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Ebla Update, BAR 6:03, May-Jun 1980.

Ebla_TabletsWith all the twists and turns, the claims and denials, the arguments and the counter-arguments, is there anything we can be certain about in the Ebla story?

Virtually everyone agrees that the cache of cuneiform tablets uncovered at Tell Mardikh in northern Syria is a spectacular find that will radically alter our understanding of the history of the Near East in the third millennium B.C.

There is also no question that Tell Mardikh is to be identified as ancient Ebla. Although, even before the excavations at Tell Mardikh, Ebla was known from literary references to be an important center, its location was uncertain. That Tell Mardikh turned out to be Ebla came as a surprise because scholars previously thought that this area of Syria was a cultural backwater without a major urban center. The excavations at Tell Mardikh have revealed a large city that was apparently the capital of a vast empire which rivalled the civilizations of Mesopotamia to the east.

Exactly when did this Eblaite civilization exist?

We don’t know exactly. There is a dispute over about 200 years. Professor Paolo Matthiae, the chief archaeologist of the Italian mission that is excavating Ebla, dates the Ebla archives to about 2400–2250 B.C. Professor Giovanni Pettinato, the original epigrapher to the Italian mission, date the archives to 2580–2450 B.C. But if you say mid-third millennium, you can’t be far wrong.

In addition, Eblaite civilization had a second flowering about 1850 B.C. (the Middle Bronze Age). For this period, however, the evidence is primarily buildings, walls, pottery, and some artifacts, rather that inscriptions.

How many tablets were found?

This, too, is uncertain. Some estimates go as high as 20,000. But this probably includes every chip and fragment, even if it contains only a letter or two. 16,000 and 17,000 have been used as the number of tablets and significant fragments. As scholars work on the archives, they may find that several fragments join as part of the same tablet. This naturally reduces the number of tablets. The low estimate is about 11,000. But this is still a lot of cuneiform tablets. Even at 11,000 these are the largest third millennium archives ever uncovered.

Almost all of the information about the contents of the tablets comes ultimately from Pettinato who has now broken all ties with the Ebla mission following a scholarly dispute with Matthiae (who can’t read the tablets). Even Pettinato, however, has looked at only about 6,500 of the tablets at most; of these, he has closely studied about 1000. This means that there are perhaps 4500 to 7000 tablets about which almost nothing is known. Who can guess what those will contain?

What about the alleged Syrian attempt to suppress the tablets because they contain Biblical connections?

“Suppress” is perhaps too strong a word, although the media have used this word widely. In “Syria Tries To Influence Ebla Scholarship,” BAR 05-02, BAR charged that the Syrian government was attempting to “affect the scholarly interpretation of the Ebla tablets.”

Many independent sources have also reported that the Syrians were angered at the emphasis placed in the West on the tablets’ alleged Biblical connections. For the Syrian authorities, the importance of the tablets lies in the light they shed on the great Syrian past, what they call “proto-Syrian” history.

The Syrians attribute the Western interest in the Biblical connections to a Zionist plot. Moreover, they make no secret about how they feel.

In an interview published in BAR (“Syrian Ambassador to U.S. Asks BAR to Print Ebla Letter Rejected by New York Times,” BAR 05-05), the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Sabah Kabbani, objected to Pettinato’s early publications and interviews detailing the tablets’ significance for Biblical studies. “Dr. Pettinato tried to give interpretations of the Ebla tablets with a political dimension. This is what we didn’t like,” Kabbani stated.

The director of the Syrian Department of Antiquities, Afif Bahnassi, sought and obtained from Pettinato an “Official Declaration” in which Pettinato, in effect, recanted. In this formal document, Pettinato states that the tablets “always give us more evidence of the central role of Syria in the third millenary.” He speaks of the “pretended links with the biblical text.” He refers to the discussion of Western scholars about the tablets’ Biblical connections as “the interference of our colleagues beyond the ocean” even though these discussions were based on materials which emanated from Pettinato himself. He concludes that “we are not however authorized to make the inhabitants of Ebla ‘predecessors of Israel.’” (The full text of Pettinato’s “Official Declaration” is printed in “Syria Tries To Influence Ebla Scholarship,” BAR 05-02)

Even an unsubtle scholar will get the point- If you want to continue working on the Ebla tablets, you better give a “balanced” picture. You are certainly not free to direct your attention exclusively to the tablets’ possible Biblical connections. As the Syrian ambassador stated, “We are able to close the whole thing down [the Ebla mission], but we don’t want this.”

BAR continues to find this Syrian interference in the scholarly enterprise highly objectionable.

Granted that the Syrian government has rather clumsily attempted to place its thumb on the scale, has this had any effect on what the scholars are doing and saying?

This is hard to tell. It is a bit frightening that Matthiae is quoted in a Syrian publication as stating that, “These allegations [linking the Ebla tablets with the Bible] were propagated by Zionist-American centres to be exploited for atrocious purposes aimed at proving the expansionist and colonialist views of the Zionist leaders.” How far will Matthiae and other scholars go to please the Syrians? Will they delay publication of texts which have particular significance for Biblical studies? Will they stress pure Near Eastern history? Or avoid discussion of whatever is potentially politically objectionable? Surely there is plenty in the Ebla tablets to work on for decades that is “safe,” especially because the initial work must be done by linguists, philologists and historians whose central concerns are not the Bible, but rather cuneiform inscriptions and Syro-Mesopotamian history. So the answer is, we are unlikely ever to know what effect the Syrian objections to the Biblical connections will have on the scholarly enterprise.

