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 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 text ever discovered to date. Unfortunately the BASOR article is very technical. It discusses the style of the letters and how this is used to date the amulets. This, however, is important to answer the critics who have suggested the amulets were not as old as the excavator claims they were. This 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 the St. Andrew’s Scottish Presbyterian Church, a site that would later be known as Ketef Hinnom, “the shoulder of Hinnom”.
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 junior high Israeli 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 repository, the place where the bones and any burial gifts for the dead were deposited after the flesh had decayed, measured 3.69 meters long, by 2 meters wide. The ceiling stood 2.23 meters 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 the 51 cm by 61 cm door of the repository that stood about a meter an a half above us. Once our eyes adjusted to the darker cave we could see fairly well. Second, there was a communication problem. I did not speak any Hebrew and the Israelis did not speak any 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 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!” (Translation: “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 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.
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. Late in the afternoon we had run out of boxes and bags to put our “special finds” in, so Goby and I went shopping for these items. We could not get these items from the Department of Antiquities because they were temporarily closed due to a police investigation.
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 across from the City of David had an inscription that mentioned 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 line. 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 eight-hour days, but time was of the essence. Thursday we worked from 5:30 in the morning until 5:30 at night, 12 hours. Friday we worked from 5:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night, 16 hours. While Goby and I were sifting 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, the pastor of St. Andrews, 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 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-hour 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”. Unbeknownst to us, this was only the first inscription.
A summary of the excavation has been published in preliminary form, but not a final excavation report (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 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: 192-194).
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 their homes after Shabbat dinner and vespers. Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to stop by Goby’s new apartment to see his succa (booth made of branches for the Jewish holiday Succoth) 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 a painstaking job, but Bill did an outstanding job of recovering and drawing 90% of the inscription but 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. There was a bit of irony in this setup. Avraham Biran is notorious for going over his allotted time when he presents a paper at professional meetings. Of course, no moderator would have the heart to stop an enthusiastic Dr. Biran in the middle of an exciting presentation, much to the consternation of the presenter that follows him! On the other hand, when he is moderating a session, he is famous for stopping a presenter in mid sentence if the person went over his or her allotted time.
Before the lecture to a packed auditorium, Goby told Dr. Biran about the two amulets and 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 (vintage Biran). 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 five minutes to four and Goby had not started to talk about Cave 25. I thought to myself, “Biran is going to yank Goby off the stage even before he has time to reveal the amulets.” At 4 PM Goby finally got around to talking about Cave 25 and proceeded to talk about each discovery in the cave for another 15 minutes. Finally, 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.
After Goby talked with his colleagues and friends, I had a chance to speak with him. I said, “Goby, knowing Biran’s habit of cutting people off in mid sentence, did you deliberately go overtime?” He gave me a devilish grin and said, “Yes.” To this day, Goby is the only person known to have gone overtime during a session moderated by Professor Biran and gotten away with it.
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: 16, 17).
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’ve 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.
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. The first article in Hebrew was in 1989 (Barkay 1989) and then translated and published in English in 1992 (Barkay 1992).
A Description of the Amulets
The larger amulet, Ketef Hinnom I, was 27.5 mm wide, with a diameter of 11 mm. In the center was a hole 2 mm in diameter, used to thread a string through in order to wear around the neck. When unrolled, the plaque measured 97 mm long and 27 mm wide. The weight of the object was 7.6 grams.
This amulet was almost pure silver. The metal analysis showed a 99% silver content and a 1% copper. These plaques might be the beaten (hammered) silver brought from Tarshish mentioned in Jeremiah 10:9.
The letters were 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 re-photographing the amulets in 1994, the group of letters became readable (Barkay, Lundberg, Vaughn, Zuckerman, Zuckerman 2003). With more letters, the text became more understandable. The first fourteen lines read, “…]YHW … 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 to 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 11.5 mm wide and 5.5 mm in diameter in a rolled up position. Unrolled, it is 39.2 mm long and 11 mm wide. Unfortunately, the bottom third was 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 fifteen 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.
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 65 cm deep. The Ketef Hinnom I amulet was found 7 cm above the floor. This demonstrated that the amulet was one of the earliest objects thrown into 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.
Implication for Biblical Studies
There is at least one important implication for Biblical studies. According to the 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 themselves with the name of the Lord for protection. We observe the same phenomenon today when people wear religious objects, hoping that God would be gracious to them and protect them. It seems that the Biblical passages are added on 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. It is interesting, Torah instructed the people to “wear the Word of God.” In Exodus 13:9,16 it says, “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. also Deut. 6:8; 11:18; Prov. 6:21; 1:9: 3:3, 22; 7:3).
The people literally wore the Word of God. 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.
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: 137-152.
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: 139-192.
______1994Excavations at Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem. Pp. 85-106 in Ancient Jerusalem Revealed. Edited by H. 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; Zuckerman, Kenneth
2003 The Challenge of Ketef Hinnom. Near Eastern Archaeology 66: 162-171.
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, pages 16,17.
Rasovsky, Marima; Bigelajzen, David; and Shenhav, Dodo
1992 Cleaning and Unrolling the Silver Plaques. Tel Aviv 19: 192-194.