Virtually Unwrapping an Ancient and Badly Burned Scroll

In 1970, while excavating En-Gedi, a Jewish village on the western shore of the Dead Sea that was destroyed by fire around 600 A.D., archaeologists found the community’s synagogue. Inside the synagogue, they discovered a Holy Ark, the cabinet where Torahs are stored. The En-Gedi ark held charred debris that had once been sacred scrolls.

The En-Gedi manuscript—a burned, 1,500-year-old Hebrew scroll—required a new digital analysis technique. Previous studies had identified text within ancient artifacts, but the En-Gedi manuscript represented the first severely damaged scroll to be virtually unrolled and non-invasively read, line by line. (see video below) To scholars’ astonishment, the newly divulged text matched exactly both the letters and format of text found in modern Torah scrolls read by most Jews today.

The scroll showed two distinct columns of Hebrew writing that contain lines, words, letters, and spacing that revealed the phrases:

  • ‘If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, a male’
  • ‘without blemish he shall offer; to the entrance of the tent of meeting, he shall bring’
  • ‘it is for acceptance on his behalf before the Lord. ‘He shall lay his hand upon the head …’

Further analysis revealed the scroll’s writings to be the Book of Leviticus, which makes it the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book ever found in a synagogue.

See video here.

Christian Family Defends 2,700-Year-Old Tomb of Jewish Prophet as ISIS Army Advances

Christian Family Defending 2,700-Year-Old Tomb of Jewish Prophet as ISIS Army Advances on Nineveh
By Stoyan Zaimov /

A Christian family in the ancient city of Nineveh is reportedly defending the 2,700 year-old tomb of the Jewish prophet Nahum, as the armies of terror group ISIS advance in the region.

“When the last Jewish people in Al Qosh left, they asked my grandfather to watch over the tomb, to keep it safe. I don’t know much more than that,” said Asir Salaam Shajaa, an Assyrian Christian.

“Nahum is not our prophet, but he is a prophet, so we must respect that. He’s a prophet, it is simple.”

Haaretz reported that Al Qosh, the city built over ancient Nineveh, is a treasure trove of history, containing both the early beginnings of Christianity and the Assyrian empire, along with its Hebrew heritage.

Nahum the prophet is known for predicting the fall of Nineveh in the seventh century B.C., and his remains are believed to be kept at the tomb of “Nahum the Elkoshite” in the city.

Shajaa revealed that generations of his family have been taking care of the tomb, located in one of the last synagogues still standing in Iraq. His family had promised the Jewish residents of Al Qosh more than 60 years ago that they would protect and preserve the Hebrew site. The Jewish people were forced to flee in the early 1950s after government policies sought to purge Iraq from Jewish presence.

The ancient tomb was reportedly visited by thousands of worshipers each year before the 1950s’ exodus.

Shajaa noted that the beige hand-laid walls of the old synagogue are crumbling, but he continues to take care of the tomb with his family, and allows visitor to come pay their respects.

“No one can decide what to do with the place. There were people who came a few years ago, some wealthy Jewish people who wanted to rebuild the fallen walls with the same stones,” the Christian man said.

“The government didn’t like that though; they didn’t want them to use the same materials because they think it isn’t safe. But then Islamic State came and we are close to the fighting here, so nothing will happen now.”

Shajaa said he’s confident that ISIS will not conquer the city, despite its recent conquests of other Iraqi cities. Still, he noted that the crisis has affected pilgrimages, with very few Jewish pilgrims daring to venture to the tomb.

“I’m not sure how long my family will continue to stay in Iraq. We want to leave; most of the Christians want to leave,” he added. “My brother says he will stay though. If my family gets to leave Iraq, my brother and his children will look after the tomb. It will stay in the family, God willing.”

ISIS’s conquest of Ramadi back in May was its most significant territorial victory in Iraq since the U.S. and a broad coalition of international forces began launching airstrikes against the terror group last year.

The fall of the city prompted questions about whether the U.S. is losing the war in Iraq and Syria, though President Obama has denied those claims.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said recently that over 10,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since the military campaign began nine months ago.

“We have seen a lot of losses within Daesh [ISIS] since the start of this campaign, more than 10,000,” Blinken said. “It will end up having an impact.”

