Scriptures on 2,600-Year-Old Silver Scrolls Found in Jerusalem
June 1987

“Scriptures on 2,600-Year-Old Silver Scrolls Found in Jerusalem,” Ensign, June 1987, 56–57

Scriptures on 2,600-Year-Old Silver Scrolls Found in Jerusalem

You may not recognize these Hebrew words:

“Yebarekah Yehovah ‘vyishmerekah:

“Yáer Yehovah panav ‘eleykah ‘vihunekah:

“Yisa Yehovah panav ‘eleykah ‘vyasem lekah shalom.”

But you may recognize them in English:

“The Lord bless thee, and keep thee:

“The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:

“The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”

These words, from Numbers 6:24–26 [Num. 6:24–26], were recently deciphered and translated from two tiny silver scrolls dating back to the mid-to-late seventh century B.C.—or the time of Jeremiah. The scrolls were discovered in 1979 by Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay in Ketef Hinnom, a site of burial caves in Jerusalem.

Dr. Barkay, in an interview with the Ensign, said that the burial cave was probably first hewn during the latter part of the reign of King Manasseh or during the reign of King Josiah. Archaeologists established the dating by comparing artifacts, burial customs as reflected in architecture, and inscriptions with those of other well-dated caves. The tomb has yielded about 1000 objects, including more than 260 pottery vessels and 100 objects of silver.

The excavators also uncovered an inscribed seal with the word Paltah, which is a shortened version of Pelatyahu, a common family name found in the City of David of that time. Evidently the cave belonged to a wealthy family with that name. At least ninety-five people, representing several generations, were interred there.

Before the silver scrolls were unrolled, no one was sure what they contained. They appeared to be a kind of amulet—tiny rolled cylinders with a space in the middle of each so that a string could be threaded through them, then worn on the body. One scroll was just over one inch in length and not quite half an inch in diameter; the other was less than half as long and thick. The scrolls also proved to be almost pure silver—the larger scroll is 99 percent silver, 1 percent copper. (See Gabriel Barkay, “The Priestly Benediction on the Silver Plaques,” Ketef Hinnom: A Treasure Facing Jerusalem’s Walls, Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1986, p. 29.)

For four years the Israel Museum laboratories hesitated as to the means of opening the scrolls without damaging them. Finally they developed a special method of smearing acrylic glue on the backs and slowly unrolling them. The museum discovered that the scrolls were covered with ancient Hebrew writing.

The text proved to be difficult to decipher. The letters are faint and shallow, and the scrolls are heavily cracked, with missing fragments. Only 53 percent of the inscriptions on the larger scroll remain.

The drawing of the inscriptions was made by using microscopic binoculars, taking photographs with different lighting, and enlarging and projecting photographs onto the wall, so it was possible to copy part of the text.

The deciphered text on the larger scroll is almost identical to Numbers 6:24–26 [Num. 6:24–26], commonly called the “priestly benediction.” The deciphered text on the smaller scroll is a shorter version of the benediction—ten words instead of fifteen in the Hebrew original version of Numbers—that is reminiscent of Psalms 67:2:

“God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; Selah.” [Ps. 67:2]

The rest of the text remains largely indecipherable. Dr. Barkay says, “We have a general idea, though. It is a kind of apotropaic text. In other words, it invokes divine protection. We have found the Hebrew word hesed, which means mercy, and the name of the Lord in the text. The inscription stresses the Jehovistic concept and concentration of worship.”

The significance of the scrolls has yet to be fully ascertained, but their importance as historical artifacts is growing. The scrolls are the earliest records in the finds from Jerusalem in which the name of the God of Israel, YHWH, appears. The scrolls also predate all other biblical fragments by more than three hundred years. Previously, the earliest known fragments of any biblical text dated to the late third century B.C. The inscriptions demonstrate that, at the very least, the “priestly benediction” existed before the fall of Jerusalem and that its text has remained more or less the same since the city’s destruction.

The scrolls are also the earliest examples of amulets or charms worn on the body. The practice of wearing objects inscribed with scriptures was widespread among Israel, originating from several commandments in the Pentateuch, one of which reads:

“It shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes.” (Ex. 13:9.)

The wearing of objects inscribed with scriptures is the origin of the phylactery, a small, square leather box that contains parchment slips, upon which are written four passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy. One box is worn on the left arm and one on the forehead. The practice was quite common and exaggerated at the time of Christ, who referred to them in Matthew 23:5:

“All [the Pharisees’] works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries.” [Matt. 23:5] (See Madeleine S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, “Phylacteries,” Harper’s Bible Dictionary, eighth ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1973.)

Most significant to the Latter-day Saint is the fact that we now have physical evidence that scripture was inscribed on precious metal before 600 B.C. The sheet silver and the delicate incisions, apparently made with a sharp instrument, demonstrate that by the time of Lehi the art of fine metalworking was well known in Judah. (Jeremiah himself referred in Jeremiah 10:9 and 17:1 [Jer. 10:9; Jer. 17:1] to such metal and such writing: “Silver spread into plates is brought from Tarshish” and “written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond.”)

Dr. Barkay says that “the significance of inscribing prestigious texts on precious metals, such as gold and silver, is attested by the custom of writing in gold the letters of the Divine Name in the Scrolls of the Law of the Alexandrians living in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period [second century B.C. to the first century A.D.], as well as by inscriptions on gold and silver plaques known in other cultures. This is the first time that an object of this kind dating from the First Temple period [961–922 B.C. to 587 B.C.] has come to light.” (Barkay, p. 30.)

The expert craftsmanship necessary to do fine metalwork, which Nephi demonstrates in the Book of Mormon, existed among the Jews in Jeremiah’s time. More important, the scrolls establish that such craftsmanship was actually used to record sacred texts.

Above: The small silver scroll unrolled. Right: The rock-hewn burial benches of the cave where the scrolls were found. The round depressions are a row of headrests. (Photography by A. Hay.)