This article was first published in the Spring 2005 issue of Bible and Spade.
The headline of the Science Section of the New York Times for Tuesday, September 28, 2004, read, “Solving a Riddle Written in Silver.” I recognized the picture underneath the headline right away. It was a portion of a silver amulet that was one of two discovered in Jerusalem in 1979. The article described the scholarly debate concerning the date assigned to the amulets by the excavator and his team in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. They claim that these two objects contain the two oldest Biblical texts ever discovered to date. Unfortunately the BASOR is very technical. It discusses the style of the letters and how this is used to date the amulets. This is important to answer the critics who have suggested the amulets were not as old as the excavator claimed they were. The present article will not deal with the technical aspects of the debate, as important as they are, but rather I would like to take you behind the scenes and share some of the human interest stories relating to the discovery, unrolling, announcement and publication of these two amulets.
Monday morning, July 30, 1979, is as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday. It was about 6 am when I arrived at the excavations below St. Andrew’s Scottish Presbyterian Church, a site that would later be known as Ketef Hinnom, “the shoulder of Hinnom,” located just across the Hinnom Valley from the area known as Mount Zion south of the Old City of Jerusalem.
St. Andrews Church as seen from the Hinnom Valley. The Cinemateque is below in the valley. The Iron Age tomb where the silver scrolls were found is located in the rock outcrop in front of the church.
The director of the excavation, Gabriel Barkay, known to his students and friends as Goby, asked me, “Gordon, how energetic are you?” I replied, smiling, “As energetic as a 25 year old person could be.” “Good,” he said, “I want you to clean out that cave over there with three Israeli junior high students.” I was up to the challenge. As I headed for the cave, Goby confided, “By the way, the cave might be loaded. But remember, archaeology is NOT a treasure hunt.” Thus began one of the most interesting weeks of my life.
This was one of the first archaeological excavations I ever worked on and now I was an area supervisor of three junior high Israeli students! I was about to receive a crash course with on the job training in Methodology of Archaeological Excavations 101, also known as how to excavate a burial cave when you don’t know what you are doing! Fortunately, I was a quick learner and Goby was a great teacher.
The Burial Cave
The cave was a repository, the place where the bones and any burial gifts for the dead were deposited after the flesh had decayed. It measured 12 ft (3.69 m) long by 6.5 ft (2 m) wide. The ceiling stood 7 ft (2.23 m) from the floor. The ceiling had collapsed, which suggested to Goby that there might be a sealed layer underneath with archaeological artifacts.
As we began to work, I realized three problems. First, there was a lack of light. We were dependent upon the sunlight, or its reflection, that came through a 20 x 24 in (51 x 61 cm) door about 5 ft (1.5 m) above us. Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the cave, however, we could see fairly well. Second, there was a communication problem. I did not speak Hebrew and the Israeli students did not speak English. Third, the three junior high students were just that, junior high students.
Goby gave them instructions in Hebrew to clean around any objects they found and leave them in situ (in place) so they could be measured, described, drawn and photographed in their original location. Do you think these junior highers listened to Goby or me? At first they would dig little pits until they found something and then hold it up and say, “Tireh ma matzati!” (“Look what I found!”). Frustration was setting in very quickly.
Goby instructed me to divide the cave into six quadrants and excavate one or two at a time. I put a string across the top of the ceiling of the repository and leveled it with a line level. This was our datum line. Using tape measures and a plumb line, I was able to draw an outline of the cave, then plot and draw many of the pieces that were uncovered. This was a learning experience for me. Goby stressed the importance of measuring all the objects from their lowest point. I am glad I listened to him because years later it would prove very important in the dating of the amulets.
During one of our breaks the first morning, Goby said to me, “Gordon, I want you to find me an inscription. If you do, I’ll give you a party.” I laughed because I knew from his Archaeology of Jerusalem classes at the Institute of Holy Land Studies (now Jerusalem University College) that inscriptions in Jerusalem are very rare. Nevertheless, I half jokingly said, “I’ll find you an inscription on the last day and in the last square.” Little did I know how prophetic that statement would be!
The author with his crew at Burial Cave 25 where the silver scrolls were discovered. Initially, author Franz had three Israeli junior high students working for him. When the significance of Cave 25 was recognized, however, the youngsters were replaced with adult volunteers.
