Friday, October 21, 2016

A Hebrew papyrus from the 8th century BCE? [Now updated]

EPIGRAPHY: Discovery: ‘Jerusalem’ on Hebrew Papyrus (David Israel, The Jewish Press).
A unique, 2,700-year-old Papyrus which mentions the Hebrew word “Yerushalma” (possibly meaning “to Jerusalem”) will be revealed next week at a conference on Innovations in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and Its Environs, at the Rabin Jewish Studies Building on the Mount Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University, Makor Rishon reported. Researchers say the papyrus may be the earliest evidence in Hebrew of the connection between the city of Jerusalem and the period of the Kings of Israel.

The papyrus is a document written on paper made from the pith of the papyrus plant, cyperus papyrus. Such documents were written on sheets of papyrus, joined together side by side and rolled up into a scroll, in an early form of a book. In a dry climate, like that of Egypt or the Judaean desert, the papyrus pages are stable, since they are made of highly rot-resistant cellulose; but storage in humid conditions can result in molds attacking and destroying the material.

First, just to be clear, the photo of "an ancient Hebrew text written on papyrus" at the top of the article is not a photo of the new Hebrew papyrus (nor does the caption claim that it is). That would be written in the paleo-Hebrew script, but the one in the photo is written in the much later square script. Offhand, I don't know what it is. [UPDATE (24 October): For the identification of the papyrus in the photo, see here.]

In any case, this announcement is very exciting. Papyri are fragile and there are very few that survive from the eighth century BCE and as far as I know all of those come from Egypt rather than the Judean Desert. The earliest surviving Hebrew(ish) papyrus is the Marzeah Papyrus, which appears to date to the seventh century BCE. Unfortunately it surfaced on the antiquities market and is unprovenanced. You can see a photo of it here (center, second from the top). As I noted back in 2005, epigrapher Christopher Rollston doubts that the Marzeah papyrus is authentic. I have no view myself, except that I am always skeptical of unprovenanced inscriptions, especially ones that are not available for examination.

With that as background, my heart sunk a bit when I read the last paragraph of the article on the new papyrus:
The Hebrew papyrus was discovered recently in the Judaean desert and purchased from an antique dealer. It was examined by the Israel Antiquities Authority’s labs, and carbon dated. The results showed with certainty that the papyrus dates back to the 8th century BCE, near the end of the Kingdom of Judea, a short while before the destruction of the First Temple.
The new papyrus is unprovenanced, but materials testing dates the papyrus material used for it to the eighth century BCE. That's good, but we must keep in mind that, going back all the way to the nineteenth century, modern forgers have know to use ancient materials. The most recent well-publicized case is that of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife.

Thus the date of the papyrus material used for this new inscription may or may not tell us when the inscription itself was written on it. That said, although I am going to reserve a little skepticism, I recognize that the authentication by the IAA should be taken very seriously. Also, I recognize that blank papyrus from the eighth century BCE would not be easy for a forger to find.

I look forward to more information when Professor Achituv gives his lecture on it next week. Ultimately the case needs to be made and decided in the peer-review scholarly literature and that will take time. The preliminary indications look good and I hope it turns out to be authentic.

By the way, I mentioned the cave inscription that refers to Jerusalem (at Khirbet Beit Lei) some years ago here.

HT: thanks to Joseph Lauer for his e-mail drawing attention to the announcement.