns/changes” in BH; Sinai 353: חמשׁ denotes being grouped in 5 parts or by 50s and only connotes “organize for war” in the context of Exod 13:18; Josh 1:14; 4:12; Judg 7:11 and then only as a Qal passive participle; Sinai 357: מצה does not occur in the Pual (nor the Piel); Sinai 361: תמה does not occur in the Piel in BH and חֹבֵשׁ does not mean “bound servitude” in Isa 3:7; Sinai 376: קלעonly occurs in the Qal in BH, not the Pual (nor Piel); Wadi el-Ḥôl 2: the suggested form for עות “crooked one” fits no paradigm and יגה for causative “to afflict” does not occur in the Qal in BH, but only Piel or Hiphil
3. Final Comment on History and Religion
In summary, Petrovich does not make a compelling case for many of his readings. His morphological analyses wreak havoc with the historical reconstruction of West Semitic grammar. A final example of this comes in his conclusion, where he links the use of the word BʿLT and the image of Hathor in the Sinai alphabetic epigraphs with the Golden Calf episode in Exodus 32 (199-200). Petrovich’s argument is a bit convoluted but can be summarized as follows:
• the Israelite’s use of a calf did not “come out of a hat”;
• the Hebrew word for calf, עֵגֶל (note that in Exod 32:4 the word is bound, עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה), is masculine in the Bible, but the feminine word “heifer” would have had the same form in the “pure consonantalism” of the PCH inscriptions;
• since the Pentateuch had to have been written no later than 1406 B.C.E. if Moses is viewed as a historical person “and the biblical chronology is taken as literal and accurate” (199), the form in Exod 32:4 might have originally been feminine, given that the ה mater lectionis marking unbound feminine nouns “would not have been added until at least ca. 850 BC” (200);
• this means that the later Hebrew scribes would have been forced to guess whether the word handed down in the Mosaic consonantal Pentateuch was masculine or feminine; they chose masculine but it could have been a young female cow;
• “therefore, the probability is great that the golden heifer fashioned by Aaron at Mount Sinai in 1446 BC was an image of none other than Hathor, the goddess whom the Israelites who participated in mining expeditions of Serâbîṭ had been worshipping routinely” (200).
Hold on, I need to pick my jaw off the floor again. Even re-reading this argument has me in awe, and not in a good way. I’ll be mercifully brief in refuting this appalling argument.
• First, a feminine noun in the mid-second millennium would have had the final-t morpheme (it is only in the first millennium that the lost of –t begins; see Lipiński 2001: 205, 237).
• Second, the phrase in Exod 32:4,8 is עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה, in which עגל is bound; if it were feminine, the bound form would never lose the final -t in Hebrew regardless the era!
• Third, the עגל is unambiguously masculine in 32:24, where the demonstrative follows is: וַיֵּצֵ֖א הָעֵ֥גֶל הַזֶּֽה.
Finally, there is a severe dissonance for someone who adheres to a naive reading of the Bible as a historical source to suggest that the later (monarchic era!) scribes could and would alter the meaning.
4. Concluding Thoughts
As I mentioned at the outset in this post that the rhetorical style of Petrovich’s book troubled me and with my concluding thoughts I will explain why. First, there is a pugilistic stance towards contemporary scholars when their conclusions do not match Petrovich’s or serve his goals. For example, in the preface the monographs of Benjamin Sass and Gordon Hamilton are said to have “glaring weaknesses” because they refrain from offering translations of the early alphabetic texts (xii). This is an unfair characterization, since Sass’ and Hamilton’s topic was the origins of the alphabet, not the texts themselves. Moreover, one could also argue that the lack of translations is a strength of both works since it is quite likely (Petrovich’s attempts notwithstanding) that the sequences of extant letters do not present us with interpretable texts.
Petrovich’s language towards many contemporary scholars stands in significant contrast with strangely fawning references to early twentieth century scholars, such as Hubert Grimme and Alan Gardiner, whom he identifies as “one of the twentieth century’s greatest linguists of the ancient Egyptian language” and “a world-class Egyptologist” (9). Such descriptive ornamentation, either positive or negative, goes beyond the dispassionate consideration of ideas; whether intentional or not, it serves to discredit some and present others as authorities. Moreover, while we should recognize the scholarly achievement of past generations, there is a clear argument flowing beneath Petrovich’s discussion of previous scholarship, namely, that earlier scholarship that was “friendlier” to a traditional chronology of the Bible is better and more believable.
Second, Petrovich attempts to head off any criticism of his provocative work by telling his reader that he has no doubts his work will be prejudicially criticized but that his interdisciplinary training made it incumbent upon him to publish his results (xiii). (In the introduction [really a foreword], Eugene Merrill similarly warns that while Petrovich’s work will likely be objected to “because of his ideological and/or theological predilections,” his extensive research, fastidious attention to detail, and his acclaimed expertise in every relevant discipline should comfort the reader [vi]). Based on his self-described “exacting” research, Petrovich contends that judgments concerning his conclusions should notbe “determined hastily”; rather, his arguments should be allowed to age for “three, four, or five decades.” Citing Schopenhauer in his preface (xiii), he implies an equation of his thesis with “truth,” which must endure ridicule before ultimate acceptance. And he claims that his interpretations are free of “personal bias,” even though he narrates how his study of the early alphabetic epigraphs rose out of his research into biblical chronology, resulting in his forthcoming volume, New Evidence of Israelites in Egypt from Joseph to the Exodus. Identifying two letters as משׁ and then equating them with the personal name of the biblical Moses is hardly free of bias.
The inverse relationship between specialization and dilettantism is no stranger to biblical studies. As our various disciplines and sub-disciplines require increasing sophistication in theory and method, it is not easy to acquire adequate training and skills in related areas of inquiry. More than once among a group of peers have I heard a wistful (and naive) lament about how easy scholars had it a century ago, when one could “master the entire field” and work on multiple, nearly unrelated topics.The antidote, of course, is coupling time with intellectual curiosity, leading one into new areas over the course of a career. Tragedies of dilettantism may occur when either element is missing and the necessary expertise and maturity of method are absent. Tragically, Douglas Petrovich’s monograph on the early alphabetic epigraphs from Egypt and the Sinai epitomizes what may happen without adequate training or the time-tempered maturation of intellect and thesis.
The World’s Oldest Alphabetis, without a doubt, a creative, detailed, and passionate investigation of the early alphabetic texts from the Sinai and Egypt. It is a topic that requires one to interact with archaeology, epigraphy, paleography, writing as both a technology and a social convention, the grammars of ancient and biblical Hebrew and Egyptian, not to mention the known details of the history during the second millennium in Egypt and the Levant. Such a task is not for the faint hearted and Petrovich should be applauded for having great courage. With that said, Petrovich’s arguments, conclusions, and general rhetorical stance invite to serious challenge and the readers should be aware that this volume must be used very carefully.
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Deitrich, Manfried and Oswald Loretz. 2008. “Vokalbuchstaben” im Keilalphabet von Ugarit und im griechischen Alphabet in historischer Betrachtung. Pp. 239-260 in Orbis Ugariticus: Ausgewählte Beiträge von Manfried Dietrich und Oswald Loretz zu Fest- und Gedenkschriften. Ed. M. Dietrich. AOAT 343. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.
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