Monday, May 02, 2011

Ezekiel plates—and a legend of the Temple treasures

Dating the Ezekiel plates

05/01/2011 12:07 By DAVID PARSONS AND FLORENCE BACHE (Jerusalem Post)

The relative obscurity of the tiles may be about to change, if tests date them back to the first century.

A set of 66 stone tiles known as the “Ezekiel Plates,” believed to have come from the prophet Ezekiel’s traditional tomb along the Euphrates River in Iraq, are in the process of being dated by modern technological methods to finally establish whether they should be considered on a par with the Isaiah Scroll as among the oldest existing biblical texts ever found.

Currently on display at the Yad Ben- Zvi Institute in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, the Ezekiel plates have been around a while but have failed to draw visitors like the impressive parchment containing the complete book of Isaiah, which dates to the first century and is housed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum.

Part of the problem is that the institute is located on a small side street in a residential area of the capital that affords very limited access for the public. The tiles have also failed to convince many in the archeological community that they date back to antiquity.

But that question may be settled soon, as two of the tiles were recently handed over to the Israel Museum to undergo dating tests. Results are expected soon, and the conclusions may require that the unique collection of stones be moved to a facility in Jerusalem that can give them more prominent display.

(HT Joseph Lauer.)

I've been aware of these stone plaques and their current location for a few years, although the only photograph I've seen (of a related plaque - see below) is scarcely readable. But this article fills in some details of their relatively recent history of which I was not aware.

I knew of the Ezekiel plaques because at the end of the series there were once two additional plaques bearing another text, Massekhet Kelim, the Treatise of the Vessels. This is not the Mishnaic tractate of the same name, but rather an apocryphal account of the hiding of the treasures of Solomon's Temple at the time of its destruction by the Babylonians. I am translating this text as part of the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project. J. T. Milik published the poor photo of one of the plaques bearing Massekhet Kelim in an article in 1959. They were in Lebanon last he knew of them, and I had the impression from his article that they were made locally and recently. In February of 2008 I put up a post on these plaques, asking if anyone knew their current whereabouts. Thanks to a reply from reader Robert R. Smith, I was able to trace the Ezekiel plaques to the Yad Ben Zvi Institute but, alas, it turned out that the plaques containing Massekhet Kelim were no longer with them and the Institute did not know what had become of them. (Hence my lack of follow-up to the post.)

The oldest other surviving copies of Massekhet Kelim which I have been able to locate are all in seventeenth-century printed editions.

Assuming it is accurate, this article tells where the stone plaques came from (the Tomb of Ezekiel in Iraq) and how they got from there to the Yad Ben Zvi Institute via Lebanon:
The tiles’ authenticity is also open to question because the time and location of the find, as well as its chain of custody, are not as well documented as scholars now demand for wider acceptance. A number of forgeries have infiltrated the field of biblical archeology in recent decades, and thus the standards of proof are being forced upward.
You don't say.
In this case, the tiles were supposedly found over 100 years ago when visitors to the traditional tomb of Ezekiel in the small Iraqi town of Kfar al-Kafil, located about 50 miles south of Baghdad, noticed a stone tile had fallen off the inside of the burial chamber. Oddly, its back side contained an ancient lettering which had been deliberately hidden, facing the wall. Other tiles were removed and similar inscriptions were found on their back sides as well.

The entire set of Ezekiel plates were then taken to Lebanon, where decades later a Christian Arab widow, on the advice of her priest, wanted to place them in Jewish hands before she moved to France. She sold them for a mere two pounds sterling to businessman David Hacohen in 1947.

He smuggled the plates into Israel in 1953, and they were eventually acquired by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president and a noted historian, who considered them a valuable national treasure.

After Ben-Zvi’s death, the Ezekiel plates became the property of the Institute in Jerusalem set up in his honor, which had them in storage until Zwebner convinced his wife’s parents, Max and Lombi Landau, to sponsor their public display.
Some speculation on the date:
Until now, estimates of their age have varied widely. According to the British Museum, the plates could be anywhere between 300 to 2000 years old.

Veteran Israeli archeologist Dan Bahat of Bar-Ilan University, while cautioning that artifacts from Mesopotamia are outside his field of expertise, told The Christian Edition that the script is similar to ones he has seen from the 7th or 8th century CE.

Dr. Stephen Pfann, head of the University of the Holy Land and a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, also suggested that studying the style of the script – a discipline known as paleography – is probably a better method of dating for such stone objects than carbon dating and other tests.
I have studied Massekhet Kelim closely and there is no way that it is from the first century. The Hebrew is rabbinic, but I have not tried to refine its date further. The text is well acquainted with rabbinic exegesis and must be of the Talmudic era or later. I wouldn't rule out a date of the seventh or eighth century CE, although I would be (pleasantly) surprised if the document is that early. (I have recently published an article on this document, which is noted here and here.)

The first line of the first plaque containing Massekhet Kelim has the last verse and a half of Ezekiel on it, so the plaques formed one set and it seems pretty clear that their date and provenance must be the same.

I don't know exactly what tests can be made on stone to determine its date, but I'm not a geologist. Probably they involve things like patinas. But Stephen Pfann is spot on to say that paleography is likely to be of more use. I hope some paleographers take some interest in the stones now. I also hope that this new publicity might lead both to the publication of better photographs of the plaques (it's too bad the picture in the Jerusalem Post article is so bad) and to some information on what has become of the stones inscribed with Massekhet Kelim.
Yet there is an old Talmudic tradition that Israel’s prophets and other great sages were often buried with copies of their writings. One such Talmudic legend held that the original book of Ezekiel was buried with the prophet in his tomb and was left there to be revealed in the last days.
That would be nice, but these plaques are not it.
Whether or not that legend turns out to be true, Ezekiel remains the most mysterious of the Hebrew prophets and his writings – with their accounts of strange flying objects and other rare “visions of God” – are reserved by strictly observant Jews only for the most learned.

Meanwhile, the tomb of Ezekiel has gone from being a major pilgrimage site for Jews and Christians to a neglected shrine, after the mass Jewish exodus from Iraq in 1951.

Amid the turmoil and conflict that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jewish leaders began voicing concerns about acts of desecration at the site. But Iraqi authorities have recently given assurances about preserving the tomb.
This is the traditional tomb of Ezekiel, but we have no way of knowing whether the tradition is correct. Locations for sites like the last resting places of prophets tend to be supplied if they happen to be wanting, so there is reason to be skeptical. PaleoJudaica has also followed closely the controversy over the treatment of the tomb. Last I heard, it seemed to be safe. Start here and follow the many links back.

So, my preliminary evaluation is that the Ezekiel plaques are not older than the seventh or eighth century CE and I suspect they may be considerably more recent.

Watch this space ...