Don’t politicize archaeology, and don’t historicize politics: On the new ‘Jerusalem’ papyrus

Archeology and politics are a bad mix, and this recent find doesn't even disprove the (lunatic) UNESCO vote

News sites and social media were buzzing with the announcement this week by the Israel Antiquities Authority of a 2,700-year-old papyrus, with at least three lines of writing on it. The scrap was seized by authorities from robbers who had apparently taken it illegally from the Judean Desert. The headlines were generated by the last word of the text: “to Jerusalem” (one word in Hebrew, yršlmh, with the “directional h” at the end, and no vowel letters at all).

The text, as read and interpreted by Prof. Shmuel Ahituv, seems interesting enough. Only the last two lines of text have survived; only traces of the first are visible. The preserved part says, “[From the maid]servant of the king, from Na’arat, jars of wine, to Jerusalem.” Since there was at least one line above this, it may have contained her name — “From Sarah, or Michal…” or it could have been more complicated, such as, “From Reuben and Jimmy, in the hands of the maidservant of the king…” — or one of many other possibilities. We will presumably never know.

A few things should be noted immediately. First, among scholars, doubts were raised very quickly about the authenticity of the text, although not on any specific grounds. The prominent scholar of ancient scripts, Christopher Rollston, wrote on his blog that although the papyrus itself has been carbon dated to the seventh century BCE (the last century of the First Temple period), there is a fair chance that the writing is a modern forgery.

At the same time, most who have looked at the high-resolution photos have judged the script to be appropriate for the late seventh century (so technically only about 2,650 years ago), and there is nothing in the grammar or the spelling that seems inappropriate for that date.

The more important observation to my mind is that this is a historically rather uninteresting text. The name of Jerusalem is attested in Egyptian texts from about the 19th century BCE — more than a thousand years before the alleged date of this papyrus — and then in Akkadian texts from El-Amarna from the 14th century, some of which were even written in and sent from Jerusalem. So there is no great excitement in discovering that the name Jerusalem was being used 2,700 years ago.

Despite this, it took no time at all for the text to become political fodder. The Prime Minister of Israel tweeted that this was “a letter from the past to UNESCO,” after the organization again failed to mention the historical Jewish connection to the city of Jerusalem. But this is plain silly, and it both misunderstands the archaeology and trivializes the political question. Although the grammar and words are Hebrew, there is nothing in the text that identifies the people as “Jewish.”

On the other hand, it is only a lunatic fringe who seriously doubts that the people of Judah lived in and around Jerusalem in the Iron Age and built a temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands. The Israeli political establishment dignifies the deniers by making all archaeology about this issue, and would be better served by identifying it as a lunatic fringe and moving on to more important things. And it is doubly harmful to invoke texts that say little of relevance, and may potentially turn out to be forgeries, in the service of politics.

The Jewish state’s right to exist in 2016 is robust and vibrant, and is not helped by these two lines of ink from 2,700 years ago. The ink, though, would like to say something of its own. It would like to tell us a little something about life back then, about how wine was transported and where it was shipped, about the life of a female bureaucrat (perhaps) and the small town of Na‘arata. The ink has some unassuming things to tell us, if we would stop politicizing everything and just allow the past to talk.

Aaron Koller is an associate professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, where he studies the ancient world of the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. His most recent book is Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Aaron has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archeological Research and the Hartman Institute. He lives in Queens with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.

About the Author
Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, and chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. His latest book is Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought (JPS, 2020).
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