After almost six decades of exile, a scrap of papyrus inscribed with the name Ishmael when Solomon’s Temple stood will return to Jerusalem. A Montana resident gifted Israel a papyrus dating from the late 7th or early 6th century BCE, making it one of the three oldest-known papyrus fragments in the world.
The resident of Montana received the papyrus from his mother who acquired it when she was visiting Jordanian-occupied Jerusalem in 1965. Eitan Klein, head of the Israeli antiquities’ theft prevention unit, said she may have either purchased the object from Khalil Iskander Shahin — a Bethlehem-based antiquities dealer better known as “Kando,” who traded in many of the originally discovered Dead Sea Scrolls — or may have been given the papyrus byJoseph Saad, then-curator of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. They have both passed away and it remains unclear how they acquired the papyrus. After returning home, she hung it on the wall of her home.
Jordanian law that was in force at the time severely restricted the sale of antiquities and prohibited the export of artifacts without a permit from the minister of antiquities. It is not clear whether the woman possessed such authorization.
The anonymous donor inherited the papyrus from his mother. Ben-Gurion University Professor Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Bible Studies, Archaeology and the Ancient Near East noticed a photo of the papyrus in a colleague’s unpublished papers, noting that it was previously undocumented. He notified Klein who contacted the owner. The man was invited to Jerusalem in 2019 and the owner was persuaded that the facilities in Jerusalem would offer the best conditions to conserve and research the rare artifact. He then decided to donate it to the State of Israel.
Authorities believe it was likely looted sometime in the last century from a cave in the Judean Desert. Its story and disappearance for six decades make it provenance suspect but The Israel Antiquities Authority said it authenticated its age using radiocarbon dating, which corresponded with the age of the text’s writing style.
Barely as large as a postage stamp and dating from the First Temple period (1200-586 BCE), the papyrus has four lines of ancient Hebrew script. The fragment is addressed to or from “Ishmael” and reads “Don’t send to …” and “of no help.”
Ishmael (meaning “God will hear”) appeared in the Bible as the son of Abraham and the concubine Hagar, making him the half-brother of Isaac. Professor Ahituv noted that the name was common at the time, frequently appearing on a late Judean monarchy clay bulla – stamp for sealing documents – that reads “Belonging to Ishmael, the king’s son.”
“First Temple-period documents written on organic materials—such as this papyrus—have scarcely survived,” said Joe Uziel, Director of Israel Antiquities Authority’s Judean Desert scrolls unit. “Whilst we have thousands of scroll fragments dating from the Second Temple period, we have only three documents, including this newly found one, from the First Temple period. Each new document sheds further light on the literacy and the administration of the First Temple period.”
The papyrus was given to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Judean Desert Scroll Department’s Conservation Laboratory in Jerusalem. The papyrus will join the other 25,000 fragments in the collection that date from the end of the Second Temple period, around 70 CE. On Thursday, Ahituv presented the story at the IAA’s First Judean Desert Conference at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.