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Biblical Archaeology Review 49:1, Spring 2023

Rare Old Hebrew Papyrus?

According to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), an incredibly rare papyrus with Old Hebrew text dating to the time of the First Temple has been recovered. The IAA claims the papyrus, which contains just four lines of text, is one of only three papyrus documents to date to this period and, therefore, offers a unique glimpse into the world of Jerusalem during the time of the biblical kings. However, the papyrus is an unprovenanced object that may have originated on the antiquities market, which has caused some scholars to be more cautious when judging its date and authenticity.

The papyrus fragment, though damaged, includes several Hebrew words that reveal it is part of a letter with instructions to a recipient: “To Ishmael, send …” The letter was likely a request to Ishmael, possibly an administrative official in the Kingdom of Judah, to send commodities to the writer of the text. Initial paleographic and radiocarbon analyses date the papyrus from the late seventh to sixth centuries BCE.

The story of how the Ishmael Papyrus, as it is being called, came to be known to the IAA is no less intriguing than the artifact itself. According to the IAA, an American tourist visiting Jerusalem in 1965 came into possession of the small papyrus fragment, which she acquired from Joseph Saad, Curator of the Palestine Archaeological Museum (now the Rockefeller Museum), and Khalil Iskander Kando, a well-known antiquities dealer from Bethlehem who sold thousands of such fragments. Upon returning home to Montana, the woman hung the prized fragment on a wall in her house.

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