In 1979, Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay peered into the semi-darkness of an ancient burial cave in the heart of Jerusalem. What he saw caused his heart to race with excitement. He had entered a long-lost world never intended to be seen by human eyes. Surrounding him were dozens of grinning skeletons – ancient Israelites, dead for thousands of years. And there was treasure, fabulous treasure, including two silver scrolls that carried an important message for us today.
THE MYSTERY OF THE SILVER SCROLLS
This is Ketef Hinnom, a rocky knoll in the heart of Jerusalem. It’s situated on the south shoulder of the Hinnom valley, opposite Mount Zion, overlooking the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and the famous Tower of David and Jaffa Gate. The site is beside the ancient road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
It was an important road junction of the roads between the land of the ancient Hebrew tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Thanks to its location, everyone who came to Jerusalem and the City of David had to pass here.
The location of Ketef Hinnom, high on a hill, is beautiful and strategic. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. This rocky outcrop concealed hidden secrets. Ketef Hinnom is a place of treasure, buried treasure, treasure that’s been buried here for 2,700 years.
This is the site of one of the most exciting and amazing archaeological discoveries in modern times, involving a hoard of treasure, including two silver scrolls that carried an ancient inscription/message that surprised the world. Join me, as we unravel the mystery of the silver scrolls.
Dr. Gabriel Barkay was born in the Budapest ghetto in Hungary, right after the Nazis entered the country, and immigrated to Israel with his family in 1950. He soon developed a keen interest in the history and archaeology of his new homeland.
And so, after his military service, he began studying archaeology. He completed his doctorate suma cum lauda at Tel Aviv University and then participated in and conducted numerous excavations mostly focused on Jerusalem. Today he’s considered by many to be the greatest expert on the archaeology of Jerusalem.
Gabriel Barkay, ‘Gabi” to his friends, had long been interested in Ketef Hinnom. He’d taken a survey and collected pieces of broken pottery there immediately below St. Andrews Scottish Church. And he found that the pottery shards dated back to the time of the Old Testament Israelite kings. This convinced him that this rocky knoll may well conceal some long-hidden secrets.
In 1979 he decided that it was time to begin excavating the site. But he had a meagre budget and so could only afford a team of 12 and 13-year-old helpers from a local archaeology club. Not to be deterred, Barkay began to investigate the site in earnest with his small work crew of young students and volunteers.
Well, excavation had been in progress only three days when a burial cave was uncovered. The ancient tomb had been cut into the limestone slope. Originally, it would have formed a rock cave, but over the centuries the roof had collapsed, leaving the cave floor exposed.
Excitement grew as, one by one, other caves began to materialise. There were nine in all. As Barkay inspected the burial caves, the design and architecture told his trained eye that they dated from the era of Solomon’s Temple, or the First Temple period, the eighth to sixth centuries BC.
“Don’t expect to find any treasure here,” Barkay told his young crew. “It’s probably been looted centuries ago. But never mind, we’re looking for understanding, for how people lived, for what happened. But if we do find treasures…blessed be!”
The burial caves clearly revealed the burial customs of the First Temple period, shedding light on an obscure text in the Bible. The bodies of the deceased were initially laid out on the hewn stone bench inside the caves.
Later, to make room for subsequent burials, when nothing but the skeleton remained, the bones of the deceased were collected, and together with the burial gifts, and placed here in the repository – a hollow area cut into the floor of the cave, under the burial bench.
In this way, generations that followed were buried in the same burial cave as their ancestors. This is the meaning of the Bible comment in Judges 2:10:
“After that whole generation had been gathered to the fathers… .”
The bones of the deceased were literally gathered and placed with those of their ancestors, the fathers, in the repository under the burial bench.
Moving along the line of caves, Barkay noticed that this one was different from the rest. The care taken to carve and smooth its walls showed that this was the tomb of a wealthy Jerusalem family.
A long rock ledge with six headrests had been carved into the rock burial bench where the bodies of the dead would be laid out. Closer examination revealed that originally, the cave had 5 chambers and a central hall and could hold about 22 bodies on benches, each with a headrest like these.
This tomb had evidently been in use from the mid-7th century BC – from about 650BC – that is towards the end of the First Temple period, not all that long before Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC.
Barkay had never seen anything like this before. He ran his fingers along the bench. Could this cave contain a special surprise?
Barkay peered beneath the bench, looking for the repository where they buried the bones. When he looked inside, all he saw was what looked like an empty rock floor. Barkay was deeply disappointed.