By Tuesday afternoon we had realized just how important this cave was, so we replaced the junior high students with adults from the Institute for Holy Land Studies across the valley on Mt. Zion. We had already found bronze and silver objects that had corroded. I asked Goby if there was a chance of finding any gold objects. He answered in the affirmative and mentioned that a burial cave in the Silwan Necropolis on the east side of the City of David had an inscription that mentioned that there was no silver or gold buried in the cave and concluded with a curse on anyone who opened it (Avigad 1953: 143). I did not like that last part. Seeing the corroded objects that we had found, I asked Goby what gold would look like when it was uncovered. He said, “Don’t worry, you’ll recognize it when you see it.” How true that was. The next day I found a gold earring that looked like it was made the day before.
We were afraid that if certain elements in the population from the nearby neighborhoods found out about the jewelry objects they would visit the site at night and clean the place out. Since the site was out in the open and people were coming and going, we had to speak in code. Silver objects were called “gray matter,” gold was “lemon,” coins were “buttons” and bones were called “Napoleons” (as in Bone-apart).
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were normal 8 hr days, but time was of the essence. Thursday we put in a 12 hr day, from 5:30 am until 5:30 pm. Friday was even tougher; we worked from 5:30 am until 9:30 pm—16 hours. While Goby and I were sifting the excavated dirt in the late afternoon, two individuals with black hats and black coats were walking down the Hebron road on their way to the Western Wall for Shabbat prayers. They saw us and we saw them. Goby remarked to me with a serious tone in his voice, “We have to finish tomorrow because if we don’t they will be back Sunday morning with their friends to protest our excavations.” Thanks to Rev. Tom Houston, pastor of St. Andrews, that night we were able to use an electrical outlet above the cave. Jim Monson, a professor at the Institute of Holy Land Studies, provided a light bulb and electrical cord, so we were able to work into the night.
Saturday morning, August 4, we began work at 6 am with the help of students and staff of the Institute. We divided into two groups, with one excavating inside the cave and the other outside, sifting for the small finds that might have been missed by those in the cave. I was running between the two groups recording and drawing the objects. Earl Hagar was photographing the finds as they were uncovered.
About mid morning, Judy Hadley, an archaeology student at Wheaton College (now a professor at Villanova University) brushed aside some dirt to reveal a rolled up piece of silver. I described it in my journal as a “silver roll” and recorded it as object 31 from Area D, located at a level of 188 cm (74 in), and then drew it on my plan. It was given basket number 481. Later, it would be called Ketef Hinnom amulet I. Goby suspected it might have an inscription on it, but it first had to be cleaned and unrolled and that would take time. We finished cleaning out the dirt from the cave at 1 am Sunday morning. It had been a 19 hr marathon day!
Sunday and Monday we continued sifting the material that was excavated after dark on Saturday. Sifting is best done in daylight, so we took the dirt from each quadrant and placed them in labeled buckets, boxes, trays, or whatever containers we could find, so the dirt could be sifted in daylight. A second silver roll came up in the sifting during one of the afternoons. It would become known as Ketef Hinnom amulet II.
Monday, in one of the last buckets to be sifted, a seal was discovered. Using his son’s Play-doh, Goby made an impression of the seal and it revealed the name “Paltah.”
Several preliminary reports of the excavation have now been published (Franz 1986; Barkay 1994).
Opening the Scrolls
The two silver amulets were given an initial cleaning at the labs of Tel Aviv University. Museums in England and Germany were then given the opportunity to unroll the objects, but declined because they were afraid of damaging the fragile objects. Three years after their discovery, the delicate job of opening them was finally entrusted to Joseph “Dodo” Shenhav of the Israel Museum. Under his able direction, the amulets were successfully unrolled during the fall of 1982 (Rasovsky, Bigelajzen and Shenhav 1992: 192–94).
On one Friday morning, Dr. Yaakov Meshorer, the curator of the numismatics section of the Israel Museum, looked at one of the amulets under a microscope. He recognized the paleo-Hebrew writing. He tried to call Goby, but because Goby had just moved he did not have a phone in his apartment. Yaakov left a message with Goby’s wife saying “Urgent, call Yaakov.” In Israel, when somebody gets a message like that it usually means that someone died and the funeral is that day. When Goby finally got the message he quickly called Dr. Meshorer, who conveyed the good news about the writing on one of the amulets. Unfortunately for Goby, it was Friday afternoon and the museum labs would be closed until Sunday morning, so he had to wait until then to view the inscription.
