priestly-blessing-silver-amuletHi-Tech Peek at the “Priestly Blessing” Amulets

A new study using the latest photographic and computer-imaging technologies has confirmed conclusions reached by Israeli scholars nearly 15 years ago regarding the date and contents of two unusual silver amulets discovered in an excavation in Jerusalem.a

The amulets were rolled up when they were found in 1979 by Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay. Both Barkay and Israeli epigrapher Ada Yardeni independently studied the faint inscriptions on each of the amulets (Yardeni in connection with an exhibit of the amulets at the Israel Museum) and separately published their results.b They substantially agreed with one another- The amulets, although written by different scribes, both date to the end of the First Temple period (late seventh or early sixth century B.C.), shortly before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, and both amulets contain a version of the Priestly Blessing in Numbers 6-24–26-

“May the Lord (Yahweh) bless you and protect you;

“May the Lord cause his countenance to shine upon you and be gracious unto you;

“May the Lord favor you and grant you peace.”

In Hebrew, the three verses build on one another- The first is 3 words; the second, 5; the third, 7. The name Yahweh (YHWH, known as the tetragrammaton) is repeated in each verse.

On the silver amulets, just enough of this text has survived to indicate that the inscriptions originally contained a version of this blessing. As such, this is the oldest Biblical text in existence, more than 300 years earlier than the earliest of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The new photographs make the letters more clear and make it possible to decipher new letters and correct some errors, but basically confirm the earlier readings. A scholar writing in German contested the date of the inscriptions and, consistent with the views of some Biblical minimalists, argued for a date in the second century B.C. The new team, however, confirms the earlier date espoused by Barkay and Yardeni. Even before the improved photographs, as the new team stated, “The vast majority of scholars support[ed the earlier date].”

When excavated each of the tiny silver amulets was rolled like a scroll, creating a small hole in the middle through which a string could be threaded and the scroll hung around the neck. They were excavated in a tomb at a site in Jerusalem known as the “Shoulder of Hinnom” or Ketef Hinnom in Hebrew. The two scrolls took several years to unroll in the laboratories of the Israel Museum. The larger of the two scrolls is less than 4 inches unwound; the other measures 1.5 inches.

The Priestly Blessing is part of the authorial strand of the Pentateuch known as the Priestly Code, often abbreviated simply as P. Scholars argue about whether P was written before or after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Barkay, Yardeni and the new team all are careful to caution that their findings do not prove the date of P, only that at least this blessing now incorporated into P was actually in use in the First Temple period, whether it was incorporated into P before or after the Babylonian destruction. But, as Barkay pointed out early on, these amulets provide “archaeological evidence pointing to the existence of a ‘priestly culture’ in the Land of Israel during the First Temple period.”

The new team included Barkay, now of Bar-Ilan University; Bruce Zuckerman, of the University of Southern California, and who specializes in high-technology photographs of ancient inscriptions; Andrew G. Vaughn, of Gustavus Aldolphus College and a specialist in paleography (the dating of ancient inscriptions based on their form and stance); and Biblical text scholar Marilyn J. Lundberg.

a. Gabriel Barkay, Andrew G. Vaughn, Marilyn J. Lundberg and Bruce Zuckerman, “The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom- A New Edition and Evaluation,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 334 (2004), p. 41.

b. Gabriel Barkay, “The Priestly Benediction on the Ketef Hinnom Plaques,” Cathedra 52 (1989), p. 37 (Hebrew); Ada Yardeni, “Remarks on the Priestly Blessing on Two Ancient Amulets from Jerusalem,” Vetus Testamentum 41 (1991), p. 176; Gabriel Barkay, “The Priestly Benediction on Silver Plaques from Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem,” Tel Aviv 19 (1992), p. 139.