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Could Moses Write Hebrew?

As you may have noticed, on a number of occasions I get asked questions that I simply can’t answer.   I received one such question this week, about the history of the Hebrew language.  Here is how the questioner phrased it:

What is our earliest evidence for Hebrew as a written language? I’ve been to apologetic seminars where they say it’s long been said by atheists that the Hebrew Bible can’t be trusted because the Hebrews didn’t have a written language until well after the stories in the OT would’ve taken place. The evidence that the Hebrews had a written language in close proximity to the Biblical stories is based on pottery evidence and things of that nature. I’m sure these are topics you are very familiar with and I’d appreciate your take.


It’s actually amazing how many topics I’m not familiar with at all!  So, not knowing the answer, I asked a colleague of mine who is an expert in Hebrew philology, Joseph Lam (he teaches courses in my department in Hebrew and other Semitic languages, and on the religion, culture, and literature of the Ancient Near East, and in Hebrew Bible; his office is across the hall from mine).   I simplified the question to get the heart of it.  This is what I said in an email to him.



Someone has asked me the question below.  Damn if I know!  I don’t need a long exposition, just a basic answer will do (some kind of inscription?)


What is our earliest evidence for Hebrew as a written language? 


Here is his very helpful response.

It depends on what you define as Hebrew. We have a number of inscriptions from Palestine in the late 2nd millennium/early 1st millennium BCE (which is when Hebrew mostly likely branched off as a distinct language from the broader “Canaanite” family of languages), but early Hebrew and Canaanite are difficult to distinguish from one another, especially in short inscriptions (sometimes a single word). For a long time the standard answer was the Gezer Calendar from the late 10th century (900’s) BCE, but I now think that text is better described as Phoenician or common Canaanite. Others would say the more recently discovered Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon (11th/10th century), but there are various oddities to that text that make it difficult to classify. There are also a number of short inscriptions from Tel Rehov that have been dated archaeologically to the 10th/9th centuries. The upshot is, there are a number of candidates from the 10th/9th centuries, but certainly by the 8th century we have many more unambiguously “Hebrew” inscriptions.


For more detail, I would recommend to your readers the following online article (and the article to which it responds): https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/what%E2%80%99s-the-oldest-hebrew-inscription/


As a follow-up, I said/asked the following:

Fantastic.  Just what I needed.  The questioner was not a scholar, but an interested lay person, who was especially interested in the question of whether, if there was a Moses living in say the 13th c BCE, he would have been able to write.   Do you have an opinion?  (I myself  don’t think there *was* a Moses, but still,  assuming there was…)


Here is Joseph’s short and very interesting response.

If there was a Moses, raised in the Egyptian court, he probably would have learned to write in Egyptian! The texts of the Pentateuch, whoever wrote them, are NOT in 13th century language; they are in classical 1st millennium Hebrew. Whatever a hypothetical 13th century Moses wrote, whether in Egyptian or Canaanite or something else, that’s NOT what we have preserved in the Pentateuch.


I regularly answer questions on the blog (or get someone else who actually knows answer them for me!).  If you belonged, you would get all questions and answers, as well as numerous other posts, every week.  So if you don’t belong, JOIN!!!


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  1. Avatar
    craig@corbettlaw.org  August 25, 2017

    Fascinating. Lay people in churches rarely, if ever, think of these questions. I recall seeing a stone tablet or marker at the Juan C. Carlos Museum at Emory U. in 1994. Max Miller, Ph. D., who was teaching a course I was taking, said the carved inscription was Canaanite. First time I had ever thought about when written languages were first developed.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 25, 2017

    Fascinating! I don’t believe in the existence of Moses, either. But if he did exist, or if someone living very close to that era wrote about him as an already-mythical character, could something like the Pentateuch have been written in Canaanite and later translated into Hebrew?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      I’m not sure: we don’t really have Canaanite texts like that from the period either.

      • Avatar
        Tobit  September 15, 2017

        I guess the closest would be the Canaanite inscriptions at Ugarit from the 1300s BC. They certainly contain instructions for cultic practices which you could compare to Leviticus, and several myths or legends, but nothing like the patriarchal stories.

      • Alemin
        Alemin  May 11, 2018

        I don’t think orthodox Jews would be happy with that solution, since many of them believe that Hebrew was the language used in Eden! But religion is adaptable to new challenges….

