Solving a Riddle Written in Silver
Excerpts from a New York Times article by John Noble Wilford, September 28, 2004
The words are among the most familiar and ecumenical in the liturgies of Judaism and Christianity. At the close of a worship service, the rabbi, priest or pastor delivers, with only slight variations, the comforting and fortifying benediction:
"May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and grant you peace."
An archaeological discovery in 1979 revealed that the Priestly Benediction, as the verse from Numbers 6:24-26 is called, appeared to be the earliest biblical passage ever found in ancient artifacts. Two tiny strips of silver, each wound tightly like a miniature scroll and bearing the inscribed words, were uncovered in a tomb outside Jerusalem and initially dated from the late seventh or early sixth century B.C. -- some 400 years before the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.
But doubts persisted. The silver was cracked and corroded, and many words and not a few whole lines in the faintly scratched inscriptions were unreadable. Some critics contended that the artifacts were from the third or second century B.C., and thus of less importance in establishing the antiquity of religious concepts and language that became part of the Hebrew Bible.
So researchers at the University of Southern California have now re-examined the inscriptions using new photographic and computer imaging techniques. The words still do not exactly leap off the silver. But the researchers said they could finally be "read fully and analyzed with far greater precision," and that they were indeed the earliest.
In a scholarly report published this month, the research team concluded that the improved reading of the inscriptions confirmed their greater antiquity. The script, the team wrote, is indeed from the period just before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent exile of Israelites in Babylonia.
The researchers further reaffirmed that the scrolls "preserve the earliest known citations of texts also found in the Hebrew Bible and that they provide us with the earliest examples of confessional statements concerning Yahweh."
The report in The Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research was written by Dr. Gabriel Barkay, the archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel who discovered the artifacts, and collaborators associated with Southern California's West Semitic Research Project. The project leader is Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, a professor of Semitic languages at U.S.C., who worked with Dr. Marilyn J. Lundberg, a Hebrew Bible specialist with the project, and Dr. Andrew G. Vaughn, a biblical historian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.
Other scholars not affiliated with the research but familiar with it agreed with the group's conclusions.
A part of the sacred Torah of Judaism (the first five books of the Bible), Numbers includes a narrative of the Israelite wanderings from Mount Sinai to the east side of the Jordan River. Some scholars think the Torah was compiled in the time of the exile. A number of other scholars, the so-called minimalists, who are influential mainly in Europe, argue that the Bible was a relatively recent invention by those who took control of Judea in the late fourth century B.C. In this view, the early books of the Bible were largely fictional to give the new rulers a place in the country's history and thus a claim to the land.
"The new research on the inscriptions suggests that that's not true," Dr. Pitard said. In fact, the research team noted in its journal report that the improved images showed the seventh-century lines of the benediction to be "actually closer to the biblical parallels than previously recognized."
Dr. P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University, a specialist in ancient Semitic scripts, said the research should "settle any controversy over these inscriptions."
The two silver scrolls were found in 1979 deep inside a burial cave in a hillside known as Ketef Hinnom, west of the Old City of Jerusalem. Dr. Barkay, documenting the context of the discovery, noted that the artifacts were at the back of the tomb embedded in pottery and other material from the seventh or sixth centuries B.C. Such caves were reused for burials over many centuries. Near this tomb's entrance were artifacts from the fourth century, but nothing so recent remains in the undisturbed recesses.
Dr. Esther Eshel, a professor of the Bible at Bar-Ilan and an authority on Hebrew inscriptions, said this was the earliest example of amulets from Israel. But she noted that the language of the benediction was similar to a blessing ("May he bless you and keep you") found on a jar from the eighth century B.C.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company