The story of the institution of the Schweich Lectures has been well published by Graham Davies.1 They are ‘devoted to the furtherance of research in the archaeology, art history, languages and literature of Ancient Civilization with reference to Biblical Study’.2 The list of the Schweich Lectures since 19083 reveals the names of many great Orientalists and the main advances they have made in our knowledge of ancient civilisation, especially in connection with the study of the Bible. At the beginning of the 21st century CE we are like ‘dwarfs on the shoulders of giants’. Among many others, I owe a great intellectual debt to two French professors who gave the Schweich Lectures in 1953 and 1959: André Dupont-Sommer (Les Araméens) and Roland de Vaux (L’archéologie et les Manuscrits de la Mer Morte). Both played a significant role in my academic formation: the first in Paris (École Pratique des Hautes Études), the second in Jerusalem (École Biblique et Archéologique Française) and I should like to dedicate this book to their memory.
My thanks are due to the Council and colleagues and friends on the Schweich Lectures Committee of the Academy for the honour of being invited to lecture at the British Academy, originally in February 2013 but eventually, because of an occasional health problem, on 25–27 June 2013. Their proposed title, ‘Levantine Epigraphy and History in the Achaemenid Period’, fits very well with one of my main lines of research during the last forty years and it was a great pleasure to present the three lectures: ‘Levantine Epigraphy and Phoenicia: the Kingdoms of Byblos, Sidon and Tyre during the Achaemenid Period’, ‘West Semitic Epigraphy and the Judaean Diaspora during the Achaemenid Period: Babylonia, Egypt, Cyprus’ and ‘Levantine Epigraphy and Samaria, Judaea and Idumaea during the Achaemenid Period’. Without as many illustrations as in the lectures but with many detailed footnotes, the text of these lectures has been revised and updated in this book, whose intention is to present some of the main advances of West Semitic epigraphy from the Achaemenid period in relation to the history of the Levant and the biblical tradition.
In The Schweich Lectures and Biblical Archaeology, Graham Davies has ably explained the crisis of biblical archaeology during the last fifty years as well as the (p.xiv) continuous inescapable interchange between the study of the Bible and archaeological discoveries. On one hand, ‘To isolate the biblical text from the world in which it emerged is to make it into something which it is not and to forgo many essential clues to its interpretation.’4 On the other hand, the biblical text is itself a kind of archaeological artefact from the first millennium BCE and illuminates numerous aspects of the society and history of the Southern Levant and Ancient Near East at this period; it is an important ‘source’ that the historian and archaeolo-gist cannot neglect. The problem of this necessary and fruitful interchange is to respect the methods and the rules of each discipline, to compare and use correct biblical exegesis and accurate archaeological methods. This is not so easy, since both disciplines have their problems, their limits, their approximations and their uncertainties. To be meaningful, both the biblical text and the archaeological data need to be interpreted and scholars themselves do not always agree on this interpretation.
This is also and especially true for the relation between West Semitic epigraphy and biblical study. A priori both disciplines use some common methodology: a philological approach which implies, in particular, a knowledge of the ancient West Semitic languages—Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician and a few other Canaanite dialects. Both have, at least partly, the same general historical context. If they are similar, both have their own problems: for instance, one of the problems of the interpretation of the biblical texts is their dating, since we do not have an original text written by one author but a copy of a copy … of a text which has very often been revised many times. In comparison, in epigraphy, except in the rare case of a literary tradition, it is generally possible to date the text from the content, the palaeography and the archaeological context. However, one must emphasise that palaeographical and/or archaeological dating remain generally very approximate, often within half a century or even a century. Furthermore, inscriptions are very often fragmentary and/or obliterated, and their interpretation may be all the more uncertain. Both disciplines are also different because of the fact that, after its ‘canonisation’, at least in principle, the biblical text does not change. In contrast, there are always discoveries of new inscriptions, as well as unpublished ones that still await publication, as we shall mention from time to time in this book. Epigraphers are well aware that their proposed interpretation, especially their historical interpretation, is always presented ‘in the actual state of the documentation’.
These lectures would not have been published without the help of Susan Milligan (copy-editing) and the Publications Department of the British Academy, especially Brigid Hamilton-Jones. May they find here my warmest thanks!