ARTICLE of FAITH?
A stone tablet could be a relic
of King Solomon’s temple - - -
or a clever forgery.
By: Betsy Carpenter
S olomon’s Temple was the glory of Jerusalem after its comple -tion in the 10th century B.C. Fronted by colossal bronze columns, it was said to be built of hewn limestone. The nave was lined with fragrant cedar and held a massive golden table and altar. In an inner sanctuary guarded by gilded olive-wood doors, even the walls glistened with gold.
The sole remaining testimony to this wondrous temple is the biblical account— and now, perhaps, a dark slab of sandstone, about the size of a legal pad, that made head-lines in Jerusalem in January, 2003. If authentic, says Gabriel Barkai, an arch -aeologist at Bar-han University, “it could be the most significant archaeological finding yet in Jerusalem and in the land of Israel.” The ancient Hebrew inscription would be the first ever found from an Israelite king and lapidary evidence of Solomon’s Temple, also known as the First Temple, which some scholars and many Palestinians deny ever existed.
But judging the authenticity of the Jehoash tablet, named after a king who ruled Judea from 835-796 B.C., won’t be easy. Instead of being unearthed in an archaeological dig, surrounded by clues to its age and significance, it turned up amid rumors that its mysterious owner had purchased it from Palestinians who found it in a Jerusalem dump. News of its existence became public when researchers at the Geological Survey of Israel said they had examined the tablet at the own-er’s request and found it was almost certainly genuine.
Yet in a debate that has raged for months in Israel, the doubting voices are getting louder. Citing what they see as damning errors in the inscription—which describes needed repairs to the temple and how Jehoash collected money to pay for them— several top scholars have called the tablet an obvious forgery. And the GSI’s director recently said that his scientists may have spoken too soon and that more tests are needed. Edward Greenstein, an expert in ancient Semitic languages at Tel Aviv University, says red flags went up when he examined a photograph of it through his magnifying glass. Although if authentic the tablet would be 2,800 years old, most letters were still clearly etched . “It just looked too good to be true.”
This is hardly the first time that suspect relics have surfaced in the Holy Land). But the debate is unusually charged this time around because the tablet has been thrust into the fierce struggle for the spiritual and physical possession of the elevated compound in Jerusalem’s Old City known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
Stone of contention. The compound is home to the al-Aqsa mosque and the
Dome of the Rock, two of Islam’s holiest sites, and the Wailing Wall, all that remains of Judaism’s Second Temple, said to occupy the site of Solomon’s original temple. When news of the tablet broke, an extremist Jewish group called the Temple Mount Faithful, dedicated to building a third temple where the Islamic shrines now stand, declared it a message from God that the construction should begin immediately. Muslim spokesmen responded that any damage to the mosques would spark a war . Few Israelis advocate razing the shrines, but many feel that the tablet, if real, could strengthen their claim to the disputed compound.
The GSI, whose main business is mapping mineral and water resources, ventured into this contentious ground in September 2001, after it was approached by representatives of a private collector. Intrigued, GSI scientists performed a battery of chemical and mineralogical tests on the stone and its “patina,” the thin coating that forms on stone, ceramic, or metal over centuries. They found that the letters had microscopic defects along their edges, suggesting weathering over time. The team also found that the patina was free of any adhesives that might have been used to apply a fake coating.
The most startling discovery, though, was that the patina contained tiny globules of pure gold.. The researchers speculated that when the First Temple was set ablaze by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.,.as the biblical account holds, the gilding on the walls melted and settled on the ground as tiny particles, which later became embed-ded in the tablet. The GSI team didn’t state definitively that the tablet was authen-tic, but Shimon Jlani, one of the researchers, told the Jerusalem Post, “If this is the work of a forger, I would have to shake his hand.”
The owner’s representatives also showed the tablet to Joseph Naveh, an epigrapher at Hebrew University, who had a different reaction: “It is not just that I have real serious doubts about its authenticity, but I believe it is a fake.” He noted, among other flaws, that some of the letter shapes were more typical of the seventh century B.C. Aramaic and Phoenician scripts than of Hebrew in the ninth century B.C., when the tablet would have been carved.
Other experts in ancient Semitic inscriptions have jumped in, pointing out what they see as damning errors in the usage of certain words. In an upcoming issue of Israel Exploration Journal, epigrapher Frank Moore Cross argues that the forgers reveal themselves by mistakenly using the Hebrew verbal noun bdq, which today means “the repair of.” The forgers, he says, apparently did not know that in ancient times, the word had almost the opposite meaning—a “fissure.” Thus, line 10 of the inscription refers to creating fissures—a suspect usage in an inscription that’s all about repair work.
Some scholars have countered that there aren’t enough surviving texts from the First Temple period to say for sure which usages would have been current in Judea in the ninth century B.C. But while that’s true, says Greenstein, the inscription has too many “anomalies” to be authentic. The text appears to be a mishmash” of usages and words lifted from several of these ancient texts, in addition to the Bible. He speculates that the forgers drew from several sources to cover their tracks. The effort took a certain skill, Greenstein concedes. He estimates that only a few hundred people worldwide are knowledgeable enough about Hebraic scripts to have dreamed up the inscription—if, in fact, it’s a fake.
Because so few comparable texts survive, the definitive verdict may well come from the geologists, says Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, which has a series of articles on the tablet in its current issue. The tablet is now in the hands of the Israel Antiquities Authority, after the police, concerned that its pur chase might have violated Israel’s antiquities laws, mounted a search earlier this year. Saying he was acting on behalf of the owner, Tel Aviv antiquities collector Oded Golan turned over the tablet in March, and the Antiquities Authority has appointed a committee of experts to help determine its authenticity. One of them, Yuval Goren, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, has been an out-spoken critic of the GSI’s initial evaluation of the tablet.
The GSI team found, for instance, that the tablet’s patina chemically resembles the stone itself, which the scientists took as evidence that the patina had formed naturally. Goren, however, says that patina often differs from the underlying stone because it takes on characteristics of the soil in which an artifact is buried. And in this case, the tablet and the Jerusalem soil where it supposedly lay for centuries are very different. “This means that the patina is unlikely [to have been] created in the Jerusalem environment,” he says. The gold in the coating is even more suspicious, he adds, because it would be odd in the extreme if the patina picked up nothing from the dirt except micro-globules of gold.
Goren and his colleagues will take a closer look at the structure of the patina. While the GSI scientists analyzed scrapings of it, the committee plans to examine tiny chunks in cross section. Genuine patina forms in ultrathin layers because of changes over time in the environment in which the artifact is buried, says Goren. Forgers haven’t yet figured out how to give fake patinas this laminar structure. The team will also try to date the stone with a technique that essentially reveals how long it’s been since an object was subjected to intense heat. Called thermoluminescence dating, it may tell the scientists if the tablet was ever in a great fire, like the one that
supposedly consumed the First Temple.
Truth will out. Richard Newman, who has examined many suspect artifacts as head of scientific research at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, cautions that even many more tests may not lead to a definitive verdict. But happily, that’s not likely. Says Newman, “Forgers usually make some mistake or the other.”
Oleg Grabar, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, guesses that ultimately the tablet will be judged a forgery. “It’s unlikely that anyone’s found an artifact from the First Temple period,” he says. “It’s been so hard to find anything referring to Christ—and that’s 600 years later.” But even if it turns out to be the real thing, he says, it should have no bearing on the on temporary battle over the Temple Mount-Noble Sanctuary. “To think that a bit of ancient stone [whether of Jewish or Muslim origin] would alter a claim to the land today, that is lunacy.”.
U .S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT
May 5, 2003. (Pgs. 46-48)
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