2,700-year-old inscribed papyrus, a letter to ‘Ishmael’ written in early Hebrew script, joins only two others from biblical times. But that’s just the beginning of the story
The hunt for additional Dead Sea Scrolls has taken archaeologists and adventure-seekers all over the Judean Desert. But the successful quest for a recently repatriated First Temple-era papyrus letter took the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Theft Prevention Unit to a much more unlikely location — Montana.
This 4-centimeter-high, 5-centimeter-wide (1.5 inch x 2 inches) fragment joins only two other known contemporary papyrus fragments inscribed with early Hebrew in the Land of Israel to date.
The treasure hunt ended earlier this year after the IAA’s Eitan Klein located the owner of the exceedingly rare papyrus in the fittingly nicknamed Treasure State.
The inscription is composed of four fragmented lines, the first of which begins with the intriguing command “To Ishmael, send….” and then stops. According to epigraphical analysis as well as carbon-dating of a small piece of the papyrus, it is from the late seventh or early sixth century BCE, the last days of the Kingdom of Judah.
The search for the recently repatriated “Ishmael Papyrus” began after the death of leading epigrapher Dr. Ada Yardeni in June 2018. Her colleague, Israel Prize-winning Ben-Gurion University Prof. Shmuel Ahituv, was asked to complete Yardeni’s final project — a book about First Temple-period Hebrew scripts. While going through her papers, Ahituv noted an image of an unfamiliar, unlabeled and unprovenanced papyrus. He alerted Klein of its existence.
Klein told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that after receiving Ahituv’s tantalizing call, excited by the prospect of a third rare First Temple-period papyrus, he set off immediately to speak with one of Yardeni’s daughters. The pair pored over her records and sifted through her computer and email, eventually spotting the papyrus in an attachment on an email from Prof. Bruce Zuckerman of the University of Southern California.
\Klein approached Zuckerman, who located the son of the papyrus fragment’s original owner. It transpired that the fragment was either purchased by or given to the Montana resident’s mother when she visited Israel in 1965 as part of a Christian mission from the United States. The mission participated in excavations around Qumran and met key people involved with the Dead Sea Scrolls, including Halil Iskander Kandu, a prominent scrolls dealer from Bethlehem, and Joseph Sa’ad, curator of the Rockefeller Museum.
After the visit, said Klein, the woman glued the papyrus fragments onto a piece of cardboard alongside other mementos from her visit with Kandu and Sa’ad. She framed them and the papyrus hung on the wall of the Montana home until recently.
Klein made contact with the son, who wishes to remain anonymous, and convinced him to come to Israel — with the papyrus — for a week as a VIP guest of the IAA. After the week, in which the son was shown all the state-of-the-art conservation methodologies available to the IAA’s Judean Desert Scroll Department’s Conservation Laboratory in Jerusalem, he was convinced it was the proper home for the papyrus.
According to Klein, the son was aware of the high-ticket value of the scroll fragment but drew on his desire to memorialize his mother, as well as his own Christian values, to donate the papyrus to the State of Israel.
What is on the papyrus?
According to Ahituv, “The name Ishmael mentioned in the document was a common name in the Biblical period, meaning ‘God will hear.’”
The most famous Ishmael is the son of Abraham and Hagar, but it was used, said Ahituv, as a personal name elsewhere in the Bible, “including Yishmael ben Netanyahu, who murdered the governor Gedaliah ben Ahikam.” It has likewise been found engraved on bullae, clay sealings used for correspondence.
“The script is clearly Hebrew of the late 7th century, early 6th century BCE,” said Ahituv in an IAA Hebrew-language video.
It’s a message to someone called Ishmael, he said, and apparently lists items to send and not send.
“It’s a simple letter with an order. He’s told, ‘Don’t send.’ What not to send? I don’t know. And ‘of no help’ is written later. What’s of no help?! We don’t know,” said Ahituv.
The letter was written hastily, said Ahituv, with carelessly formed letters. “He writes as we write. He dips his stylus in ink, and writes.”
It is almost impossible to imagine finding preserved organic materials from 2,700 years ago, but the dry conditions of the caves in the Judean Desert are uniquely adapted to conservation.
There are currently some 25,000 Dead Sea Scroll fragments in the Dead Sea Scrolls lab, pieces of some 1,000 manuscripts. The vast majority date to the Second Temple period, circa 70 CE and on.
These new papyrus fragments — which were radiometrically dated in the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot — “are very rare documents,” said Dr. Joe Uziel, head of the DSS lab.
“Towards the end of the First Temple period, writing was widespread,” said Uziel, citing ostraca — documents written on pottery sherds — and stamp seals with writing.
“However, First Temple-period documents written on organic materials — such as this papyrus — have scarcely survived. Each new document sheds further light on the literacy and the administration of the First Temple period,” he said.
After so many years, a new ‘Dead Sea Scroll’?
This repatriated fragment joins two other First Temple-era papyrus scroll fragments. One, dubbed the “Jerusalem Papyrus” because it bears the oldest mention of Jerusalem in Hebrew, was unveiled in 2016 after a 2012 sting operation conducted by Klein as antiquities thieves attempted to sell it to a dealer.
The other known biblical-era Hebrew papyrus text was discovered in Wadi Murabba’at, said Klein, and is a bill of sale with names of individuals and numbers next to their names.
But can this newly recovered papyrus fragment really be called a new “Dead Sea Scroll”?
“Yes, I would include it with the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s with much certainty that its origin is from the region of the Judean Desert,” said Uziel. “The term ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ is a bit of a misnomer because they weren’t found in the sea itself but in the desert surrounding it.”
The broader Hebrew term Megilot Midbar Yehuda — scrolls from the Judean Desert — is much more accurate because the collection isn’t limited to Qumran or to the Second Temple period.
“The Dead Sea Scrolls include any documents from the Judean Desert from any point in time,” said Uziel. “So if before we had 1,000 different Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts, now we have 1,001.”
Prof. Shmuel Ahituv will deliver a Hebrew-language lecture on the papyrus at the First Judean Desert Conference at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem on Thursday, September 15. The conference is open to the public without charge.
Times of Israel