Thursday, June 02, 2016

London's Dead Sea Scrolls

MAJOR EPIGRAPHIC DISCOVERY: UK's oldest hand-written document 'at Roman London dig.' Over 400 tablets were found at the site, 87 of which have been deciphered (BBC).
Roman tablets discovered during an excavation in London include the oldest hand-written document ever found in Britain, archaeologists have revealed.

The Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) said it had deciphered a document, from 8 January AD 57, found at the dig at Bloomberg's new headquarters.

The first ever reference to London, financial documents and evidence of schooling have also been translated.

Over 700 artefacts from the dig will go on display when the building opens.

According to MOLA, the tablets reveal the first years of the capital "in the words of the people who lived, worked, traded with and administered the new city".

Director Sophie Jackson said the findings had "far exceeded all expectations" and would allow archaeologists "to get closer to the first Roman Britons".

So far the inscribed tablets from London have no direct bearing on ancient Judaism, but they are too interesting not to mention, and there are some indirect points of comparison. Some of the tablets overlap in date with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written between the late third century BCE to the mid-first century CE and were deposited in the Qumran caves in 68 CE.

The London document from 57 CE is dated in the reign of the Emperor Nero. One of the Aramaic Judean Desert texts (Murabba'at ostracon 18) dates itself to "[yea]r two of Nero Caesar" (שנ]ת תרתין לנרון קשר), which would be 55-56 CE, so just before the date of the London text. The Murabba'at text has received a good deal of attention because the spelling of "Nero Caesar" in Hebrew letters has the gematria value of 666, which confirms that the Beast in the Book of Revelation (see 13:18) is meant to be understood as Nero. More on the Number of the Beast (and its variant value 616, based on a different Hebrew spelling of Nero) is here and here.

Beyond that, this discovery in London will inevitably bring to mind the very similar discoveries at the site of Vindolanda, up in Northumberland near Hadrian's Wall. The Vindolanda tablets come from the late first and early second centuries CE, between the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE). I visited Vindolanda about ten years ago and I posted some photos and some reflections on their relevance to the Judean Desert texts here. It sounds as though so far the London tablets are also administrative and documentary texts rather than literary texts.

Let's hope that there will be some good news like this coming out of the Judean Desert soon.