  3. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 25, 2017

    I have the impression that it was rather late (say early in the kingdom period and/or shortly after the Babylonian exile) that large parts of the Hebrew Bible were compiled and edited into something that became an official/formal/institutionalized norm for the Jewish people. Probably many/most of the stories, legends, histories, laws, teachings, poetry, and wisdom had already been circulating and developing informally and unsystematically for long periods of time and had been more or less extensively modified from their original form over time. And I assume they continued to change-and that additions were made-even after such compilations were made.

    So I’m not asking when the Hebrew Bible reached its final form or when the last book in it was written. I think that was pretty close to the CE. I’m wondering if its correct that, at one or few points points in time, the Jewish people “consciously” constructed a history of their nation that was partly fictional and made up largely of a lot of much earlier material. Major purposes for doing so might include the forging of a national identity and/or preserving that identity after the exile. If something like that occurred (and maybe more than once), is there a consensus view among critical scholars when that was?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      No, I don’t think “histories of a people” in teh ancient world were intentionally made up (fabricated or researched). They happened in the processes of story-telling and passing along oral traditions, being invented, shaped, molded, told, retold over decades/centuries, by people who probably thought there were, for the most part, telling what they themselves had heard or remembered hearing….

    • Alemin
      Alemin  May 11, 2018

      @Seeker1952 Check out the ‘Documentary Hypothesis’ which addresses that. Also, consider 2 Kings 22:8-13, in which the high priest ‘discovers’ (conveniently) “the book of the law” and presents it to King Josiah. What book was that? The Pentateuch? Or just perhaps, say, Deuteronomy? How could a book of Moses completely disappear from Israel such that the high priest and king are surprised by its discovery and contents? If “the Jewish people “consciously” constructed a history of their nation that was partly fictional and made up largely of a lot of much earlier material”, then here’s the smoking gun of its insertion into Israel’s psyche.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  August 25, 2017

    What’s even more interesting is that the language the “Hebrews” would have spoken after hundreds of years in Egypt was probably also Egyptian! I know of ancient inscriptions in Egypt written in a Semitic language and alphabet (the Wadi El-Hol Inscription is an example that comes to mind), but those were probably written by Canaanite sojouners in Egypt, such as mercernaries, etc. and not multi-generational Semitic residents in Egypt.

    This plays into my own person hypothesis for the origin of YHWH. The full development of my hypothesis would require a book-length mongraph to fully appreciate (which I may write one day), so I’ll just give a brief outline.

    — YHWH started out as a moon god. He’s related to the Canaanite god Yare’ach (which means “moon” in Canaanite, Hebrew, etc.), a parallel to the Egyptian god Yah (from whence YHWH)
    — When the Canaanites, who the Egyptians called the Hyksos (more accurately, the Greeks called them the Hyksos after the Egyptian name) took over Egypt in the Second Intermediate Period, they brought with them the worship of Yare’ach, the moon god.
    — As they assimilated into the Egyptian milieu, they conflated Yare’ach with the Egyptian moon god Yah, thus making the names interchangable (cf. Roman Jupiter with Greek Zeus).
    — When the Hyksos were eventually forced out of Egypt and back into Canaan, they brought back with them the god Yah.
    — The “Hebrews,” i.e. those Canaanites who “crossed” back over the Jordan river (the word “Hebrew” in Hebrew is related to the root for “to cross” or “to pass over”) worshipped Yah as their god, which is why the very first settlement they captured, Jericho, is, itself, named after the Semitic word for the moon god (Jericho in Hebrew is “Yare’chu”, and, yes, that’s the name of the Canaanite moon god, Yare’ach, as you saw above).
    — As these “Hebrews” began conquering parts of what was to become ancient Israel, they brought with them the worship of Yah, eventually creating shrines and alters (the so-called “high places”) throughout the land, in which they made sacrifices to Yah/Yare’ach the moon god.
    — Eventually, worship of Yah became one of the most popular cults throughout the land, with the alters at Shiloh, Beth El, and, eventually, Jerusalem, being the biggest.
    — As the Egyptian empire began to decline with the ascendency of the Neo-Assyrian empire, the Israelites sought to disassociate Yah with the Egyptian god, and chose, itself, to make him a Mesopotamian god, which is why they started to call him Yahu. The “-u” suffix was a very common ending to Assyrian names, especially the names of gods (cf. Amurru, An/Anu, Abzu/Apsu, Kingu, Nabu, Nammu, Lahamu/Lahmu, Utu, etc.).
    — To distinguish the Semitic Yahu meaning the god and the possessive of Yah (the “-u” suffix in Hebrew is the male, 3rd-person, singular possessive, i.e. “his”), the scribes would write Yahu’s name as יהוה instead of simply יהו. (Funny enough, that means the actual pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton should “yahoo”).
    — This is why the theophoric names we see in the Bible have both Yah or Yahu, but no Yahweh. For Egyptians, the theophoric name had “yah,” and for Assyrians, the theophoric name had “yahu”. That’s why we see the names of Israelite kings written both ways, e.g. חזקיה= Hezekiah; חזקיהו = Hezekiahu
    — YHWH being a moon god answers countless questions we have about his origins. Why did the Isrealites worship YHWH every seven days? Because the phases of the moon follow a roughly seven day cycle: New moon to half moon waxing (1st 7th day Shabbat), half moon waxing to full moon (2nd 7th day Shabbat), full moon to half moon waning (3rd 7th day Shabbat), half moon waning to new moon (4th 7th day Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh — or Shabbat of the “New Moon”)
    — It also explains why the three major Isrealite festivals — Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles — occurred when they did. Passover starts the first full moon of spring. Pentecost starts on the last half moon waxing before summer (and a week after the last Rosh Chodesh or New Moon of Spring), seven weeks after Passover. And Tabernacles starts on the last full moon before fall. Since these are all harvest festivals it’s not a coincidence that the turning of the seasons plays a major role.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  August 27, 2017

