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Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology – #4 Ketef Hinnom Silver Amulet Scroll

This post is a continuation of our Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology series. To see the complete series please click here.

An Ordinary Dig

Our #4 archaeological find takes us to the ever important city of Jerusalem. A discovery made in 1979 is still hard to comprehend. The discovery came completely unexpected. Archaeologist Gabriel Barkay, with a meager budget, and only 12 and 13 year old helpers from a local club set out on a completely ordinary dig. What was Barkay looking for? In his own words he states:

In the 1970’s I was interested in extra-mural activity, that is, activity outside the walls of the city. There would be quarrying of stones outside the city, growing fresh vegetables, military gatherings, burials, roads and military watch towers. These would have occupied a place not too far from the city, but not too close.


I put myself in the shoes of the ancients and thought to myself, where would those functions have taken place? I decided that the hill [Ketef Hinnom] where St Andrews was located was the best probability. I took a survey and collected pottery and was convinced that there were finds to be made there.

I love that Gabriel Barkay set out to try to find ancient remains of roads, vegetables, etc… He goes to the backyard of St. Andrews in Jerusalem and starts digging with his army of 12 and 13 year olds.

They started excavating right next to the church and discovered the remnant of an ancient Christian church and some burial graves. The graves were in bad condition, all had collapsed roofs. The graves, additionally, had all been looted with the exception of one little bead. Well, beads are nice. Maybe that’s all the group will discover.

Wait! A little nook was found underneath one of the burial benches. The nook would have been a place for people to leave little trinkets significant to their loved one. After a quick search nothing was found, just dirt. Dang, this nook had also been looted. Barkay needed to have the accumulated dirt in the nook cleaned out in order to take a good photograph for the official excavation reports. Out of all the 12 and 13 year olds who should be chosen for the task? A boy named Nathan.

Why was Nathan chosen to clean out the little nook? Barkay explains in his own words:


Among the thirteen-year-old diggers, there was one annoying kid named Nathan, who was always tugging at my shirt. I thought this was an ideal place to put him – he would be out of my sight. I told Nathan the repository had to be as clean as his mother’s kitchen, even if he had to lick it. It had to be clean for the photography.

To Barkay’s surprise Nathan cleans the nook out meticulously. Nathan then gets bored. He has a hammer in his hand (usually a bad combination). Nathan starts banging the hammer on the stone bottom of the nook. The truth becomes stranger than fiction, the stone bottom of the nook breaks. It wasn’t just a little harmless nook. Nathan had found the entryway to a room holding precious ancient secrets. Leave it to a 13 year old trouble maker to make one of the greatest archeological discoveries.

An Extraordinary Find

A secret room filled with ancient objects had just been discovered. Dr. Barkay explains the excitement:

In one chamber more than a thousand objects were found. They included 125 objects of silver, 40 iron arrowheads, gold, ivory, glass, bone and 150 semi-precious stones. There was 60 centimeters [two feet] of accumulation filled with objects and skeletal remains. There was a lot of dust and a lack of oxygen.

It was very hot. We had to change teams every few hours. There was a lady who was in charge of coffee and sandwiches. Everyone was sworn to secrecy – they weren’t allowed to tell parents, spouses, or friends. If word got around Jerusalem that there was such a treasure, the California gold rush would be nothing compared to what would happen here.

The contents of the tomb were able to be dated to the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries BC, the time of Jeremiah the prophet.

Judy Hadley, a girl from Toledo, Ohio, walked up to Dr. Barkay with something very small in her hand. It was purplish in color and looked a lot like a cigarette butt. It was just about an inch long. Dr. Barkay, who has spent a lifetime discovering amazing artifacts, says this little item is, “the most important find of my life.”

The little item was thought to be an amulet scroll. It was believed to be a rolled up piece of pure silver, possibly containing writing on the inside.

The discovery prompted a huge question, “Can you unroll a nearly 2,500 year old silver scroll without totally destroying it? Should it even be attempted?” There was a real possibility the scroll would never be opened. Adding even more drama a second little rolled up scroll was eventually found when the excavators sifted all the dirt removed from the burial chamber.

Can They Be Opened?

The scrolls were first sent to the University of Leeds in Britain, where some of the most experienced restorers of ancient artifacts and metal experts were available for such delicate work. The British experts felt, however, that the danger of destroying the scrolls was too great. They refused to work on the scrolls.

The scrolls were then sent to Germany. The German team similarly refused, sending the scrolls back to Israel. Technicians at the Israel Museum decided to attempt the procedure themselves. For three years the contents of the scrolls remained a secret. After many difficulties the Israeli technicians developed a special process allowing the scrolls to be unrolled without being destroyed. To everyone’s astonishment both of the scrolls contained ancient writing!

