Mazzaferro Loses Bible Bet


Recent comments about Harry H. McCall’s post on the lack of biblical texts before 250 BCE have prompted some to request that I comment on this issue. See: McCall’s post

I have been occupied with medical issues recently, but I can comment on a few items, and especially those pertaining to Mr. Howard Mazzaferro’s attempted refutations of some of McCall’s claims. In general, McCall is stating what is standard knowledge in modern biblical studies:The oldest manuscripts of the Bible we have are among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they are dated to no earlier than about 250 BCE.

I don’t think that this is proof that every part of “the Bible” lacked existence prior to 250 BCE, but it is accurate to state that we have no extant manuscript of the Bible prior to that date. The closest item that might fit such a description is the Ketef Hinnom inscriptions, which include a passage linked to blessings found in Numbers 6:24-26.

However, the dates of the inscribed amulets from Ketef Hinnom have been disputed. And even if the finds from Ketef Hinnom are from the late pre-exilic period, I concur with Jim Davila’s assessment:
“The benediction is the sort of thing that would have been in wide circulation and proves nothing about whether the text of Numbers was assembled c. 600 B.C.E. in anything like the form we have today.”

See: Davila’s comments

We, of course, do have other extra-biblical attestations before 250 BCE for people, places, and some events mentioned in the Bible, but that is not necessarily proof that the Bible was written near the time when the extra-biblical evidence mentions something that is also mentioned in the Bible.

For example, I can write a novel today that mentions George Washington, but that won’t mean that my novel was written at the time of George Washington by mere mention of that historical figure.

But McCall did issue the following challenge:
I’ll give anyone who can present textual evidence of just one complete verse from the Bible in an inscription before 250 BCE $30.00 cash.
I shall assume that McCall meant any complete verse of the Bible attested in any type of writing medium, and not just inscriptions inscribed on a hard surface.

Mr. Howard Mazzaferro presented the so-called Passover Letter from Elephantine, a Jewish colony in Egypt yielding a number of important documents in Aramaic from the fifth century BCE, as proof that he had satisfied McCall’s challenge. Mazzaferro, however, has not met the challenge at all.

To understand why, let’s begin with Mazzaferro’s own quotation of the Passover Letter, which I cut and paste directly from his own comments to avoid miscopying (I have added spaces between lines for easier reading, however): 

Does this do it for you Harry? Although it’s not an inscription, its a Papyri. Elephantine papyri "The Passover Letter" (Sachau plate 6, Ungnad 6, Cowley 21, TAD A4.1, Porten B13) Dated 419 B.C.E.

1. To my brothers,

 2. Yedaniah and his colleagues of the Judahite garrison, (from) your brother Hananiah. May the gods seek the welfare of my brothers.

 3. Now this year, the 5th year of King Darius, word was sent from the king to Arsames, saying:

 4. In the month of Nisan, let there be a Passover for the Judahite garrison. Now accordingly count fourteen

5. days of the month Nisan and keep the Passover, and from the 15th day to the 21st day of Nisan

 6. are seven days of Unleavend Bread. Be clean and take heed. Do not work

 7. on the 15th day and on the 21st day. Also, drink no intoxicants; and anything in which there is leaven,

 8. do not eat, from the 15th day from sunset until the 21st day of Nisan, seven

 9. days, let it not be seen among you; do not bring it into your houses, but seal it up during those days. 

10. Let this be done as King Darius commanded.

11. To my brethren, Yedaniah and his colleagues of the Judahite garrison, (from) your brother Hananiah.

 Verses covered... Leviticus 23:5 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight, is the LORD's Passover. Exodus 12:15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.

 Do I get my $30.00?

So, is the Passover Letter referring to these biblical verses?

Not necessarily.

Mazzaferro’s representation of the Passover Letter omitted all of the brackets that should enclose reconstructed portions of that document, and so he yields the misleading impression that this is a translation of a complete document.

It is not.

Easily accessible photographs and a translation of The Passover Letter may be found here: Papyrus photos

When one compares those photographs with Mazzaferro’s translation, one realizes that the following portion of line 4 is completely reconstructed, and it is not found in the preserved document: “In the month of Nisan, let there be a Passover for the Judahite garrison.” Indeed, “Passover” has been inserted here by modern editors and translators.

