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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

9 Comments

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  • You can always say something is possibly forged. How can the possibility be excluded? I tend to view all of these discoveries as somewhere between absolute truth and a PR scheme concocted by the IAA, El Al and the Ministry of Tourism.

  • Uh oh! As with forensic evidence, origin and chain of custody is important. Authenticity often requires agreement and corroboration with other evidence. Time will tell. I know this is important for Israel as there is practically no evidence for their ancient history.

  • As far as *I* know, Carbon-14 dating is *EXTREMELY* difficult to “forge” or otherwise fake. So HIGHLY unlikely.

  • It would seem that some among Israel think they must prove there actually was a Kingdom of David in order to justify keeping their homes. In the Hebrew Bible, there are accounts of an invasion by Israelites that can only be described as a genocidal holocaust (Joshua 6-12). This is something to base land ownership upon? Should today’s ownership and control of the land be based on ancestral ownership and control thousands of years ago? If yes, then I have the right to have ownership and control in some countries where I’ve never lived and have no holdings. Maybe decide who gets to live where, based on
    whose ancestors had the most warlike and most brutal kingdoms in their own legends?? I believe there is a better way — encourage the current inhabitants of the Near East to live together now in peace and harmony, respecting the human rights of all concerned, sharing the land and water, building a participatory democracy, and empowering those marginalized. The world is waiting for some progress.

  • Personally, I suspect that there are those who desperately want this to be fake for their own reasons, usually political. Just as there are those who desperately want it to be authentic for the same reasons. And people will see exactly what they want to see.
    I have my doubts as to whether or not we will really ever know for sure.

  • However, they haven’t proven that was done, as far as I can tell. I’d say it’s the equivalent of the old Scottish verdict “not proven” essentially throwing up their hands and saying “Who knows?”

  • I appear to have misread the following:

    “An epigraphic examination found that the lettering is consistent with seventh century B.C. writing,”

    As the “seventh century C.E.”, which lead me to believe it was being called into question because the typography doesn’t match the age of the paper.

    But I read that wrong, and apparently it is being called into question for pretty much no reason.

    So, yeah, it’s pretty much just saying “Who knows?” Which makes the statements and this article rather pointless.

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