Ketef Hinnom: The Most Important OT Discovery in 100 Years?

The Discovery of the Burial Chamber Repository

In 1979, an archaeological team under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv and led by Gabriel Barkay, Department of Land of Israel Studies with Bar Han University, uncovered a series of nine caves in the "hillside west of the Old City of Jerusalem along the Western slope of the Valley of Hinnom, or Gay ben Hinnom in Hebrew", a.k.a., Gehenna. An exploration of these caves revealed that they were used as burial sites for the Jewish people of Jerusalem dating back to at least as early as the Iron Age (which can date back as far as the tenth century B.C.)

The cave designated "Cave 24" was an especially important find. It consisted of a central chamber with a series of branches from the central hall into other smaller burial chambers. These burial chambers had shelves where the bodies of the deceased together with other artifacts (such as burial gifts, vases or jewels) were placed immediately after death. The deceased would then lie on these shelfs until they decomposed. These burial chambers also had a repository beneath the main shelf where the bones and other artifacts would later be placed. According to the report entitled "The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation" by Gabriel Barkay, Andrew G. Vaughn, Marilyn J. Lundbert and Brucek Zuckerman, published in the Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research, May 2004:

When the bodies were fully decomposed, the bones would be removed together with the burial gifts and placed in the repository. After several generations, the deposits would build up and later deposits would be made either on top of the ealier deposits or closer toward the entrance of the repository. Periodically, as the entrance tot he chamber would become clogged, eposits were shoved to the back and flattened out.

Most of the burial chambers and their repositories were empty. However, one of the repositories beside a burial chamber (denominated Chamber 25) was surprisingly not empty. According to Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times [Sun-Sentinel Edition](1986, August 29) "Jerusalem Tomb Discoveries Answer Historical Questions":

When Barkay began to excavate the site in 1979, he had modest hopes. "After 120 years of great archeologists digging in Jerusalem, you don't expect to find very much," he said. "We were totally unprepared for what we discovered."

What he and his students discovered, along an ancient road from King David's birthplace in Bethlehem to his city, the City of David, in Jerusalem, was a series of nine burial caves. In the caves were hewn stone benches, upon which generations of Jerusalemites, beginning in the late First Temple Period, placed their dead, along with jewels and other offerings. Under one of the cave's burial benches, however, Barkay found a large, undisturbed repository.

The repository, it turned out, was the only intact burial repository found in Jerusalem in modern times. It had escaped looters because the roof had collapsed and buried everything inside for more than two thousand years.

The Two Silver Scrolls

Among the artifacts found in the caves were two very small silver artifacts that are referenced in the literature as "amulets", "scrolls" or "plaques". When found, these scrolls (denominated Ketef Hinnom I and Ketef Hinnom II) were covered in dirt and corrosion and hadn't been opened in at least 2,000 years. But it was clear that ancient Hebrew lettering had been etched into the silver. Since the two scolls were very small (Ketef Hinnom I being only 97 mm x 27 mm [approx. 4 in. x 1 in.] long, and Ketef Hinnom II being only 11 mm x 39.2 mm [approx. 0.4 in x 1.5 in.] long), the writing was very small and difficult to read. There was also the additional problem of opening the scrolls without destroying them. According to Friedman:

The Israel Museum first consulted experts in England and Germany who were specialists in handling such ancient objects, "but they took one look at them and threw up their hands," said [Michal Dayagi-Mendels, curator of the First Temple period at the Israel Museum]. In 1983, Joseph Shenhav, the director of the Israel Museum laboratory, came up with a homemade solution.

First, he rinsed the amulets clean in a solution of alkaline salt and formic acid. Then the outer layer of each roll was coated with acrylic glue, which, when it dried, was both transparent and elastic. Finally, over a period of several months, the scrolls were unfurled a tiny fraction each day to reveal their contents.

Shortly after the scrolls were opened, Yaakov Meshorer, an expert on small coins at the Israel Museum, made out the Hebrew name of God - - in the form of the tetragrammaton YHWH, or Jehovah -- etched into the silver. This alone was a major discovery, since it marked the first time ever that an archeological object had been found in Jerusalem with the Lord's name written in Hebrew on it.

"We knew there were more letters on them," said Barkay, "but they were so faint, and there were so many cracks and little fragments missing, we were afraid that they would be impossible to make out."

Ultimately, the scrolls were partially deciphered, and the words that were found on the scrolls were stunning: both scrolls were inscribed with what is known as the Priestly Benediction from Numbers 16: 24-26: "May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and grant you peace." (While the wording of the two inscriptions was not the full text of the Priestly Benediction, consider the size of the two scrolls and the number of words that appear in just this portion of the Inscription and you have an idea of the very small size of the Hebrew inscriptions.)

A Further Deciphering of the Language Etched into the Scrolls

While portions of the inscriptions could be read, the accuracy of the interpretation remained somewhat questionable due to the difficulty in reading the various Hebrew letters. However, in 1994, the scrolls were photographed by Dr. Bruce Zuckerman of the University of Southern California School of Religion using advanced photographic techniques to bring out the faded lettering. According to "Solving a Riddle Written in Silver" by John Noble Wilford:

Working with scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Zuckerman's group used advanced infrared imagining systems enhanced by electronic cameras and computer image-processing technology to draw out previously invisible writing on a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The researchers also pioneered electronic techniques for reproducing missing pieces of letters on documents. By examining similar letters elsewhere in the text, they were able to recognize half of a letter and reconstruct the rest of it in a scribe's own peculiar style.

* * *

As the researchers said in their magazine article, the only reasonably clear aspect of the inscriptions was the Priestly Benediction. Other lines preceding or following the prayer "could barely be seen."

To get higher-definition photographs of the inscriptions, Ken Zuckerman applied an old photographer's technique called "light painting," brought up to date by the use of fiber-optic technology. He used a hand-held light in an otherwise dark room to illuminate a spot on the artifact during a time exposure. In addition, he photographed the artifact at different angles, which made the scratched letters shine in stark relief.

The next step was to convert the pictures to digital form, making possible computer processing that brought out "the subtleties of the surface almost at the micron level." This analysis was particularly successful in joining a partial letter stroke on one side of a crack with the rest of the stroke on the other side. It also enabled the researchers to restore fragments of letters to full legibility by matching them with clear letters from elsewhere in the text.

In this way, the researchers filled in more of the letters and words of the benediction itself and for the first time deciphered meaningful words and phrases in the lines preceding the benediction.

Ultimately, the words became clear. "The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation", supra, consists of a report about the two scrolls after this inspection and reveals that even with the high-tech imagery, the first part of the two scrolls remain very difficult to read. Still, much of the language of the scrolls has been deciphered to read as follows:

Ketef Hinnom I: "YHW. . . the grea[t . . . who keeps] the covenant and [G]raciousness toward those who love [him] and alt: those who love [hi]m;) tohose who keep [his commandments . . . . . .] the Eternal? [. . . ]. [the?} blessing more than any [sna]re and more than evil. For redemption is in him. For YHWH is our restorer [and] rock. May YHWH bles[s] you and [may he] keep you. [May] YHWH make [his face] shine . . . ."

Ketef Hinnom II: [For PN, 9the son/daughter of) xxxx]h/hu. May h[e]/sh[e] be blessed by Yahweh, the warrior [or:helper] and and the rebuker of [E]vil; MayYahweh bless you, keep you. May Yahweh make his face shine upon you and grant you p[ea]ce.

The report by Dr. Barkay, et al., makes the case based on archaeology, palaeography and orthography that the two scrolls should be dated from the late seventh century or early sixth century B.C. -- in other words, around the time of King Josiah or his immediate followers and before the exile into Babylon. (In fact, there does not seem to be any strong reason to date them even as late as the late seventh century B.C. based upon the resources that I have read thus far. For purposes of this essay, however, I will accept the dating of the artifacts to that period while reserving the right to investigate whether they may not be even older.)

So what's the Point?

The discovery of these burial caves and the two ancient scrolls in them suggest two skeptical positions on the history of Israel are likely wrong.

A. The Size of Pre-Exile Jerusalem

Prior to the discovery of Ketef Hinnom, and continuing through today, there has been a great dispute over the size of Jerusalem prior to the exile in Babylon. Some scholars, such as Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in their book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts have argued that the ancient city of David was no more than 1,000 inhabitants. According to "Updating some Bible stories Archeological finds yield new historical revelations; [Final Edition]", Henry Aubin, The Gazette. Montreal, Que.: Mar 3, 2001. pg. J.4, Finkelstein and Silberman . . .

. . . take issue, for example, with the traditional idea of the Golden Age - that period starting around 1000 BC when King David and his son and successor, King Solomon, would have ruled over a vast empire stretching at one point from Gaza to the Euphrates. Excavations, say the authors, show that they and their successors presided over a "marginal, isolated, rural region, with no signs of great wealth and centralized administration." The capital, Jerusalem, was then only a "modest highland town;" 200 years later, its population was still at about 1,000.

