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The Historicality of the King: An Exercise in Reading Royal Inscriptions from the Ancient Levant

  • Matthew James Suriano EMAIL logo


The problem with using royal inscriptions as historical sources is their inherent bias. The interests of the king drive the narratives of royal inscriptions. Yet this essential feature reveals their underlying concept of history. In royal inscriptions, historical thought is defined by the life and experience of the king. This article will present a hermeneutic for reading royal inscriptions that focuses on the individual king. The article will first look at the concept of historical time in epigraphic Hebrew and Old Aramaic sources before examining the complicated ways in which this concept is rendered in the principal genres of royal writings, the memorial and the dedicatory inscription. A survey of features found in memorial inscriptions from Dibon (the Mesha Stele) and Sam’al (Kulamuwa), followed by a study of the Old Byblian dedicatory inscriptions, will explore the complex process of configuring time and narrative around the king. In each genre of royal inscription, the linear time of the ruler intersects with cyclical traditions of kingship, revealing the historicality of respective king.


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This article was produced through the generous support of several institutions. I would like to thank the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies and the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland for making possible my sabbatical in the spring of 2014. The Department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University generously provided me with fellow-by-courtesy status, allowing me to conduct research at their facilities during my sabbatical. Although I alone am responsible for the contents within, the article benefited from the comments of Benjamin Suriano, Kyle Keimer, Jacqueline Vayntrub, Chris McKinny, and an anonymous reviewer. The study is dedicated to my friend and mentor William Schniedewind.

Published Online: 2014-10-16
Published in Print: 2014-11-28

©2014 by De Gruyter

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