      Thank you for this!

    • Avatar
      nbraith1975  August 28, 2017

      @Talmoore –

      Interesting that the moon phases may have been the basis of the Hebrew “worship” calendar. My wife’s grandfather (Dr. Newman M. Powell), her dad’s father, was a Methodist minister/missionary who wrote several books about how the Hebrews measured “time.” You may be able to get the books here: https://www.abebooks.com/book-search/author/newman-m-powell/

      The books are: “Time Was” Modern Publishers, Inc., Oklahoma City, OK 1955, “A New Look At An Old Book” Vantage Press, New York, NY 1977, and “Time Reckoning Among The Ancients” Carlton Press, Inc., New York, MY 1969.

      Dr. Powell believed the ages assigned to the likes of Methuselah of 900+ years were a result of using the moon cycles – not a 365 day year. He concluded that assigning “new” moon phases to those ages actually resulted in an average human age for that period.

      What’s interesting to me is how most Christians still believe people used to live 900+ years and reject any scholarly evidence to the contrary.

    • Avatar
      Malik  January 9, 2018

      Thank you , I have been doing some personal research on the issue of Theophoric names. However, Wikipedia does disagree with you:


      Do you have any references that you recommend ?

    • Avatar
      Jacob Bellator  April 25, 2018

      Interesting! Would you mind if I shared this in the future? Also, would you have any specific recommendations on books or talks about the origins and development of YHWH as a god?

    • Alemin
      Alemin  May 11, 2018

      Excellent thoughts. It’s something I’ve been digging into a bit myself. I’ve only just started looking into the connection to the moon.

  5. Lev
    Lev  August 25, 2017

    Fab post, Bart.

    Whilst you’re on the subject of languages – do you know what version of the OT Jesus cited from?

    I read an interesting piece by Craig Evans arguing that “There are significant examples in which Jesus’ language agrees with the Aramaic (Targum) tradition.” http://www.bible.ca/b-canon-jesus-favored-old-testament-textual-manuscript.htm

    I find it especially interesting that citations from the Aramiac Targum, rather than the LXX and Masoretic Text, are preserved in the Gospels. Do you agree with Evans that there are “significant examples” found in the gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      I haven’t looked into that; most of his quotations seem to be Hebrew Bible, but it’s hard to know becaues we don’t have his original (Aramaic) words, only Greek translations of them (not to mention the fact that it’s hard to know which of those words actually go back to him). The problem with the Targum view (one of the problems) is that the surviving targumim are from centuries later — they aren’t contemporary with Jesus.

