They looked like cigarette butts: the earliest examples of biblical texts, found accidentally by an archeology student sifting through soil in a Jerusalem excavation.
But Dr. Gaby Barkay knew differently.
Since 1975, Barkay, an Israeli archeologist, had dug into the dirt on that rocky hill just outside Jerusalem, turning back a chapter of the ancient city’s history with each layer of earth.
Under the broiling sun that day in 1979, his team found what are now known as the Silver Scrolls. The pair of artifacts, not even an inch long, contain the Priestly Blessing, the same one written in Numbers 6:24-26 in the Bible:
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“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
It was the biggest find of the renowned archeologist’s 30-plus-year career.
Barkay spoke about the experience last month to a full audience at UNC Charlotte. The UNCC Department of Religious Studies, through The Phillips Lectureship Fund, arranged his appearance.
Jerusalem has remained the most excavated city in the world for the past 150 years, and Barkay may be one of its most knowledgeable modern-day scholars.
As he put up slide after slide of the city, he pointed out not only the names of modern buildings, but also the ghosts of the ones from past eras.
He can locate the remnants of the sprawling 19th-century silk factory that stood in the city’s center. He can trace with his finger the train tracks that led to the old 1930s railway station, now a cultural entertainment center.
But he can also show the invisible: the hill where parents sacrificed their children to foreign deities, and the ground where an equal number of coins and Roman soldiers’ remains were found.
“(The coins) were put into the mouths of Roman soldiers when their bodies were cremated,” Barkay explained.
Barkay has unearthed thousands of artifacts at the site over the decades, spanning from the 1930s booze bottles left by British soldiers to the Silver Scrolls from the seventh century B.C., predating the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls by 500 years.
At first, he admitted, he didn’t know what to think of the two small scrolls when he first held them.
“I suspected they might be of interest, but I didn’t know how much,” said Barkay.
It took him three years to find out.
The small scrolls were made of sheets of pure silver wrapped around themselves six times. The process of learning how to unroll them without causing damage was painstakingly slow, but the payoff came fast once they did.
“When we finally managed to unroll it in the labs of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, we found ancient Hebrew characters,” said Barkay. “The first word I managed to decipher was this word, YHWH, the unpronounceable name of God.”
Fully unrolled, the scrolls contain an astonishing 19 lines of writing. The minuscule words make up what is known as the “Priest’s Benediction.”
“They’re the words by which the people are blessed by the priest,” said Barkay.
Today, the Silver Scrolls are on display at the Israel Museum. For details visit www.english.imjnet.org.