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The Old Hebrew Ishmael Papyrus: Tapping the Brakes

On September 7, 2022, various press outlets ran stories about a First Temple Period Hebrew papyrus, with an Old Hebrew inscription. Four lines of text are partially preserved, with the first extant word of the first extant line reading “To Ishmael” (thus, it seems most reasonable to consider this an ancient letter). According to the press reports, the Israel Antiquities Authority has stated that this manuscript was acquired (either purchased, or as a gift) in ca. 1965 from a Director of the Rockefeller Museum named Joseph Sa’ad and from famed antiquities dealer Khalil Iskander Shahin, the latter most commonly known as “Kando” (famous for his connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls during the late 1940s, scrolls which date to the Second Temple Period).

According to the press reports, the existence of this manuscript recently came to the attention of my esteemed colleague and friend Professor Shmuel Ahituv. And through various channels, the papyrus was ultimately located in Montana. It has now been returned to Israel, a laudable move. Moreover, I am pleased to see that it is in the hands of the Israel Antiquities Authority. And I am also especially pleased that Dr. Joe Uziel, the Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Judean Desert Scrolls Unit, has been a major point-person for this papyrus, along with Dr. Eitan Klein, Deputy Director of the Theft Prevention Unit. These are all very good signs. The various press reports have noted that Professor Ahituv will soon be discussing this papyrus in more detail. I look forward to that.

At this time, therefore, I simply wish (at this preliminary stage) to mention certain things that need to be considered as part of the totality of the discussion of this find….and things which (therefore) require that we refrain from drawing too many rapid conclusions, or making too many problematic assumptions. In other words, I hope that we can “tap the brakes” a little with regard to this “find.”