But he needed to have all the accumulated dirt and stones cleaned out of the repository ready to be photographed for the official excavation reports. And he had the perfect person to do the cleanout.
Among the 13 year-old diggers, there was one particularly annoying kid named Nathan, who was always tugging at Barkay’s shirt and making a real nuisance of himself. Well, here was Barkay’s chance to get rid of him. The repository was the ideal place to put him. He would be out of sight and out of mind.
So Barkay told Nathan that the Repository had to be as clean as his mother’s kitchen, even if he had to lick it clean. It had to be spotless for the photograph.
To his Barkay’s surprise, Nathan cleans out the repository meticulously. But then Nathan gets bored. He has a hammer in his hand – usually a bad combination. In his boredom, Nathan starts banging his hammer on the repository rock floor.
And this is where truth becomes stranger than fiction. The floor cracks, opens up and reveals an ancient treasure trove. Apparently, a layer of rock from the cave’s ceiling had collapsed and covered the repository floor. Nathans hammering had broken it up and revealed the hidden treasure below.
Leave it to a 13-year old troublemaker to make one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time – a secret room filled with ancient treasure. But this now required professional attention immediately. So, Nathan and his friends were sent home and replaced by a team of university archaeology students.
They were sworn to secrecy – they weren’t even allowed to tell their parents, spouses, or friends. If word got around Jerusalem that there was a cave full of treasure here, it would attract modern day tomb robbers and create a security nightmare.
Electricity was connected from the nearby St. Andrews Church. The team worked 24 hours around the clock. Carefully, stone by stone, they removed the rubble. As the last stone was removed, light flashed into the complete repository for the first time in almost a million days.
Its ancient treasure lay untouched. It had escaped the greedy hands of grave robbers over the millennia. Gabriel Barkay peered into the semi-darkness of this ancient burial cave. What he saw caused his heart to race with excitement.
He had entered a long-lost world never intended to be seen by human eyes. Surrounding him were dozens of grinning skeletons – the remains of 95 ancient Israelites, dead for thousands of years. And there was treasure, fabulous treasure.
In the flickering light thrown by the single lightbulb, he and his team saw a stunning array of burial gifts. Over a thousand precious objects. There was silver jewellery, coins, precious stones, oil lamps, jars and decanters, vessels of alabaster and ivory artefacts.
The excavation also uncovered an inscribed seal with the word Paltah, which is a shortened version of Pelatyahu, a common name found in the
City of David at that time. Evidently this cave belonged to a wealthy family with that name. And at least 95 family members, were buried here over several generations.
Amid the excitement, one of the student’s attention was attracted by a small object on the floor of the cave near where she was kneeling. She called Barkay’s attention to the grey-purple item on the floor. It looked like a cigarette butt. It was the colour of corroded silver.
Examining the small object, Barkay recognised it as an amulet – a strip of silver rolled up into a tiny scroll with a hole in its centre through which a string could be threaded.
Barkay suggested that it was a pendant, probably worn around the neck by one of these Israelites buried here in the cave. Later, as they sieved the soil accumulated on the floor over the centuries, another amulet, a second still smaller silver scroll was found in the cave.
The larger scroll was about 2cm in length and 1cm in diameter. The second scroll was about half the size.
This is the first and only intact burial repository of the First Temple Period – eighth to sixth century BC – ever found in Jerusalem. Of some 1000 items found in the tomb, the silver scrolls were of special interest to Barkay. He was convinced that there must be writing on them. He was sure of it!”
But the scrolls were too brittle to unroll. For two and a half years Barkay tried to find some way of unrolling the silver scrolls. They were sent to experts at the University of Leeds in Britain.
They are some of the most experienced restorers of ancient artifacts and metal experts available for such delicate work. The British experts felt, however, that the danger of destroying the scrolls was too great. They refused to risk working on the scrolls and returned them.
The scrolls were then sent to Germany. The German laboratory similarly declined and sent the scrolls back to Israel. Nobody was prepared to touch them. They were just too delicate and fragile. The danger of harming them was too great.
For three years the contents of the scrolls remained a secret. Barkay was frustrated. He feared the scrolls would keep their secrets forever. Finally, the scrolls went to the Israel Museum laboratories. Joseph ‘Dodo’ Shenhav was given the responsibility of devising some means to unravel them.
The responsibility was enormous. Shenhav considered every possibility. Finally, he came up with a new and innovative solution. He soaked the larger scroll in an acid solution to remove 2600 years of corrosion.