An Iraqi Christian fighter, a member of Babylon Christian Battalion, stands guard near the site of May car bomb attack in Baghdad.
An Iraqi Christian fighter, a member of Babylon Christian Battalion, stands guard near the site of May car bomb attack in Baghdad.

Gezer — Ancient City Discovered Beneath Biblical-Era Ruins in Israel

By Tia Ghose /

Burned ruins and fired mudbrick collapse, as well as smashed pottery, reveal the late Bronze Age destruction at the city. On the left is the room where several pottery vessels, a scarab of Amenhotep III, a cache of cylinder seals, as well as stone implements were found. Credit: Samuel Wolff, Tel Gezer Excavations
Burned ruins and fired mudbrick collapse, as well as smashed pottery, reveal the late Bronze Age destruction at the city. On the left is the room where several pottery vessels, a scarab of Amenhotep III, a cache of cylinder seals, as well as stone implements were found.
Credit: Samuel Wolff, Tel Gezer Excavations

Archaeologists have unearthed traces of a previously unknown, 14th-century B.C. Canaanite city buried underneath the ruins of another city in Israel.

The traces include an Egyptian amulet of Amenhotep III and several pottery vessels from the Late Bronze Age unearthed at the site of Gezer, an ancient Canaanite city.

Gezer was once a major center that sat at the crossroads of trade routes between Asia and Africa, said Steven Ortiz, a co-director of the site’s excavations and a Bible scholar at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

The remains of the ancient city suggest the site was used for even longer than previously known.

The ancient city of Gezer has been an important site since the Bronze Age because it sat along the Way of the Sea, or the Via Maris, an ancient trade route that connected Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia.

The city was ruled over many centuries by Canaanites, Egyptians, and Assyrians, and Bible accounts from roughly the 10th century B.C. describe an Egyptian pharaoh giving the city to King Solomon as a wedding gift after Solomon married the pharaoh’s daughter.

“It’s always changed hands throughout history,” Ortiz said.

The site has been excavated for a century, and most of the excavations so far date to the the 10th through 8th centuries B.C. Gezer also holds some of the largest underground water tunnels of antiquity, which were likely used to keep the water supply safe during sieges.

A scarab amulet from Amenhotep III was found in the ruins of Gezer. Credit: Samuel Wolff, Tel Gezer Excavations
A scarab amulet from Amenhotep III was found in the ruins of Gezer.
Credit: Samuel Wolff, Tel Gezer Excavations

But earlier this summer, Ortiz and his colleague Samuel Wolff of the Israel Antiquities Authority noticed traces of an even more ancient city from centuries before King Solomon’s time. Among the layers was a section that dated to about the 14th century B.C., containing a scarab, or beetle, amulet from King Amenhotep III, the grandfather of King Tut. They also found shards of Philistine pottery.

During that period, the ancient site was probably a Canaanite city that was under Egyptian influence.

The findings are consistent with what scholars suspected of the site, said Andrew Vaughn, a Bible scholar and executive director of the American Schools of Oriental Research, who was not involved in the study.

“It’s not surprising that a city that was of importance in the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah would have an older history and would have played an important political and military role prior to that time,” Vaughn said. “If you didn’t control Gezer, you didn’t control the east-west trade route.”

But once the location of that major road moved during the Roman period, the city waned in importance. It was later conquered and destroyed, but never fully rebuilt.

“Just like today when you have a ghost town — where you move the train and that city goes out of use,” Ortiz said.

This subject appeared in the December 2013 Levitt Letter, page 32.

London’s Century-old Palestine Exploration Fund

In the one-story building on the left are the offices that have housed the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) since 1911 (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
In the one-story building on the left are the offices that have housed the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) since 1911 (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

By Matti Friedman /

The 102-year-old offices of one of the key players in the modern history of Israel and its surroundings sit at the end of an innocuous alleyway in central London, next to a shoe store, a dumpster and three parked mopeds, a modest sign (“PEF”) marking an entrance that is barely noticeable from the street.

The Palestine Exploration Fund, which once uniquely embodied Britain’s religious, scholarly and imperial interest to the Near East, is now known to few outside the world of academia. But it remains active nearly 150 years after its founding, and a visit to the building where it has been housed since before WWI recalls a time when explorers like Lawrence of Arabia and Kitchener of Khartoum crisscrossed the Holy Land with Bibles, compasses, and spades, helping to create the Middle East as we now know it.