It is for this reason, that some modern scholars are more cautious. Baruch M. Bokser (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6:761) remarks that this Aramaic document “possibly alludes to the Passover offerings.” Again, a better representation of the conjectural nature of the translation is found here: Papyrus photos

[To my brothers, Ye]daniah and his colleagues the Jewish ga[rrison,] your brother Hanan[i]ah. May God/the gods [seek after] the welfare of my brothers [at all times.] And now, this year, year 5 of King Darius, it has been sent from the king to Arsa[mes ……… …] Now, you thus count four[teen days in Nisan and on the 14th at twilight ob]serve [the Passover] and from the 15th day until the 21st day of [Nisan observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Seven days eat unleavened bread. Now,] be pure and take heed. [Do] n[ot do] work [on the 15th day and on the 21st day of Nisan.] Do not drink [any fermented drink. And do] not [eat] anything of leaven [nor let it be seen in your houses from the 14th day of Nisan at] sunset until the 21st day of Nisa[n at sunset. And b]ring into your chambers [any leaven which you have in your houses] and seal (them) up during [these] days. ... [To] my brothers, Yedaniah and his colleagues the Jewish garrison, your brother Hananiah s[on of ??].
Note how much is in brackets, which represents conjectures and guesses, and not words in the actual text.

So, there is really nothing in The Passover Letter that would qualify as exhibiting a “complete verse,” and certainly not the ones that Mazzaferro has identified specifically (Exodus 12:15; Leviticus 23:5).

It remains true that other documents from Elephantine may refer to the Passover (Porten, 2011:126), but that still does not mean that such a document is directly quoting particular biblical texts.

Recall that Mr. Mazzaferro is the same individual who also said this about McCall when challenging another of the latter’s claims:
“and I know you did not read the inscriptions yourself and make that determination because as you can see below, where I have reproduced one of these inscriptions, you would have to be pretty good at Hebrew to read this English transcription."
The problem is that Mr. Mazzaferro probably did not make that determination about the Passover Letter himself because he displays a number of basic blunders in both presenting and interpreting that Aramaic document.

He seems to have manually copied or cut-and-pasted a translation he found on-line without checking it against more primary sources (photographs of the papyrus, or facsimiles of the papyrus). One possible source of Mazzaferro’s inaccurate edition is this on-line translation: Mazzaferro’s source?

That on-line translation also contains no brackets to indicate reconstructed portions. Note also that this source has a line 10 that reads, “Let this be done as King Darius commanded,” just as does Mazzaferro’s translation.

The problem, of course, is that this is a completely MANUFACTURED insertion that is found in Cowley’s edition, but not in Porten’s various translations (1979:91, 1986:54, 2011:126-27).

In fact, the editions of Bezalel Porten only have 10 lines total, while Mazzaferro’s translation has 11 (just like the on-line edition cited above).

So, it seems that Mazzaferro never bothered to read the Aramaic text in facsimile form, or in photographic form, or even in a scholarly edited form. And if he did, he disregarded an honest or proper representation of that text.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with conjectural readings of ancient texts, but it is wrong to not inform readers of what is conjectural and what is not.

Mr. Mazzaferro also challenges McCall as follows:
Sounds like you are looking for a word for word match. Problem is, which Hebrew Bible are you referring to? Are you talking about the Masoretic text, which was only finalized in the middle ages. Are you talking about the Samaritan Hebrew text? Are you talking about the Hebrew vorlage text that produced the LXX? Or are you talking about the unaligned Hebrew texts of the DSS that do not agree with any of the above? I won’t even talk about the variants within each of these different Hebrew families of texts. So how in the world would you even know if a complete verse from your ambiguous “Bible” was quoted or not?
Mazzaferro makes a fair observation. But, in the case of The Passover Letter, it is Mr. Mazzaferro who is most vulnerable on this issue, and not McCall.

First, The Passover Letter does not reproduce a complete biblical verse in any of the types of texts Mazzaferro mentions (Masoretic, Samaritan, Septuagint). This is especially the case with what is preserved of Exodus 12:15 and Leviticus 23:5 in the Dead Sea Scrolls (see Ulrich, The Biblical Qumran Scrolls, pp. 56, 131-32).

