The Bible's Buried Secrets: Tel Zayit Abecedary

PBS Airdate: November 18, 2008
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NARRATOR: Tel Zayit is a small site on the southwestern border of ancient Israel, that dates back to biblical times.

Since 1999, Ron Tappy has been excavating here.

It was the last day of what had been a typical dig season.

RON TAPPY: As I was taking aerial photographs from the cherry picker, a volunteer notified his square supervisor that he thought he had seen some interesting marks, scratches, possibly letters incised in a stone.

NARRATOR: Letters would be a rare find. So when he kneeled to look at the marks, Tappy got the surprise of a lifetime.

RON TAPPY: As I bent down over the stone, I immediately saw very clear, very distinct letters.

Tappy excavated the rock and brought it back to his lab at the nearby kibbutz.

It was only then that he realized he had more than a simple inscription.

RON TAPPY: aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet . . .

I realized that this inscription represented an abecedary, that is to say, not a text narrative but the letters of the Semitic alphabet written out in their correct order.

. . . nun, pe, and 'ayin, are difficult to read but they're out here.

NARRATOR: This ancient script is an early form of the Hebrew alphabet.

KYLE MCCARTER: What was found was not a random scratching of two or three letters, it was the full alphabet.

Everything about it says that this is the ancestor of the Hebrew script.

NARRATOR: The Tel Zayit abecedary is the earliest Hebrew alphabet ever discovered.

It dates to about 1000 BC, making it possible that writing the Hebrew Bible could have already started by this time.

To discover the most ancient text in the Bible, scholars examine the Hebrew spelling, grammar, and vocabulary.

KYLE MCCARTER: The Hebrew Bible is a collection of literature written over about a thousand years and as with any other language, Hebrew naturally changed quite a bit over those thousand years.

The same would be true of English. I'm speaking English of the 21st century and if I were living in Elizabethan times the words I choose, the syntax I use would be quite different.

NARRATOR: Scholars examine the Bible in its original Hebrew in search of the most archaic language, and therefore the oldest passages.

They find it in Exodus, the second book of the Bible.

VOICE OF THE BIBLE: Pharaoh's chariots and his army He cast into the sea. His picked officers are drowned in the Red Sea. (Exodus 15:4)

NARRATOR: This passage, known as the Song of the Sea, is the climactic scene of Exodus, the story of the Israelites enslavement in Egypt, and how Moses leads them to freedom.

In all of the Bible, no single event is mentioned more times than the Exodus.

With the development of ancient Hebrew script, the Song of the Sea, could have been written by 1000 BC, the time of Tappy's alphabet. But it was probably recited as a poem long before the beginning of Hebrew writing.

LAWRENCE STAGER: It's very likely that it was a kind of story told in poetic form that you might tell around the campfire.

Just as our poems are easier to remember generally than prose accounts, so we generally think that the poetry is orally passed on from one to another long before they commit things to writing.

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