The PEF consists of a small library, an important archive of photographs and documents, and a basement full of fascinating relics: stuffed century-old birds, ceramic fragments, a few fanciful (and forged) Moabite artifacts from the 19th century, an old cast of the famed Mesha Stele inscription, which became the focus of imperial power politics among France, Prussia, and Britain after its discovery in 1868, and a framed photograph of a bearded Victorian benefactor. A visitor cannot help but wonder what other treasures lie in the cabinets, drawers, and cardboard boxes.

Taped to a cupboard, a red poster emblazoned with the crown of the British monarchy suggests that one “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Beginning with its founding in 1865, the PEF dispatched surveyors, engineers, photographers, and researchers to Ottoman Palestine and its environs, producing a body of scientific work that is still serving scholars today. More than any other single body, the PEF took a land that had been known in Europe chiefly from the Bible, brought it into the real world and gave it the central place it still has, for better or worse, in the mental landscape of the West.

“Beyond the PEF’s own accomplishments, we set a template for undertaking scientific exploration that allowed everyone else to do something similar,” said Felicity Cobbing, an archaeologist and the PEF’s current curator

A three-dimensional relief map of the Holy Land that was made in 1883 and still hangs in the office demonstrates how little was known even at the end of the 19th century: The southern deserts of the Negev appear only in vague detail — the area had not yet been mapped — and east of Amman the land is empty and marked “Unexplored.”

The Palestine Exploration Fund was founded with great fanfare on May 12, 1865, dedicated to studying “the Archaeology, Geography, Geology, and Natural History of Palestine.”

The Victorian desire to explore the globe’s unknown quarters was part of the early members’ motivation. An added motivation would grow in the following decades along with British imperial interests in Palestine, which constituted a potential bridge linking Egypt and Mesopotamia. But the organization also embodied a strange sentiment, prevalent at the time, that Palestine, with its biblical past, was somehow an extension of Christian Britain.

“It is the land to which we turn as the fountain of all our hopes; it is the land to which we look with as true a patriotism as we do to this dear old England,” William Thompson, archbishop of York, said of Palestine at the PEF’s founding. At a subsequent meeting, the archbishop referred to Palestine as “ours.” Queen Victoria herself was the official patron, contributing a sum of 150 pounds. At the same time, the group defined itself from the start as an independent academic society without religious or political allegiances.

Through years of fluctuating finances — one of the PEF’s greatest explorers, Charles Warren of the Royal Engineers, once found himself stuck in Jerusalem without wooden tunnel supports because of a funding drought — and despite disease, brigands, suspicious locals, and often venal Ottoman officials, PEF men eventually mapped the entire country and produced detailed descriptions of holy sites like the Temple Mount. In his book Digging for God and Country, the archaeologist Neil Asher Silberman called it a kind of “new crusade.”

Charles Warren, one of the PEF’s best-known explorers, sometimes found himself mobbed by locals who took him for the envoy of a powerful nation called ‘Palestine Exploration Fund’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Charles Warren, one of the PEF’s best-known explorers, sometimes found himself mobbed by locals who took him for the envoy of a powerful nation called ‘Palestine Exploration Fund’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In Jerusalem, Silberman wrote, “Warren often found himself besieged by people who wished him to intervene in some official matter, thinking him to be the powerful consul of a distant land called ‘Palestine Exploration Fund.’ ”

In late 1913, with war appearing imminent, the PEF dispatched a team to map the last part of Palestine that remained mysterious — the Negev desert. Ostensibly an archaeological survey, the project was also cover for a clandestine attempt to provide the British military with accurate maps in the event of a conflict with Ottoman Turkey.

One of the expedition’s two leaders was a young archaeologist who had recently spent time digging in Syria — T.E. Lawrence, soon to find fame as Lawrence of Arabia. This was the last piece of the great mapping project. In June 1914, the PEF and the War Office in London received word that the survey was complete and that “all roads have been marked on a new map.” The Great War began a month later.