      • Lev
        Lev  August 27, 2017

        Although we don’t have the original Aramaic words of Jesus, the Greek translations of them do agree with a Targum source over the LXX or MS. As Evans points out: “The paraphrase of Isa 6:9-10 in Mark 4:12 concludes with ” . . . and it be forgiven them.” Only the Isaiah Targum reads this way. The Hebrew and the Septuagint read “heal.” The criterion of dissimilarity argues for the authenticity of this strange saying.”

        As for the lateness of the Targum texts, although the surviving copies of the Targums are centuries later, the date of the originals seems to go back very early. Targum Onkelos is thought to have been written in the 1st century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Targum_Onkelos

        I’m not an expert, and the following might be wrong, but I understand that Aramaic paraphrases were very popular in the 1st century BC / AD in Israel, as fewer people spoke Hebrew and more spoke Aramaic as their primary language. Individual Rabbis would either come up with their own paraphrases for their synagogue or borrow from their favourite established Targum that was in circulation. Perhaps this explains why Jesus used so many sayings that were in agreement with the most popular Targums that have survived down to us?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 28, 2017

          Yes, the dating problems make most experts extremely cautious about claiming any kind of literary dependence.

          • Lev
            Lev  August 28, 2017

            I agree – I don’t think the evangelists were literary dependent on the Targums. As the experts you are aware claim, any literary dependency on the gospels with the written Targums are highly suspect because we have no evidence they were available to the evangelists.

            Would you agree the most plausible explanation would be that the evangelists were dependent on oral recollections of what Jesus said and that these agreements with the Targums prove that the evangelists accurately reflected what Jesus said as his citations from scripture diverged from the LXX and MS – texts which would have been readily available to the evangelists?

            What I’m saying is – it looks like this proves that (at certain points) the evangelists were working with accurate oral accounts, rather than inventing these sayings. If they were inventing these sayings, surely they would have relied upon LXX and MS citations, as the Targums would have been unavailable to them?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 29, 2017

            My view is that the centuries-later targumim cannot be used to establish what was happening (linguistically or any other way) in the 20s CE in Palestine.

          • Lev
            Lev  August 29, 2017

            The most important written Targums to come down to us seem to originate 1st and 2nd centuries liturgical Targums; Targum Onkelos (late 1st century) and Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel (2nd century).

            However, we do know that there were written Targums circulating early in the 1st century as Gamaliel (d 52) refused to recognise a written Targum on the book of Job.

            So whilst the liturgical Targums we have today are copies of originals that were produced decades or even 100 years after the crucifixion, it is established that more primitive and less established Targums were being used in early 1st century synagogues due to the evidence of Gamaliel.

            The question I pose is whether the liturgical Targums we have today demonstrate any correlation to the OT citations found in the gospels, and it appears they do on occasions. Despite the liturgical Targums only being available after the gospels were written, there are points of agreement with the gospels.

            This suggests to me the later liturgical Targums have preserved the more primitive early 1st century Targum interpretations of the OT.

            It also suggests that the evangelists were accurately preserving Greek translations of what Jesus said, because if they were simply inventing Jesus’ sayings then they would have used the LXX or MS OT citations, instead of the Aramaic Targums which would have been unfamiliar to Greek speaking Jews and Gentiles.

            My view is that the evangelists would not insert obscure Targum versions of the OT into their Greek Gospels unless they had good reasons to do so. I believe a good enough reason would be that they were accurately preserving the words of Jesus.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  August 28, 2017

        That seems curious. I thought I had read that most NT quotations of the OT are from the LXX. Is there some reason you can think of that the Evangelists would use the Hebrew text for Jesus’ quotes, or is the LXX not as widely quoted in the NT as I understood?

  6. Avatar
    Pattylt  August 25, 2017

    Did I just hear a fundamentalist cry?

  7. Avatar
    Tony  August 25, 2017

    Implied in Joseph’s answer is that, beside the linguistic connection, Judaism as a religion and a people came from Canaanism and Canaan. The archeological record shows as such. On the other hand there is no archeological support for the events described in the five books of Moses.

    In Genesis we have a creation myth, and the Pentateuch is a historical origin myth.

  8. Avatar
    Philippe Piet van Putten  August 25, 2017

    Dear friend, I think the following article can help us here.

