A Treasury of Jewish Letters: Letters from the Famous and the Humble - Vol. 1

By Franz Kobler | Go to book overview

3
The Lachish Letters: An Original Correspondence from the Last Days of Solomon's Temple

ON January 29, 1935, J. L. Starkey, the leader of the Wellcome Archæological Expedition to the Near East, while excavating at Tell ed Duweir, supposed to be the site of the biblical fortress town Lachish, in southern Palestine, discovered a group of inscribed ostraca (potsherds) in a small room adjoining the outer gateway of the ancient city. They were lying in a burnt layer with charcoal and ashes among hundreds of other pottery fragments. Most of them did not show any readable traces of writing, but eighteen pieces contained Hebrew writing in pre-exilic Phœnician Hebrew script, some of it 'as clear as the day it was made'. The examination of these ostraca showed that nearly all of them were letters or fragments of letters belonging to the age of Jeremiah -- the first Hebrew original documents written in the days of the prophets to come into our hands. It was, in the words of Prof. H. Torczyner, to whom we are indebted for the first attempt to decipher and interpret the texts, 'the most valuable discovery made in the biblical archæology of Palestine'.

The whole of the eighteen ostraca were first published in 1938, with photographs, with an English translation and a commentary by Prof. Torczyner, while three readable ostraca discovered later were dealt with separately by Prof. Torczyner, Prof. H. Ginsberg and Dr. D. Diringer in special articles. Since then the ostraca have been subjected to minute examination by a host of scholars. Various different readings have been suggested and new interpretations offered, ranging from theories put forward by Prof. René Dussaud, J. W. Jack, Sir Charles Marston, Prof. J. Reider, and Prof. D. Winton Thomas, to the acute palæographical and philological criticisms raised by Prof. W. F. Albright, Dr. S. A. Birnbaum, Prof. U. Cassuto and Prof. Ginsberg, to mention some of the main participants in this struggle for the clarification of the mystery which surrounds these ancient scripts. But while controversy still rages round a number of details connected with them, substantial agreement has been reached concerning their general meaning and character. There is no question that some of the ostraca -- perhaps most or even all of them -- were letters sent by a Jewish officer Hoshaiah, probably a military commander stationed at a place near Lachish, to his superior

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