The powerful secretary of state for war, Horatio Hebert Kitchener — a famed general known as Kitchener of Khartoum for his fighting prowess in the Sudan — happened to have been a PEF surveyor in the 1870s and ’80s, and would play a central role in planning the conquest of Palestine as a way of securing the Suez Canal.

When General Edmund Allenby commanded the British invasion of Palestine in 1917, he used PEF maps. Lawrence himself captured the Red Sea port of Aqaba with a band of Arab irregulars, his knowledge of the area dating to a visit during his survey work before the war.

Today, the organization counts about 350 members, each of whom pays a £36 annual fee. It publishes a respected quarterly journal, and supports projects like a recent survey of crusader sites in Jordan and an investigation of the medieval walls of Ashkelon. In its archive are records of nearly a century and a half of work, including 10,000 photographs of the Holy Land in the 19th century. (Some are available on Flickr.)

In one basement display case are artifacts from Tell el-Hesy, a famous 1890 dig at which the renowned and eccentric excavator Flinders Petrie implemented many innovations that became the foundations of modern archaeology, including the removal of debris layer by layer and the careful analysis of pottery. (Petrie died and was buried in Jerusalem in 1942 but willed his head to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where it was duly shipped and where it remains in a jar.)

Nearby is a wooden model of the Holy Sepulcher from the 17th century. A few paces away are three artifacts inscribed with ancient characters once thought to have been ancient Moabite, all three of them forged during the Shapira affair of the 1870s.

In that episode, Moses Wilhelm Shapira, a Jew who had converted to Anglicanism and who ran an antiquities shop in Jerusalem, received international acclaim for finding Moabite artifacts in present-day Jordan, and was then disgraced when the pieces were found to be fake. The three pieces now in the basement were purchased by Kitchener himself in 1874.

In a tantalizing coda to the story, Shapira showed up at the PEF offices in 1883 with a new find: an ancient copy of the Book of Deuteronomy that he said had been found by Bedouin near the Dead Sea. The book was far older than any biblical text discovered before, and it differed from the known text of Deuteronomy. The scorned dealer was eager to redeem himself in the eyes of scholars and to make a fortune from a potential sale.

But that manuscript, too, was eventually denounced as a forgery. Shapira shot himself in a Rotterdam hotel room the following year.

By the time the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947) suggested that Shapira’s scroll was actually authentic, he had been dead for six decades and the manuscript had disappeared. It has never resurfaced.

The July 1900 issue of the PEF’s journal, documenting the exploration of the Holy Land and its environs (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The July 1900 issue of the PEF’s journal, documenting the exploration of the Holy Land and its environs (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Shimon Gibson, a Jerusalem archaeologist and a former PEF curator, credits the organization’s archive for numerous scholarly treasures he has found over the years, including diagrams of subterranean spaces under the Temple Mount. The archive recently yielded two unpublished sketches made by Charles Warren in the 1860s, which helped Gibson better understand the history of Ein Rogel, an ancient spring outside Jerusalem’s Old City. (The extravagantly whiskered and decorated Warren went on to an illustrious military career and a stint as chief of the London police during the Jack the Ripper murders.)

The scholars of the PEF can take credit for a dramatic shift in the way people in the West saw the Holy Land, said Gibson.

In the basement (from left), a portrait of a Victorian benefactor, a collection of birds, and artifacts from Flinders Petrie’s 1890 dig at Tell el-Hesy (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
In the basement (from left), a portrait of a Victorian benefactor, a collection of birds, and artifacts from Flinders Petrie’s 1890 dig at Tell el-Hesy (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

“Because of their work, this land went from being a distant, obscure, romantic country in the far-off Orient to being a country that was clearly understood in terms of its geography, the location of biblical sites, its physical conditions, and its historical and archaeological dimensions,” he said. Over the decades, they produced a “staggering” amount of careful, detailed material that is crucial in understanding changes in the landscape of the Holy Land.

“Every time I visit a site today with their original data and descriptions, my admiration for these scholar-explorers only grows,” he said.

