Has the Mt Ebal “Curse tablet” Defeated the Historical Criticism of the Old Testament and Proved the Bible?

Last year a band of scholars caused a furore as they revealed the 3200-year-old Mt Ebal “Curse Tablet”, which would revolutionise the study of the Bible and ancient Israel. After much waiting, they published a journal article on their find where they argued for their conclusions. [1] The scholars claim that they found a lead tablet that they can read and decipher. They claim it is a curse tablet written in Hebrew, that mentions YHWH, the God of the Israelites and the Old Testament. If true, these claims would push back the emergence of Hebrew by about two hundred years, and it would be the oldest inscription within Israel that mentions YHWH by centuries. The scholars have shared their findings and conclusions very liberally on popular-level apologetic and biblical social media channels.[2]

I am not as confident as they are about the significance of this find. Here are six reflections on this article and the controversy it has caused.


1. A Worthwhile Find

The first thing to say is that it is a find worth studying. The authors have convinced me that a piece of folded-up lead at an ancient religious site is worth studying and  any new data that may arise is worth bringing to light.


2. Solid Dating Methodology

The dating of the tablet is based on solid methodology. In dating the tablet, they have done good archaeological work.


3. Confident Conclusions Despite Methodological Problems

The methodological problems with the scans of the lead tablet aren’t reflected in the rhetoric of the team’s conclusions. For example, the letters the authors find in the scans are on the inside of the folded tablet. I would think that no matter how sophisticated and powerful the techniques are used to see inside the folded tablet, whatever we see inside the tablet would be a reconstruction at best and guesswork at worst.

Additionally, the images were obtained by X-ray Tomographic (XCT) measurements. The authors admit, “In general, XCT of lead objects is a challenging task because of the strong scattering of X-ray photons and the high attenuation of X-rays by lead.”[3] And “Due to the distortion of the tomographic reconstruction by scattered photons, it is difficult to determine the actual location of the letters.”[4]

Granted, they employed various techniques to reduce the challenges of using XCT measurements in this context. But, given these candid admissions about the difficulty of the task, I would think they would lead the authors to make far more modest claims. I would expect them to be more restrained about what can be seen in the tablet, what data can be extracted from what can be seen and what conclusions can be made from said data. But, in their conclusions, I don’t see that warranted restraint.


4. Letters? Yeah, nah

The article has many photos of what the authors claim are inscribed letters. When I saw these photos, I found myself repeating the oft-used Aussie idiom, “Yeah, nah.” In other words, I couldn’t see the letters they saw; therefore, I’m not convinced we can find the divine name or any other words in this tablet.


5. Alphabet Soup

The authors state that “The scribe wrote in different directions: left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top, and in boustrophedon order” (“as the ox plows”).[5] They provide a drawing with the letters on the tablet numbered in order of reading. But they don’t offer any reasons for this reading.

Even if all the letters they say there are actually there, to my eyes it still just seem to be nothing more than a jumble of letters. If an interpreter does see the logic in the flow of the text that logic needs to be demonstrated and not just stated, as the authors have. To claim to have found, in an alphabet soup, a curse that uses the divine name and has a chiastic structure is misleading.[6]


6. Irresponsible Claims

Some of the authors’ claims based on this inscription are incredibly irresponsible. Even if everything they say about the tablet is true, it doesn’t follow that this proves that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and the documentary hypothesis is wrong. This table has no bearing on Moses’s historicity or whether he wrote the Pentateuch. Even if everything the authors claim is true, the best we can say is that we have evidence of writing in ancient Israel that predates our previous oldest Hebrew inscription at Khirbet Qeiyafa by two centuries.

It also doesn’t follow that this tablet proves the historicity of Joshua and the biblical conquest. If the authors’ claims are accurate, the location it was found in was probably cultic (related to worship). This gives us another small piece of evidence in arguing for the cultic nature of the Mt Ebal site. This small piece of evidence converges with the biblical account of Israel’s worship at Mt Ebal in Joshua 8.[7] But notice my argument; I am trying to be cautious in my conclusions because the evidence they put forward demands such caution. But the authors have not been careful in their conclusions. This is why I think their claims are irresponsible.


Why This Matters

Here is why as an evangelical pastor I wrote this article: the authors’ overblown claims hurt Bible believers; they don’t help them. Imagine the teenager who watches a YouTube clip where one of the authors of this article makes some of their egregious claims.[8] The teenager then takes a course at uni where this find and the authors’ claims are analysed. The young Christian finds that the claims are bogus and, because of this discouraging conclusion, questions other beliefs they have. This scenario is not far-fetched. At least every few months, I chat with young Christians who have been told misleading historical information about the Bible, only to find that this information is untrue. I then talk with them about what we can responsibly say about the Bible and its historicity, which for an ancient document, is quite a lot.[9]

In the last few years, I have been studying the archaeology and history of ancient Israel. When I started out, I was gobsmacked by how the claims by archaeologists and historians of all stripes, sceptical and conservative, were at odds with the facts on the ground, or even the majority of scholarship. It is good for Christian leaders and evangelists to be aware of this and to do some fact checking. We don’t need to rely on spurious archaeology and bogus conclusions to bolster our confidence in the reliability of the Bible. [10]


[1]  Scott Stripling, Gershon Galil, Ivana Kumpova, Jaroslav Valach, Pieter Gert van der Veen and Daniel Vavrik, “‘You are Cursed by the God YHW:’ an early Hebrew inscription from Mt. Ebal.” Heritage Science, volume 11:105.

[2] For example see, Scott Stripling on Sean McDowell’s show: Dr. Sean McDowell, “Oldest Hebrew Writing? Mt. Ebal Curse Tablet (Revisited)”. YouTube video. 12th May 2023. See also Associates for Biblical Research,  “CURSED! The Mount Ebal Curse Tablet (Part One): Digging for Truth Episode 200”. YouTube video. 1st May 2023.

[3] Stripling et al., “You are Cursed by the God YHW”. 4.

[4] Stripling et al., “You are Cursed by the God YHW”. 4.

[5] Stripling et al., “You are Cursed by the God YHW”. 7.

[6] Stripling et al., “You are Cursed by the God YHW”. 21.

[7] For more discussion on the archaeology of Mt Ebal and its connections to the Bible see Ralph K. Hawkins, The Iron Age I Structure on Mt. Ebal, (Indiana: Eisenbrauns).

[8] For example Oldest Hebrew Writing? Mt. Ebal Curse Tablet (Revisited), and CURSED! The Mount Ebal Curse Tablet (Part One): Digging for Truth Episode 200.

[9] For historians that argue for the historicity of the Old Testament see Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans); Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess (eds.), Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources. (Grand Rapids: Baker).

[10] I would like to thank Professor William Schneidewind (UCLA) and Lawson Stone (Asbury Theological Seminary) for giving feedback on an earlier version of this article. All issues with the final product are mine!