Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


The Bible, before William Foxwell Albright, was exempt from critical appraisal: It was simply Gospel.
Opening photo:
Albright confirmed the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Scholarship

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The Great Authenticator
By Dale Keiger

A story about William Foxwell Albright:

There is a 4,000-year-old letter that, until about 10 years ago, virtually every expert on the Bronze Age regarded as a note from one Ishme-Dagan of Ekallatum, in ancient Mesopotamia, to his brother, Yasmakh-Adad. Ishme-Dagan had recently succeeded his father as king of Mari, a city-state on the banks of the Euphrates, in what is now Syria. The note had helped historians date the reign of the great Hammurabi, king of neighboring Babylonia.

There was much evidence to authenticate the letter. But Albright (PhD '16) , chairman and leading light of the Hopkins "Oriental Seminary" in the first half of the 20th century, had his doubts. Ishme-Dagan's tone in the letter was all wrong, Albright said, insufficiently authoritarian for a new king. Also, when speaking of his accession to the throne, the letter's author used the verb erebum; Albright thought the verb should have been wasabum. His scholarly instincts told him that the letter had been misidentified, and he stuck with that position.

Around 1991, 19 years after Albright's death, experts reconsidered the letters and determined that, sure enough, the Hopkins scholar's hunch had been right. The letter was not written by Ishme-Dagan, but by Ishme-Addu, the ruler of another city-state. The letter could not be used to date Hammurabi. Writing about Albright in Biblical Archaeologist, scholar Jack M. Sasson said, "One cannot but envy an intellect so experienced that it could just sense the unlikely."

William Albright published a great deal, more than 800 books, pamphlets, and articles. But he came to the public's attention mostly as an authenticator. In 1948, he confirmed the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were a thousand years older than any previously known Hebrew texts. Interesting work for a man with bad eyes.

Born in Chile to Methodist missionaries, Albright said that he didn't play much with the other kids because he couldn't see well enough to hit a ball. Furthermore, he was a foreigner and a Methodist in a Catholic country. His refuge was his father's library, where he read extensively from an early age. His subjects of choice were history and theology, especially R. W. Rogers's History of Babylonia and Assyria. He came to Hopkins as a student in 1913 to work under Paul Haupt, one of the major "Orientalists" of that time, as scholars of the Near East were known. He earned his PhD and set to work in a career that would eventually encompass Semitic philology, archaeology, and ancient languages. After a decade of work in Jerusalem, Albright returned to Hopkins in 1929 and taught there for nearly 30 years. According to legend, as a teacher he would walk into the room, ask what was the class, then begin to teach accordingly. That may well be apocryphal, but it's a good story.

What is not apocryphal is Albright's radical reorientation of biblical studies. Prior to him, a scholar didn't critically appraise the Bible--it was simply Gospel. Albright never renounced the Christian interpretation of the text, but he did maintain that it could and ought to be studied in its historical context as a historical document. In 1940, he published his seminal work, From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process, firmly placing the Bible in its historical and geographic nexus.

In 1947, two boys were tending sheep near Qumran, by the Dead Sea. One of them, Muhammed ed-Dib, did what bored boys do the world over. He picked up a rock and threw it, at an opening in the cliff face. He heard something shatter. Later, the boys worked up the nerve to investigate what he'd broken, and found a trove of elongated jars. Inside the jars were scrolls.

A year later, Albright received an envelope postmarked Jerusalem. Inside was a pair of small photographs. He took up a magnifier and studied the images, which were of fragments of the scrolls found by the boys. He recognized a passage from the book of Isaiah, rendered in an archaic Hebrew script, and grew excited. In a letter to John C. Trever, who had sent the photos from the American School of Oriental Research, he said, "...I should prefer a date around 100 BC."

For an archaeologist in the 1940s, that date was a thunderbolt. Were Albright correct, that would make the scrolls and other materials recovered from the Qumran cave and other sites in the area a millennium older than any known biblical manuscript. As with the Mari letters, an impressive assemblage of other prominent scholars disagreed with Albright, and their arguments were persuasive. But a dozen years later, after careful examination of coins, pottery, and other artifacts from the site, after more finds that included documents with dates written on them, and after carbon-14 dating of linen recovered at one site, the verdict came down: Albright was right.

He had made the news earlier in 1948 for deciphering a set of mortuary slabs from the Sinai desert, inscribed sandstone discovered near ancient turquoise mines. He had examined 28 distinctive characters and, with characteristic boldness, declared them to be letters of an alphabet, all consonants. Furthermore, he said, several of them still existed, all but unchanged in form, in modern languages.

Were he alive now, Albright surely would be delighted by events last year in the Hopkins Department of Near Eastern Studies. In 1998, an Egyptologist from Yale named John Darnell (MA '86) discovered writing on a rock in a remote part of southern Egypt. When Darnell returned to the States, he brought photographs of the rock to Frederick Dobbs Allsopp, another alumnus (PhD '92) also now at Yale. Dobbs-Allsopp thought he was looking at an example of alphabetic writing much older than anything previously discovered. So he contacted Hopkins professor Kyle McCarter, an expert on ancient alphabets. Last November, McCarter concluded that the inscription pushes back the origins of the alphabet by at least two centuries, to the 1900s BCE.

McCarter's position at Hopkins? He holds the William Foxwell Albright Chair in Near Eastern Studies.