Herodium or Herodion – The Place of Herod’s Tomb


Herodium or Herodion (Hebrew: הרודיון‎, Arabic: هيروديون‎, Jabal al-Fraidees) is a hill shaped like a truncated cone (758 m / 2,487 ft above sea level), 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) located in the West Bank, southeast of Bethlehem and under control of Israel, built as a fortress palace by King Herod the Great. It was known by the Crusaders as the “Mountain of Franks”, but local Arab inhabitants call it Jabal al-Fourdis or “Mountain of Paradise”. Herodium was conquered and destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 71, when Lucilius Bassus and his X Fretensis were on their way to Masada. Hebrew University Professor Ehud Netzer reported on May 8, 2007 that he discovered Herod’s gravesite atop of tunnels and water pools at a flattened desert site halfway up the hill to Herodium 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south of Jerusalem, the precise location given by Josephus in his writings. Later excavations strengthened the idea that this site is Herod’s mausoleum. The base of the tomb has now been uncovered and is visible to visitors to the site.

Cataloging Ancient Inscriptions

By Ofer Aderet,

An ambitious international project led by two adventurous Israeli classicists aims to analyze and catalog every ancient inscription that has been made in Israel. Their meticulous work includes crawling through caves and cellars and Indiana Jones-style adventures.

Over the last few years. Hannah Cotton-Paltiel and Jonathan Price have spent much of their time far from the comfortable confines of the Ivory Tower, crawling through caves with flashlights in their hands, squeezing into crowded old basements and storage spaces, and rummaging through piles of old stones in private collections, churches, and museums around the world. Cotton-Paltiel, who holds the Shalom Horowitz Chair in classics at the Hebrew University, and Price, who chairs the parallel department at Tel Aviv University, are part of the Israeli arm of a unique international project that bears the scientific title Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae.

Work on the project began in 1999 and is expected to be completed in 2017. When it is complete, all of the ancient inscriptions discovered within the borders of the State of Israel will be gathered together in a single comprehensive scientific series. The seven-volume work aims to organize a sea of information that until now consisted of partial, truncated, and widely-scattered items; to track down inscriptions that have never been published; and to offer the widest range of contemporary interpretations for those inscriptions that are already known to scholars.

Hannah Cotton-Paltiel

“This is a unique project, without any historical precedent,” says Cotton-Paltiel. Adds Price: “The idea has been around for several generations, but it’s being realized only now. The final product will provide an invaluable resource for historical research, one which has been lacking until now.”

Through Sisyphean and meticulous efforts combined with elements of Indiana Jones-style detective work, the researchers have managed to locate within Israel some 12,000 texts written between the 4th century BCE and the 7th century CE. “From Alexander to Mohammed, from the Hellenistic period to the Muslim conquest,” as the two scholars put it.

Jonathan Price

Some of the texts are dozens of lines in length; others have only a single word. They are written in more than 10 languages, of which Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Phoenician and Aramaic are only a partial list. They run the gamut from letters and receipts inscribed on bits of pottery, through names of deceased individuals written on ossuaries, to historic inscriptions that commemorate important events, people and places. For the contributors, this is the project’s most important innovation. It breaks with earlier practice by documenting, side-by-side, multilingual inscriptions that belong to the various peoples that lived in Israel. “Georgians, Armenians, Romans, Greeks, Syrians – everyone who was here was documented,” says Cotton-Paltiel, “not just the Jewish people.”

In similar projects to date it was the custom to sort inscriptions by language and publish each of them separately. “That division is old-fashioned,” Cotton-Paltiel says. “We present them all together, as they are, as an authentic expression of the different societies and cultures that coexisted in our region, and which deserve to be presented in an egalitarian manner.”

Among the inscriptions is one in Greek from the Temple compound in Jerusalem that bars gentiles from entering the Temple Mount, and a Hebrew inscription: “Lebeit hatekiya,” which was placed in the southwestern corner of the Mount, indicating the site where a shofar was blown to announce the beginning and end of the Sabbath.

“Inscriptions are an important and unique historical source,” explains Price. “They provide information in many areas that no other source can provide. It’s not just about documenting empires, but also about the history of family, religion, language, and culture.”

“Some complement, revise, or contradict information that exists in other sources,” adds Cotton-Paltiel. “There are some matters about which there is no history except from inscriptions – information that no literary source could give you.”

One part of the project involves collecting, documenting and cataloging all of the scholarly information that already exists about the known inscriptions. Another part is locating new inscriptions. In several cases, the researchers discovered pieces of the same inscription in different places, and assembled them like a jigsaw puzzle.

