A Rookie Mistake in Forging an Ancient Document

Biblical Archaeology Review just shared an interesting story on a purportedly ancient Jewish document. As reported in October 2016, a papyrus mentioning the city of “Jerusalem,” “the king,” and “jars of wine” allegedly from around 600 BC was recently acquired through the antiquities market. Multiple scholars accepted the document as authentic, based in part upon carbon dating that confirmed the papyrus was ancient. Carbon dating has also been done on the ink, and though the results have not yet been published, apparently also attest to ancient origins.

However, there is good reason to remain skeptical, as Christopher Rollston explains in “The King of Judah, Jars of Wine, and the City of Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Papyrus and the Forged Words on It”  at Biblical Archaeology Review, one of my favorite resources. The article can be read for free, but I recommend joining me as a subscriber to their publications for just $35 a year.

Yes, the papyrus may be ancient and the ink may be ancient also, and the Hebrew may be plausible in general. But to a trained expert in Hebrew, one can detect a rookie mistake that may give away the forgery.

Modern forgeries have become much more sophisticated. Forgers have access to articles on the technical details of how previous forgeries have been detected. They have access to vast resources of knowledge to improve their work. In forging an ancient document, for example, they know how to buy ancient materials that will pass carbon dating tests. But Rollston notes that the Hebrew stumbles badly on a grammatical subtlety:

Within the Semitic languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic, is a linguistic construction called a “construct.” In its most basic form, a construct chain consists of the juxtaposition of two nouns (or nominals). So, for example, the phrase “Law of Moses” is a construct chain, and the phrase “Song of Songs” is as well. One of the most important features of a construct chain is the form of the first noun in the construct chain. That noun is said to be in the “construct state” (and the noun that follows it is said to be in the absolute state). And when that first noun is a masculine plural or dual plural, its construct form is quite different from its absolute form.

In the Jerusalem Papyrus inscription, there is paradigmatic construct chain, namely, “jars of wine.” We have that very same phrase, with the very same words, in the Hebrew Bible: “jars of wine” (1 Samuel 25:18; cf. also Job 38:37; Lamentations 4:2). But there is a subtle difference. In the Hebrew Bible, it is spelled nbly yyn. That’s the correct spelling. However, in the Jerusalem Papyrus, it is spelled “nblym yyn.” The problem with the spelling in the Jerusalem Papyrus is that the m is not supposed to be there. It’s not the sort of mistake that a native speaker of ancient Hebrew would make (and certainly not a scribe!). Significantly, within modern Hebrew, a circumlocution is often used to avoid construct forms (namely, the word šĕ), but in ancient Hebrew (in speech and in writing), the construct form was the way to do this. And, of course, the fact that we have the construct form of “jars of” (i.e., nbly) used multiple times in the Bible, including the very phrase “jars of wine,” demonstrates that this was certainly the way it should have been done in the Jerusalem Papyrus. But it wasn’t (and I find the logic of the authors of the editio princeps to account for this problem to be strained, special pleading). This is really quite a rookie mistake for the forger, and my strong suspicion is that the forger of this text is reading up right now on the proper construct forms in ancient Hebrew. I doubt that he will make that mistake again. There are also some problems with the script, some very fine anomalies. I may discuss those in a future publication…or I may not do so, in order to avoid educating the forgers. After all, for the past century and a half, forgers have been reading the things scholars write and learning more and more about how to avoid blunders in their forgeries.

Ultimately, the case against the Jerusalem Papyrus is pretty strong. To be sure, there are, and will continue to be, people who believe that it’s ancient. But for my money, I think that it’s of recent vintage. And the modern forger is pretty good at his craft, but not perfect. And, as I mentioned, I suspect that the forger of this inscription is studying up on construct forms right now.

And so, another classic case of forgery has been closed, exposed — in spite of a skilled, even meticulous forger going to great lengths to obtain ancient materials — by a rookie mistake in the text.

Then comes some further review in the comments, and now the story becomes even more interesting. Other readers explain that this mistake, the added m on the first noun, is actually characteristic of an early form of Hebrew in the relevant region, dating before the Masoretic text, and is a sign of authenticity, not a forgery. Indeed, were it a forgery, the forger would naturally use the phrase in question as it appears multiple times in the Bible. Why depart from that? If the commenters are correct, what appeared as a rookie flaw in the text that pointed to a modern forgery actually strengthens the case for ancient origins. A great example of how complicated it can be to evaluate an ancient document even when you have it before your eyes with all the tools of modern science and knowledge to evaluate it.

