When 11,000 clay tablets dating from 23 centuries before Christ were unearthed in northern Syria three years ago, biblical scholars around the world rejoiced that ancient proof had been found for the Old Testament.
"The tablets were being hailed as a find equal in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls," said Dr. Robert Biggs, professor of Assyriology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. "The claims being made for these tablets created a sensation in biblical circles."
But three years of intense study and debate among scholars changed all that. No longer are biblical claims made for the 11,000 clay tablets of Ebla, the ancient Sumerian city whose palace was destroyed by fire around 2300 B.C.
"In my opinion, parallels with the Bible are quite out of the question at this stage," Biggs told a recent gathering of science writers sponsored by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. "People who are looking to the Ebla tablets for proof of the authenticity of the Bible are going to be sorely disappointed."
A typical misreading of the tablets, Biggs said, involved what some scholars thought was a reference to Sodom and Gomorah on the same tablet with what they took to be references to biblical patriarchs.
"At least one well-known biblical scholar took the early interpretation as evidence of the historical reality of the two cities," Biggs said. "But alas, it turned out that corrections in reading the names have eliminated the names of the patriarchs and that in any case they did not occur on the same tablet with what was supposed to be Sodom and Gomorrah."
Widely reported two and three years ago were the stories of the flood and creation that were supposed to have been inscribed on the tablets of Ebla. The creation story now turns out to be four lines of poetry in which not a single word has been translated. The flood story has now been reduced to a single word translated as "water."
Three years ago, numerous scholars claimed a word translated from the tablets as "Ya" was an abbreviation for "Yahweh" the Old Testament name for God. Closer scrutiny of the tablets shows that "Ya" was used frequently to denote "he" and occasionally the letter "e."
Other cuneiforms in the tablets were originally translated to read Abraham and David, two patriarchs of the Old Testament that some scholars took as proof of their existence. Closer looks by scholars of the Sumerian language, which closely resembles "Eblaite," point out that the names matched up for the two patriarchs were so common they could refer to anybody.
The same scholars said that "Ya" could be a short version of a familiar first name, comparable to John or William. Said Biggs: "There are some scholars who now believe that 'Ya' is nothing more than our equivalent of Johnny and Billy. It's quite clear that unwarranted conclusions were drawn concerning the similarities between personal names at Ebla and names occurring in the Old Testament."
There are an estimated 2,500 cuneiform symbols in the Ebla tablets, and the once-accepted notion that their translation bears a close resemblance to biblical Hebrew has been dismissed almost completely.
Scholars now say it more resembles Amarite, a language spoken in part of ancient Mesopotamia, than it does Hebrew. Says Biggs: "The initial proposal to associate it with Hebrew should not be accepted. All the more so when you consider that the two languages are separated by more than 1,000 years. Why should they be similar?"
Biggs said that it might be 20 years before decent translations are made of the most complicated Ebla tablets, which appear to be written in at least two different languages. One resembles the Sumeria of ancient Mesopotamia: the other resembles nothing previously known.
Of the 11,000 tablets that have been restored, only 48 have been translated and published. These are relatively simple documents confirming commercial trades and transactions. There are some tablets containing as many as 3,000 lines where scholars have made little or no headway reaching a translation.
Despite such slow progress, scholars of the Near East and the third millennium before Christ are overjoyed with the 11,000 tablets of Ebla. Whatever they say, they're unique: the most abundant examples of the written word from that far back in time.
Even the 48 tablets translated so far tell a distinct tale of Ebla. The city's people were merchants and traders, exchanging textiles and metals with people living as far north as present-day Turkey and as far east as Persia (Iran). One product they sold was a cloth of scarlet and gold that apparently differs little from the brocade still made in Syria.
It was incredible luck that left the tablets for archeologists to find.The palace whose library contained most of the tablets burned around 2300 B.C. and the fire baked the tablets and preserved them. Unluckily, there appears to be nothing in the tablets suggesting how Ebla disappeared. Most scholars think the city was sacked in 2250 B.C. by Akkadian King Naram-Sim, who killed most of its 30,000 inhabitants. CAPTION: Map, no caption, By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post; Picture 1, Ruins found at ancient city of Ebla in north Syria. AP; Picture 2, A clay tablet from Ebla. Translation of the most complicated tablets might require another 20 years; Copyright (c) The National Geographical Society