  9. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 25, 2017

    I can see Adam and Eve as mythical characters quite easily but not Moses. There’s outside biblical references to Moses. And I believe there’s some scholarship (Leithart’s 1 & 2 Kings–on my wishlist) that suggests King Mesha was actually Moses. I read Finklestein’s book a while back, but his book hasn’t been without its fair share of controversy. No one ever seems to bring that up. At any rate, I reject the idea that Moses was, on the whole, a myth.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      No, I don’t believe Moses is mentioned by outside sources, until long after the Torah was put in circulation.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  August 28, 2017

        Right. What I should have said was that Moses shares similarities with other historical persons such as King Sargon of Akkad and King Mesha who is mentioned in the Bible. There’s also archaeological evidence for Mesha–the Mesha Stele. And there’s other small evidences for the exodus. I think there was a man behind the legend, but the collective memory of him has changed over time so that he’s unrecognizable to our *evidences*.

        There was doubt about David’s existence until the Tel Dan Inscription was found. Does the Jesus who exists in the minds of Christians today exist 2,000 years ago? Is there unequivocal proof he existed at all? Not really, but I still believe he did. And everyone who believes he lived and died as a human being is taking it on faith in the end. Not proof.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 28, 2017

          My sense is that in an ancient account of an ancient person you will normally find characteristics shared iwth other anicent persons. I don’t know what information we have about Mesha, but both he and Sardon seem like they are pretty different from anything mentioned about Moses, no?
          As to David: I’d say that’s not *quite* true, is it? The inscription mentions the “house of David,” which simply means that the person responsible for the dedication knew that a royal house traced its line back to someone named David, which isn’t the same as saying that that person knew for a fact there *was* a David, if you see what I mean.

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  August 29, 2017

            Sargon’s mother hid her pregnancy, put her son in a basket, and sent him away on a river. Sargon existed, but I doubt the birth narrative. From what I understand, King Mesha (850 BC) shares the motifs of an exodus (a reverse escape story from Israel?), the firstborn being killed, and Mesha may be another way of saying Moses. There’s a biblical narrative for Mesha, the Mesha Stele, and El-Kerak Inscription.

            Carol Meyers from Duke University says that the Moses narratives are a collective, cultural memory and products of trauma. We know that some Canaanites ended up in Egypt for a variety of reasons, including slavery, and there are a couple of documents that record a handful of people fleeing. The Exodus theme is also repeated throughout the Bible with its authors. What I believe she’s saying there is that the memory of freedom from oppression is so entrenched that it reflects back into their stories. Like the King Mesha story. I think it’s very possible that a handful of people followed a man out of Egypt who was brave enough to lead them back to their homeland and that his memory was exploited. The evidence is scanty, but he’s further back historically. I think the signs are all there: motifs, quirky birth story, miracles, nobody has a clue where he was buried, etc…

            The Inscription for David–isn’t that considered a Stele? (haha! that struck me as funny!) Like the Deir Allah Inscription? I thought steles were a way of honoring or preserving someone’s memory. It’s not absolute proof that it was created by someone who knew him, but do we have other inscriptions for mythical persons? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one.


          • Bart
            Bart  August 29, 2017

            Yes, it is the Tel-Dan inscription, in which in which king Hazael of Aram-Damascus brags that he defeated Omri the king of Israel and his fellow king from the “house of David.” In other words, the king in Judea claimed to be a descendant of (someone named) David. Here’s some info about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tel_Dan_Stele

            Off hand I don’t know what historical sources we have for Mesha (in principle I’m suspicious of claims that a very ancient person who is poorly attested is “just like” some other very ancient person who is poorly attested! But, again, I don’t know what our sources of information are)

  10. Benjamin
    Benjamin  August 25, 2017

    I knew it. It does notmake sense to have Moses as
    an author. Someone(s) made it up later. Why don’t you say so.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      Are you referring to me? I’ve said so for decades.

      • Benjamin
        Benjamin  August 28, 2017

        no sir, raised as a fundamentalist, I was always taught the divine word of God is always right, and you, sir, new testament scholar is always wrong. Too much wisdom and philosophy, puffed up like a bug, etc. But maybe this is where I think I am finally free of such. No, sir, it was a note to myself, it is an exclamation mark!

  11. Avatar
    godspell  August 26, 2017

    A simpler answer, that a mere layperson can grasp easily, is that Exodus is the second book of the Pentateuch. It would be most odd for Moses to have written his own story in the third person. Particularly since that story ends with his death.

