Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Philadelphia Bulletin: Rare 2,000-Year-Old Papyrus Seized in Operation

by David Bedein

The Pope’s arrival in Jerusalem causes both Christians and Jews to consider life in the city 2,000 years ago.

By sheer coincidence, one week before the Papal visit, a document thought to be an ancient text written on papyrus 2,000 years ago was seized on Tuesday from an Arab family connected to organized crime in Jerusalem.

The document is written in ancient Hebrew script, which is characteristic of the Second Temple period and the first and second centuries A.D. This style of the writing is primarily known from the Dead Sea Scrolls and various inscriptions that occur on ossuaries and coffins.

The Undercover Unit of the Border Police in Jerusalem led the operation in cooperation with the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery and the Archaeological Staff Officer in the Civil Administration.

The document, approximately six inches by six inches in dimension, itself is written on an incomplete piece of papyrus and was likely rolled up. Pieces of the text crumbled mainly along its bottom part. The holes along the left part of the document probably attest to the damage it incurred over time.

Fifteen lines of Hebrew text, written from right to left and one below the other, can be discerned in the document. In the upper line of the text, one can clearly read the sentence: “Year four to the destruction of Israel.”

This is likely to be the year A.D. 74 - the year when the Second Temple was destroyed during the Great Revolt. Another possibility is the year A.D. 139 - a time when the rural settlement in Judea was devastated at the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

The name of a woman, “Miriam Bat Ya’aqov,” is also legible in the document followed by a name that is likely to be that of the settlement where she resided: Misalev. This is probably the settlement Salabim.

The name Miriam Bat Ya’aqov is a common name in the Second Temple period. The names of other people and families, the names of a number of ancient settlements from the Second Temple period and legal wording that deals with a widow’s property and her relinquishment of it are also mentioned in the document.

Amir Ganor, director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery in the Israel Antiquities Authority, said: “Theoretically, based on the epigraphic style, the material the document is written on, the state of preservation and the text, which includes a historic date that can be deciphered, we are dealing with a document that appears to be ancient as defined by the Antiquities Law. Since this object was not discovered in a proper archaeological excavation, it still must undergo laboratory analyses in order to negate the possibility it is a modern forgery.”

He also said the document has importance from a historical and national standpoint.

Until now, few historic scrolls or documents from this period have been discovered in proper archaeological excavations.

A historic document that can be definitively dated to a historical event such as the “destruction of Israel” based on a specific reference has never been discovered. Much can be learned from this document about the names of people, their surnames and the locations of settlements in Israel during this period. From an initial reading, it seems that this document deals with the property of Miriam Bat Ya’aqov, who was apparently a widow.

The deciphering of the entire document by expert epigraphers and historians may shed light on how the people of the period managed their affairs and supplement our knowledge about their way of life. This presents a rare historic evidence about the Jewish people in their country from more than 2,000 years ago, during the days following the destruction which sent the people of Israel into exile for a very long time - until the creation of the State of Israel.

See this story in the Philadelphia Bulletin
See this story at Israel Behind the News

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