Papyrus With Earliest Ex-bible Hebrew Mention of Jerusalem Is Revealed

Rare 2,800-year-old papyrus written in ancient Hebrew, retrieved from thieves, describes a shipment of wine from biblical town of Na’arat to Jerusalem in time of the Kingdom of Judah.

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

The Israel Antiquities Authority on Wednesday revealed the earliest known extra-biblical reference to Jerusalem in Hebrew writing – “Yerushalma” – on a papyrus document confiscated four years ago by Israeli authorities from thieves.

The 2,800-year-old papyrus, dating to the First Temple era, the time of the Kingdom of Judah, was found following an international enforcement operation by the IAA against antiquities robbers operating in the Judean Desert.

Where the robbers found the papyrus cannot be sure, but they seem to have been found in a cave by Hever Stream in the desert.

The papyrus is rare not only for the ancient Hebrew writing and name of Jerusalem, but for existing at all. The arid desert certainly has conditions appropriate to preserve organic material over centuries, but ancient documentation that survived thousands of years remains rare. Only two other papyruses from the First Temple era have been found, one in Jordan. The other had been erased.

The papyrus was revealed at the IAA’s Innovations in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region conference on Wednesday.

Archaeologists are usually wary of publicizing finds not made through formal excavation, due to the uncertainty of their origin. In this case, the researchers are confident that the find is authentic.

Piece of papyrus dating to the First Temple era, the time of the Kingdom of Judah, as presented by the IAA. The papyrus contains the earliest ex-biblical mention of Jerusalem.
Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

Carbon-14 analysis shows that the papyrus is between 2,500 and 2,800 years old. The Hebrew lettering is typical of the second half of the seventh century B.C.E. Though the writing itself could have been forged, the archaeologists believe it too is authentic.

Two lines of ancient Hebrew script were preserved on the document that is made of papyrus, the IAA says. Paleographic examination of the letters also argue for a seventh-century B.C.E. dating.

Most of the letters are clearly legible, say Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy director of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery and Amir Ganor of the IAA, who believe the text says: [me-a]mat. ha-melekh. me-Naartah. nevelim. yi’in. Yerushalima. (“From the king’s maidservant, from Naarat, jars of wine, to Jerusalem.”)

In other words, says the IAA, the papyrus is an original shipping document from the time of the First Temple, describing the shipment of jars of wine from to storehouses in Na’arat to Jerusalem, the capital city of the Kingdom of Judah.

Naarat would likely be the Naarat mentioned in the description of the border between Ephraim and Benjamin in Joshua 16:7: “And it went down from Janohah to Ataroth, and to Naarat, and came to Jericho, and went out at Jordan.”

“The document represents extremely rare evidence of the existence of an organized administration in the Kingdom of Judah,” stated Klein. “It underscores the centrality of Jerusalem as the economic capital of the kingdom in the second half of the seventh century B.C.E. According to the Bible, the kings Menashe, Amon or Josiah ruled in Jerusalem at this time; however, it is not possible to know for certain which of the kings of Jerusalem was the recipient of the shipment of wine.”

The Cave of Skulls in the Judean Desert .Israel Hasson, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority: "Every day robbers go into the desert in order to search out and plunder ancient documents such as the papyrus that was exposed."
Guy Fitoussi, courtesy of the IAA

Ahituv notes that the papyrus isn’t just the earliest extra-biblical source to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew writing – “to date no other documents written on papyrus dating to the First Temple period have been discovered in Israel, except one from Wadi Murabbaat. Also outstanding in the document is the unusual status of a woman in the administration of the Kingdom of Judah in the seventh century B.C.E.”

When they first seized the papyrus, during the thieves’ attempt to sell it on the black market, Ganor sat down to read it and recognized the word “Jerusalem” in Hebrew and, he says, “I told myself it was too good to be true.”

Ahituv adds that the document reinforces the theory that the city’s original name was “Yerushalem,” not “Yerushalayim.”

Police catch the antiquities robbers in  action in the Judean Desert. Picture also shows the thieves' equipment.
IAA Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery