The Earliest Scripture We Have

    Archaeologists search for evidence of past civilizations.  Most times the discoveries add new understandings of those past civilizations.  Biblical archaeologists work in a somewhat different way.  They also look for evidence of how early Jewish and Christian communities lived.  But they have an advantage because the Bible contains so much history of these communities.  Often a discovery is made of something described in the Bible.  This article summarizes one of these discoveries:  the earliest known fragment of Scripture which we have.

    But first about fragments of Scripture.  Frequently early Jewish and Christian communities wrote on parchment.  Parchment is the skins of animals.  The skin would be prepared in part by scraping it so that it would produce a write-able surface.  But as you can imagine, these do have a “self life” and will disintegrate over time.  Archaeologists of truly ancient civilizations have discovered writing on stone and on pottery.  Obviously, both of those will last practically forever, as long as they are not broken or crushed. 

    But the earliest known fragment of Scripture is not on parchment, stone, or pottery.  Instead it was etched by hand onto a piece of flattened silver.  When discovered, the piece of silver, which measures about one inch and a half by a half inch, was rolled up like a tiny scroll.  Some scholars believe that a string could be run through the “scroll” and worn as a necklace.  But the fact that it was rolled like a scroll caused problems. 

    A little about the discovery of the “scroll,” which is referred to as an amulet.  In 1979, an archaeologist and some students were digging in burial caves located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem (a distance of about twelve miles).  These caves had been excavated and even looted over the centuries, and so they did not expect new discoveries.  But then they noticed that one of the stone benches was actually a sort of chest.  When they took the top off they discovered approximately 700 items which had been overlooked!  Among these items was the amulet, now known as Ketef Hinnom II.

    The archaeologist did not know how to unroll the amulet without damaging it.  Eventually he received help from the Israel Museum laboratory.  After they unrolled it (which they did over a period of months, a little at a time!), they could tell there was writing but could not make it out.  Therefore, the researchers developed new techniques involving electronic photography and computer analysis in order to read the writing.

    They determined that the Ketef Hinnom II dated from around the year 600 BC.  To put that in perspective, in that year the Temple which Solomon built was still standing, Judah (the southern kingdom as described in I & II Kings) was still in control of southern Israel, and Jerusalem would not be defeated by the Babylonians for another fifteen years! 

    And so what was written on Ketef Hinnom II?  “May he [or she] be blessed by Yahweh, the warrior [or helper] and the rebuker of [e]vil.  May Yahweh bless you, keep you.  May Yahweh make his face shine upon you and grant you p[ea]ce.”  The second and third sentences are a shortened form of what is known as the High Priestly Prayer found in Numbers 6:24-26.  The brackets [] mean that part was missing or added to make sense.  “Yahweh” is the name for God which He gave to Moses. 

   So there you have it: the oldest part of the Bible which we have is, in fact, a blessing.

©2008 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved

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