(BP)--While excavating a burial tomb near Jerusalem
in 1979, Gabriel Barkay uncovered the oldest known
copy of Old Testament scripture. The priestly blessing, recorded in Numbers
6:24-26, was discovered on two small silver scrolls dated to the 7th century
“This was a discovery of utmost importance," said Barkay,
professor of archaeology at Bar Ilan University
near Tel Aviv. “These verses pre-date
the famous Dead Sea Scrolls by approximately four centuries.
They are the only biblical verses we have from the time of the First Temple [period].”
Steven Ortiz, assistant professor of archaeology and biblical studies and
director of the Center for Archaeological Research at NOBTS, served as field
archaeologist at the Ketef Hinnom site where the
scrolls were found. When Ortiz heard that Barkay
was coming to America
to lecture at Emory University,
he convinced his archaeology mentor to come to New
Orleans to speak as well. Asking Barkay
to deliver the center’s first lecture was an easy decision, Ortiz said.
“The importance of the Ketef Hinnom
inscriptions tends to be overlooked among students and pastors,” Ortiz said. “These
scrolls are significant for the dating of the Old Testament. They provide evidence
of the antiquity of the Bible.”
The two silver scrolls were discovered by Barkay’s
team in a rock-hewn burial cave southwest of the ancient city of Jerusalem.
The structure of the tomb was of interest to Barkay
because it dated to the First Temple
period, but it appeared that over centuries looters had taken all the
artifacts. The tomb had last been used for storing Turkish army rifles during
the Ottoman period.
However, Barkay and his team discovered that some
artifacts had been preserved in a bone repository in the tomb. When a family
member died, he or she was placed on a burial bench in the tomb along with
personal items such as vases and jewelry, Barkay
explained. After the dead body decayed, the bones were collected and placed
in a bone repository located in a separate area of the tomb. The practice is
referred to in the Old Testament as being “gathered unto his fathers.”
At some point a layer of the repository’s ceiling broke lose and
covered the collected bones and personal items. Barkay
said that the piece of ceiling appeared to be nothing more than the
repository floor. An Israeli schoolboy helping clean the repository during
excavations accidentally broke through the layer, revealing many bones and
As the team sifted through the items in repository, they discovered the two
scrolls. After the initial discovery in 1979, scholars had the daunting task
of unrolling and deciphering the text. They had no idea how important the
find would be.
“It took us three years to unroll it [the larger scroll],” Barkay said. “When unrolled, it was covered with very
delicately scratched characters. The first word we could decipher was the YHWH
sometimes anglicized as Jehovah. This is the name of the Lord in the Hebrew
Until this time no inscriptions with the name of God had been found in Jerusalem.
The larger of the two scrolls was only about three inches long when it was
unrolled. The smaller one was just over two inches long. Barkay
said the thin fragile silver of each scroll was etched with 19 lines of tiny,
Hebrew script. It was years before researchers realized that the inscription
was an almost exact representation of the priestly blessing found in Numbers.
Careful study revealed that the Hebrew characters used were distinctive of
the 7th century B.C.
In English the verses read: “The LORD bless you and
keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The
LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.”
The find is significant because it helps establish the historicity and
the age of Old Testament scripture. In the late 1800s German higher critics
began questioning the date the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old
Testament) was composed in written form. Many of these critics argued that
this section of scripture was written some time after the Babylonian exile.
According to Barkay, the discovery of this early
biblical inscription is an important part of the argument for an early dating
of the Old Testament. He acknowledges that the find does not prove that the
Pentateuch was written by the 7th century. However, it is strong evidence for
“I can at least say that these verses existed in the 7th century ... the time
of the prophet Jeremiah and the time of King Josiah,” Barkay
Barkay published a book about the find in
1986, but recent advances in computer technology have helped researchers
discover additional verses on the silver scrolls. The new research technique
revealed that the scroll contains other verses from the Pentateuch. Barkay has written a manuscript about these other finds
and plans to publish it in the near future.
While the silver scrolls were discovered more than 20 years ago, little
information about the discovery has been available to the general public.