That Friday night I took some students from the Institute to my home after Shabbat dinner and vespers. Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to stop by Goby’s new apartment to see the succa (booth made of branches for the Jewish holiday Succot) that his family had on their porch. He said with excitement in his voice, “Gordon, I have good news for you. One of the scrolls was opened and it has the word yod-hey vav-hey on it.” My Hebrew still wasn’t that good, but I recognized the spelling right away. It was the name of the Lord, YHWH. This was the first time the Lord’s name was found in an archaeological context in Jerusalem.
Goby entrusted the drawing of the two scrolls to one of his graduate students from the Institute, Bill J. Wilson. He would take the scrolls from my room, because I had them under lock and key, to the Israel Museum in order to draw each and every line he could see using an electronic microscope, the best in Israel at the time. It was painstaking work, but Bill did an outstanding job of recovering and drawing 90% of the inscription, though it still did not make sense.
The First Public Announcement
The first public announcement of this discovery was on Sunday afternoon, January 9, 1983, at a public lecture at the Rockefeller Museum sponsored by the Albright Institute and Hebrew Union College. These lectures usually last from three until four in the afternoon. As it turned out, this lecture was hosted and moderated by Professor Avraham Biran, the doyen of Israeli archaeology. Before the lecture to a packed auditorium, Goby told Dr. Biran about the two amulets and that he would announce the discovery that afternoon. When he was introduced, Dr. Biran told the audience that Goby had an important discovery to announce.
The lecture started promptly on time. Bill Wilson and I were sitting in the second row, right behind Dr. Biran. We were amused to see him sitting on the edge of his seat with excitement as each slide was put up on the screen showing a different discovery. Goby started his lecture with the topography of the site, then he talked about the Byzantine church and monastic complex. He moved on to the Roman burials and finally the Iron Age burial caves. I looked at my watch and it was 3:55 and Goby had not started to talk about Cave 25! At 4 pm Goby finally got around to talking about Cave 25 and proceeded to describe each discovery in the cave for another 15 minutes. Finally, in the last five minutes he dropped the “bombshell” about the amulets and the Name of the Lord appearing in an archaeological excavation in Jerusalem for the first time. With that, Goby finished and the audience broke out in a thunderous applause. Avraham Biran was beside himself with excitement and publicly congratulated Goby on his “sensational” discovery.
Ketef Hinnom amulet I. On the fifth day of excavating the repository of Cave 25 a small silver roll was discovered. When it was eventually unrolled, it was found to be inscribed with the abridged version of the priestly benediction of Numbers 6:24–26. It is the oldest portion of Scripture ever found.
Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin 49 (2004): 29/Tel Aviv University
The Oldest Biblical Texts
In 1986, the Israel Museum wanted to have a “display of the month” devoted to the excavations at Ketef Hinnom. In preparation for the exhibit, Adi Yardeni of the Israel Museum redrew the amulets. One morning she had a chance conversation with a religious colleague at the museum. She mentioned she was drawing a text with the name of the LORD written three times on it. He replied, “Three times? Maybe it’s the priestly blessing.” When Yardeni returned to her work, she tried to read the passage of Numbers 6:24–26 into the inscription. Much to her amazement, it worked. Thus, the first Biblical inscription from the First Temple period was deciphered (Rabinovich 1986).
When the exhibition opened at the Israel Museum in June of 1986, the announcement of the two oldest Biblical texts was made. The next day it was in every newspaper in America.
On Saturday, June 21, 1986, I was attending a church picnic in New Jersey. One of the elderly gentleman from church asked if I had heard about an important Biblical discovery in Israel. I asked him questions about it, but he was vague on the details. He just remembered it was the oldest Biblical text ever discovered. He promised to bring the article from the paper to church the next day.
The next day he showed me the article. I got the shock of my life. As I was reading the article I began to realize, “This is the excavation I worked on. Those amulets were in my room. I held them in my hand!” That afternoon I entertained the preacher for the day, Mr. T. Ernest Wilson, a retired missionary from Angola. In the course of our conversation he asked me if I knew anything about this discovery. I smiled and said, “Would you like to see a drawing of it?” At this point the drawings had not been published and Bill Wilson and I were the only ones in America that had a drawing of the amulets.
