February 3, 2003

Scholars debate whether tablet
documents Solomon's temple

___JERUSALEM (RNS)--A 2,800-year-old stone tablet inscribed with a passage describing the renovation of Solomon's Temple has been discovered in Jerusalem and may be the first bit of archaeological evidence to confirm biblical descriptions of Solomon's dynasty and the elaborate house of sacrifice and worship the Bible says he constructed.
___Some experts, however, have cast doubts as to the authenticity of the artifact, partly because it surfaced recently in a Jerusalem antiquities dealer's shop rather than as part of an organized archaeological excavation.
___But Shimon Ilan and Amnon Rosenfeld, geologists at t
THE JOASH TABLET is written in Phoenician-Hebrew script, but experts are cautious to validate its authenticity.
he respected Israel Geological Survey, say scientific tests of the inscription's "patina" indicate the crust of age over the script is at least 2,300 years old.
___An analysis of the Phoenician-Hebrew script by Hebrew University scholar Ada Yardeni adds another 500 years to the age of the tablet, since the script resembles the kind of handwriting that was common around 800 B.C., during the 9th century B.C. rule of Judah's King Joash.
___"If it is authentic, it is a sensational find, no doubt," said Gabriel Barkai, a biblical archaeologist with Bar Ilan University who has examined high-quality photographs of the item.
___"It is the first royal inscription of one of the kings of Judah or Israel written in the name of the monarch himself. It is the first extra-biblical reference to the building of the first Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem, which is known only through the Bible."
___The inscription on the tablet, the size of a legal pad, describes temple renovations undertaken by Joash, a descendant of the Davidic dynasty, in language remarkably similar to passages in II Kings 12:1-6 and 11-17.
___In the Hebrew inscription, the king describes how his priests collected money from the public "to buy quarry stones and timber and copper" and asks that following the renovation work, "the Lord will protect his people with blessing."
___During a Scanning Electron Microscope test performed by Ilani and Rosenfeld, specks of carbon and microscopic globules of gold were discovered in the patina overlaying the inscription. A subsequent analysis was done by a laboratory in Florida.
___"From a scientific point of view, it's almost impossible to forge such a thing," said Rosenfeld of the tests.
___Ilani and Rosenfeld believe both the carbon specks and the gold globules may have gradually accumulated on the inscription after the tablet was buried in debris around 586 B.C., during the burning and destruction of the first Temple by Nebuchadnezzar II.
___According to Yardeni's analysis, the script used in the inscription gives the tablet an even older date than the carbon tests. The script resembles the Phoenician-Hebrew style of script that was used during the 9th century B.C. and has been found on two other rare inscriptions from the period.
___The find could be especially important because while the second Temple's retaining walls still stand in the center of Jerusalem's Old City, no First Temple remains have ever been uncovered in the Old City, a fact that has, in recent decades, generated doubts among some scholars about the accuracy of biblical passages describing Solmon's elaborate temple.
___The stone tablet first came to the attention of Ilani and Rosenfeld after an anonymous Israeli owner, who had reportedly purchased the tablet from an antiquities store, offered it for sale to the Israel Museum. The museum rebuffed the offer due to doubts of its authenticity, and the owner subsequently brought it to the Geological Survey to have it evaluated.
___Despite the lack of precise information on where the tablet was obtained, a report in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz cited unnamed sources as saying the artifact was uncovered during recent construction work underneath Al Aksa Mosque, the Muslim shrine that now sits atop the ancient Temple Mount.
___According to some theories, the tablet may have surfaced amid tons of debris carted away from the site when a number of ancient underground chambers beneath the mosque were converted into auxiliary prayer rooms.
___If the tablet is indeed authenticated and linked to the Temple site, it would have widespread political, as well as religious and archaeological ramifications, serving to strengthen longstanding Jewish claims to the disputed area.
___Muslim authorities have been adamant that no Jewish temple ever rested on the Temple Mount, site of the Al Aksa Mosque, despite the generally accepted fact the retaining walls of the second Temple from the time of King Herod remain.
___Among those skeptical of the tablet's authenticy is Steven Ortiz, assistant professor of archaeology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
___"Based on the initial response by scholars on academic discussion lists," Ortiz said, "this new inscription is a hoax by someone who knows modern Hebrew and makes some basic mistakes in writing a Hebrew phrase found in 2 Kings 12.
___"I suspect that the initial sensationalism of this find will quickly subside as it is subject to scrutiny by the academic community," Ortiz said.
___With additional reporting from Baptist Press

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