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Archaeology

Bible scholar’s sensational Hezekiah inscription claims prompt researchers’ outcry

Academics publish open letter calling for scientific treatment of ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ claims after new round of unsupported popular press headlines regarding Jerusalem ‘discovery’

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

One of the images from the City of David's Siloam Tunnel in which Prof. Gershon Galil claims he reads the names and deeds of the biblical King Hezekiah of Judah in ancient Israel. (Eli Shukrun)
One of the images from the City of David's Siloam Tunnel in which Prof. Gershon Galil claims he reads the names and deeds of the biblical King Hezekiah of Judah in ancient Israel. (Eli Shukrun)

Accumulated disquiet among Israeli archaeologists over the widespread publication of sensational claims regarding ostensibly newly deciphered, once-in-a-lifetime biblical inscriptions in Jerusalem has spilled over into an open letter.

The public statement, published Saturday, was signed by leading archaeologists and researchers from Israeli institutions who decry a lack of scholarly checks and balances on a recent series of “revolutionary and game-changer” archaeological finds and discoveries that “have been published in the popular press and on social media, prior to peer review.”

The open letter was published on several platforms, including the blog of Bar-Ilan University Prof. Aren Maeir. The statement is written as a general “researchers’ creed” — without naming any specific colleague — and calls for well-supported research that is published in peer-reviewed, scientific journals.

In recent months, however, only one Israeli academic has consistently published claims in media outlets without the review and documentation the statement urges: Prof. Emeritus Gershon Galil, a former chairman of the University of Haifa’s Jewish history department.

When approached by The Times of Israel, Galil acknowledged that he sees himself as the target of the open letter, which he said was written by “bitter” and “jealous” colleagues with an axe to grind, including its initiator, Maeir.

In their statement, the scholars emphasize the need for a “full presentation, with high-quality illustrations, of these finds in scientific publications, even long after the initial public notification.”

Without such proof, Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project director Maeir told The Times of Israel, there is no end to what scholars can claim.

Galil’s most recent announcement, first published in a television report 12 days ago, says he has successfully deciphered five new royal inscriptions of King Hezekiah of Judah, including hundreds of letters and dozens of lines of text. According to Galil, the inscriptions he found alongside archaeologist Eli Shukron are etched into the walls of the City of David’s Hezekiah Tunnel in Jerusalem.

Professor Gershon Galil, University of Haifa. (Courtesy)

Galil’s announcement has brought a flurry of media headlines in some publications — and a deafening silence in others that generally cover Israeli archaeological finds. (The Times of Israel, which has covered some of Galil’s findings in the past, did not report on his latest Hezekiah inscription claims, among other of his recent claims, because they were not peer-reviewed and lacked accompanying scientific documentation.)

“I wish it was true, and I hope it is. It would change everything that we know,” said Maeir of the recent Galil announcement. “But it’s like saying you’ve disproved Einstein’s theory of relativity, but you’ll only publish the findings on ‘Saturday Night Live.'”

If validated, the inscriptions could be one of the earliest extra-biblical texts, or even a theoretical lost book of the Hebrew Bible, the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah. They could change the field of biblical Hebrew scholarship, among other ripple-effect consequences.

A picture is worth 1,000…

Among the concerns regarding Galil that are rumbling through the halls of academia is that all of his recent claims — March’s Mt. Ebal “Curse Tablet,” July’s “voodoo” Jerusalem governor tablet, and others — have been published without peer review or high-resolution photography.

In October, when Galil was in the news for claims of a first Hezekiah-era inscription, The Times of Israel repeatedly asked him for high-resolution photography. Galil initially promised to deliver RTI images, saying, “They are the key to the new reading and one can clearly see in them all the letters.” However, after several reminders, Galil told The Times of Israel that his unnamed publisher wouldn’t permit their publication. (ToI did not publish a report on those claims.)

Instead of high-quality photography, Galil has supplied hand-drawn representations of his reading of the inscription, or published images in such low resolution that academics cannot enlarge them to read.

Views of the outside of the arguably Late Bronze Age lead curse tablet discovered on Mt. Ebal in 2019. (Michael C. Luddeni/Associates for Biblical Research)

Prof. Matthew Morgenstern, of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, told The Times of Israel, “So far he has not published a single legible photograph of the new inscriptions that he has claimed to have identified or read. This raises serious doubts about the reliability of his readings and interpretations, which we hope will be proven to be correct when he finally publishes the material in an orderly fashion according to currently accepted scholarly practice.”

Responding to this accusation, which has been put forward by several academics, Galil told The Times of Israel, “It’s a lie. The photographs that we published were excellent. The fact that they can’t read them is their problem.”

“We took photographs in the field — and published them. They can do the same thing, instead of whining that the finds should be photographed and checked,” said Galil.

Morgenstern called Galil’s cry for researchers to take their own images “unusual.” “It is customary that the scholar who makes the claim also provides the clear evidence for it,” said Morgenstern.

A drawing of a 3,500-year-old Jerusalem stone Inscription (Courtesy Prof. Gershon Galil)

Galil asserted there are several researchers of global renown who have examined his newly deciphered inscriptions and supported them. Galil would not provide The Times of Israel with their names, saying that they will be acknowledged in his upcoming book, “The Inscriptions of Hezekiah King of Judah,” whose publication “in the coming months” by an unnamed publishing house he recently announced on his Facebook page.

Pudding in the proof?

In the open statement, the Israeli academics write, “As is clear to anyone dealing with science and research, one of the foundations of all research and discovery is that results must go through a process of peer review prior to publication, to check for quality, suggest improvements and comments, and in some cases, reject a suggestion. Without this process, research is conducted without proper checks and balances. In addition, research colleagues (in this case archaeologists and historians) cannot properly ascertain, and if need be disagree, with these claims.”

Arguably the earliest written evidence of the name of God, YHVH, according to epigrapher Haifa University Prof. Gershon Galil. (courtesy Associates for Biblical Research)

George Washington University professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures Christopher Rollston applauded the Israeli researchers’ statement and called it “rare” and “momentous.”

“Good scholarship is hard work, is scientific, and is based on facts. And good scholars stick to the facts and avoid speculation. It’s as simple as that,” Rollston told The Times of Israel. “The public has a right to expect that credentialed scholars at reputable universities will be careful with their words, factual, thoughtful, reasoned, rational.

“There have long been rogue scholars in the field, people who trade in high levels of speculation and tenuous reconstructions of history. We don’t need that. Nobody wins in that situation, and the public especially suffers,” said Rollston.

Galil, asked if he was worried that his scholarly reputation was being diminished by the claims against him and this open letter, in which he is not named but very evidently referred to, replied he is “most definitely not worried about his reputation — because the readings are correct and they’ll be seen soon in the scientific book.”

Galil advised all those doubting him to “be quiet and wait for the scientific publication.”

“This is the biggest and most important discovery for all the ages,” said Galil.

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