It’s also a reminder of the story behind some of the classic rookie blunders in the Book of Mormon. I refer to blunders like the male name “Alma,” so stupidly plagiarized from the modern woman’s name in the Romance languages. Over a century after the Book of Mormon was published, Jewish scholars discovered that Alma indeed was a proper name for a Jewish man dating back to the 7th century B.C. Suddenly, a glaring weakness was a strength. Ditto for the horrific blunder, one of the top 10 arguments against the Book of Mormon in many publications, wherein according to Alma 7:10 Christ is said to be born in Jerusalem, or rather “at Jerusalem, the land of our forefathers.” Earth to Joseph: everybody in your day knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. What were you thinking? It would be over a century again before we learned something not found in the KJV Bible, namely the area around Jerusalem was actually known anciently as the “land of Jerusalem” and that Bethlehem, according to the Dead Sea Scrolls, was explicitly stated to be in this land (in any case, Bethlehem being virtually a suburb of Jerusalem, for practical purposes those on the other side of the world can reasonably say that Christ was born there). It’s exactly the kind of mistake that even a clumsy forger would not make.

There are many more rookie mistakes which tend to get more interesting when examined more closely. Things like crossing the Arabian Peninsula to get to Bountiful — totally ridiculous until field work confirmed the plausibility of many details and even provided archaeological confirmation of the name Nahom, in the right place and time, and at least one excellent candidate for Bountiful in just the right place (recent questionable attempts to undermine this evidence are especially interesting).

What’s your favorite former Book of Mormon blunder?

Author: Jeff Lindsay

29 thoughts on “A Rookie Mistake in Forging an Ancient Document

  1. Recently, I watched a celeb repeat the cliched nobody-said-I-would-make-it anecdote. How tiresome. Everyone achieving any success feels the impulse to aggrandize the success further by greatly exaggerating any criticism the along the road to discovery.

    Same with the Arabian Peninsula. An Evangelical with a PhD in Biology didn’t think there were trees in Arabia, until his brother in the Air Force told him he was wrong. Wow.

    My favorite apologist false declaration of blunder is regarding metal book writing in the Ancient Mediterranean. http://mormanity.blogspot.com/2014/01/an-ancient-tradition-of-writing-on.html The apologist protested too much, convincing me of a blunder I never realized existed. Still proven to be a blunder by Wikipedia’s excellent mechanism for intellectual debate: “there is no known extant example of writing on metal plates from the ancient Mediterranean longer than the eight-page Persian codex, and none from any ancient civilization in the Western Hemisphere.” The “proof” against the blunder is a 19 page vertically stack metal plates preserved in a Korea monastery. Ergo, Lamb’s discovery of blunder remains as strong as ever.

  2. An Evangelical with a PhD in Biology didn’t think there were trees in Arabia…
    Basically NOBODY believed there were trees in Arabia. That's why the Bountiful discovery is so significant.

    Still proven to be a blunder by Wikipedia’s excellent mechanism for intellectual debate…
    Because, as everybody knows, Wikipedia is completely infallible and always right.

    I know nothing about ancient Hebrew (or modern Hebrew, for that matter), and so I'm not really able to have an informed opinion about this maybe-ancient-maybe-forgery document. The story's kind of interesting, though.

  3. You are wrong. Despite being new to you, the country of Oman is not a new discovery, nor are trees there. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhow

    You are the only one that thinks Wikipedia is infallible. In fact, one of the great things about Wikipedia is it acknowledges its fallibility and provides a method to correct errors. Your and Fairmormon’s inability to find additional errors on Wikipedia speaks volumes.

    The internet has brought about a new delusion: So many people think anyone cares what their opinion is.

  4. You are the only one that thinks Wikipedia is infallible.
    Seriously? I was being sarcastic.

    So many people think anyone cares what their opinion is.
    Or even worse, the people that think everyone is entitled to their opinion.

  5. Wow. You describe your own behavior as insulting and degrading of others, you describing your reasoning as the “because I said so”, and now express disdain for your feeling of opinion entitlement.

  6. You are lying. I very specifically described YOU, Mormography, NOT MYSELF, as being insulting and degrading and using "because I said so" reasoning. YOU were the one that projected those flaws onto me. I was not, however, talking about anyone in specific (you or me) when I mentioned people who think they are entitled to their opinion (which I think I initially worded wrong, actually).

  7. The concern about bloodstains on the swords of the Anti-Nephi Lehi men. Metal swords rust, not stain. Macuahuitls, on the other hand….

  8. Ramer – Not a lie. To help you understand, you defined insulting to be using “twisted” to ungrounded articulations of Mormon belief. Yours turned out to be ungrounded and mine grounded. Ergo, you described your behavior as insulting, not me. Behavior/reasoning are not people. Pretty basic. Sorry I had to explain it.

  9. …you defined insulting to be using “twisted” to ungrounded articulations of Mormon belief. Yours turned out to be ungrounded and mine grounded.
    Can you point me to where I defined it this way? Because I didn't. This is just a definition you made up that puts you in the right and me in the wrong.
    And can you show me where it was found out that your articulations were grounded and mine were ungrounded? Because that didn't happen beyond you saying that it did.