“We did not find a personal letter written by Jesus, but from our standpoint,” says Price, “any discovery made of a name we did not know before is an important addition. It is no exaggeration to say that we took people who were completely lost to history and restored them to the written record.”

Language mastery
The nerve center for the Corpus Inscriptionum project is a small and crowded room on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. An enormous filing cabinet on one wall holds all of the information that the researchers have managed to unearth about each and every inscription. Over the years they have combed through journals, encyclopedias, books, and monographs going back to the 18th century in search of details about the inscriptions.

Every scrap of information yielded by these sources about any inscription that was ever discovered in Israel is filed here by industrious students. Their qualifications include studying for a degree in classics or ancient history, and knowledge of the relevant languages. Cotton-Paltiel elaborates: “We are not talking about just anyone: These are young people, some of them from abroad, who have mastered Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Syriac, and the Talmud as well.”

The scholars are also attempting to photograph or else obtain photographic documentation of as many inscriptions as possible. “We want to see every inscription that can be seen with our own eyes,” explains Cotton-Paltiel. “It is not always possible. There are inscriptions that have been lost, have disappeared, or been broken, or that were sold on the antiquities market to private hands.”

To this end, the researchers enlisted two photographers who know the country inside and out, with whom they scour all the relevant sites where inscriptions are to be found. A partial list includes churches, museums, private collections, and warehouses. And not only in Israel: Thus, for example, Prof. Price found himself one day in an abandoned wine cellar in Oslo. The story of what brought him there begins at the end of the 19th century, and involves a colorful and eccentric man who became very famous in the port city of Jaffa in those days.

Plato von Ustinov was a Russian aristocrat who became a German Protestant. After getting to know members of the German Templar movement, he moved to Jaffa and built an estate there. Ustinov, whose grandson was the late actor Peter Ustinov, was a well-known antiquities collector. He lived in Jaffa for 30 years and enriched his collection with local antiquities. “The local Arabs learned that there was a mad Russian who paid good money for antiquities,” says Price, “and they would bring him thousands of artifacts that they found in burial caves and local excavations.”

In 1913 Ustinov returned to Europe, where he died a few years later. His collection eventually wound up in Oslo. In the 1970s it was traced to an abandoned warehouse by the late archaeologist and journalist Zvi Ilan. Some of the inscriptions were put on display at a local museum, but many others remained far from scholarly eyes.

“Everyone thought it had been lost. Nobody knew what had happened to that collection,” says Price, whose own research had led him to Oslo, where “they were very excited to hear that there was still someone who was interested in these inscriptions and wanted to publish them,” he recollects. “When we arrived,” Price adds, “at first they thought that we had come to try to return the antiquities to Israel.” After some persuasion, however, they were permitted to arrange and photograph all of the items, a task that took several days.

Off-limits locales
One of Cotton-Paltiel’s tasks was to contact all of the religious institutions in Jerusalem. She says that all of them, including the museum of the Muslim Waqf (religious trust), responded with great cooperation. The Greek patriarch, for example, issued a special permit giving the scholars access to all the churches and monasteries under his supervision, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Accompanied by a priest and an architect, Cotton-Paltiel discovered genuine treasures inside that church, the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. She says they found some stones with inscriptions that had nothing to do with the church, which had apparently been “recycled” from other sites—i.e., used to plug up holes in the wall.

The high point of the visit occurred when they entered a room otherwise closed to the public, whose key is held only by an Armenian priest. “He opened the door for us, and there we saw an awfully famous Latin inscription left by Christian pilgrims,” she reconstructs excitedly. She photographed and documented it, of course.

The instincts that Price and Cotton-Paltiel have developed allow them to easily recognize and weed out attempted forgeries. For example, Cotton-Paltiel has learned from experience that “there is no such thing as a complete inscription on a stone that is broken on all sides.”

Other cases demand more careful scrutiny. “Occasionally you read in the paper about sensations such as inscriptions connected to the brother of Jesus, and so on,” explains Cotton-Paltiel. “We will go check them out for ourselves. In many cases we found that in a place where other people found riches beyond the imagination, there were merely worthless stones.”