Then the outer layer was carefully smeared with an acrylic emulsion to give it strength. When it dried it was transparent and elastic.
Shenhav then carefully unrolled the first layer. Layer by layer he repeated the process. Millimeter by millmeter, over a period of months, both scrolls were carefully unrolled.
The larger of the scrolls was two and a half cm wide, and ten cm in length. It was made of pure silver.
Eagerly Barkay placed the larger scroll under a microscope. “It’s covered with writing,” he cried excitedly as he squinted through the eyepiece where he saw the faint etchings of ancient Hebrew letters.
Now, the challenge was to decipher the writing. And even if he could decipher the characters inscribed on the ancient scrolls – would they – could they have any meaning today?
Well, in studying the now opened scroll, Barkay identified God’s name twice on the amulet. But it wasn’t enough to decipher the full message and unlock the mystery of the Silver scroll.
However, now he was more determined than ever to find out what was inscribed on scrolls. He just had to discover their message.
Years passed. In 1988 the scrolls, along with the other treasures found in Ketef Hinnom, were turned over to the Israel Museum in preparation for an exhibit to be held some months later. Ada Yardeni, an expert in the ancient script noticed something on the scrolls that Barkay and others missed.
As she closely examined the scrolls she discovered God’s name written a third time on both scrolls in three consecutive lines. Armed with this new information, she sought the help of a friend, a devout Jew. He knew the Hebrew scriptures virtually by heart.
“Do you know the priestly benediction?” he asked. “It’s the only place in the Scriptures where God’s name appears three times like that.” This was the clue that unlocked the mystery of the silver scroll. Yardeni soon deciphered the rest of the words.
Inscribed on the scrolls, practically word for word, was the priestly benediction found in Numbers 6:24-26. They are the words that Moses brought from God and gave to Aaron and his sons to bless the people. The High Priest prayed this benediction, this blessing, over the children of Israel every day.
“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.” (Numbers 6:24-26)
The silver scrolls contain the oldest biblical inscription ever found. When the ancient scribe etched those words some 2700 years ago, the prophet Jeremiah was still alive, Solomon’s Temple still stood, and the heirs of King David sat on the throne. The Dead Sea Scrolls would not be written for another 400 years.
Now, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 they were the oldest Hebrew Biblical inscriptions ever found. They were 1,000 years older than any other manuscripts in existence. Now, the silver scrolls, were 400 years older. And here’s what so amazing.
Although written about 2700 years ago, the words are virtually identical with those found in our Bibles. It’s a staggering fact that, in the course of over two and a half millennia of copying by hand, no errors have crept into that text.
This suggests a remarkable accuracy in the transmission of the Bible across the centuries and through the millennia. The discovery of the silver scrolls is a timely reminder that we can trust the accuracy of the Bible as we have it today.
A SPECIAL MESSAGE
Perhaps the silver scrolls bring a special message from the distant past to us all. You see, this priestly benediction is the only prayer written by God Himself for His people.
Yes, this prayer etched on the silver scrolls, is the only prayer that was dictated by God to bless His people – and that includes you. This is God’s prayer for you. In fact, in this blessing, God refers to ‘you’ six times.
And His blessing covers every aspect of your life. He knows exactly what you need. He desires to shower you with the following:
1. The Lord bless you – goodness and prosperity
2. and keep you – safekeeping and protection
3. The Lord make His face shine on you – a lighted way
4. and be gracious to you – His unmerited favour
5. The Lord turn His face to you – love and affection
6. and give you peace – peaceful living, inner-peace and happiness.
An ancient blessing, God’s prayer for you, that demonstrates His desire to bless you with: prosperity, safekeeping, a lighted way, unmerited favour, affection, inner-peace and happiness.
These are God’s most basic desires for you. How good’s that? The message etched on the silver scrolls and now etched on our hearts. A message thousands of years old and still perfectly modern and relevant.
If you would like to find out more about the fascinating discoveries in the past that prove the accuracy of the Bible, then I’d like to recommend the free gift we have for all our Incredible Journey viewers today.
It’s the booklet, The Silver Scrolls and other Amazing Discoveries. This booklet is our gift to you and is absolutely free. I guarantee there are no costs or obligations whatsoever. So make the most of this wonderful opportunity to receive the gift we have for you today.
If you’ve enjoyed today’s journey to Jerusalem and our reflections on the message of the Silver Scrolls, the Priestly Benediction, then be sure to join us again next week when we will share another of life’s journeys together. Until then, let’s pray the prayer given by God to bless His people.
“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.” Amen.