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‘Silver scrolls’ are oldest O.T. scripture, archaeologist says

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–While excavating a burial tomb near Jerusalem in 1979, Gabriel Barkay uncovered the oldest known copy of Old Testament scripture. The priestly blessing, recorded in Numbers 6:24-26, was discovered on two small silver scrolls dated to the 7th century B.C.

“This was a discovery of utmost importance,” said Barkay, professor of archaeology at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “These verses pre-date the famous Dead Sea Scrolls by approximately four centuries. They are the only biblical verses we have from the time of the First Temple [period].”

Barkay spoke of the discovery at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Feb. 18 –- one of only two lectures during a trip to America. His was the inaugural lecture offered the seminary’s new Center for Archaeological Research.

Steven Ortiz, assistant professor of archaeology and biblical studies and director of the Center for Archaeological Research at NOBTS, served as field archaeologist at the Ketef Hinnom site where the scrolls were found. When Ortiz heard that Barkay was coming to America to lecture at Emory University, he convinced his archaeology mentor to come to New Orleans to speak as well. Asking Barkay to deliver the center’s first lecture was an easy decision, Ortiz said.

“He is an excellent and engaging lecturer,” Ortiz said. “I wanted our students to be exposed to one of the top scholars in the field of biblical archaeology.”

“The importance of the Ketef Hinnom inscriptions tends to be overlooked among students and pastors,” Ortiz said. “These scrolls are significant for the dating of the Old Testament. They provide evidence of the antiquity of the Bible.”

The two silver scrolls were discovered by Barkay’s team in a rock-hewn burial cave southwest of the ancient city of Jerusalem. The structure of the tomb was of interest to Barkay because it dated to the First Temple period, but it appeared that over centuries looters had taken all the artifacts. The tomb had last been used for storing Turkish army rifles during the Ottoman period.

However, Barkay and his team discovered that some artifacts had been preserved in a bone repository in the tomb. When a family member died, he or she was placed on a burial bench in the tomb along with personal items such as vases and jewelry, Barkay explained. After the dead body decayed, the bones were collected and placed in a bone repository located in a separate area of the tomb. The practice is referred to in the Old Testament as being “gathered unto his fathers.”

At some point a layer of the repository’s ceiling broke lose and covered the collected bones and personal items. Barkay said that the piece of ceiling appeared to be nothing more than the repository floor. An Israeli schoolboy helping clean the repository during excavations accidentally broke through the layer, revealing many bones and artifacts below.

As the team sifted through the items in repository, they discovered the two scrolls. After the initial discovery in 1979, scholars had the daunting task of unrolling and deciphering the text. They had no idea how important the find would be.

“It took us three years to unroll it [the larger scroll],” Barkay said. “When unrolled, it was covered with very delicately scratched characters. The first word we could decipher was the ‘YHWH’ –- sometimes anglicized as ‘Jehovah.’ This is the name of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible.”

Until this time no inscriptions with the name of God had been found in Jerusalem.

The larger of the two scrolls was only about three inches long when it was unrolled. The smaller one was just over two inches long. Barkay said the thin fragile silver of each scroll was etched with 19 lines of tiny, Hebrew script. It was years before researchers realized that the inscription was an almost exact representation of the priestly blessing found in Numbers. Careful study revealed that the Hebrew characters used were distinctive of the 7th century B.C.

In English the verses read: “The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.”

The find is significant because it helps establish the historicity and the age of Old Testament scripture. In the late 1800s German higher critics began questioning the date the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) was composed in written form. Many of these critics argued that this section of scripture was written some time after the Babylonian exile.

According to Barkay, the discovery of this early biblical inscription is an important part of the argument for an early dating of the Old Testament. He acknowledges that the find does not prove that the Pentateuch was written by the 7th century. However, it is strong evidence for that position.

“I can at least say that these verses existed in the 7th century … the time of the prophet Jeremiah and the time of King Josiah,” Barkay said.

Barkay published a book about the find in 1986, but recent advances in computer technology have helped researchers discover additional verses on the silver scrolls. The new research technique revealed that the scroll contains other verses from the Pentateuch. Barkay has written a manuscript about these other finds and plans to publish it in the near future.

While the silver scrolls were discovered more than 20 years ago, little information about the discovery has been available to the general public. Lectures like this are important because most of the articles about finds like those at Ketef Hinnom are published only in scholarly journals, Ortiz said.

He said he hopes to hold a number of archaeology lectures each year as funding becomes available, and that those lectures will help educate ministerial students and others about important finds that uphold the historicity of the Bible.

Qualified lecturers such as Barkay also bring credibility to the Center of Archaeology Research, Ortiz said, noting that lectures in the field show that NOBTS is serious about biblical archaeology and could help the school secure a site to excavate and research in the future.