Photo Credit: Shai Halevi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The papyrus, preserved in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls laboratories.

The authenticity of a rare and important find that was exposed in an enforcement operation of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery recently, and touted as the earliest extra-biblical source to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew writing, has come under attack by two respected archaeologists.

Christopher Rollston, a renowned classics scholar teaching at George Washington University, wrote in his blog last week that “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. 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. Rather, he or she would purchase some ancient papyrus online and then write a text on it.”

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Such forgeries are frequent, writes Rollston, and so “for anyone to conclude that this (or any) inscription must be ancient because the papyrus is ancient is quite naïve.”

Professor Aren M. Maeir, an archaeologist from Bar Ilan University, wrote on his blog on Friday that he is “not sure that it is real or a fake, but various issues are problematic. I would very much like it to be authentic – but first – doubts must be dispelled.” Prof. Maeir added that a better authentication is paramount “in light of the strong indications that many of the recently acquired fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls may be fakes – indicating that there are some very good forgers working out there – some of whom seem to have an in-depth knowledge in epigraphy, paleography and related issues.”

Speaking at the ninth annual conference on archaeological discoveries in Jerusalem and its environs that was held at the Hebrew University last week, Prof. Maeir attacked the IAA for its premature announcement before thoroughly examining not only the papyrus, but the ink as well. “I believe you, but not everyone will believe,” he said. “How do we know that it’s not fake [and intended to be sold on] the antiquities market?”

Prof. Rollston points out that “the Jerusalem Papyrus is from the antiquities market and it has been floating around on the market for a few years now. It was not found on an actual archaeological excavation. I saw some good images of it a few years ago in Jerusalem.” He cautions that “there are many modern inscriptional forgeries on the market, as I have argued in various publications, for some fifteen years now. … The money that modern forgers and dealers can make on modern forgeries is astronomical, consistently in the five and six figure range. The motivation is strong. In this case, this papyrus was seized, but that does not mean that it could not have been produced in the modern period with the intent of marketing it.”

Prof. Maeir makes a similar point: “The lack of sufficient details on how the papyrus was obtained, due to the need of the IAA Anti-theft Unit to protect its sources, is understood from an operational point of view (and I fully believe them about this), but it creates an aura of secrecy and lack of credibility around this. And if in fact the papyrus was known for several years to other scholars as well, this makes the background of its discovery even more obscure.”

But while Prof. Maeir is urging a more substantial effort to prove the age of the ink on the papyrus, Prof. Rollston insists even that would not necessarily prove anything, since “the capacity is present for faked inks to be produced in the modern period that yield an ancient C-14 date. Moreover, of course, a clever forger might simply purchase some ancient inscription on the antiquities market (e.g., one with mundane content and so not a high-value inscription) and then carefully scrape the ink from that inscription and then mix that (dry) ink with water and then use that ink in a modern-forgery with sensational content.”

Prof. Shmuel Achituv of Hebrew University argued against the fraud accusation by both scholars, telling Ha’aretz he believes the fact that the papyrus was folded over when it was seized goes a long way to suggest it is not a forgery. “Would a forger purchase an ancient, dry and brittle papyrus, write on it text in a font that fits the seventh century BCE, and then fold it up and tie it with a rope, risking his entire effort would be damaged?” Prof. Achituv asked.

Achitov also suggested that two Hebrew words on the papyrus, “Yerushalma” and “Na’arata” (“her maidservant”) are rare and would not have been used by a forger, “even if he is well versed in Scripture. If I were a forger, I’d pick a more impressive text,” he said.

Both critics of the papyrus each have a possible personal agenda in this debate, which does not necessarily mean that they’re wrong. Prof. Maeir objects to what he terms the “geopolitical considerations” which, as he told students at Brigham Young University in Utah, “played a large role in early excavations shortly after the state of Israel was formed in 1948. Many archaeologists were looking specifically to help establish the ancient legitimacy of Jewish claims to the land of Palestine, which had been occupied by the Turks for centuries before World War I.”

Prof. Rollston was fired from the Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Tennessee after clashing with the seminary leadership over his controversial column in the Huffington Post condemning female discrimination in the Bible. The seminary argued that he would offend students and turn off donors. Rollston wrote, back in 2012, that “gender equality may not have been the norm two or three millennia ago, but it is essential. So, the next time someone refers to ‘biblical values,’ it’s worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that’s not something anyone should value.”

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