    My own opinion is that there were probably several individuals who gave rise to the legend, which bore little resemblance to what really happened by the time it was written down.

  12. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 26, 2017

    Are there any figures we know about (Christian, pagan, or Jewish) in the late first or in the second century who confronted head-on the fact that the Son of Man/Jesus had not come/returned and brought the fullness of God’s kingdom as Jesus had predicted? For example, do we know of anyone, eg, someone with Christian parents, who abandoned Christianity for that reason? I know Christianity changed as time passed without Jesus’s return, eg, John’s gospel was a major transformation. But I don’t get the sense that anyone admitted that Jesus or his followers had previously been mistaken in any fundamental way. It sounds more like a rationalization, eg, that Jesus was misunderstood by some of his followers. And I would expect pagans and Jews to constantly and gleefully point out Jesus’s failed prediction in their polemics against Christians.

    • Avatar
      Seeker1952  August 27, 2017

      I wonder if the failure of God’s kingdom to arrive in its fullness was among the origins of Gnosticism–though, since Jesus is still an authoritative figure–I would also consider that a rationalization rather than on a head-on confrontation?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      There were plenty of Christians who wrestled with the issue/problem, and it is reflected in a number of our early writings (e.g. Gospel of Luke; 2 Peter; Gospel of Thomas) etc., but in a variety of ways. No one says: “Jesus said this; he was wrong; and now what?” Though it appears that this thought did occur to some people (hence the polemic of 2 Peter 2, e.g.)

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  August 28, 2017

        2Pet.2 refers to *tartaros* (tr. hell in NRSV). What is the difference between *tartaros* and *gehenna,* Jesus’ preferred word for “the bad place?”

        • Bart
          Bart  August 28, 2017

          Tartarus is from Greek mythology: it is the place of imprisonment and punishment of the Titans, the fathers of the gods; Gehenna is the Jewish term for the garbage dump outside Jerusalem where bodies were burned. Eventually they both came to be thought of as terms for “hell”

          • Avatar
            stevenpounders  August 28, 2017

            I don’t know if my sources are correct, but I have read that all the common claims that Gehenna was a garbage dump (in tons of articles and commentaries), can all be traced to a 13th century commentary by a French rabbi named David Kimhi, who wrote, “Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and in which fires perpetually burn in order to consume the filth and bones; on which account, by analogy, the judgement of the wicked is called Gehenna.”

            But, apparently, there is no other evidence to support this idea, although it’s been popularized by many authors – many of them well-known, like N.T. Wright. Instead, Gehenna (to Jesus) could simply have been a reference to the Valley of Hinnom, as referenced in the Old Testament with connotations of being a defiled place where sacrifices to Molech occurred.

            Here is one source:


            The Quest for the Historical Jesus’ Use of Gehenna:
            A Critical Appraisal of the Work of N. T. Wright
            and His Portrayal of the Eschatology of the
            Historical Jesus
            Ian C. Cole
            Olivet Nazarene University, icole@live.olivet.edu

          • Bart
            Bart  August 29, 2017

            Interesting. Gehenna is *definitely* a reference to the valley outside the walls of Jerusalem where child sacrifice was long before allegedly performed to the god Molech; but now that you mention it, I don’t know what the evidence is that garbage was dumped there. It may simply be because it is a place where fires never cease and worms never disappear (which makes sense of a garbage dump, but not of too many other kinds of places). I’ll have to look into it.

          • Avatar
            stevenpounders  August 28, 2017

            Here’s another source arguing that Gehenna was not likely a trash dump. A slightly faster read: a blog post by Professor Todd Bolen:


            Does it look like they’ve done their homework correctly?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 29, 2017

            Very interesting!

          • talmoore
            talmoore  August 29, 2017

            Yeah, I’m afraid the “garbage dump” line has greatly confused people as to what apocalyptic Jews such as Jesus meant by Gehenna. Let me try to clear up the confusion.

