Respected archaeologist recounts discovery of oldest Bible text

More than 200 people packed the Williamsburg Banquet Room at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on a chilly Monday evening to hear a lecture by world renown biblical archaeologist Gabriel “Gaby” Barkay Feb. 5. Barkay’s  presentation on his discovery of the oldest written Bible verses did not disappoint the audience comprised of numerous off-campus guests, students, faculty and administrators.

            Barkay’s lecture was sponsored by Southwestern Seminary’s Charles C. Tandy Archaeological Museum. He was introduced by Steven Ortiz, associate professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds and director of the Tandy Museum.

Barkay took the audience on a journey beginning in Jerusalem in the 1970s. He showed slides of St. Andrews Church of Scotland, built on a rocky knoll on the Valley of Hinnom (Ketef Hinnom) within view of Old Jerusalem. It was on the grounds of that church, which was erected in 1927, where Barkay oversaw an archaeological dig in the mid- to late-1970s. He described the reasons why he chose that location.

            “I was looking for less-looked subjects: places of extra-rural, para-urban land uses,” Barkay said. At the time, Barkay was developing his doctoral dissertation. “I asked myself, ‘If I were a patriarch, where would I put a defensible place? Where would I put a cemetary, or a stone quarry?’”

            Barkay decided the answers lay outside the city walls of Old Jerusalem, out of range of weapons, but close enough for easy access. This all led to the hill on which sat the St. Andrews Church building. Pointing to an aerial view of the location, he described some feaures of the terrain.

            “There was an ancient road cut out of the rocky escarpment upon which the apse of the church clings,” Barkay said. “This ancient road led to Bethlehem, and was in use until the the 1800s [A.D.]. This hill is very important because it is just outside the range of city weapons. If I was besieging the city, I would encamp on this hill.”

            With the dig underway, Barkay’s team at first began uncovering artifacts from the 19th century A.D. British trinkets, Turkish railroad spikes, coins, military insignia and remains of rifles. Many museum-quality pieces.

They also uncovered the threshold of an early Christian church some 1,500 years old. Under the place identified as the ancient church’s narthex, or lobby, the team discovered an intact crypt. Barkay described finding various remnants of the church, including its footings. He said the church was likely destroyed in the 7th century A.D. by a Persian king.

As Barkay’s team continued deeper into the dig, their discoveries went backwards in time, era by era: From the late Roman period, tiny fragments of human bones were found incinerated inside cooking pots. The team had unearthed a crematorium of the 10th Regiment of the Roman Army. Roman era hobnails from Roman boots, earrings, coins, rings and glass perfume containers, were found intact.

From the Herodian period, Barkay joked about finding clay cooking vessels with tiny holes in them and thinking someone on his team had carelessly punctured the rare treasures. But subsequent research revealed that the cooking pots had been deliberately punctured by 1st century Jews in order to “cancel” the cooking pots after they had been used for sacred purposes in the Temple.

Further on, discoveries came forth from the First Temple Period, the time of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah. Fertility figurines told the sad story of how residents of Jerusalem had worshipped false gods, giving substance to the warnings of Isaiah and his contemporaries recorded in the Bible.

Soon burial caves came to view. Barkay’s excavation was revealing artifacts from the fifth century B.C. These repositories revealed clues about how ancient Hebrews buried their dead.

In his lecture, Barkay described how in 1979 a group of 12-year-olds from an archaeology club in Tel Aviv had come to the dig. Barkay thought the children were “pesky.” One in particular, a boy named Nathan, was always “tugging on my shirt and asking silly questions,” Barkay said.

Barkay assigned Nathan to a far-off, unimportant task: clearing out an ancient repository cave to prepare it for being photographed. Nathan took to the task with a hammer, and “expressed his frustration by hammering the floor of the repository.” Barkay recalled being quite perturbed when young Nathan, who had not been on task for much time at all, tugged on this shirt to tell the archaeologist that the hammer had broken throught he floor of the cave and there was something below.

Upon inspection, Barkay realized that what he had thought was the floor of the chamber was, in fact, the ceiling of another ancient chamber underneath. Nathan had opened up a chamber where Barkay would make his most renown discovery.

Below was a repository containing a large quantity of intact vessels dating from the fifth,  sixth and seventh centuries B.C., Barkay said. Many had survived Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Glazed pottery, gold jewelry, silver, semi-precious stones and beads all gave evidence of a thriving population. Silver coins minted in Greece showed that the Hebrews were part of a network of international trade.

Skilled hands took over from Nathan and began carefully sorting through the artifacts from the newly-discovered repository. That was when the “very important” discovery came to light. During the lecture, Barkay projected a photograph of a tiny, dirty cylinder he described as “the size of a cigarette butt.” It was an amulet designed to be worn on an arm or forehead in literal obedience to Deuteronomy 6:8, an ancient precursor to what are today known as phylacteries.

“Inside [the amulet] we found a tiny, silver scroll, which took us three years to unroll,” Barkay said. “The scroll yielded 19 lines of minuscule writing … in ancient Hebrew script.”

The writing included three repetitions of ancient Hebrew letters which are transliterated YHWH. “This is the private, unpronouncable name of God, which is often pronounced in the West as ‘Jehovah,’” Barkay said.

After extensive, careful analysis by experts in ancient Semetic languages, the tiny scrolls were shown to contain the earliest written example of the Aaronian benediction recorded in Numbers 6:24-26: “The LORD bless you, and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.”

“This text predates the earliest Dead Sea Scrolls by four centuries,” Barkay said in reference to the importance of the silver scrolls. “They are the oldest biblical verses identified in the world.”

Stratigraphy enabled Barkay to date the silver scrolls to the seventh century B.C., to the time of King Josiah. He said the scrolls refute scholars who claim the books of the Pentateuch were written later. After the hour-long lecture, Barkay answered questions and chatted with various people who had attended.

“This was our first archaeology lecture and we were expecting a small crowd , so we were pleasantly surprised to be scrambling to add chairs to the overflowing lecture hall,” said Dr. Ortiz after the event. “I was pleased to see several in attendance from the Fort Worth community. It is my goal to develop a lecture series that brings in top archaeologists for our students and also serves the community of Fort Worth and the greater Metroplex area.”

Barkay was accompanied by his wife, Esther Barkay. Mrs. Barkay was born and raised in Israel. A respected scholar in her own right, she travels throughout Israel leading seminars and lecturing on Judaism.

Born in Hungary, Barkay moved to Jerusalem early in life, where he later earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He then earned his doctoral degree in archaeology at Tel Aviv University. Barkay is currently professor of archaeology at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. Throughout his career, he has been involved with excavations at Lachish, Jerusalem, Megiddo, Tel Zayit, and Susa in modern-day Iran. He has directed excavations at Ramat Rachel, Ketef Hinnom and other sites. Barkay has published many articles in the “Israel Exploration Journal,” “Biblical Archaeology Review” and other scholarly periodicals. He is a recipient of the prestigious Jerusalem Prize in Archaeology.

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