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Archaeologist recounts discovery of oldest biblical text

FORT WORTH, Texas(BP)–Serendipity plays a role in many of the world’s greatest discoveries, and this was no less the case for biblical archaeologist Gabriel “Gaby” Barkay during a dig he led in Jerusalem 30 years ago. Barkay never would have guessed that a pesky child with a hammer would reveal the resting place of the oldest piece of biblical text ever discovered.

During a lecture at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Barkay took a crowd of 200 on a journey that began with slides of St. Andrews Church of Scotland, within view of Old Jerusalem. It was on the grounds of that church, erected in 1927 on a rocky knoll on the Valley of Hinnom (Ketef Hinnom), where Barkay oversaw an archaeological dig in the mid- to late-1970s.

“I was looking for less-looked-at subjects: places of extra-rural, para-urban land uses,” Barkay said, describing the reasons why he chose that location as he was developing his doctoral dissertation. “I asked myself, ‘If I were a patriarch, where would I put a defensible place? Where would I put a cemetery or a stone quarry?’”

Barkay decided the answers lay outside the city walls of Old Jerusalem, out of range of ancient weapons, but close enough for easy access. This led him to the hill where St. Andrew’s Church sits. Pointing to an aerial view of the location, he described some features of the terrain.

“There was an ancient road cut out of the rocky escarpment upon which the apse of the church clings,” Barkay said. “This ancient road led to Bethlehem and was in use until the 1800s [A.D.]. This hill is very important because it is just outside the range of city weapons. If I was besieging the city, I would encamp on this hill.”

With the dig underway, Barkay’s team first uncovered artifacts from the 19th century A.D. — British trinkets, Turkish railroad spikes, coins, military insignias and remains of rifles, many of which were museum-quality pieces.

They also uncovered the threshold of an early Christian church some 1,500 years old. Under the place identified as the church’s narthex, or lobby, the team discovered an intact crypt. Barkay described finding various remnants of the church, including its footings. He said the church likely was destroyed in the seventh century A.D. by a Persian king.

As Barkay’s team continued deeper into the dig, their discoveries went backwards in time, era by era: From the late Roman period, tiny fragments of human bones were found, incinerated inside cooking pots. The team had unearthed a crematorium of the 10th Regiment of the Roman Army. Roman-era hobnails from Roman boots, earrings, coins, rings and glass perfume containers were found intact.

From the Herodian period, Barkay joked about finding clay cooking vessels with tiny holes in them and thinking someone on his team had carelessly punctured the rare treasures. But subsequent research revealed that the cooking pots had been deliberately punctured by first-century Jews in order to “cancel” the cooking pots after they had been used for sacred purposes in the temple.

Further on, discoveries from the First Temple Period, the time of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah. Fertility figurines told the sad story of how residents of Jerusalem had worshiped false gods, giving substance to the warnings of Isaiah and his contemporaries recorded in the Bible.

Soon burial caves came to view. Barkay’s excavation was revealing artifacts from the fifth century B.C. These repositories revealed clues about how ancient Hebrews buried their dead.

Then Barkay described for his audience how, in 1979, a group of 12-year-olds from an archaeology club in Tel Aviv had come to the dig. Barkay thought the children were “pesky.” One in particular, a boy named Nathan, was always “tugging on my shirt and asking silly questions,” Barkay said.

Barkay assigned Nathan to a far-off, unimportant task: clearing out an ancient repository cave to prepare it for being photographed. Nathan took to the task with a hammer and “expressed his frustration by hammering the floor of the repository.” Barkay recalled being quite perturbed when young Nathan, who had not been on task very long, tugged on this shirt to tell the archaeologist that the hammer had broken through the floor of the cave and there was something below.

Upon inspection, Barkay realized that what he had thought was the floor of the chamber was, in fact, the ceiling of another ancient chamber underneath. Nathan had opened up a chamber where Barkay would make his most renowned discovery.

Below was a repository containing a large quantity of intact vessels dating from the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries B.C., Barkay said. Many had survived Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Glazed pottery, gold jewelry, silver, semi-precious stones and beads all gave evidence of a thriving population. Silver coins minted in Greece showed that the Hebrews were part of a network of international trade.

That was when the “very important” discovery came to light. During his lecture Feb. 5 at Southwestern’s main campus in Fort Worth, Texas, Barkay projected a photograph of a tiny, dirty cylinder he described as “the size of a cigarette butt.” It was an amulet designed to be worn on an arm or forehead in literal obedience to Deuteronomy 6:8, an ancient precursor to what are today known as phylacteries.

“Inside [the amulet] we found a tiny, silver scroll, which took us three years to unroll,” Barkay said. “The scroll yielded 19 lines of minuscule writing … in ancient Hebrew script.”

Stratigraphy enabled Barkay to date the silver scrolls to the seventh century B.C., to the time of King Josiah. He said the scrolls refute scholars who claim the books of the Pentateuch were written later.

The writing included three repetitions of ancient Hebrew letters which are transliterated YHWH. “This is the private, unpronounceable name of God, which is often pronounced in the West as ‘Jehovah,’” Barkay said.

Experts in ancient Semitic languages showed that the tiny scrolls contained the earliest written example of the Aaronian benediction recorded in Numbers 6:24-26: “The LORD bless you, and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.”

“This text predates the earliest Dead Sea Scrolls by four centuries,” Barkay said in reference to the importance of the silver scrolls. “They are the oldest biblical verses identified in the world.”

Born in Hungary, Barkay moved to Jerusalem early in life, where he later earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He then earned his doctoral degree in archaeology at Tel Aviv University. Barkay currently is professor of archaeology at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. Throughout his career, he has been involved with excavations at Lachish, Jerusalem, Megiddo, Tel Zayit and Susa in modern-day Iran. He has directed excavations at Ramat Rachel, Ketef Hinnom and other sites. Barkay has published numerous articles in the Israel Exploration Journal, Biblical Archaeology Review and other scholarly periodicals. He is a recipient of the prestigious Jerusalem Prize in Archaeology.

    About the Author

  • Brent Thompson