Recently, a front-page story in this newspaper included a photograph of an inscription that was discovered of late in a cave beneath a residential building in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood. The person who made the discovery is Simcha Jacobovici, a journalist and filmmaker who deals in archaeology. The article said that he believes the discovery is earth-shattering and could potentially change everything we know about Christianity and its founder.
As in similar cases, Price is maintaining a guarded suspicion for now. “I won’t believe it until I see it for myself,” he says.

“There isn’t a museum in the country we haven’t been through or that isn’t on our list,” adds Cotton-Paltiel. “They open the warehouses for us as well and we come there with porters, arrange the findings, and document them.” The Israel Antiquities Authority, for example, cooperates with them regularly. “We have unofficially become an affiliate of theirs. They feel we are a national project.”

In addition, she says they “are in contact with every museum in the world that has antiquities that originated in Israel.” Some of them, such as the British Museum and the Louvre, demand payment for the information they provide.

The sea is the only place they have yet to search. “We don’t have enough time, but there are loads of things there—inscribed jars and weights, for example,” Cotton-Paltiel says.

Renowned scholars
As one might expect, the project comprises renowned scholars in a variety of fields, who complement each other’s knowledge. Thus, historians work alongside philologists and archaeologists. The distinguished list of participants includes: Benjamin Isaac, professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv University; paleographer Dr. Ada Yardeni, author of The Book of Hebrew Script and designer of a Hebrew typeface that bears her name; Dr. Haggai Misgav and Dr. Leah Di Segni, both epigraphers from the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology; and Prof. Alla Kushnir-Stein, an expert on Land of Israel history and epigraphy from Tel Aviv University.

The project’s digital database contains a record of the written and photographed material and its scholarly analysis. It already contains several thousand gigabytes of material. After the material has been collected and analyzed in Israel, it is sent to the University of Cologne, location of the second arm of the project. Leading the German branch are professors Werner Eck and Walter Ameling, historians and epigraphists who are considered the leading experts in their field worldwide. Working alongside them is Marfa Heimbach, who built an electronic database customized to the needs of the project. Funding for the project also comes primarily from Germany. The DFG, the German Research Foundation, has already provided some 1 million euros and is expected to continue to fund the endeavor.

So far, two of the seven projected volumes in the series have been published: the first section of the first volume on Jerusalem inscriptions and the second covering Caesarea and the mid-coastal area. In the near future, a second section of the volume on Jerusalem will appear, and it will be followed by, among others, volumes on Jaffa and the southern coast (between Tel Aviv and Rafah ); the Negev (including Nabatean inscriptions and inscriptions in the language of desert tribes ); Ein Gedi and Masada; the Jerusalem environs; and the Galilee.

The work on the Galilee region is the biggest and most important part of the project, encompassing the largest numbers of churches and synagogues—”a massive amount of work, a significant share of which has never been published,” Cotton-Paltiel says. Once the entire series has been published and the issue of copyright has been settled, it will also be made available online.

And what about inscriptions situated in sites within the Palestinian Authority? “At an early stage, efforts were made to bring Palestinian scholars onto the team of editors for the project,” responds Cotton-Paltiel. Despite the initial enthusiasm, for reasons not in control of either party, the cooperation “did not reach fruition.” Hence, she acknowledges, “At the moment our project is limited to the State of Israel.” In the future, she hopes, the project’s scholars or their successors will be able to complete the job also in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Findings on Jesus’ earliest followers revealed on Discovery Channel

Five years after the discovery of the controversial Jesus Family Tomb in Jerusalem, documentary film producer Simcha Jacobovici has used 21st-century technology to unearth new findings on Jesus’ earliest followers.

Together with Professor James Tabor of the University of North Carolina and Professor Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska, Jacobovici and his team commissioned a state-of-the-art robotic arm and camera to probe deep beneath a Jerusalem apartment building and explore never before seen first-century artifacts.

Walter Klassen engineered and operated the robotic arm camera used in the filming.

Simcha Jacobovici and Walter Klassen with the robotic arm used to explore the tomb.

In their documentary, The Resurrection Tomb, the team explores what has been dubbed the “Patio Tomb” containing several ossuaries [carved stone bone boxes].

They captured images of early Christian art including a depiction of Jonah being spat out of the whale. The team found the earliest testimony of faith in the resurrection of Jesus pre-dating any New Testament Gospels and the earliest Christian symbols ever discovered.

