Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Much more on the "Jerusalem" papyrus [with updates]

A MAJOR EPIGRAPHIC DISCOVERY: Oldest Hebrew mention of Jerusalem found on rare papyrus from 7th century BCE. Reference to consignment of wineskins ‘to Jerusalem’ appears on 2,700-year-old First Temple-era scrap believed plundered from Judean Desert cave (Ilan Ben Zion, Times of Israel).
A rare, ancient papyrus dating to the First Temple Period — 2,700 years ago — has been found to bear the oldest known mention of Jerusalem in Hebrew.

The fragile text, believed plundered from a Judean Desert cave, was apparently acquired several years. Radiocarbon dating has determined it is from the 7th century BCE, making it one of just three extant Hebrew papyri from that period, and predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by centuries.

The slip of papyrus, which was being formally unveiled by the Israel Antiquities Authority on Wednesday, measures 11 centimeters by 2.5 centimeters (4.3 inches by 1 inch). Its two lines of jagged black paleo-Hebrew script appear to have been a dispatch note recording the delivery of two wineskins “to Jerusalem,” the Judean Kingdom’s capital city.

There is a reasonably clear photo of the papyrus with the article. The earlier report said the script was dated to the eighth century BCE. This one says to the 7th century BCE. Either looks possible to me.

I had composed this post and was about to press "publish," when a couple of people sent me the following Israel Antiquities Authority press release, which had just come out. The post has been extensively revised, accordingly.

A Rare Document Mentioning the Name of Jerusalem from the Time of the First Temple was Exposed. In a complex enforcement operation, inspectors of the IAA seized a papyrus that includes the earliest reference to Jerusalem in an extra-biblical document, which is written in ancient Hebrew script. Excerpt:
A rare and important find was exposed in an enforcement operation initiated by the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery: a document written on papyrus and dating to the time of the First Temple (seventh century BCE) in which the name of the city of Jerusalem is clearly indicated. This is the earliest extra-biblical source to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew writing.

The document, which was illicitly plundered from one of the Judean Desert caves by a band of antiquities robbers and was seized in a complex operation by the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, was presented today (Wednesday) in a press of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Two lines of ancient Hebrew script were preserved on the document that is made of papyrus (paper produced from the pith of the papyrus plant [Cyperus papyrus]). A paleographic examination of the letters and a C14 analysis determined that the artifact should be dated to the seventh century BCE – to the end of the First Temple period. Most of the letters are clearly legible, and the proposed reading of the text appears as follows:

[מא]מת. המלך. מנערתה. נבלים. יין. ירשלמה.
[me-a]mat. ha-melekh. me-Na?artah. nevelim. yi’in. Yerushalima.
From the king’s maidservant, from Na?arat, jars of wine, to Jerusalem

I have only briefly tried to read the inscription, but the proposed decipherment looks plausible to me. The name "Jerusalem" is clear in the second line.

Is it genuine? Could it be a forgery? On general principles I would be tempted to file an unprovenanced 7th-8th century BCE Hebrew papyrus that happens to mention Jerusalem under "likely too good to be true." But apparently it was seized by the IAA rather than, as originally reported, being bought from an antiquities dealer. (Or at least, it is not yet clear how the two reports fit together.) And the radiocarbon dating of the papyrus is important. It is not entirely impossible that a forger would be able to get hold of a blank papyrus fragment dating to the 7th-8th century BCE, but it seems very unlikely. And even then, how would the forger be sure enough of the date to make the script of the Hebrew match so well? So I think it is very probable that the papyrus and the inscription on it are genuine and that we should proceed with that as our preliminary conclusion, as the IAA is doing. Sometimes we are just lucky.

This post from February of this year seems a bit prophetic now, doesn't it?

As I've said before, the papyrus needs to be fully published in a peer-review publication before any definitive conclusions can be reached. But meanwhile, this appears to be a very significant discovery and it’s a pity that it was not found in a scientific excavation. It is important that the place where it was discovered be established if that is at all possible.

Background here and here. I have already replied to one journalist with a statement, so some of the above may appear in the media soon. I'll let you know if it does.

UPDATE: Epigrapher Christopher Rollston has put up an important blog post on the papyrus: The New ‘Jerusalem’ Papyrus: Not so Fast….Two excerpts:
IV. The Jerusalem Papyrus is from the antiquities market and it has been floating around on the market for a few years now. It was not found on an actual archaeological excavation. I saw some good images of it a few years ago in Jerusalem.


VIII. Ultimately, I believe that there is a fair chance that although the papyrus itself is ancient the ink letters are actually modern…that is, this inscription is something that I would classify as a possible modern forgery.
Read it all. If Professor Rollston is skeptical, then I should imagine there is good reason for skepticism. But here I would repeat my earlier point above. Yes, ancient blank papyrus is not terribly hard to come by, but the cases I remember hearing of involve papyrus from late antiquity and the Byzantine era (such as the Gospel of Jesus' Wife). There are far fewer papyri surviving from as early as the 7th-8th century BCE. Is it really likely that a forger got a blank piece of papyrus this ancient along with a context that told the exact age of the papyrus so the forger could fake the Hebrew script accordingly? I would think not, but I am open to correction by those better informed. In any case, I note Professor Rollston's objections and they should be taken seriously.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Owen Jarus has published a piece at Live Science which interviews Professor Rollston and which provides more (sometimes confusing) information about the discovery/seizing of the papyrus: Ancient Hebrew Papyrus Seized from Looters, But Is It Authentic?