Burial Cave 25 at Ketef Hinnom. Robert Poole demonstrates how the deceased would have been placed on a shelf of the tomb. There were shelves on three sides of the entry passageway into the tomb. Below Robert is the entrance to the repository where the silver scrolls were found.
The Publication of the Texts
Archaeological protocol gives the right of publication in a timely fashion to the director of the excavation, or to someone designated by the excavator. Goby has always been a thorough and meticulous scholar and will only publish something after he has completely studied the issue.
When I was in graduate school (1986–87) I was invited to give a paper on the amulets at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Columbia SC. I called Goby to ask his permission to give the paper. He hesitated at first, but then asked, “Will the people in the audience be theologians or archaeologists?” I replied, “Theologians.” He said, “Fine, go ahead and give the paper.” I appreciated Goby giving me permission because he still had not published the amulets in a technical fashion. His first article on them was published in Hebrew in 1989 and then translated and published in English in 1992.
A Description of the Amulets
The larger amulet, Ketef Hinnom I, is about 1 in (27.5 mm) wide, with an outside diameter of ca. ½ in (11 mm) when rolled up. In the middle of the rolled-up amulet was a hole about 1/16 in (2 mm) in diameter, used to thread a string through in order to wear it around the neck. When unrolled, the plaque measures ca. 3 ¾ in (97 mm) long. The weight of the object is about ¼ oz (7.6 gm).
This amulet is almost pure silver. The metal analysis showed a 99 per cent silver content with 1 per cent copper. These plaques might be the beaten (hammered) silver brought from Tarshish mentioned in Jeremiah 10:9.
The letters are incised on the plaques. Jeremiah, a contemporary of these amulets, describes how the writing was possibly done, “with a pen of iron, with a point of diamond” (17:1, NKJV).
At the top of the amulet is a group of letters that at first did not make sense. After rephotographing the amulets in 1994, the group of letters became readable (Barkay, Lundberg, Vaughn, Zuckerman and Zuckerman 2003). The first 14 lines read,
[...] YHW[H]... the Grea[t...Who keeps] the covenant and [g]raciousness toward those who love [Him] and those who keep [His commandments... ...]. The Eternal? [...]. [the?] blessing more than any [sna]re and more than evil. For redemption is in Him. For YHWH is our restorer [and] rock” (Barkay, Lundberg, Vaughn and Zuckerman 2004: 61).
It was observed that the
substance of the reading for lines 2–7 is reasonably secure because these lines fit, at least loosely, a biblical parallel attested in Dan. 9:4 and Neh. 1:5 (with a similar reading in Deut. 7:9) (2004: 55).
The end of the amulet has part of the priestly blessing. The last portion of it, however, was lost when the scroll was unrolled.
The smaller amulet, Ketef Hinnom II, is approximately ½ in (11.5 mm) wide and ¼ in (5.5 mm) in diameter in a rolled up position. Unrolled, it is 1.5 in (39.2 mm) long. Unfortunately, the bottom third is missing. The priestly blessing on it says, “The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face to shine upon you, and give you peace.” The passage in Numbers 6:24–26 upon which it is based has 15 words in it. The scribe of the amulet left out five words in order to create a shorter blessing. And we thought the Reader’s Digest Bible was a modern invention!
The Dating of the Amulets
The burial cave in which the amulets were found was carved in the mid-seventh century BC. The pottery assemblage comes from three discernable periods. The first period is the end of the Iron Age. This pottery style parallels the pottery from Lachish, Level II, and the City of David, Level X. These levels are dated to the end of the Judean Monarchy, or 587 BC. The second period is the Babylonian period when most of the Judeans were in captivity in Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah mentions people who remained behind after the Babylonians carried away, or killed, most of the Judeans (Jer 41:5; 39:10). The third period represented was the Hellenistic period. The few finds from this period were confined to the area around the entrance of the repository of the burial cave.
Shelf area of Tomb 25. The head rests for the individual bodies can be clearly seen. After the body decomposed in about a year, the family would return, collect the bones and burial gifts, and place them in the repository with the bones of other family members. Thus, the recently expired individual was “gathered to his people” (Gn 25:8, etc.).
Based on the style of the letters, or paleography, Goby dated the amulets to the late seventh century BC, or very early sixth century BC (Barkay 1992). Several scholars challenged this date and argued that it was much later, during the Hellenistic period. One of the reasons was the existence of the eight Hellenistic pottery pieces in the cave.
The importance of careful records cannot be overestimated. Goby had to go back and look at the journal that I kept and the plan of the burial cave with the objects plotted on them. It was observed that the average depth of the deposits in the repository was 26 in (65 cm). The Ketef Hinnom I amulet was found 2 ¾ in (7 cm) above the floor. This demonstrated that the amulet was one of the earliest objects placed in the repository. Ketef Hinnom II was found in Area A, the back quadrant. Goby observed that this was also one of the earliest deposits.
On paleographic grounds, these two inscriptions should be dated to the end of the seventh century BC. This fits well with the corresponding archaeological data as well as historical considerations. Clearly these are the two oldest Biblical texts found to date. They predate the Dead Sea Scrolls by at least 400 years.
Ketef Hinnom amulet II. This second amulet was recovered a week after starting the clearance of the repository of Burial Cave 25 as a result of carefully sifting the excavated dirt. The inscription on amulet II begins with a prayer for protection from evil and, as with amulet I, ends with a shortened version of the priestly benediction.
Implication for Biblical Studies
There is at least one important implication for Biblical studies. According to critical scholars, Numbers 6:23–27 should be attributed to the so-called “P source” which is generally dated to the Post-Exilic, or Persian Period. It is obvious that we now have two examples of this text that were written prior to the Babylonian captivity. This makes it impossible to assume that the Priestly Benediction was crystallized during the Post-Exilic period.
A word of caution is in order. These amulets cannot be used to prove when the priestly blessing was originally composed, or even who wrote it. The only thing they can tell us is that at the end of the seventh century BC the priestly blessing existed. We have to turn to the Bible to find out that Aaron, the brother of Moses, first gave the blessing and Moses wrote it down sometime during the last half of the 15th century BC.
These amulets were worn around the neck to protect the wearer from evil or to surround the wearer with the name of the Lord for protection. We observe the same phenomenon today when people wear religious objects, hoping that God will be gracious to them and protect them. It seems that the Biblical passages were added at the end of a “prayer request” for protection from some evil person or calamity, or for blessing in the wearer’s life.
These two silver objects with Scripture verses on them could be the forerunner to the phylacteries of the later periods, which involved “wearing the Word of God” in literal obedience to Exodus 13:9, 16:
And it shall serve as a sign to you on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth” (NKJV, cf. Dt 6:8; 11:18; Prv 6:21; 1:9: 3:3, 22; 7:3).
The people literally wore the Word of God.
More broadly, the LORD gave this injunction in order to keep the Word of God constantly before His people, that they might learn it and obey it, that it might guide all they would do and say.
Even today this is still a good practice. In memorizing the Word of God, a poster or picture with a Scripture verse on it is helpful. But more important than wearing the Word of God, or hanging it on our wall, is to have it abiding in our hearts. King David declared, “Thy Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee” (Ps. 119:11 NKJV).
1953 The Epitaph of a Royal steward from Siloam Village. Israel Exploration Journal 3: 137–52.
1989 The Priestly Benediction of the Ketef Hinnom Plaques. Cathedra 52: 37–76 (Hebrew).
1992 The Priestly Benediction on Silver Plaques from Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv 19: 139–92.
1994 Excavations at Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem. Pp. 85–106 in Ancient Jerusalem Revealed, ed. Hillel Geva. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
Barkay, Gabriel; Lundberg, Marilyn; Vaughn, Andrew; and Zuckerman, Bruce
2004 The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 334: 41–71.
Barkay, Gabriel; Lundberg, Marilyn; Vaughn, Andrew; Zuckerman, Bruce; and Zuckerman, Kenneth
2003 The Challenge of Ketef Hinnom. Near Eastern Archaeology 66:162–71.
1986 The Excavations at St. Andrews Church in Jerusalem. Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin 27: 5–24.
1986 Word for Word. The Jerusalem Post International Edition, August 9: 16–17.
Rasovsky, Marima; Bigelajzen, David; and Shenhav, Dodo
1992 Cleaning and Unrolling the Silver Plaques. Tel Aviv 19: 192–94.