            Gehenna was the 1st century term for what was traditionally called Gai Ben Hinnom, or Valley of Hinnom’s Son, the valley just south of Jerusalem, and often contrasted with the Qidron valley east of Jerusalem. According to the Hebrew Bible, Israelites supposedly burned their children their in worship to Moloch, a Semitic god who was worshipped, in particular, by the Ammonites. Whether or not these children were actually killed and consumed by the fire, or simply walked through the fire (as some kind of symbolic ritual) is debateable. For my money, I think that by the time of the compiling of the disparate parts of the Biblical texts (ca. 6th century), the latter was the case. That is, children were no long actually immolated in the valley of Ben-Hinnom but, rather, were “passed through” the flames there — not unlike how some people walk on hot coals today, for example — as a symbolic ritual of worship for Moloch. If anything, this demonstrates the cosmopolitan, pluralistic nature of Jerusalem around this time, where many national deities were recognized — a multi-culturalism that’s clearly portrayed in the Bible, and of which the Biblical authors are clearly critical.

            Anyway, by the time of Jewish apocalypticism and expections of a Messianic “Age-to-come” (ca. 2nd century BCE), the Qidron valley to the east of Jerusalem was equated with the Valley of Jehoshephat, in which, according the Prophets, a great battle between the forces of good and evil would take place, with the Messiah leading the forces of good and Satan leading the forces of evil. Presumably, upon completion of said battle, and the Messiah’s decisive victory, there will be thousands upon thousands, if not millions of enemy dead. What will happen to those enemy dead? The same thing that happens to bodies of the dead in most battles. They will be piled up and burned. In the case of the great eschatological battle, since it will take place in the Qidron, the bodies will be piled up and burned in the Hinnom valley — presumably because the Qidron is technically really a wadi, which means the ground would be too wet to allow the bodies to burn completely.

            Eventually, the Gai Ben Hinnom was called Gehinnom for short, and later simply Gehenna. And it no longer just represented the place where the dead would be piled up and burned after the great, final battle. It came to also represent the place of eternal punishment where the enemies of God would be tormented for an eternity. In the century leading up to Jesus it also began to be conflated and equated with Greek places of torment in the afterlife, such as Erebus, Tartarus and Hades. By the time Jesus was using the term Gehenna, he was talking about it in terms of a place of eternal torment in the afterlife, similar to, if much less sophisticated than our notion of Hell.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 30, 2017

            Well said!

          • Alemin
            Alemin  May 11, 2018

            Current thinking is that temple waste (from hundreds or thousands of daily sacrifices, esp during festivals) had to go somewhere, and also that large amounts of water were needed at the temple, and so this waste ran into the Gai Hinnom. The placement of Temple Mount and Gai Hinnom makes me question this though. It would have been much more convenient to send the waste into the Kidron Valley. Perhaps they did, but it naturally flowed down to the Hinnom Valley and collected there, idk.

    • Avatar
      godspell  August 28, 2017

      Well, how many people do we know of who abandoned Marxism when nearly everything Marx predicted failed to occur, and still has not occurred?

      People sometimes abandoned it, but not because of that.

      Likewise, much of what Darwin believed about evolution has proven to be false, many of his ideas are now outmoded, but evolutionary science continues to view him in nigh-prophetic terms, though it’s clear that a working theory of evolution would have arisen with or without him. His basic ideas remain sound, and in fact, so do the basic ideas of Jesus, as they have come down to us.


      If you require perfection in order to believe in anything, you can never believe in anything.

  13. Jeff
    Jeff  August 26, 2017

    Here’s a question for your “Mailbag”:
    As I understand things, it is easily established from structure, vocabulary, syntax etc. that the gospels were originally composed in Greek, not translated from Aramaic. This being the case, how could the long Jesus discourses (e.g., most of John 5; John 14, 15, 16 and 17)—or for that matter any Jesus quote—possibly be anything close to his actual words when they were composed originally in Greek by a highly literate Graecophone and decidedly not translated from the language Jesus had to have been using?
    Even more baffling, some of Jesus’ teachings REQUIRE Greek vocabulary to make the point. A couple of examples:
    1) I once heard an entire sermon by a PCA teaching elder on Jesus’ use of different words for love when speaking to his disciple Peter in John 21. This is almost an insult to the intelligence. How could Jesus be using different words for love while speaking Aramaic—a language (like English) that makes no such distinctions?
    2) In the story of Jesus’ lesson for Nicodemas in John 3 the double meaning of the Greek word anothen is key to the message. Anothen has no counterpart in Aramaic. This conversation—like the one above—must be fictional because it simply could not have taken place between Aramaic speakers.

    Am I completely “off the wall” here?

    Kindest regards,
    Jeff Elliott

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2017

      No, not entirely off the wall at all. I’ve talked about this issue a good bit in a number of my books. The most recent example I’ve dwelt on is the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chs. 5-7. How can we simply accept these as the words Jesus spoke one time while sitting on a mount? I explain the problems in my book Jesus Before the Gospels. But I’ll let the Aramaic experts on the blog deal with your two specific points.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  August 28, 2017

        I hope they will! It’s great to follow the conversations of scholars.

    • Avatar
      Tony  August 27, 2017

      “Am I completely “off the wall” here?”

      My question is: “who was behind the wall”. Because somebody must have taken copious notes (in Greek?), within earshot of conversations between Jesus and Nicodemas , and transcribed those into John’s gospel for the benefit of the believers.

      The philosophical discussions between Jesus and Pilate are also interesting. One speaking latin, the other aramaic, and a third person keeping notes for posterity – to be published in Greek.

      • Alemin
        Alemin  May 11, 2018

        These objections aren’t entirely unanswerable. It could be argued that Nicodemas, as a member of the believing community, passed his story on to others. John’s gospel suggests that John was “known to the high priest” (Jn 18:15). Perhaps he came from an influential family and had inside information (although this is strange, since Mat 4:21 says that Jesus found him in Galilee in a boat mending fishing nets, which hardly sounds like people who would get a free pass into Annas’ home in Jerusalem). Also, it’s not impossible that Jesus (being from Galilee) spoke Greek with Pilate.

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 27, 2017

    Really fascinating. Thanks

  15. Avatar
    brandon284  August 28, 2017

    Appreciate you looking into my inquiry Dr. Ehrman! This is indeed a fascinating topic.

  16. Avatar
    heronewb  August 29, 2017

    Didn’t ancient Hebrew use the Phoenician script, which was also used by Sumerians (the first people with a written language)? Also, doesn’t Genesis attribute the Hebrews as originating in Sumer (Abraham was from Ur, a city in Sumer). This would mean that Hebrews would have been among the earliest with a written language, even if it was a proto-hebrew.

  17. Avatar
    SARABLISSMORRIS  August 30, 2017

    Is it true that Romans and Greeks only read aloud? That they never read silently?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 1, 2017

      I don’t know if the answer is “never,” but it at least is almost certainly “almost always.”

      • Avatar
        Adaza  August 25, 2019

        I don’t have a source but some professor I had, once said a Roman writer demonstrated Julius Caeser’s extraordinary intelligence by claiming Julius Caeser could read without even moving his lips.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 26, 2019

          Yes, there is a reference to this, but for some reason I don’t think it was about Julius Caesar. It’s been years since I’ve looked at it — but being able to read to oneself was seen as extraordinary.

  18. Avatar
    dankoh  September 4, 2017

    Regarding your comments on what version of Scripture Jesus used: I am a bit surprised you didn’t mention Matthew’s use of the LXX mistranslation of ‘almah, given that you’ve written about it before.

    Which raises a larger point: I think it most likely an exercise in futility to ask what version of Jesus was quoting from, since we don’t have any first-hand evidence of what he may have said; we have only the reports of the evangelists, who used whatever Scriptural quotes they felt would advance their message, whether or not Jesus actually said that. And at least some of the time, they used the LXX, something Jesus as a Galilean speaking to other Galileans would not have done.

    There is some speculation about second-temple Aramaic translations, possibly an older version of Onkelos. And of course parts of Daniel are in Aramaic.

  19. Avatar
    Philippe Piet van Putten  September 5, 2017

    OK folks…! I know that this is not the kind of source of our preference, but it is quite interesting.
    “Analysis Shows that the Hebrew Bible May Be Centuries Older than Once Thought”

  20. Avatar
    duaneep  March 16, 2018

    1. Is anyone considering what language God used to inscribe the Ten Commandments onto the stone tablets?
    2. Is there a timeline on when the ‘technology’ of writing script developed and evolved? Anchient scribes probably had a wide variety of inks, mediums to write, carve or etch on, and tools to do the etching or carving. During medieval times there must have been a huge velum industry to supply all the copyists that were copying bibles until paper use became widespread.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2018

      The traditional view is that it was Hebrew. And yes, the technology of writing has massive scholarship devoted to it.

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