Sunday, January 13, 2013

21st century technology confirms ancient date of Priestly Benediction scrolls

Another old, but still relevant item, as reported by John Noble Wilford in The New York Times, September 28, 2004:

The words are among the most familiar and ecumenical in the liturgies of Judaism and Christianity. At the close of a worship service, the rabbi, priest or pastor delivers, with only slight variations, the comforting and fortifying benediction:

"May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and grant you peace."

An archaeological discovery in 1979 revealed that the Priestly Benediction, as the verse from Numbers 6:24-26 is called, appeared to be the earliest biblical passage ever found in ancient artifacts. Two tiny strips of silver, each wound tightly like a miniature scroll and bearing the inscribed words, were uncovered in a tomb outside Jerusalem and initially dated from the late seventh or early sixth century B.C. - some 400 years before the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.

But doubts persisted. The silver was cracked and corroded, and many words and not a few whole lines in the faintly scratched inscriptions were unreadable. Some critics contended that the artifacts were from the third or second century B.C., and thus of less importance in establishing the antiquity of religious concepts and language that became part of the Hebrew Bible.

So researchers at the University of Southern California have now re-examined the inscriptions using new photographic and computer imaging techniques. The words still do not exactly leap off the silver. But the researchers said they could finally be "read fully and analyzed with far greater precision," and that they were indeed the earliest.

In a scholarly report published this month, the research team concluded that the improved reading of the inscriptions confirmed their greater antiquity. The script, the team wrote, is indeed from the period just before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent exile of Israelites in Babylonia.

The researchers further reaffirmed that the scrolls "preserve the earliest known citations of texts also found in the Hebrew Bible and that they provide us with the earliest examples of confessional statements concerning Yahweh."

Some of the previously unreadable lines seemed to remove any doubt about the purpose of the silver scrolls: they were amulets. Unrolled, one amulet is nearly four inches long and an inch wide and the other an inch and a half long and about half an inch wide. The inscribed words, the researchers said, were "intended to provide a blessing that will be used to protect the wearer from some manner of evil forces."
It's a long article, so click on the links for pages 1, 2, and 3. The original papers mentioned in the article were The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation from Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 334 (May 2004), pp. 41-71; and The Challenges of Ketef Hinnom: Using Advanced Technologies to Reclaim the Earliest Biblical Texts and Their Context, Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 66 No. 4 (December 2003), pp. 162-171. Click on the links to see the full text.

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