Since the Syrians made their objections known, haven’t there been many retractions of Biblical claims? Has this been in response to Syrian pressure?

There are at least three reasons for the changes in interpretations of the tablets. When the tablets were first publicized, their effect on Biblical studies was exaggerated and sensationalized. The same thing happened initially with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls would, it was thought, cast a completely new and unpredictable light on early Christianity. Well, this turned out not to be the case at all.

The same thing happened with the Ebla tablets. Indeed, BAR took the lead in warning against making sensational claims for the tablets (Queries & Comments, BAR 02-03; “The Promise of Ebla,” BAR 02-04).

The problem was especially acute because the popular press sometimes left the impression that actual Biblical personages were referred to in the Ebla tablets. Of course, this was not the case.

Matthiae himself stated, however, “We have found the civilization that was the background of the people of the Old Testament.” In another account, Matthiae is quoted as saying, “The Ebla tablets establish the patriarchs and their names as historical realities” (“Syria Tries To Influence Ebla Scholarship,” BAR 05-02). Pettinato made similar statements, even more frequently than Matthiae. David Noel Freedman, who was the chief publicist of the tablets in the United States, repeated what he had heard, and added his own tinge of enthusiasm and excitement.

The relationship between Eblaite civilization and Israelite civilization was not as close or direct as these early reports indicated. Later statements were more measured and balanced. They were made necessary, almost everyone agreed, by early claims that were more sensational than the evidence justified.

A second reason for the retractions stems from changed readings resulting from more mature consideration of the texts. This chiefly concerns references to the Cities of the Plain mentioned in Genesis 14. At one point, Pettinato claims that these five cities appeared in the Ebla tablets in the same order as they appeared in the Bible and that one of the kings of the cities in the Ebla tablets had the same name as the king of one of the Cities of the Plain in the Bible. Now, according to Pettinato, only Sodom and Gomorrah appear in the Ebla tablets.

Finally, it is possible that Matthiae and Pettinato have trimmed their sails in deference to the expressed dissatisfaction of the Syrian government with a too close connection between the Ebla tablets and Bible. Other scholars may do likewise in the future. Obviously, it is impossible to prove that it has occurred or will occur—which is why the Syrian government’s attempt to influence the scholars is so insidious.

On December 9, 1979, the Washington Post carried a story with the headline, “Ebla Tablets- No Biblical Claims.” Is this an accurate summary of the “bottom line”?

No, it isn’t. Because of the early sensational claims, there is now a tendency to overreact in the other direction, to claim that the Ebla tablets have nothing to do with the Bible. Both extremes are unjustified.

Moreover, there is a tendency on the part of some scholars to put forth their own negative views with respect to the Biblical connections as if there were a scholarly consensus on the matter; whereas in fact, there is scholarly disagreement.

For example, the current epigrapher to the Ebla mission, Professor A. Archi, denies that Gomorrah appears in the tablets and has very grave doubts with respect to Sodom. But Pettinato still believes he has found them.

Similarly, with the question of the appearance of Ya as a compressed form of the Hebrew God, Yahweh, many scholars doubt Pettinato’s interpretation of this cuneiform sign in the Ebla tablets. But Pettinato still maintains that he is correct. In support of his view, Pettinato points to the occurrence of a cuneiform determinative1 that appears with the Ya sign attached indicating that it is the name of a god.

The relationship of the Eblaite language to Hebrew is also a matter of scholarly debate rather than consensus.

A Washington Post story reports that the alleged flood story from the Ebla tablets “has been reduced to a single word translated as ‘water.’” But we do not know whether Pettinato would agree with this reduction.

So we are entering a period of exploration and disagreement, the outcome of which cannot be predicted.

Unfortunately, the debate will continue to be hobbled, since most of the primary data has not been published for scholarly scrutiny. There appears to be no inclination to publish promptly some of the more controversial tablets such as those allegedly containing Sodom and Gomorrah, or Ya, or the Creation story, or the Flood story. The task of publication is now being undertaken by a committee of scholars directed by Matthiae. Pettinato, who has resigned from the Committee in a bitter personal and scholarly feud with Matthiae, says that the organization of the Committee is such that the tablets will not be published for another 300 years. Other indications are that the Committee members are proceeding with all deliberate speed and with the full cooperation of the Syrian government. They have established a journal dedicated to the Ebla tablets; monographs and other scholarly papers have already appeared and, hopefully, will continue to appear at a steady pace.

Pettinato himself has photographs and transcriptions of 987 tablets which he hopes to publish within the next five years independently of the Committee.

Obviously the task of publishing the tablets is an enormous one. That the scholarly and interested lay community will be watching and waiting expectantly is the best assurance we have that the work of publication will proceed promptly and without bias.

Ebla Director Tries to Stop Unauthorized Publication of Tablets

Paolo Matthiae, director of the Italian mission to Ebla, has taken the unusual step of writing to a number of scholarly journals advising them not to publish any tablets without written authorization from him.

The letter is obviously aimed at Giovanni Pettinato, who was the Mission’s original epigrapher and who spent years studying the Ebla tablets before breaking with Matthiae in a bitter, personal squabble which led to Pettinato’s resignation. Pettinato has a mass of original material which he continues to study and which he would of course like to publish.

Matthiae’s letter prohibiting publication of original Ebla materials referred “especially to photographs, autographs and elaboration of previously unpublished documents or manuscripts.” Editors who have received the letter say they cannot recall ever having received a similar letter from any other archaeologist or scholar.

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