From the Editor’s Notebook: More on the Ebla Tablets

From the Editor’s Notebook

W. Ross Rainey

More on the Ebla Tablets

In 1964 Dr. Paolo Matthiae of the University of Rome began digging about 30 miles south of Aleppo on the site known as Tel-Mardikh. Four years later he uncovered the site’s ancient name when he found a statue identified by inscription as that of a king of Ebla.

The existence of this ancient kingdom named Ebla had been known to scholars from a few inscriptions elsewhere, but very little importance had been attached to it, although the size of the tel evidences that Ebla had been an important city in the ancient world.

In 1973 Dr. Matthiae found his first written tablets. There were 42 and the writing on them identified the period as that of Sargon, king of Akkad — ancient Babylonia — the first great emperor of the Near East (2300-2230 B.C.).

In 1975, in the outer rooms of ancient palace ruins, Dr. Matthiae, came upon some 15,000 neatly stacked clay tablets inscribed with writing. The task of deciphering the writing went to Dr. Giovanni Pettinato, an Assyriologist from the University of Rome. Most of the tablets concerned commercial transactions, including consignment of goods to “Sargon, king of Agade (Akkad).” The tablets, however, opened to view the cultural and political life of Ebla, revealing that it was not just another petty city-state and that, among other things, they included a recounting of the Deluge akin to that recorded in the Bible and in Babylonian writings.

According to the Italian archaeologists, many Bible names were listed in the tablets, including references to. Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, Jaffa, Gaza and Sinai. If these are proved valid, such references pre-date by 500 years the earliest reference to Jerusalem thus far known — in the Egyptian Execration Texts.

It was Dr. David Noel Freedman, current director of Jerusalem’s Albright Institute for Archaeological Research, who spread the news of the Ebla finds in the United States beyond a narrow professional circle, claiming that the Biblical implications of the tablets may rank with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

According to The Jerusalem Post, the reaction of Israeli scholars to Ebla’s alleged Biblical connection ranges from caution to outright skepticism. Several of them attended the first public presentation of the Italian archaeologists’ findings at a convention of Assyriologists last July in Birmingham, England. Among them was Dr. Aharon Kempinsky, an archaeologist and teacher of ancient Near East history at Tel Aviv University. He said it will take two or three years before phonetic values can be assigned with any certainty to the Eblaite language. Until then he suggested that the scholarly world should refrain from accepting readings like “Ibrum” for Eber and “Ursalem” for Jerusalem.

As a further case in point, Dr. Pettinato claims that Jaffa is mentioned in the tablets, while Dr. Kempinsky says, “We know that Jaffa didn’t exist until 500 years after the Ebla archive.”

Nevertheless, Israeli scholars are genuinely excited about the Ebla finds and their impact on Near Eastern history. The fact that the Etlaites wrote in their own Canaanite tongue permits scholars to study what appears to be the oldest antecedent to Hebrew yet known — predating by a millennium the time of Moses. As one of Israel’s leading Assyriologists, Prof. Hayim Tadmor of the Hebrew University, has said, “We see that ancient civilization was much more widespread than we presumed. We should have thought this way before, but we hardly dared to.”

While the initial sensational reports about Ebla’s historical link may prove exaggerated, the decipherment of the tablets will undoubtedly reveal an environment, however remote, which influenced the Hebrew civilization which emerged a millennium later. More than that, they will no doubt reveal that this part of the third millennial world (as that era of ancient history has been called), for so long consigned by scholars to the dark ages of antiquity because of a lack of evidence, was in reality a seat of high culture.

Over the next two or three years, unless our Lord returns before then, it will be most interesting to learn to what further extent the Word of God will once again have confirmed the findings of archaeologists, this time by means of the Ebla tablets.

Another Version

Since the editors of U.S. News & World Report rarely devote space to anything of a religious nature, it was something of a surprise to see an article entitled, “Another ‘Readable’ Bible, But Is It Any Better?”

The article concerned the Good News Bible, published by the American Bible Society. The New Testament was published a decade ago, 52 million copies having been sold. An initial press run of one million copies has been made on the completed Bible which, as stated in the article, “seems destined to maintain the Scriptures” reputation as the world’s best-selling book.

