Archaeologist Eilat Mazar, who has been excavating in the “City of David” area of Jerusalem for several years, has announced the finding of an inscription on the fragmentary remains of a large jar that dates from the 10th century B.C.E. — the oldest known inscription found in Jerusalem.
The problem is, no one can read it — so far, at least. The inscription is written in a type of proto-Canaanite script and the identity of the letters is relatively clear, but no one has been able to decipher them thus far. Early Canaanite, like Hebrew, was written without vowels, word spaces, or punctuation, and the seven letters remaining of the inscription may come from the end or the beginning of words that have been lost.
Mazar proposes that the inscription may have been indicated the jar’s contents, or the name of the owner.
Learning what the inscription says would be interesting, but the rarity of the inscription offers an important reminder that written expressions of Hebrew and other related languages were not at all common in the 10th century — at least 200 years after many people believe Moses composed the five books of what we now call the Pentateuch, or Torah.
Modern scholars think its much more likely that the material in those books was passed down by oral tradition or even developed much later. This does not make them less valuable or important than if Moses had actually written every word.
The important thing is that we can read those traditions that began with Moses and shaped Israel’s life and taught much about God.
Whether we learn from them is another matter.