Last year I discussed an intriguing archaeological find near Jerusalem: two inscriptions on silver amulets which appear to be the oldest Hebrew inscriptions found so far. See “The Oldest Hebrew Inscription and the Psalms in the Book of Mormon,” Mormanity, June 3, 2018. This discovery impacts several arguments that have been levied to argue against the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon. Now I have an update from some recent publications.
The silver amulets from Ketef Hinnom by Jerusalem are mentioned in an important work of scholarship, a book review by Kevin Christensen, “Light and Perspective: Essays from the Mormon Theology Seminar on 1 Nephi 1 and Jacob 7,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship
31 (2019): 25-70. I recommend reading this essay for much that it reveals about thoughtful LDS scholarship regarding the Book of Mormon. In one section, while discussing the work of Margaret Barker and her
quest to understand the nature of Jewish religion in the First Temple
period, especially before Josiah’s violent reforms that may have opposed
some of the more visionary ways pursued by “old fashioned” prophets
like Lehi, Christensen makes a noteworthy point regarding the silver
amulets and their relationship to the Book of Mormon:
Barker explores tensions within the Bible on basic questions such as whether it was possible to see God. [Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 30, and Margaret Barker, Temple Mysticism: An Introduction (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 54-55]
Deuteronomy denies emphatically that the Lord was seen by Moses at
Sinai: “You heard the sound of words but you saw no form” (Deut.4:12).
The earlier account in Exodus 24 says that Moses and the elders did see
the God of Israel. We assume that the Deuteronomists would also have
denied Isaiah’s claim that he had seen the Lord in the temple, and
disagreed with Jesus when he said that the pure in heart would see God.
[Margaret Barker, “The Temple Hidden in 1 Kings” (paper, Temple Studies Group, July 2, 2011), 2]
One of the secrets of the priesthood must have been experiencing
theophany, something described in the ancient priestly blessing: “May
the LORD make his face/presence shine on you” (Numbers 6:25-26). At
the end of the second temple period, this was one of the forbidden
texts, which could be read in public, but not explained. (m. Megillah
4:10) [Barker, “The Secret Tradition” in The Great High Priest: Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 16]
It should be of interest that this priestly blessing in Numbers turns up
in “Excavations in the late 1970s” of “First Temple period tombs at
Ketef Hinnom, near Jerusalem. Among the artifacts discovered in this dig
were two small silver plates dating to the seventh century BC,
containing the priestly benedictions found in Numbers 6:24-26 and
representing the ‘earliest fragments of the biblical text known up to
the present.'” [See William Hamblin, “Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean,” FARMS Review
19, no. 1 (2007).] That is, the oldest Biblical text known not only
turns out to be writing on metal dating to Lehi’s day and quoting from a
Book of Moses (making it relevant to the story of the Brass Plates),
but it also contains a passage central to a key controversy from that
time, faithfully reflected in 1 Nephi 1:8, and relevant to a climactic
moment of the Book of Mormon as a whole in 3 Nephi 19:25, 30 when Jesus
as Lord is present and shining at the temple.
I find that fascinating news for students of the Book of Mormon.
At nearly the same time as Christensen’s article, Robert Boylan in his Jan. 18, 2019 post at Scriptural Mormonism
noted the significance of these amulets in light of the commentary from
two other scholars published by Yale University Press in 2018:
Commenting on the silver amulets discovered at Ketef Hinnom, Ronald Hendel and Jan Joosten wrote:
The archaeological and paleographical evidence agree in
dating these inscriptions to the late seventh or early sixth century
BCE. These tiny amulets contain prayers that are closely related to the
Priestly and Deueronomic texts.
The first amulet begins:
יהו [. . . ] גד [. . . ] הברית ו[. . . ] חסד לאהב [. . .] ושמרי [. . .]ד העלמ
Yahwe[h . . .] grea[t . . . ] the covenant and [. . . ] steadfast love for those who love [. . . ] and keep [ . . .f]orever
This sequence is close to the language of Deut 7:9:
יְהוָה . . . שֹׁמֵר הַבְּרִית וְהַחֶסֶד לְאֹהֲבָיו וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָיו לְאֶלֶף דּוֹר
Yahweh . . . who keeps the covenant, and steadfast love for those who love him and who keep his commandments, to the thousandth generation.
The Deuteronomy passage is, in turn, related to–and perhaps an allusion
to–the Deuteronomic language in the First Commandment (Exod 20:6 =
Deut 5:10). Close echoes of the language of Deuteronomy and the
Decalogue are here found in a preexilic inscription. This does not mean
that the amulet itself is necessarily quoting or alluding to the book of
Deuteronomy, but it does show that Deuteronomic formulations were
current in the late preexilic period. This amulet echoes the
C[lassical]B[iblical]H[ebrew] language of Deuteronomy and is consilient
with the preexilic context of the core of Deuteronomy. If one holds that
Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic movement were products of the Persian
period or later, then this parallel language is a problem.
