My take on the Jerusalem Papyrus

Yesterday, at the Jerusalem conference at HU, I was invited to serve as a respondent in the session in which the new papyrus mentioning Jerusalem was presented (see here for the full article [in Hebrew]). This was reported as well by Nir Hasson in Haaretz (see below the English version of the article).

As some of the points I raised are not mentioned, here are some additional issues that I noted:

  1. My comments are as an archaeologist, not as an epigraphist or a linguist.
  2. I’m not sure that it is real or a fake, but various issues are problematic. I would very much like it to be authentic – but first – doubts must be dispelled.
  3. This is particularly so in light of the strong indications that many of the recently acquired fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls may be fakes – indicating that there are some very good forgers working out there – some of whom seem to have an in-depth knowledge in epigraphy, paleography and related issues.
  4. The lack of sufficient details on how the papyrus was obtained, due to the need of the IAA Anti-theft Unit to protect its sources, is understood from an operational point of view (and I fully believe them about this), but it creates a aura of secrecy and lack of credibility around this.
  5. And if in fact the papyrus was known for several years to other scholars as well, this makes the background of its discovery even more obscure.
  6. While I cannot state with certainty that it is fake, there is a strong possibility that it was faked.
  7. Even if did not actually reach the market and was confiscated by the IAA before hand, it could still be fake. One could even envision a scenario, if in fact it is a forgery, that it might have purposely been unveiled, enabling the IAA to confiscate it, so that in future, similar papyri that would surface  would seem authentic.
  8. Due to these questions, I feel that the IAA should not have published the find prior to conducting a much broader range of analytical tests on the papyrus, including analysis of ink content and ink degradation, analysis of possible traces of sediments on the papyrus, and other tests. Even if they would not have proven without a doubt that it was real or fake – it would have demonstrated a much more serious effort for authentication.
  9. This is particularly important as the IAA is a governmental body and should be very careful when giving a certification of authenticity to a problematic object.
  10. It is absolutely clear that the publication of the papyrus and its presentation at the conference, had nothing to do with the recent UNESCO decisions. The publication and conference were planned months before the UNESCO decision. Anyone claiming otherwise is either gullible – or malicious.
  11. That said, the manner in which it was announced to the press, and subsequently used by politicians, is quite disturbing.
  12. The only positive aspect that I see if it is found out to be fake, is that some politicians (including the current “King of Jerusalem”…) can eat their hats…
  13. If the papyrus is authentic, I think that the suggested reconstruction is possible – but only a suggestion. Thus, extrapolating that we can learn about the status of women in Iron Age Judah from this is far-fetched at best.
  14. Also, at the end of the day, there is not that much new information from the papyrus – it’s just a very “sexy” find, mentioning Jerusalem…another bit of knowledge about Iron Age Judah.
  15. I hope that the papyrus is authentic – but more proof is required. In any case, even if bona fide, it can only be related to as a source of secondary or tertiary relevance, due to the lack of clarity on its origin.

See below the English text of the Haaretz article: [English] [Hebrew]


Oct 28, 2016 2:43 AM


Papyrus With Earliest Ex-bible Hebrew Mention of Jerusalem Likely Fake, Experts Say

 Archaeologists are usually wary of any finds not discovered in a supervised dig, though Antiquities Authority insists ancient scroll is authentic.

Nir Hasson

Scholars are questioning the authenticity of what the Israel Antiquities Authority says is a 2,800-year-old papyrus document bearing the word “Jerusalem” in Hebrew, unveiled by the authority on Wednesday.

The papyrus was found four years ago while pursuing antiquities thieves in the Judean Desert and dates to the seventh century B.C.E., according to the antiquities authority. That would make it the earliest known mention of Jerusalem in Hebrew outside the Bible. The fragment appears to be a document concerning a wine shipment from Na’arat, in the Jordan Valley, to the king in Jerusalem.

It’s not certain where the thieves found the document, though it appears to have come from a cave along the Hever Stream in the Judean Desert. Archaeologists are usually wary of any finds not discovered in a supervised dig.

But in this case, the scholars who studied it – Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of the Hebrew University and Dr. Eitan Klein and Amir Ganor of the antiquities authority – are convinced that it is authentic. Carbon-14 dating showed that the papyrus was made 2,500 to 2,800 years ago, and an epigraphic examination concluded the letters are typical of the Hebrew writing of the seventh century B.C.E.

But at Thursday’s session of an antiquities authority conference on Innovations in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region, archaeologist Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University cast doubt on the document’s authenticity. He also assailed the authority for deciding to publicize it even though “it was clear in advance that it would be controversial.”

Maeir said there were too many unanswered questions about the papyrus. “How do we know it isn’t a forgery intended for the antiquities market?” he demanded, adding that forgers could have deliberately “sacrificed” this document in order to prepare the way for selling other papyri that they would “discover” later.

The fact that carbon-14 dating proved the papyrus’ age is insufficient, he added. “After all, there are well-known cases in which writing was forged on an ancient ‘platform,’” he said. “It’s very possible that only the papyrus itself is ancient.

“In my humble opinion, the need for additional tests is glaring, especially if a government agency is publishing this and giving it a seal of approval. Why wait for the arguments and only then do the additional tests? They should have done them first.”

Prof. Christopher Rollston of George Washington University also voiced skepticism, writing on his blog that he believed the document was a forgery.

“The fact that the papyrus itself has been carbon dated to the 7th century BCE certainly does not mean that the writing on the papyrus is ancient,” he wrote. “In fact, it really means nothing. After all, ancient papyrus is readily available for purchase online (check the web and see!), thus, no modern forger worth his or her salt would forge an inscription on modern papyrus.”

Ahituv, however, rejected the critics’ arguments. First, he said, the papyrus was folded up when it was found, which makes forgery seem unlikely. “Would a forger buy an ancient, dry, fragile papyrus, write text on it that’s typical of the seventh century, and then fold it up and tie it with a cord and thereby endanger all his work?” he demanded.

The text itself also suggests it’s not a forgery, he continued. He and his colleagues read the text as “[me-a]mat. ha-melekh. me-Na’artah. nevelim. yi’in. Yerushalima,” meaning “From the king’s maidservant, from Na’arat, jars of wine, to Jerusalem.”

But both “Na’artah” and “Yerushalima” are very rare words, and thus unlikely to occur to a forger, “even if he’s an expert in Bible,” Ahituv said. “If I were a forger, I’d choose a more impressive text,” he added.

Ganor also rejected the criticisms. “We tried in every possible way to check the papyrus,” he said. “We used the methods used to check the Dead Sea Scrolls. If someone has an additional method, he’s invited to apply it. We, as a country, were obligated to get our hands on this, and I’m certain it’s authentic.”

5 thoughts on “My take on the Jerusalem Papyrus

  1. I’m not qualified to assess paleo-Hebrew paleography, and I’ll assume the ink was examined under a microscope to see if it was written after folding to check if the pen caught on the right of highs (and is that a collesis?) and less on the right side of lows, but here are a few of my questions:
    If there was writing above the two extant lines, as ink (and perhaps the shape of the piece, from a bottom (?) of a scroll, Shapira-like (?)) may indicate, does that suggest it was broken off?
    If it was tied with a cord (of what material?) when found (by whom?), why would it be damaged in this way?
    If it was in a cave with bat droppings, is that chemically confirmed?
    If it was sent to a king, why not name the king?
    If this was a shipment of wine, why not inscribe the containers instead?
    If it was sent (or intended to be sent) to Jerusalem from a place on the border between Ephraim and Benjamin, why would it be (said to be) found in Nahal Hever?


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