Second, even if these texts did have such a verse, it would not show that the Passover Letter is quoting the Bible. The Passover letter is dated to about 419 BCE, while the earliest undisputed biblical text is dated to no earlier than about 250 BCE. But if we have no undisputed biblical manuscripts before 250 BCE, then what makes Mr. Mazzaferro think that the Passover Letter is quoting a biblical text that is not attested prior to 250 BCE?

Why can’t it be that a biblical text composed around or after 250 BCE is quoting or adapting some variant of the directives in The Passover Letter?

Third, the fact is that the form in which Mr. Mazzaferro has presented the Passover Letter yields the impression that the Passover and unleavened bread festivals were orchestrated during the Persian empire, and do not go back to Moses.

Note the statement in Mazzaferro’s edition of the Passover Letter (line 10): “Let this be done as King Darius commanded.” It does not say “as Moses commanded.”

See also Ezra 6, which also describes directives about the Passover during the Persian empire. In fact, even within the Bible we have some evidence that the Passover is a post-Mosaic invention because in 2 Kings 23:21-23 (RSV), we read:
And the king commanded all the people, "Keep the passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant." [22] For no such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah; [23] but in the eighteenth year of King Josi'ah this passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.
This text can date no earlier than about 640-609 BCE, when Josiah reigned, and may date later than 586 BCE because 2 Kings (25) ends with the destruction of Jerusalem, which is usually thought to be securely dated to about 587/586 BCE.

At least since the time of Wilhelm M. L. de Wette (1780-1849), many scholars concluded that the so-called Book of the Covenant “found” during Josiah’s reign (see 2 Kings 22:8-23:2) was a pious invention to promote Josiah’s reforms.

Indeed, forgetting or not celebrating Passover is like Christians forgetting or not celebrating Christmas for the next few hundred years.

Biblical authors credited Hebrew kings with inventing at least some sacred festivals during the First Temple Period. For example, in 1 Kings 12:32 (RSV):
And Jerobo'am appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices upon the altar; so he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he had made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made.
In 2 Chronicles 30:6ff, we are told about how Hezekiah sent a letter encouraging people to celebrate Passover (cf. Ezra 6:18-22).

Thus, there is nothing inherently implausible about saying that some festivals, or parts thereof, were invented or started also in the Second Temple Period. As it is, Porten (1979:92) notes that some of the directives mentioned in the Passover Letter are only known from post-biblical sources (e.g., the prohibition of fermented drink, which has a parallel in Pesah. 3:1).

So, even if the Passover does reach back to pre-exilic times, the Passover Letter cannot be used as proof that it is directly quoting Exodus or Leviticus, as we know them, rather than alluding to some exilic or post-exilic text that mentions similar topics (e.g., 2 Chronicles 30).

The Jewish community at Elephantine apparently also did not get the memo about the directive that you could only have one temple (and that one in Jerusalem).

Mr. Mazzaferro has not met Harry McCall’s challenge. Checking the primary sources pays off for those who are willing to invest in the labor it takes.

Other pieces of evidence that Mazzaferro references to make similar points, including the Horvat Uza Bowl inscription and The Aramaic Text in Demotic Script, have even more problems in the careless fashion in which he represents and interprets them.

Some of his pronouncements on other matters of biblical “history” (e.g., Moses writing around 1500 BCE) are devoid of knowledge of the history of the Hebrew language.

I can elaborate if Mr. Mazzaferro wishes, or I may do so on my own initiative in the near future.

1. Why did you not disclose to readers how much of the text you were quoting was reconstructed?

2. Did you check the translation of the Passover Letter that you used against more primary sources, just as you seem to be demanding of Harry McCall?

3. Can you read Aramaic?

4. Why do you conclude that the Passover Letter, which is dated to 419 BCE, is quoting biblical texts, none of which are actually attested before about 250 BCE?

Cowley, A., Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (1923; Reprint, Osnabrück: Otto Zeller, 1967). 

Porten, Bezalel, “Aramaic Papyri and Parchments: A New Look,” Biblical Archaeologist 42, no. 2 (Spring, 1979): 74-104. 

Porten, Bezalel and Ada Yardeni, Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt, Volume 1: Letters (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1986).

Porten, Bezalel, et al., The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change (2nd Revised edition; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011).

Ulrich, Eugene, The Biblical Qumran Scrolls: Transcriptions and Textual Variants (Leiden: Brill, 2010).