On Monday morning, Prof. Nadav Neeman, a historian at Tel Aviv University, was excited when he read the first item published about the existence of an inscription ascribed to Jehoash king of Judea, who ruled in Jerusalem at the end of the 9th century BCE ("Sensation or forgery? The mystery of King Jehoash's black stone inscription," Ha'aretz, January 13). Neeman, whose book "He'avar Hamekhonen et Ha'hoveh" [The Past that Shapes the Present} was published only recently, remembered an article he published in 1998 in a Dutch periodical, to which the inscription ascribed to King Jehoash is suspiciously similar.

For years, Neeman, 63, has been studying the sources that served the writers of the biblical book of Kings. That is his field of expertise. His research is based on the assumption, which is shared by many Bible scholars, that the book of Kings was written many years after the events described in it, and that the author of the book was forced to rely on sources predating the period in which he lived, in order to be able to reconstruct events that took place before his time.

The Jehoash inscription is written in ancient Phoenician script on a black stone tablet that was apparently found on the Temple Mount, and which presumably describes the repair work done by King Jehoash in the Temple. It was examined for many months by two scientists from the Geological Survey of Israel [GSI] research institute, who verified its early age.

The discovery of the tablet has aroused a storm, and some scholars believe that it is a forgery. If it turns out that the stone is authentic, the discovery should help in examining the truth of the events described in the book of Kings.

Neeman's article in the Dutch periodical refers to two texts from the book of Kings with a unique vocabulary: the story of the repairs carried out by Jehoash king of Judea in the Temple (Kings, 12), and the story of the altar built by Ahaz king of Judea, which was similar to the altar in Damascus, in an attempt to placate Tiglath Pileser, king of Assyria, who conquered Damascus at the time (Kings II, 16). Neeman assumed that for those two events one can theorize that the writer who recorded them had access to earlier written sources.

The theory he proposed was that the writer had relied on two royal inscriptions: one written by King Jehoash and one written by King Ahaz. "The `Jehoash inscription,' whose authenticity was verified this week by the GSI, is too similar to the theory I explained in my study," says Neeman, and concludes from this "one of two things - either I hit the nail on the head, and my theory was confirmed fantastically, or the forger read my theory and decided to confirm it. In any case, if in the near future another inscription turns up, the `Ahaz inscription,' I will be convinced that it's a forgery. At present I'm only suspicious."

The appearance of the inscription, as though made to order, is not the only reason for Neeman's suspicion. He says "the inscription looks problematic. It's not similar to any other royal inscription I am familiar with from the ancient Near East, and it is one of a kind in every possible way. It contains several words that do not appear in the Bible, and mainly the conclusion of the supposedly royal inscription: `Yitzav hashem et amo bivrakha' [ May the Name command his people with a blessing]." The royal inscriptions familiar to us from the ancient Near East, says Neeman, "usually end with a curse on anyone who harms the inscription, or sometimes with a blessing for the person who wrote the inscription, whereas here - `Yitzav hashem et amo bivrakha'? There is nothing else like it. Even the emphasis in the inscription on the contribution of the people of Judea to Jehoash's repairs of the Temple is unique, because in royal inscriptions, a king always emphasizes his own activities and completely ignores all the others who participated in the construction."

The kings of Judea

Is it possible that the kings of Judea wrote in a style different from that practiced by their non-Jewish counterparts in the ancient Near East? Neeman says that the only way to prove or disprove the claim that in Judea there was a different writing tradition is to find another royal Judean inscription that would constitute a basis for comparison. Nevertheless, he doesn't believe that the controversy surrounding the authenticity of the Jehoash inscription, which presumably proves the existence of the First Temple, will remain unsolved.

"Salvation will not come from archaeologists or epigraphists," says Neeman. "The forgers were sufficiently sophisticated not to fall into the trap and to contend with the criticism of both the archaeologists and the epigraphists. There is no difficulty today in creating an inscription with writing appropriate to the period, such as the writing on what is called the King Jehoash inscription. This is especially true since archaeologists and epigraphists have no precedent for this kind of inscription - such an ancient Judaic royal inscription."

