/ Timothy McCracken

oldest fragments

This entry for Gentle Reformation is somewhat different from what I have sent previously, but it reflects a subject to which my mind has turned repeatedly in recent months.

What you see above, and what I’ll describe below, has to do with the oldest physical copies of any text of Scripture, ones that predate the Dead Sea Scrolls by as much as four hundred years – two silver foil scrolls (just one of them pictured) rolled into tiny amulets, found at Ketef Hinnom just across the valley from the southwest corner of the old Jerusalem city wall.

If you had asked me at about age eleven what I wanted to be when I grew up, my ready answer would likely have been Archaeologist.  To this very day, my family teases me about my hope that the Cave of Machpelah has never really been found and that I will be the one to stumble across the undisturbed remains of Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah and Jacob (Gen. 49:28-33)!

I write of the Ketef Hinnom scrolls not just because of my treasure-hunting genetic makeup, but because I believe it is a kindness from the Lord that such things are discovered.  Though I don’t believe that archaeological confirmations of Scripture details are the most important way in which the Lord has chosen to make the authenticity of His Word known to us, still I believe them to be genuine among the instruments of His grace for our knowledge of it.  In my own life, it was actually the continuity of theme in Scripture’s account and the internal fulfillment of prophecy-on-theme that set my feet again on solid ground of hope, when I was plagued for a season with doubt (see these six Bible-overview lessons).

There is quite a story to the discovery of these silver scrolls!

In 1979, archaeologist Gabriel Barkay was excavating the ancient burial site you see in the photograph at the top of the page.  What you see used to be a hillside, into which the large tomb had been carved.  At some point in history, stone-cutters harvested rock from the hill, leaving the whole area open and exposing the flat rock surfaces upon which as many as nine bodies would have been laid, back when the tomb was in use.  The opening you see underneath on the right led into a chamber below that was a repository for storing the bones and artifacts special to the deceased, after the interred bodies decayed there.  It was a reuseable tomb!  The bones of very many would accumulate underneath over the years!

People in modern times, even archaeologists, thought that the sub-chamber had long ago been robbed of all valuables, since it appeared empty, but there was an important reality unknown to them.  The ceiling of the chamber had collapsed, covering and hiding all its treasures!  Toward the end of his excavation there, even Barkay himself did not think there was anything of significant worth to be found.  There had been seven burial caves in the project, dating from somewhere near the time of King Josiah (7thCentury B.C.), and, in Barkay’s words, “…the caves were found looted, so we didn’t anticipate too much.”  

Among the volunteers helping with the excavation were some students from an archaeology club, one of whom (13-year-old Nathan) Barkay describes as, “…a kid who was especially a nagging type.  He had the ugly habit of always pulling my shirt from behind, and when I would turn around, he would ask me a silly question.”  Barkay, seeing what he thought to be just another empty chamber, reflected on the moment like this: “I had an idea.  This was the place to put little Nathan.  I thought that for a while I’m not going to see him, and that was an advantage, so he was asked to clean the place and prepare it for photography."

Barkay went on, though, to described what happened.

"He was alone.  He was bored.  He had lots of equipment with him.  And not half an hour passed, that I was far away and and I feel my shirt being pulled from behind.  When I turned around, I see him with two pottery vessels in his hands.”

The boy, in his boredom, had begun striking the bottom of the chamber with a hammer, and he broke through what had appeared to be the floor discovering the only undisturbed grave-repository ever found in Jerusalem!  Inside that chamber were the remains of more than ninety people, with also more than one thousand artifacts (the photo above on the left is a simulation)!  Among them were two tiny amulets, the rolled silver foil scrolls.

It took an exacting and very painstaking process to unroll the amulets without completely destroying them, but you can see in the photograph the revealed inscription in old-Hebrew script characters, which, with the attending other artifacts, definitively dated it prior to the Babylonian captivity.  What were those words?  Among other verse references, each amulet had a version of the priestly blessing found in Numbers, chapter six.

The LORD bless you and keep you

The LORD shine His face upon you

And give you peace.

In these scrolls, then, we have texts from the Hebrew Scriptures as much as 2,600 years old.  Thank the Lord for such kindnesses.

You can hear Barkay’s own description of the discovery at this LINK.