What did they say? Well, to everyone’s further astonishment both of the scrolls contained portions of the exact same writing. Both of the scrolls contained verses from the Bible!

The larger scroll contained more verses than the smaller scroll but both of them contained Numbers 6:24-26. The verse is one of the central passages of Scripture known as the “Priestly” or “Aaronic” benediction saying, “May Yahweh bless you and keep you; May Yahweh cause his face to Shine upon you and grant you Peace.”

Significance

These two little scrolls pack a powerful punch. They are significant on several different levels. First, they are the oldest copy we have of Scripture. The Dead Sea Scrolls rocked the archaeological world in 1946 by finding Scripture written around 200BC. The amulet scroll is older than the Dead Sea Scrolls by more than 400 years.

Second, many scholars have surmised the Old Testament to be a late creation. It speaks of things happening a long time ago but was written post-exilic (after the exile of 580BC) in order to create a nationalistic history for those returning from Babylon. The amulet scroll powerfully shows the Old Testament being used before, not after, the exile. The amulet scroll disproves decades of liberal biblical studies in one small discovery.

Third, the scroll is the oldest mention of the name Yahweh outside of the Bible. Yahweh is being worshiped by the owner of this amulet while the temple of Solomon stood nearby. The Bible confidently explains all these things in a particular time and place. It’s refreshing to find an item which helps to support time, places and events which so many scholars had long thought to be fictitious.

What do you think of this discovery? Please join the conversation by posting a comment below.

32 Responses to “Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology – #4 Ketef Hinnom Silver Amulet Scroll”

  1. I would if this amulet was placed in that as a way of honouring the dead person(s) who were buried in it.

  2. Stella Budrikis August 12, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Thanks for a fascinating series. I’ve never heard of these amulets before.

    I wonder, though, is something missing here. Can we legitimately conclude that because the scrolls contain words that are found in the Old Testament, they came ‘from’ the OT scriptures? Isn’t it possible that both the creators of the scrolls and the writers of the Old Testament used words that were already in use at the time, either orally or in written form? Or was there some reference to the Hebrew scriptures in the writing on the scrolls (the ancient equivalent of chapter and verse numbers)?

  3. C Michael Patton August 12, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    Awesome. I had never heard of this! Would have helped many times. Now I know.

  4. Teluog,

    Thanks for posting. I’m not sure if I understand your statement. Would you mind rewording it? Something I should have mentioned in my post…It’s likely the amulet was worn by the deceased person. We know from even modern Hebrew history that it’s common for people to wear little scrolls of Scripture on their forehead, their arms, etc… People even would put Scripture on the door frames of their houses. These practices were all very literal interpretations of the Bible. It’s likely this man wore these amulets his entire adult life and then was buried with them.

    -Tim

  5. Stella,

    This is definitely a perspective some people have of the scrolls. The idea would be that Numbers 6:24-26 was an oral tradition at the time when the scroll was etched and then later it was written after the exile. I see this mainly as an argument from silence. Until we find a completely written down book of the Hebrew Scriptures dating before the exile this argument can still be made. I prefer to look at the scroll and see that two scrolls have Scripture written down and they both agree with the wording of Numbers 6. The Bible paints a picture that we have an entire Torah written down and used at this time. I can see the scrolls supporting what the Bible is already claiming…there is nothing about the scrolls that go against a strong view of Scripture being written when it says. If I go against the Bible’s testimony of itself I have to say the amulet scroll is holding Numbers 6 up very high (a high view of the message of Numbers 6) yet it exists in a world where the Bible is being deceptive in saying it’s written several hundred years before it was.

    I hope my reasoning makes sense…I tried to keep it brief. I can definitely develop it further if needed. If I keep a view of the Bible being written later… then I view the scroll as an anomaly and Scripture as deceptive…my strongest proof are statements from the 20th century. If I view the amulet scroll as a written devotional element for one person who reads and loves Scripture, I believe Scriptures testimony of itself and realize this scroll fits nicely in supporting Scriptures testimony of itself. The owner of the pure silver scrolls and the family clearly loved Yahweh and Scripture to bury the man with this valuable possession and to work hard constructing the secret room so the treasures wouldn’t be looted.

    thanks so much for you comment…I look forward to hearing from you,
    Tim

  6. Stella –

    I would also say that we can take the evidence at face value or read all kinds of speculation into it. The bible itself, though, has continually validated and proved it worth as a historical document…why doubt when it claims to have been around since at least the 13th century BC (at least the Pentateuch, though it may have gone through some editing) unless you have hard evidence against it?

    I know this doesn’t “prove” the older dates for the OT but it is defintiely more evidence for them.

  7. Thank you for calling people’s attention to this very important discovery. It is now back on display at the Israel Museum.

