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Scholars say papyrus mentioning Jerusalem-based kingdom may be fake

The document is preserved in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls laboratories. Photo by Shai Halevi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
The document is preserved in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls laboratories. Photo by Shai Halevi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

The document is preserved in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls laboratories. Photo by Shai Halevi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

JERUSALEM (RNS) A 2,700-year-old piece of papyrus bearing what Israeli archaeologists said is the earliest known nonbiblical reference to Jerusalem could be a fake, scholars have charged, citing the document’s unverifiable origins.

The document, which a team from the Israel Antiquities Authorities unveiled at a Wednesday (Oct. 26) news conference, bears the words “From the king’s maidservant, from Naʽarat, jars of wine, to Jerusalem.”

It was discovered four years ago in the possession of antiquities thieves, the authority said, and traced back to a site in the Judean desert based on the thieves’ testimony and other information.

The papyrus is significant because it presents rare nonbiblical evidence of the existence of a kingdom in Judea.

Although the authority’s archaeologists said carbon-14 dating proved that the papyrus is from the First Temple period, and an epigraphic examination found that the lettering is consistent with seventh century B.C. writing, Aren Maeir, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University, told attendees at the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region conference on Thursday that the document’s origins cannot be verified.

“How do we know it isn’t a forgery intended for the antiquities market?” asked Maeir, who was not involved in the papyrus’ acquisition or analysis. “After all, there are well-known cases in which writing was forged on an ancient platform. It’s very possible that only the papyrus itself is ancient.”

In archaeology much more weight is given to an object’s authenticity if it is dug up from an undisturbed excavation than if it is found elsewhere.

Amir Ganor, director of IAA’s robbery prevention unit, said he and his colleagues — including renowned biblical scholar Shmuel Ahituv — “tried in every possible way to check the papyrus. 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.”

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)

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Michele Chabin

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