Papyrus With Earliest Hebrew Mention of Jerusalem Likely Fake, Experts Say

Archaeologists are usually wary of any finds not discovered in a supervised dig, though Antiquities Authority insists ancient scroll is authentic.

Netanyahu displays the papyrus: 'A postcard from the past to UNESCO.'
Ilan Assayag

Scholars are questioning the authenticity of what the Israel Antiquities Authority says is a 2,800-year-old papyrus document bearing the word “Jerusalem” in Hebrew, unveiled by the authority on Wednesday.

The papyrus was found four years ago while pursuing antiquities thieves in the Judean Desert and dates to the seventh century B.C.E., according to the antiquities authority. That would make it the earliest known mention of Jerusalem in Hebrew outside the Bible. The fragment appears to be a document concerning a wine shipment from Na’arat, in the Jordan Valley, to the king in Jerusalem.

Speaking at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the finding, calling it "a postcard from the past to UNESCO," referring to the organization's recent resolution ignoring Judaism's connection to the Temple Mount.

It’s not certain where the thieves found the document, though it appears to have come from a cave along the Hever Stream in the Judean Desert. Archaeologists are usually wary of any finds not discovered in a supervised dig.

But in this case, the scholars who studied it – Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of the Hebrew University and Dr. Eitan Klein and Amir Ganor of the antiquities authority – are convinced that it is authentic. Carbon-14 dating showed that the papyrus was made 2,500 to 2,800 years ago, and an epigraphic examination concluded the letters are typical of the Hebrew writing of the seventh century B.C.E.

The full papyrus with the earliest ex-biblical mention of Jerusalem. Its provenance is not clear but the experts believe it is a genuine, and extremely rare, document dating to the Kingdom of Judah - the First Temple era.
Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

But at Thursday’s session of an antiquities authority conference on Innovations in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region, archaeologist Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University cast doubt on the document’s authenticity. He also assailed the authority for deciding to publicize it even though “it was clear in advance that it would be controversial.”

Maeir said there were too many unanswered questions about the papyrus. “How do we know it isn’t a forgery intended for the antiquities market?” he demanded, adding that forgers could have deliberately “sacrificed” this document in order to prepare the way for selling other papyri that they would “discover” later.

The fact that carbon-14 dating proved the papyrus’ age is insufficient, he added. “After all, there are well-known cases in which writing was forged on an ancient ‘platform,’” he said. “It’s very possible that only the papyrus itself is ancient.

“In my humble opinion, the need for additional tests is glaring, especially if a government agency is publishing this and giving it a seal of approval. Why wait for the arguments and only then do the additional tests? They should have done them first.”

Prof. Christopher Rollston of George Washington University also voiced skepticism, writing on his blog that he believed the document was a forgery.

“The fact that the papyrus itself has been carbon dated to the 7th century BCE certainly does not mean that the writing on the papyrus is ancient,” he wrote. “In fact, it really means nothing. After all, ancient papyrus is readily available for purchase online (check the web and see!), thus, no modern forger worth his or her salt would forge an inscription on modern papyrus.”

Ahituv, however, rejected the critics’ arguments. First, he said, the papyrus was folded up when it was found, which makes forgery seem unlikely. “Would a forger buy an ancient, dry, fragile papyrus, write text on it that’s typical of the seventh century, and then fold it up and tie it with a cord and thereby endanger all his work?” he demanded.

The text itself also suggests it’s not a forgery, he continued. He and his colleagues read the text as “[me-a]mat. ha-melekh. me-Na’artah. nevelim. yi’in. Yerushalima,” meaning “From the king’s maidservant, from Na’arat, jars of wine, to Jerusalem.”

But both “Na’artah” and “Yerushalima” are very rare words, and thus unlikely to occur to a forger, “even if he’s an expert in Bible,” Ahituv said. “If I were a forger, I’d choose a more impressive text,” he added.

Ganor also rejected the criticisms. “We tried in every possible way to check the papyrus,” he said. “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.”