  8. Thank you calling people’s attention to this important archaeological discovery. The Israel Museum has reopened it’s archaeological wing and there is a permanent display of the Ketef Hinnom material, including a “reconstruction” of the burial cave.

    Some of the excitement of the excavation and discovery was caught in this blog. I was the area supervisor in charge of cleaning out the repository and have shared my stories about that incredible week.

    See: http://www.lifeandland.org/2009/02/remember-archaeology-is-not-a-treasure-hunt/

    May the LORD bless you …

  9. Stella Budrikis August 13, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Tim,

    Thanks for your gracious response. I’m deliberately playing the part of the skeptic here. I think it’s important to see that if someone has a high view of scripture, a discovery like this will only confirm what they already believe for other reasons. To a skeptic, or even an interested observer, there could be more than one explanation for the correlation between OT scripture as we know it and the words on the scroll.

    As Casey says, it doesn’t prove anything but it is good evidence that the owner of the scroll placed a high value on these words, suggesting that they may have been part of some sacred text.

    When you say that the Bible itself says that the Torah was already written down at this time in the form that we know it, are you referring to Josiah’s reading of the “Book of the Law” in 2 Kings? If so, do we know what was meant by that phrase, or are we just assuming it meant what we know as the Torah?

    Please be assured that I’m not suggesting that scripture lies or is deceitful. It’s our understanding of what it says that I’m questioning.

  10. Stella Budrikis August 13, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    Casey-

    Sorry, I think I’ve misrepresented your comment. I tried to edit that paragraph after re-reading it but it has stuck. I agree that the Bible has continually validated and proved its worth as a historical document, as Tim’s series has demonstrated. I’m just not sure that these scrolls are as good evidence for that as some of the previous discoveries.

  11. As soon as I surfed to the stunning The Top 12 Reasons To Burn A Quran On 9/11 Hub on Hubpages I convinced myself that Parchment and Pen’s readers really must have their say on this link! http://hubpages.com/hub/The-12-Top-Reasons-To-Burn-A-Quran-On-911

  12. Looking up the boy’s name, “Nathan”, it struck me that the message of the prophet’s name is still speaking to us through the handwork of God. GOD HAS GIVEN

    The boy’s name Nathan \n(a)-than\ is pronounced NAY-than. It is of Hebrew origin, and the meaning of Nathan is “God has given”. Biblical: Nathan was God’s prophet during the reigns of David and Solomon.

  13. “The amulet scroll powerfully shows the Old Testament being used before, not after, the exile.”

    No it doesn’t.

  14. To coin a phrase, “An assertion is not an argument.”

  15. http://www.youtube.com/user/ancientcartography this is the link to see the truth..what the real ancient city of David looks like…and dr barkay confirmed one artifact there..review…the piri reis map is on things that came from Jerusalem…details..scientific evidence… must review..we have picked up signet seals…templecone..alot of artifacts laying around….a hill side will not be covered no digging…serious troy

  16. Tim,

    You said that this “is the oldest mention of the name Yahweh outside of the Bible.” But by placing these scrolls 400 years prior to the DSS, they were produced in ~600 BC. As I understand it, the Mesha Stele is dated to ~850 BC, and line 18 of the text contains a reference to YHWH: “-sels of YHWH, and I dragged them before Kemosh. And the king of Israel had built”. So wouldn’t the Mesha Stele contain the oldest mention of YHWH outside the Bible, or am I missing something?

  17. Tim,

    Still hoping for a response. And please post another installment soon. It’s been a month. We’re all hungry for more!

  18. To claim that this shows evidence for early authorship of the Bible is false.

    This simply shows a religious blessing used by the Hebrews. If anything, it could be used to further support the theory that the Torah was later pieced together to explain the origin of cultural elements (Ie blessings like this).

    It is sad for Christians if this is supposed to be a top ten discovery.

  19. “The amulet scroll powerfully shows the Old Testament being used before, not after, the exile.”

    Don, the Old Testament is (genesis, exodus, leviticus, …. , Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)

    And the silver amulet contains a portion of Numbers chapter 6. The silver amulet shows nothing about the dozens of other books in the OT.

    This is why that claim from the OP is false.

  20. Tim,

    I’m still hoping for that response, but my hope is fading quickly…. Thanks!

  21. “So wouldn’t the Mesha Stele contain the oldest mention of YHWH outside the Bible, or am I missing something?”

    Would not the columns set up by Solomon on each shore of the red Sea be older? One of them still has the name of YHWH visible.

  22. Has the scroll been published? Where can I see the Hebrew text?

  23. how did they know the scrolls of codex allepo were from 900 ad, and how did they know the scrolls of isaiah were freom 200 bc? you cant test those with carbon dating. unless they did some how.

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