Neeman believes that those who will be the deciding factor in this debate, in spite of everything, will be the geologists, using the tools of natural sciences, and only after them will come the linguists and the archaeologists who are familiar with the inscriptions of the ancient Near East. He says "only if there is agreement among the geologists that forgery can be ruled out, and that it is impossible to create a patina such as that on this specific find, only then will we be obliged, perhaps, to accept their edict. I don't suspect the geologists who examined the stone in the GSI, but we have to hear additional opinions, and this inscription, whether it's a forgery or an original, has to be open to examination by any scholar, and cannot be hidden with a private collector."

Additional harsh reservations about the GSI decision regarding the authenticity of the inscription came this week from Prof. Ed Greenstein, an expert on the language of the Bible and ancient Semitic languages, also of Tel Aviv University. Greenstein points out that the way in which the expression "bedek bayit" was used in the inscription shows that the forger apparently did not understand what it meant in biblical Hebrew. "In the language of the Bible, `bedek' is the cracks in the building," explains Greenstein. "You reinforce the `bedek habayit' [the cracks in the building]. If you do `bedek bayit' you are making a crack in the building and ruining it. `Bedek habayit,' in the language of the Bible, is the problem that must be repaired. Someone who understands biblical Hebrew would not have used the later expression [in modern Hebrew, it means making repairs] that was derived from this expression."

Greenstein says that the sentence "vehaya hayom hazeh le'edut" [and may this day be testimony] makes strange use of the word "edut." "The word `edut' doesn't exist in ancient biblical Hebrew, i.e. during the First Temple period, except in the meaning of `brit' [covenant], as in the `aron ha'edut' [the Ark of the Covenant]," says Greenstein. The expression used during that period for the word `edut' in its present meaning is `ed' [which today means witness]. This issue, too, in my opinion, proves that it's a forgery." He brings additional proof: "There is no such thing in biblical Hebrew as `titzlah hamelakha' [may the work succeed]. In ancient speech, people succeed, and not the work they do. This expression that the forger used is apparently based on a later text from the Second Temple period, as for example from Chapter 1 in Psalms, where it says, `vekhol asher ya'aseh yatzliah' [and anything he does will succeed].

Moabite forgeries

Opposite those who reject the possibility that the inscription is authentic, to the point of saying that it is a forgery, stands the GSI, whose examinations determined that it was an authentic find. The method of examination and the central series of proofs have already been published ("The Geological Survey for Israel: The `King Jehoash inscription' is not a forgery," Ha'aretz, January 14), and at least for the time being nobody is rejecting it scientifically.

Geologists Dr. Shimon Ilani and Dr. Amnon Rosenfeld, who wrote the paper verifying the authenticity of the inscription, say that they would not have hesitated to reject the inscription and to determine that it was a forgery, had there been a period after the sentence `va'aas et bedek habayit' [and I did the repairs], which is ascribed to King Jehoash himself. "Such a usage is in fact not common in the language of the period," says Ilani, "but the sentence has a continuation: `va'aas et bedek habayit, ve'hakirot mesaviv, ve'et hayatziya ve'hasvakhim ve'halulim ve'hagraot ve'hadlatot' [references to repairs to different parts of the Temple]. Jehoash did everything, and it is possible that at the time, for reasons of brevity, or for linguistic reasons, they used this language. Prof. Andre Lamer of France, who examined the inscription, did not reject this possibility."

Ilani and Rosenfeld choose their words sparingly, and are very careful to respect those who apparently reject their discovery, but they remain insistent: "We are willing to confront any geologist or scientist and to answer any question that tries to undermine the way in which we studied the inscription, and the conclusions stemming from it," they say. "The bottom line is that the find is authentic."