It was noted that in its use of language and research, many religion scholars believe the Good News Bible falls somewhere between its main competitors among recent versions. Like Kenneth Taylor’s, The Living Bible, it seeks to reach out to the millions of people who have trouble understanding the majestic but often archaic prose of the King James Version. While The Living Bible is primarily a paraphrase of traditional versions, the Good News Bible has behind it years of historical research and fresh study of ancient documents, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A spokesman for the American Bible Society has described it as “neither academic nor simplistic.” Many Protestant churches have thus far voiced qualified approval, not only for its text but for the 500 simple line drawings by Swiss artist Annie Vallotton.

Evangelical readers will undoubtedly be critical of the Good News Bible because it tends to choose translations suited to clarity and not necessarily the most precise one. Some authorities are finding it too interpretive, while others find the new version strongly paraphrased, though not to the extent found in The Living Bible. A Lutheran pastor and theologian in New York City sees the new version as relying heavily on paraphrase, and stated: “Paraphrase must offer interpretation. You have to select from all possible interpretations and narrow it down to one that is not necessarily accurate.” This practice, he said, “makes the Bible sound like ‘Peanuts’ or Agatha Christie, and you could be misleading people.”

The article goes on to state that probably the strongest criticism will come from “traditionalists for whom the King James Version remains the standard-bearer for all Bibles.” Nevertheless, it is still the belief of Biblical scholars that the King James Version still holds its place of honour in most American homes, but that it is losing ground in our increasingly secular society. As a result, an expanding place is seen for the Good News Bible and other modern-language versions.

It is noted that Roman Catholics have been slower than Protestants to seek additional translations to the seventeenth-century Douay version, although in 1966 the Jerusalem Bible—offspring of a French version—won much praise. Also, in 1970, a modern-language version was published as the New American Bible under auspices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As for the nation’s six million Jews, it was noted that the 1917 translation of the Old Testament Scriptures by the Jewish Publication Society is still the standard English-language version, although Jewish scholars are working on a modern version to be published within the next decade.

As a conclusion to the article, Prof. Martin Marty of Chicago is quoted as saying:

“We shall simply think of keeping the King James for one purpose and the new translations for another. It is interesting that even the conservative Christians today accept modern translations, because they caught the idea that they can get more out of them than they do the King James Version. Everyone is going to have to learn to coexist with a lot of different translations.”

The point of Prof. Marty’s closing statement is well-taken. Presently I am involved in a home Bible study group and the variety of versions, even among a small number of people, is amazing—and sometimes disconcerting. While realizing as never before the need “to learn to coexist with a lot of different translations,” I occasionally long for the days when almost everyone, particularly in relation to the public reading of the Scriptures, used the same version—namely, the King James Version (such an admission as this, I suppose, is in the minds of many a sign of getting older). Today’s multiplied translations and paraphrases often tend to confuse rather than clarify, and as for Bible memorization, it has been virtually nullified in many quarters simply because neither Sunday school teacher nor pupil could settle on any one translation from which to memorize.

Having been raised on the King James Version, plus all my Bible memorization being based on it, this translation will no doubt always be my favourite, and I say this at the risk of being thought of as narrow-minded, begoted, obscurantic, not “with it,” and so on.

The New Scofield Reference Bible has served to update many of the King James Version’s archaic words and phrases, although my own personal opinion is that the editors did not go far enough. Had many more acceptable changes been made, the New Scofield Reference Bible might have had a much wider reception, particularly among young people, and I make this kindly observation and criticism as one who this past year read every word of it from Genesis through Revelation.

It was the Apostle Paul who said, “I have learned in whatever state I am, in this to be content” (Philippians 4:11). Adapting his words, I so far can only say, “I am learning in whatever new version I am, in this to be content.”

Thank God for good, solid, updated translations, yet it would be a relief not to see any more for a long time to come, primarily because few Christians have hardly been able to read and digest even a fourth of those now available. Having said this, please don’t get the idea that I am against all new translations, or ungrateful for the toil of diligent scholars, or against genuine progress in accurately translating the Scriptures (11 translations are within arm’s reach as I write!) It’s just that in my opinion we’re overloaded with them, and I am sure there are many others who share this same view.

Nevertheless, whatever your favourite version may be, by all means keep reading the Book of books daily. Oh yes, and always remember that in reality the best translation of the Bible is a man or woman living a godly life in obedience to it.