This condition also holds for the near-verbatim quotation of the
Priestly Benediction in both amulets. We infer that this prayer, found
in Num 6:24-26, must have been current in late seventh-century or early
sixth-century Jerusalem. An historical model that places the composition
of D and P in the Persian or Hellenistic period lacks consilience with
these data and inferences. For this reason, some scholars who date the
composition of the Hebrew Bible to these later periods also hold that
the Ketef Hinnom inscriptions date to the Hellenistic period. But the
late dating of these inscriptions does not withstand scrutiny. By
extension the same criticism holds for the late-dating model as a whole.
(Ronald Hendel and Jan Joosten, How Old is the Hebrew Bible? A Linguistic, Textual, and Historical Study [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018], 123-24)
In other words, these amulets are indeed pre-exilic in origin, and,
among many other things, a witness that at least some portions of the P
source pre-dates the exile, something consistent with the Book of
As I noted previously, Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay in “The Riches of Ketef Hinnom,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 35:4 (July/August September/October 2009) observed:
[Each of the] texts of the two inscriptions … contains slight
variations of parts of the three blessings that appear in the famous
priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24–26:
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
These are the words with which observant Jews still bless their
children before the Sabbath meal on Friday night and that are also used
in prayers in synagogues….
The amulets can be securely dated on a combination of three grounds.
Paleographically they can be dated by the shape and form of the letters
to the late seventh century B.C.E., before the Babylonian conquest.
Stratigraphically the first amulet was found only about 7 centimeters
(less than 3 in.) above the repository floor, which testifies to its
relative antiquity within the repository assemblages, which rose to
about 2 feet total. The second plaque was found in the innermost part of
the repository, far from the entrance, among the earliest deposits.
Finally, the date suggested paleographically corresponds to the
chronological horizon of the late Iron Age pottery found in the
repository. The silver plaques thus come from the late seventh century
B.C.E., or the time of the prophet Jeremiah and King Josiah.
The implications of this dating are startling. First of all, it means
that these texts on our silver plaques are the oldest composition of
words similar to Biblical verses in existence. The earliest Biblical
texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls date to about 250 B.C.E. at the
earliest. That means that our texts are older than the next oldest
Biblical texts by nearly 400 years.
Moreover, these inscriptions are the only texts of the First Temple period with clear similarities to Biblical verses.
This has important implications for the Biblical text. The
Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses, is usually divided by text-critical
scholars into four source strands, labeled J (for Yahwist, or Jahwist in
German), E (for Elohist), D (for Deuteronomist) and P (for the Priestly
Code). The priestly blessing from Numbers, which is quoted in our
silver plaques, is generally considered part of P, the Priestly Code.
(So, too, the passage from Deuteronomy 7:9, which has echoes in the larger silver amulet.)
There is a major scholarly disagreement as to the date of the
Priestly Code. Some scholars contend it predates the Babylonian
conquest. Others say it is later. Our two texts seem to support those
who contend that the Priestly Code was already in existence, at least in
rudimentary form, in the First Temple period.
The priestly blessing seems to have been widely used during the First
Temple period. Its influence can be traced both in the Bible itself
(see Psalm 67:1, for
example) and in early Hebrew epigraphy. In addition to our references,
an inscription painted on a large pithos at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the
Sinai Peninsula contains the Hebrew words YBRK wYŠ MRK wYHY ‘M ’DNY,
which can be translated as “[may God] bless you and keep you and be with
my Lord.” This, too, dates to the First Temple period.
The Ketef Hinnom excavations have made an enormous contribution, not
only to our understanding of life in Jerusalem more than 2,500 years
ago, but also to our understanding of the development of the text of the
Psalm 67:1, as noted above, is strongly related to the inscriptions. The KJV is: “God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; Selah.” Allusions to this Psalm, and perhaps to the concepts on those silver amulets, are built into the Book of Mormon scene where Christ visits the Nephits are literally shines upon them in 3 Nephi 19:25, after Jesus had prayed with his chosen disciples:
And it came to pass that Jesus blessed them as they did
pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of
his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as white as
the countenance and also the garments of Jesus…
These tiny silver documents show that in Lehi’s day, writing on metal was known, and specifically the writing of a religious text on metal. It shows that some passages of the Bible said to have origins long after the Exile may have had roots before the Exile, consistent with the Book of Mormon. They also help us shows that the very early, First Temple period view that one could see God and have His face shine upon the faithful was literally and appropriately realized in the Book of Mormon, a book that not only helped restore the Gospel of Jesus Christ but continues in some ways to help restore our knowledge of the much more ancient religion among some faithful Jews, contributing significantly to the field that Margaret Barker has been so thoroughly exploring.