Is Israel’s Big New Find for Real?

A piece of recently found papyrus is said to prove that Jerusalem was the center of a kingdom thousands of years ago. But the timing of its discovery has cast some doubt on it.

Last week, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of an ancient papyrus, dating to the seventh century BCE, that prominently mentions the city of Jerusalem. The text is fragmentary, but a few words are clearly visible. The scholar who has been studying the papyrus, Shmuel Ahituv, translated it as follows: “From the female servant of the king, from Nahrata, two wineskins to Jerusalem.”

The content seems rather banal—this is not a biblical text, or some previously unknown ancient narrative. It is, rather, a shipping manifest, a plain old economic document, of a type known from plenty of other examples. Why the fuss, then?

What makes this papyrus exciting, in theory, is that it seemingly confirms the existence of Jerusalem as a royal capital in seventh-century Israel: “It underscores the centrality of Jerusalem as the economic capital of the kingdom in the second half of the seventh century B.C.,” proclaimed one IAA official. Though most people familiar only with the Bible might take this for granted, the question of whether there was really a kingdom centered around Jerusalem at that point in history is a common one in scholarship. This papyrus would provide at least some evidence that the biblical story—the story that stands behind much of the nationalistic mythology of the modern state of Israel—is grounded in historical reality.

It is telling that the announcement of the papyrus came when it did: just after UNESCO issued resolutions regarding the Temple Mount, the center of the old city of Jerusalem. The UN committee declared that Israel, by refusing to allow UN conservators access to the site, is endangering its future conservation; perhaps more problematically, the resolutions uniformly refer to the site by its Arabic name, Haram al-Sharif. For Israelis and supporters of the state of Israel, this was a direct provocation: Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minster of Israel, declared the UNESCO position to be an “absurdity, which harms not only the historical truth and the truth of the present, but also harms in my opinion the U.N. itself.” The newly-announced papyrus seems to be a response to attempts to dissociate the Temple Mount from Jewish history: the Israeli minister of culture said that the papyrus proves that Jerusalem “was and will remain the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

This is a lot of weight for a scrap of text to bear, but it illustrates just how politicized antiquities discoveries have become. But the Jerusalem papyrus is also an example of another danger when it comes to the world of antiquities: the problem of publicizing, promoting, and publishing texts that are unprovenanced.

Unprovenanced artifacts are those for which the origin and chain of custody are unknown. Unprovenanced texts have become a hot topic recently, and not only in the insular world of academia. The now-famous case of the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” which made national and international headlines, drew attention to the risks that are entailed when working with ancient texts that lack a clear origin. Initial scientific studies of the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” including carbon dating, affirmed that the materials used to make the document were indeed old, but a later investigation revealed that not only the text itself, but also its letters of provenance, had been forged by a former Egyptology graduate student named Walter Fritz. The case highlights the two major problems with artifacts that lack proper documentation.

The first and most obvious, especially in light of the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” is the risk that the text in question may simply be a modern forgery. The IAA and Ahituv are convinced that the Jerusalem papyrus is authentic: they have done laboratory tests on the papyrus, which appears to be from the right general timeframe. As the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” case makes clear, however, this is no guarantee of authenticity. A decent forger will know that such tests are inevitable, and will plan accordingly: most likely by purchasing (or stealing) authentically ancient blank papyri, which are readily available online. Lab tests can disprove authenticity, but at this point they cannot prove it. All they prove is that the papyrus was created using ancient materials, not that it was composed in ancient times.

Scholars who are not concerned with lab testing have openly questioned the authenticity of the Jerusalem papyrus, among them some of the most highly-respected archaeologists, epigraphers, and philologists in the world. Part of what drives this doubt may be technical concerns over issues such as whether the script used is what we would expect to find from the seventh century, or philological details such as whether the place name in the papyrus, Naharata, is grammatically correct. But for many, the overarching problem is how the text came to light in the first place.

According to the initial statements of the IAA, the papyrus was recovered by the IAA’s robbery prevention unit, who broke up a ring of antiquities looters. They believe the papyrus to have originally come from a cave near the Dead Sea, not unlike the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which would account for its unusual preservation for the past 2700 years. At the same time, however, it was announced that the papyrus had been acquired by a private individual who—as is almost always the case—wished to remain anonymous. In other words, this papyrus was circulating on the black market.

Compounding the problem is the fact that more than one scholar has claimed to have been offered a chance to look at this very papyrus a few years ago. Rather than simply sitting in a private collection, it seems as if whoever owned the text was actively looking for someone to give it publicity. One of these scholars, the world-renowned epigrapher Christopher Rollston, says that the text was shown to him back in 2013. Rollston is currently writing a book about antiquities forgeries, and has said that this papyrus will be included in his volume.

The IAA has strenuously objected to any questioning of the papyrus’s authenticity: “If someone wants to say it is fake, they need to bring some kind of proof,” said the head of the IAA’s archaeology division. There was a time, perhaps, when this was the case. But given the increasing number of forgeries being produced, and the growing attention being paid to issues of provenance, much of the scholarly community is turning the situation around: when a new discovery is announced, the burden of proof falls on those who seek to demonstrate its authenticity—especially when the artifact is acknowledged to lack provenance and to have come from the black market of antiquities.

This brings us to the second problem with unprovenanced texts. The assumption of authenticity implicitly supports the market for forgeries: other forgers will now understand that if they can produce an artifact that can pass the lab tests, they will have a hugely valuable item to sell. (It is estimated that a papyrus like this could fetch $1 million on the black market.) It is also hard not to see why the Israeli authorities would want to claim that this document is authentic: after all, they are the very ones who have turned this relatively unimportant papyrus into a tool for political gain. All too many recent forgeries—including the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”—have been a little too on the nose: they speak with suspicious directness to the political or ideological issues of the present. It is for these reasons that at this point, unprovenanced texts—whether or not they turn out to be forgeries—must be treated with great caution, lest we build our understanding of past realities on present-day desires.