  • According to the press reports, this papyrus was radiometrically dated by the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot to First Temple Period, apparently the late First Temple Period (i.e., late 7th or early 6th century BCE). The press reports seem to suggest that this radiometric dating confirms the antiquity of the inscription itself. However, I would emphasize that the antiquity of the medium of an inscription certainly does not demonstrate that the inscription itself is ancient. After all, ancient potsherds, ancient leather, and ancient papyrus (the last of which is the most relevant in this case) are all available, either on ancient tels (in the case of potsherds) or on the antiquities market (in the case of leather and papyrus). Modern forgers can, have, and still do, use such ancient media to produce forgeries in the modern period (and forged inscriptions have been a constant, for several millennia, believe it or not). I emphasized this point (i.e., that ancient media could be used for modern forgeries) ca. twenty years ago in the academic journal MAARAV (Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests.” MAARAV 10 (2003): 135-193), and I discussed it in even more detail in a fairly recent article (“The Putative Authenticity of the New ‘Jerusalem’ Papyrus Inscription: Methodological Caution as a Desideratum,” Pp. 321-330 in Rethinking Israel: Studies in the History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel in Honor of Israel Finkelstein, ed. Oded Lipschits. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2017). In this connection, it should be emphasized that the Museum of the Bible Forged Scrolls were forged in the modern period but the modern forger used ancient leather (since that forger was fairly good at deception, knew how to cover his tracks, to some degree). Similarly, the Jesus Wife Papyrus was forged in the modern period, but on ancient papyrus (again, that forger was fairly decent at deception, knew what to do to dupe people, including some scholars). In short, an ancient carbon date for the medium (papyrus, potsherd, leather) certainly does not demonstrate, in and of itself, the antiquity of an inscription.
  • Furthermore, it should be emphasized in this connection that the fact that the writing on an inscription seems to conform (in terms of palaeographic date) to the carbon date of the medium is also not confirmation of the antiquity of an inscription. That is, the fact that the putative palaeographic date for an inscription (i.e., based on the letter typology, stance, ductus, etc.) is in the same ball-park (chronologically) as the approximate carbon date for the medium is not, in and of itself, confirmation of the antiquity of the writing. After all, it could mean simply that the forger did his or her homework (i.e., after all, someone could purchase papyri on the antiquities market from the Iron Age, or a period within the Iron Age, and then write on it letters that conform to the standard form for a particular period and language).
  • So far, there have been no references (at least none that I have seen) that deal with the chemical composition of the ink. That really must be done (if the IAA has not already done it). After all, sometimes some forgers aren’t so careful and use inks with modern contaminants. On the other hand, alas, even this (i.e., the correct, ancient chemical composition) is not decisive in terms of determining authenticity. After all, the chemical composition of inks has been known for many decades now (going back, with regard to Old Hebrew inscriptions, at least as far back as the first of the Lachish Ostraca, which began to be published in 1938….replete with a brief discussion of the chemical composition of the ink).  Furthermore, the forger of the Jesus Wife Papyrus actually made a conscious effort to replicate ancient inks. The same is true for a number of modern forgeries.
  • Similarly, it will be very important for the IAA (if they have not done so already) to test the patina on the Old Hebrew Ishmael Papyrus itself. Again, this doesn’t, in and of itself, demonstrate antiquity, but it would be useful to have this information as well. After all, some anomalies (consistent with the modern period) might be discovered.
  • There have been some references to “three” papyri from the First Temple Period with Old Hebrew inscriptions on them. The Murabba‘at Papyrus was the first (published in 1961). The second is the Jerusalem Papyrus, which a fair number of scholars, including me, consider a probable modern forgery (see the discussion in my Finkelstein Festschrift article, mentioned above, and available on academia.edu for free download). The Old Hebrew Ishmael Papyrus is obviously the third. My quibble is that discussions should not simply refer to “three” without actually mentioning that the Jerusalem Papyrus was on the market. Omitting this sort of statement is quite problematic (nota bene: that’s where I first saw photos of the Jerusalem Papyrus, namely, from an antiquities dealer who was wishing to sell it). After all, if this fact (namely, that the Jerusalem Papyrus is from the market) is not mentioned, some people will sometimes make erroneous assumptions about the putative origins (e.g., people might assume that the earlier two papyri were both from excavations), and that could be very misleading, especially for non-specialists.
  • The story of origin for the Old Hebrew Ishmael Papyrus sounds plausible (even the Montana part). But I would emphasize that it would be nice to see empirical data demonstrating that this papyrus was indeed known already in the 1960s. In addition, it seems that the person who allegedly or ostensibly acquired this from Sa’ad and Kando did not receive some sort of receipt at that time. The chain of custody for the past 50 to 60 years would be important to establish. Hopefully, that will be possible. My hermeneutic of suspicion is always strong, some would suggest too strong, but the fact remains that unless a secure chain of custody can be established (with documentation) with certainty, no one should make assumptions about the stated chain of custody. It’s not that I don’t believe people. It’s just that empirical proof is the name of the game, and without it, certainty is elusive and evasive. It is perhaps useful to note that the Museum of the Bible Forged Scrolls were also said to have passed through the hands of Kando. I do not believe that the Museum of the Bible Forged Scrolls passed through the hands of Khalil Kando.
  • There are some aberrations and anomalies in the script of the Old Hebrew Ishmael Papyrus (look at the ‘ayin, for example, and there are several other concerning forms). That is, the script of this Old Hebrew Ishmael Papyrus does not conform entirely to the standard Old Hebrew script of the 7th or early 6th (and we have many scores of Old Hebrew inscriptions from the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE, which were found on scientific excavations…so there is a lot of solid, empirical, comparative data for the Old Hebrew script).  Professor Ahituv concedes as much, when he mentions that the writer penned this quickly, etc.  The fascinating thing is that such suggestions have sometimes (e.g., with the Moussaieff Forgeries, the Forged Jehoash Inscription, etc.) been used in the past when a scholar was attempting to account for the anomalies in a script….and, in reality, the anomalies had nothing to do with some ancient writer’s sloppy writing, but rather had everything to do with the flawed knowledge or ability of the modern forger! In other words, palaeographic anomalies should not be lightly dismissed.
  • Even if this inscription is ancient (and the jury is still out, from my perspective), we do not actually know where it comes from. Thus, I would be very disinclined to refer to it as a Dead Sea Scroll or a Judean Desert Scroll.  To use such terminology ignores the fact that the Old Hebrew Ishamael Papyrus does *not* come from a scientific excavation.  Not even close.  Sure, if it is ancient (i.e., genuine), the Judean Desert is a possible (or even probable) site of origin.  But the fact of the matter is that we do not, at least at this point, know.  Thus, I would suggest that this papyrus should be referred to as the Old Hebrew Ishmael Papyrus (or the like).  After all, that personal name is clear in this inscription and so this is the safest appellative. To say more is probably to say too much, to go farther than the empirical evidence (unless the patina on the papyrus has some distinctive markers that are exclusively Dead Sea markers).
  • As for the readings of this inscription, Professor Ahituv will be (based on that which has been said so far) a primary author of the editio princeps (i.e., the first edition). I will look forward to seeing his readings, and after that I will plan to reply, including with a more detailed discussion of the script.
  • Again, I am happy to see the Old Hebrew Ishmael Papyrus come to light. I think the team that is currently working on this (Ahituv, Uziel, Klein) is superb. I believe that they will do a very nice job with this papyrus.  But I also wish to mention, as a point of departure, that we must tap the brakes right now, rather than jumping to conclusions.  Let’s wait for the dust to settle some, and then we’ll be able to see more clearly.
About the Author
Professor Christopher Rollston is Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at George Washington University (Washington, DC). He holds an MA and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He publishes widely in the fields of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, especially the field of ancient inscriptions (in Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, Greek, Akkadian). He has held two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships (one in Israel and one in Jordan). For six years, he served as the co-editor of the Bulletin of the American Society of Overseas Research, and for twenty years, he served as the editor of MAARAV, a journal of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures.
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