A 13-word scrap of Old Hebrew script about a payment of three shekels of silver to King Solomon's temple in Jerusalem has been dated to sometime between the ninth and seventh centuries B.C., making the inscription the oldest non-biblical reference to the Jewish holy place ever discovered.
The conclusions, which were based on laboratory tests of the pottery shard on which the script was found and on analysis of the ancient Hebrew scribe's handwriting, were reported Monday in Biblical Archaeology Review.
The pottery fragment, brought to scholars' attention by its owner, the private London collector Shlomo Moussaieff, refers to the transfer of three shekels of silver to "Beit Yahweh," which is commonly translated as "the house (or temple) of Yahweh."
Scholars think the note, written in ink, is an invoice or a receipt for a donation to the temple, later destroyed in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians as they forced its people into captivity.
"I think it's an extremely exciting find. The rarest of the rare," said Hershel Shanks, editor of the review. "You could count on the fingers of your hand ancient inscriptions of such importance.
"What this provides is the context for the Biblical narrative. It doesn't prove the Bible true, but it fleshes out the real-life world in which it was created."
Prior to this find, the earliest mention of the temple apart from biblical texts was found on a pottery shard excavated at Arad, Israel, several years ago. That was dated to the sixth century B.C.
The origin of Moussaieff's fragment is unknown, said Shanks. "No one knows or at least they are not talking," he said.
This is common on the private antiquities market, he said, noting that valuable items sometimes turn up after being stolen from excavations or illegally excavated.
"I'm not sure (Moussaieff) knows himself" where the shard was found, Shanks said.
The 13 words of ancient Hebrew on the piece of pottery read: "Pursuant to the order to you of Ashyahu the King to give by the hand of Zecharyahu silver of Tarshish to the House (or Temple) of Yahweh. Three shekels."
The shekel was a measure of weight equal to about 11 grams, close to an ounce, Shanks said. Scholars are not certain where Tarshish was, though some think it was in Spain.
The note "directs someone, who is not named, to pay silver to the temple, and it's not clear if it's a receipt, or a bill, or an invoice, or a direction for payment," said P. Kyle McCarter Jr., chairman of the department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University and one of the scholars who has examined the piece.
Notation on pottery "was a standard way of making a quick record," added McCarter, who thinks the fragment dates to the late ninth century B.C. when Joash was king of Judah.
"Joash" and "Ashyahu," McCarter explained, are common variations on the same name. Also, Joash was contemporary with a temple priest named Zechariah, he said. Indeed, Joash later had Zechariah put to death after a dispute.
McCarter said that "the writing and language and technical aspects are so well done that if (the inscription) is fake, the forger was extremely learned and talented."
In addition, the laboratory tests confirming the age of chemicals found on the fragment strongly suggest its genuineness, he said. "The weight of evidence is very much against this being a fake."