The colleagues of Ilani and Rosenfeld at the GSI are less restrained, especially in light of the position of several archaeologists (Meir Ben Dov and Dr. Ayelet Mazar), who had reservations this week about the decision. "Archaeologists have no criteria to discuss authenticity when they limit themselves only to materials that they have taken out of the ground, or materials about which they know with certainty how, when and with whom they were taken out of the ground," says a geologist who is a colleague of Rosenfeld and Ilani. "An archaeologist has a problem when he methodically rejects anything that has not come from an organized dig. But the museums are full of exhibits that were bought from antique dealers and from the underworld. The ivory pomegranate that used to hang on the robes of the priests and was dated to the First Temple period - where was it dug up? Where were all of Moshe Dayan's Philistine sarcophagi found? Everything was stolen. Did all the exhibits in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (where they rejected the `Jehoash inscription') come from organized digs?"

At the GSI they mention that experts in the development of writing Dr. Ada Yardeni and Prof. Andre Lamer, historian Prof. Shmuel Safrai and archaeologist Dr. Gabi Barkai, have not ruled that the find is a forgery. Barkai and Safrai have even tended to assume that the find is authentic.

Prof. Avi Hurvitz, an expert on the historical development of the Hebrew language, supplied a balanced view of the controversial find. "The problem in the study of Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] is that these are literary texts that were copied from one generation to the next," explains Hurvitz. "The versions we have today are relatively late. We can't be certain that the Tanakh was written during the time of the events themselves or in proximity to them. The stele of Mesha King of Moab, which was discovered in Transjordan and is accepted by scholars as an authentic inscription, was written in the middle of the 9th century BCE (The Mesha Stele, which was discovered in 1868, was written to commemorate the victories of the king of Moab over the alliance of the kings of Israel, Judea and Edom). Nobody changed it, edited or copied it. It is authentic. The Tanakh, on the other hand, is a text that was copied and edited, and we can't be certain of the antiquity and the authenticity of everything written there."

Hurvitz says that "the Jehoash inscription seems at first glance to accord with what is told in the book of Kings on the one hand, and with the Mesha Stele on the other, both in terms of the form of the letters and in terms of style. A scholar who determines that it is original will say: "Here is an inscription that is perfectly in keeping with the Tanakh, and therefore this is testimony to the truth of events that are described in the Tanakh.' In addition, the text is very similar in the form of the letters and in style to the Mesha inscription. Doubters will say: `This bride is too beautiful,' and will suspect a forgery. `This man,' they will say to themselves, `may have seen the Mesha Stele, forged the inscription according to the style of the Mesha stone, and even made sure to suit its contents to what is written in the Tanakh.' I have to say in their favor that the similarity to the Mesha Stele is in fact suspicious."

Suspicion of everything related to the Mesha Stele is so great because immediately after its discovery, all kinds of archaeological forgeries reached the market, pretending to be Moabite antiquities. "The Institute of Archaeology at the university has a large collection of finds, which is called the Moabite forgery collection," says Hurvitz. "Therefore, when people see such a clear similarity to `Mesha,' suspicion is aroused." Hurvitz also believes that the final answer will be given by the geologists. "They are outside the debate of stylistic, linguistic, biblical and historical similarities, they are entirely objective in all these debates," he says. "You give them the inscription, they check the patina and tell you: `In the case before us, it's from 400 BCE.' This determination removes the inscription attributed to Jehoash from all the periods for which there is a suspicion of a modern forgery."

In spite of this, Hurvitz is hesitant about relying on the two geologists who researched the inscription. "They are first-rate, and I have heard good things about them," he says, but only after additional geologists, perhaps from other schools of research, if they exist, will prove to us with signs and wonders, by means of findings which are external to our debates, with a kind of external control factor, that this inscription is from the period of Jehoash, will we be able to give this find the benefit of the doubt, and to determine that it is in fact authentic. The significance will of course be enormous: An external verification of a biblical text that confirms the existence of the First Temple."