However, there is a problem with this idea. The caves located by Barkay were located well outside of what had previously been considered the outer limits of the old city of First Temple Jerusalem. Friedman, supra, makes note that the location of the tombs -- given the Jewish culture's way of dealing with their dead -- is inconsistent with the vision of a "modest highland town."

One of the most important aspects of the burial repository was its location. Jews did not bury their dead inside the city walls, but always just outside. Because this burial ground was found on the western slope of the Valley of Hinnom, the walls of First Temple Jerusalem must have extended much farther to the west -- almost four times farther -- than previously thought by scholars on the basis of excavations of the City of David. The City of David, which comprises the Temple Mount and a narrow strip of ancient homes, constituted the only previous substantial ruins of ancient Jerusalem.

* * *

"Secondly, for years Bible scholars -- divided between the `maximalists' and the `minimalists' -- have been arguing whether Jerusalem was really a grand city, or just a forgotten little town whose reputation was built up through the ages. Each side would point to different biblical passages to buttress its case.

"Now we know that it was a major city," [Barkay] said. "This is critical also because a city that was the scene of the growth of monotheism and classical prophecy, a city said to be the only place you could worship God, had to have this importance reflected in its physical size."

When coupled with the evidence that the palace of David has been found to the North of what was believed to be the much smaller ancient city, certainly suggests that the archaeological evidence is growing that Jerusalem was a much larger city than was previously anticipated even as far back as the reign of King David himself.

B. The Existence and Circulation of the Torah prior to the Exile.

The scrolls themselves with their apparent quoting from the Book of Numbers makes a serious dent in the idea advocated by scholars such as Donald Harman Akenson in his book Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, where he posits that the first eleven books of the Old Testament were written during the Babylonian exile. As noted in "New theories about origins of biblical material; [Final Edition]", Henry Aubin, Times - Colonist. Victoria, B.C.: Mar 30, 2001. pg. C.6.FRO:

Some other experts contend that most of the Bible was written in Babylon during the exile -- some time around 550 BC.

Among these scholars is Donald Akenson, of Queen's University, whose 1998 book Surpassing Wonder suggests that no religious revival to speak of took place under Josiah and that the real crucible of monotheism and biblical composition was the exile in Babylon. Fearing that scattered Hebrew society might vanish, he theorizes, an anonymous genius wrote most of the Hebrew Bible's first 11 books. This great thinker, often called "Second Isaiah," would have used oral tradition and his own imagination to create for his people a distinctive sense of historical and religious identity.

As noted by Friedman, supra:

The presence of such a verse on an amulet from around 600 B.C. also provides the first concrete evidence that at least part of what became the Hebrew Bible was written -- and was widely known -- during the late First Temple period.


The discovery of these caves and the two scrolls seems to have met with very little fanfare. Certainly, the publication of the report of the reading and translation of the scrolls by Barkay, Vaughn, Lundberg and Zuckerman seem to have had little impact or circulation in the major media. I watch for stories like these, and I never would have found the report if it had not been mentioned as an aside in another essay I was reading.

Yet, it seems as if these discoveries should make a dent in some of the more skeptical theories about the size of pre-exile Jerusalem and the existence and circulation of the Torah prior to the exile. Given that the earliest writings of the Hebrews were apparently preserved only on documents and were not incised into buildings as was the habit of other cultures like the Egyptians, I wouldn't expect to find many (if any) additional writings in the future. Thus, it seems as if it may be impossible to determine whether the history of the Hebrews as described in the Bible is accurate or whether the present belief by an apparent consensus of scholars that the Hebrew people never went to Egypt or had an Exodus is accurate. But given that most discoveries seem to refute the skeptical views, I think that Ketef Hinnom is, as Dr. Barkay said, "a discovery of utmost importance".

Addendum: The CBS Evening News apparently did a short piece on the Ketef Hinnom scrolls, and can be seen in its 2 minute, 10 second entirety on the CBS News Website, here.


Weekend Fisher said…
You have to love the "late dating" theory of the Old Testament. I've heard people argue
1) The Torah was not set down in its present form until after the exile from Babylon; there few if any Jewish religious writings predating the exile
2) The Jewish religion was heavily influenced by the exile in Babylon and you can tell this by the change of content / character in the writings before the exile and after the exile.
Now logically you can't really hold to both views (not convincingly anyway) but that hasn't stopped people from trying.

Take care & God bless
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