This depiction of Jonah and the whale is considered the earliest representation in Jewish art of a Biblical story.

“The discovery effectively pushes back the date on early Christian archaeological evidence by two hundred years. More significantly, it takes us back into the lifetime of Jesus Himself providing incredible insight into strong, early beliefs in the Resurrection,” said award-winning producer Jacobovici.

The Discovery Channel will broadcast The Resurrection Tomb in the U.S. and Canada on April 12.

Editor’s word to the wise: Enjoy the program, but remember that until the findings are authenticated by the scientific community, they are entertainment and speculation. When they are properly verified, they will serve as further evidence of what we know by faith. But even if these artifacts prove inauthentic, our faith will remain steadfast because it is not based on physical evidence.

Faith rooted in Jerusalem history

By Wayne Stiles

The account of Hezekiah’s preparations for the Assyrian invasion are abundantly verified in archaeology.

One of greatest Passover celebrations of history occurred during the reign of Hezekiah. Immediately following that faithfulness [the Passover celebration and the king’s reforms] came one of the greatest challenges in the king’s reign.

The ancient world had a bully system that worked in straightforward terms. A nation would conquer a region and demand tribute — annual payment of money and goods. If you didn’t pay tribute, they’d come and kill you. A pretty simple system.

Assyria had done just this to Judah, and Hezekiah had refused to pay tribute to the bully. So, Assyria invaded Judah and began besieging the fortified cities (2 Chronicles 32:1). Hezekiah “decided with his officers and his warriors to cut off the supply of water from the springs which were outside the city, and they helped him. So many people assembled and stopped up all the springs and the stream which flowed through the region, saying, ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come and find abundant water?’ . . . It was Hezekiah who stopped the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them to the west side of the city of David” (2 Chronicles 32:3-4, 30).

Hezekiah's tunnel
Today, visitors to Jerusalem can wade through the tunnel that Hezekiah chiseled beneath the City of David — an absolute marvel of engineering. How many pieces of archaeology can you interact with as closely? Very few. The famous “Siloam Inscription,” discovered at the end of the tunnel, described in ancient Hebrew script the process of digging the passageway. The inscription now sits on the top story of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

To protect the large number of refugees who had scrambled south after Assyria invaded the northern kingdom twenty years earlier, King Hezekiah built a wall around the western hill of the city of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 32:5). A portion of this “broad wall” still stands for all to see in today’s Jewish Quarter.

They had a wall. They had water. They even had weapons. But those preparations were not where they placed their confidence. Hezekiah prayed with the prophet Isaiah. (What better prayer partner could you have than the prophet Isaiah?) Hezekiah’s words to his people were wonderful: “Be strong and courageous, do not fear or be dismayed because of the king of Assyria, nor because of all the multitude which is with him; for the one with us is greater than the one with him. With him is only an arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God to help us and to fight our battles” (2 Chronicles 32:7-8).

And what happened? The Lord sent an angel who wiped out the Assyrian army.

The Assyrian records also record this siege. Sennacherib (suh-nak-er-ib) recorded these words on a prism: “As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke. I laid siege to forty-six of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity and conquered them . . . . Himself I made prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” Notice it doesn’t say he conquered Jerusalem. The Assyrian king could only boast that he surrounded it. The part about God obliterating his army Sennacherib conveniently omitted. Spin politics isn’t a new thing.

Tunnel engineering in the Iron Age
When I walked through Hezekiah’s tunnel, and when I gazed at the broad wall he built, and when I observed Sennacherib’s prism in the British Museum, or when I tried to read the Siloam instruction in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, one lesson continued to rattle in my mind. I have a faith rooted in history — not mystery. The words on the pages of Scripture are supported by simple elements we can dig out of the ground. They prove nothing, but they support it all.

How can we expect to believe in the parts of the Bible we cannot verify — like faith, the Messiah, and heaven — if the Scriptures are not also true in the natural realm? The Bible is not primarily a history book, but what it says about history is true. The Bible is not a science book, but what it says about science is true. This reality reminds me of what Jesus said to Nicodemus: “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12).

With my own eyes I have seen the wall, the tunnel, the prism, and the inscription. They are real.

So is my faith.