    Unless you can show me these, it was indeed you that claimed I was being insulting, not me.

  10. Nice to see you admit I am in the right and you in the wrong. As you know, I am not making things up and the requested has been provided many times before and is provided again below. The whole world can see your insincerity in the various threads, where you say you are not going to interact with me anymore, but nonetheless continue to stalk me as you do in this thread. I have no problem standing up to cowardly bullies that pick fights and then repeatedly beg for other muscle to finish the fights for them. The major difference between Mormanity and yourself, Ramer, is that you are a believer. This is the root of all your un-Christlike hate and anger.

    “Mormography's claim about the claim that another religion is evil – he's twisting”
    “Now who is twisting things?”
    …but “one isolated statement” and “out of context” …. Now who is twisting things?
    If you're going to start insulting me, I don't think I want to talk with you anymore.

  11. Mormography, this is getting tedious. By now should all get that you're brilliant. You don't have to condescend to everyone to explain why and to expose everyone else's insecurity, hypocrisy, and leptokurticity. Otherwise people will think you're just a troll.

  12. I could not agree more. This is tedious. So why do your lackeys keep doing it? I had to look up leptokurticity which I am guessing means narrow-minded. But I get, big words make you brilliant, which has always been my point. I should lose any argument here due to my inferior intelligence, but I always win, because the argument is not intelligent from the start. What is it about your behavior that encourages your followers to behave this way?

  13. Anon 6:27 AM Nov 3 –

    I don't know why I keep responding. I keep telling myself I need to stop, but I never seem to be able to go through with it.

    And I don't think Mormography is a troll (or at least, not JUST a troll). I think he may be narcissistic as well. He displays a lot of the symptoms (overinflated ego, arrogance, inability to recognize any time he is wrong, projection of his own flaws onto everyone else, etc.).

  14. I see, some more of that "because I said so" reasoning. Standing up to you is not much to brag about, so it does not really boost my ego … but it is cute that you think so.

  15. As far as my favorite "former Book of Mormon blunder," I'm going to have to go with Nahom/Bountiful.

    Finding a spot in the Arabian desert that matches the Book of Mormon's description, right after a gravesite with an inscription matching the BoM name, which involves a real linguistic root and is dated to an appropriate time – all of that is probably too good for me to understand how anyone can overlook or underestimate it.

  16. My favorite is Joseph's bad grammar ending up being acceptable grammar from a bygone era. There's no reason for it, no plausible explanation for why it is, and some doubt about it really being the case, but at least now we can say that he didn't translate with poor grammar–the grammar usage was intentional.

  17. Here's an interesting blunder:

    "Relating his experiences to his family the following day, Joseph reported, 'the angel of the Lord says that we must be careful not to proclaim these things or to mention them abroad, for we do not any of us know the weakness of the world, which is so sinful, and that when we get the plates they will want to kill us for the sake of the gold, if they know we have them.'"

    Moroni's commandment wasn't kept and his prophesy didn't come true. Much is made of the consequences of Joseph's disobedience to other commandments, but not this one. I wonder why?

  18. OK – You come up with some good zingers. The 116 pages is indeed the genesis behind this Mormon cultural tradition of falsely asserting mistakes are actually strengths. The power of collective chanting. If any religion has proven that perfection, error, right, wrong, or blunder are all a matter of definition, the LDS have.

    The current apology seems to be, fraudulent origins aside, the current leadership is well-intentioned. If Josemaria Escriva’s Opus Dei could do the same for Catholicism, what a great, wealthy world power it would become again.

  19. Ramer – Does troll or stalker describe you better? You know the internet also has this thing called a search engine, not just blogs. It also has this called video streaming, try South Park.

  20. So… someone with a history of being offensive and rude in discussions about a certain religion, the one I belong to… is suggesting I watch a TV show, which also has a history of being offensive and rude, for shock value, about information on that same religion.

    Yeah, that's not going to happen.

    And considering how quick he is to respond to and antagonize people – especially on posts that are years old, regarding comments that show up long after the original discussion has died down – I think "stalker" describes Mormography way more than it does me.

  21. “considering how quick he is to respond to and antagonize people – especially on posts that are years old” That is exactly what you did recently, so by your definition you are stalker.

    Rude and offensive is what you have been from the start. You drew first blood. Stalking someone that has confesses to stalking behavior first, is not stalking, especially when they will not quit.

    "I don't know why I keep responding. I keep telling myself I need to stop, but I never seem to be able to go through with it." Indicates need for professional help. Recognizing your own stalking behavior, wanting to overcome it, but unable to control your impulses.

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