On the last day of the dig, after long stretches of work under the blinding light of the Israeli sun, excavators spotted what appeared to be an inscription on a 40-pound stone wedged into a 3,000-year-old wall.
The importance of these archaic letters - obscured by dust and the wear of millennia - only became apparent after the block had been removed from the Tel Zayit excavation site, about an hour southwest of Jerusalem in the Bet Guvrin valley, and was brought to a lab in the Israeli capital.
Professor Ron E. Tappy of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the archaeologist leading the project, believes his team has unearthed the oldest scientifically datable example of an abecedary, an alphabet written out in sequential order. He theorizes that the find is, effectively, an 'abc' blackboard for ancient Israel.
Tappy's find, unearthed in July, was all the buzz in Philadelphia earlier this week as thousands of academics met in the city for two separate conferences dealing with biblical scholarship, archaeology and the history of religion. Tappy revealed his findings to the general public at a Sunday event associated with the conferences.
Though most of the newly discovered characters would be unrecognizable to a present-day Hebrew reader, Tappy said the script - which bears resemblance to earlier Phoenician writing - is a prototype of the language of the Bible and the modern state of Israel. He guesses it may have been chiseled by a scribe-in-training, though it's unclear why several letters appear out of the order known today.
"This may be the most important find in the Holy Land in a decade," said Lawrence E. Stager, an archaeologist at Harvard University, who introduced Tappy on Nov. 20 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The talk coincided with the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the joint gathering of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.
Hundreds packed into the room, standing against the walls and sitting in the aisles, not so much to learn about the history of writing but to ascertain what the discovery might mean in terms of that age-old conundrum: How historically accurate are the events depicted in the Bible?
Tappy was hesitant to offer any broad conclusions, instead providing the technical details of how the inscription was discovered and analyzed. But in an interview following the presentation, he hinted at where he hopes the find will lead.
"I believe we will come to the conclusion that this does belong to an emerging kingdom," said Tappy, referring to the United Kingdom of Israel, which the books of Samuel and Kings describe as being ruled by the great kings David and Solomon.
Not only does the abecedary suggest that a literate society occupied 10th-century BCE Israel, he said, but it offers hope that full written accounts of the period are still out there, yet to be unearthed.
Tappy himself postulates that the Tel Zayit mound may actually mark the location of the city of Libnah mentioned in the first book of Samuel.
The idea that a unified, sophisticated political state existed in ancient Israel so far back in antiquity has come under attack by scholars in recent years, particularly those representing a minority faction of biblical historians. They hold to a view of minimalism, meaning that the text is comprised of little more than myth, and is virtually no use to those trying to understand the reality of the period.
For many evangelical Christians, the minimalist view flies in the face of the belief that everything contained in the Bible is 100 percent true. For Jews, however, minimalism presents clear political and theological challenges, according to scholars, who point out that the long history of the Jewish people in ancient Israel serves as a primary underpinnings of modern Zionism and the state of Israel.
Gratz College president Jonathan Rosenbaum, an expert in the Bible and the ancient Near East, said findings like the discovery at Tel Zayit, or another inscription discovered several years ago at the Tel Dan site near Lebanon referring to the "House of David," reinforce the view that the Bible is a valuable historical tool and chronicle of the Jewish experience in the land of Israel.
"The biblical text is based on historical knowledge," said Rosenbaum. "The book of Kings gives its sources, and cites its footnotes."
While researchers may one day be able to get a better idea of whether the Unified Kingdom was myth or fact, it's less likely they will prove indisputably the occurrence of certain formative events of the Jewish religion, like the exodus from Egypt or the parting of the Red Sea. This is the contention of some practitioners and even of certain Jewish professionals. For example, Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe caused a stir three years ago when he said in a sermon that archaeologists have produced no reliable evidence that the exodus ever took place.
To explore the subject of whether the findings of biblical archaeology complement or conflict with personal faith, Rosenbaum invited several participants at the conferences to discuss their views in a Nov. 17 program at Gratz.
Indicative of the discussion were the remarks of Mark Smith, a professor at New York University. He, like others, acknowledged that there is some tension between the Bible as a religious text and as a source of historical information.
"Talking about the past in the Bible is never only about the past," he told the packed auditorium. "The Bible is like a seder table, with each generation weighing in on what happened at the [Red] Sea. And we are all invited to participate."
Smith concluded by saying that scholars often have difficulty admitting there are problems that can't be solved and truths that can't be proven, and so must remain in the realm of faith.