Have we found a stone block from the Actual Second Temple Building?

Israeli archaeologists have discovered an unusual stone among the many making up the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the only remaining structure of the Second Temple that was lavishly refurbished by Herod. The stone in question was discovered beneath the soil at the lowest foundations of the Wall. What’s so unusual about it? All the large stone blocks used in the Western Wall are ‘bossed’ masonry. That is, they have a carved margin around the edges that give the blocks a sense of depth. But this one particular stone lacks the margin, making it unique.

Eli Shukron examines bossed stones at the foundations of the Western Wall (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, 2011)

So the question is why is this one stone block unbossed, and why was it buried amongst the foundations of the Western Wall? Israeli archaeologist Eli Shukron has a theory:

This stone came from the Temple Mount, from the surplus stones that were used in the construction of the Temple itself. Those stones were high-quality, chiseled and smooth, like this unusual one, which was discovered among the Western Wall’s foundations. This stone was intended for the Second Temple, and stones like it were used to build the Temple — but it was left unused. The builders of the Western Wall brought it down here because it was no longer needed up above — and this is how the other stones of the Temple looked,” he says, adding, “Anyone who passes a hand gently over this stone feels a slightly wavy texture, just like the Talmud describes.

In other words, Shukron believes that this stone block was originally meant to be part of the actual temple sanctuary building—the heart of the entire temple complex.

Is Shukron’s theory plausible?

Here are a few points on which to reflect:

  1. As the report on Israel Hayom states, Shukron ‘led the Antiquities Authority’s effort to expose the foundations of the Western Wall in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, an effort that was funded by the Elad non-profit organization.’ Elad, also known as the Ir David Foundation, exists for the purpose of strengthening the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. In other words, it is not a scholarly organisation, but a political one. The interpretation of finds that come from Elad-sponsored efforts must bear this political aim in mind, and realise that there is almost always an alternative interpretation. In this particular case, interpreting a stone block as being from the temple sanctuary building could easily be seen as a political claim to the Temple Mount, which currently hosts the Islamic holy places of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
  2. It seems clear now that the Western Wall was not built during the reign of Herod himself. As Shukron and his colleague, Ronny Reich, observe, coins found in the soil used to cover the structures over which the Western Wall was built were minted in the time of Valerius Gratus, the Roman Prefect of Judea from AD 15–26 (the predecessor of Pontius Pilatus). In fact, the coins can be pinpointed to AD 17/18, giving us a date for the beginning of construction at the Western Wall. Shukron and Reich argue the wall was then completed in the time of Agrippa I (AD 41–44) or Agrippa II (48–66). However, the sanctuary building at the top of the temple complex was begun by Herod long before this in 19 BC. John 2.20 states that the temple took 46 years to build. This probably refers to the building of the sanctuary itself rather than the entire complex. Construction throughout the complex continued right up until AD 62—just four years before the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt would eventually see the destruction of the temple complex. So if the sanctuary took 46 years to build, and began in 19 BC, we can date its completion to AD 28. This overlap allows the possibility that a stone intended for use in the sanctuary ended up buried with the foundations of the Western Wall. Shukron’s theory is possible.
  3. As possible as Shukron’s theory is, a key question is why more such stones have not been found. Is it possible that there was a surplus of only one single stone block from the materials used to build the sanctuary? Could surplus stones not have been used in other peripheral structures around the temple complex? Eilat Mazar, director of the City of David excavations, says, “It is hard to construct a theory on the basis of a single stone. If another stone or two like it should be found in the future — and that could happen — that will be a somewhat stronger basis for Shukron’s theory that the stone came from a surplus that had been intended for the Temple of the type that had been used to build it.”
  4. Shukron notes the high quality of the stone when surmising it came from the temple building. Yet perhaps it came from another building within the temple complex, rather than from the sanctuary building itself. After all, the temple complex was enormous and, well, complex. There were numerous courtyards, rooms, and gates throughout it. There is every possibility that the stone had been intended for use in one of these peripheral structures.
  5. Another plausible theory is that the stone in question was a surplus block not from the sanctuary at the top of the complex, but from the Western Wall itself. Perhaps the stone was not needed in the construction of the wall, and so the masons did not bother carving the bossed effect, and ended up burying it rather than trying to haul it elsewhere. These were, after all, giant blocks of stone that took considerable effort to move in a pre-mechanised world.

So have we found a stone from the temple sanctuary in Jerusalem? Maybe, but we just can’t be sure because at present we have no way to corroborate or falsify the claim. What is almost certain is that it derives from the temple complex as a whole, but the stone’s original purpose is debatable. If we had some other stones from the temple sanctuary itself, we would be able to make direct comparison. But such a comparison is currently impossible. Our dilemma reminds us of the words of one particular Jewish figure who lived at the time of the temple’s construction: ‘Do you see these great constructions? Not one stone will be left here on another that will not be demolished!’ (Mark 13.2)

The extensive Holyland model (scale 1:50) of first century Jerusalem includes the temple complex as it would have looked at its completion. Pictured here is the large sanctuary building and surrounding courtyards. The Jerusalem temple was the largest sacred compound of its day.

Map of modern-day Jerusalem’s Old city, showing the location of the tunnel in which excavations at the base of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount are being conducted.


Quotes and information about the recent find came from Israel Hayom.

HT also to Antonio Lombatti.

More on the so-called ‘Bethlehem’ Bulla

Since the original announcement by the Israel Antiquities Authority, there has been a flurry of discussion about the new bulla which, it is claimed, refers to Bethlehem. In my previous blog article, I mentioned that the photograph accompanying the announcement didn’t seem to allow for a reference to Bethlehem. At the same time, however, I mentioned that photographs of inscriptions like these can distort critical features. Hence, I called for some extra eyes to take a look at the bulla and let us know what they see.

Today comes news (via an email from Joseph Lauer) that Shmuel Ahituv (Ben Gurion University) inspected the bulla and in the second register he reads the following letters:


According to Ahituv, the first fragmentary letter is not a ב (b), as originally reported by Eli Shukron, but a י (y). Furthermore, he claims that though they are slight there are traces of a left vertical stroke on the final extant letter, yielded a ח (ḥ) rather than ה (h). Accordingly, he concludes that the second register does indeed refer to Bethlehem (ביתלחם).

Ahituv is a trusty epigrapher. He’s the author of the Carta Handbook, Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period, and he knows his stuff. It’s good to see that we have an actual epigrapher looking at the bulla. One wonders why his opinion was not included prominently in the IAA’s original announcement. I’m more than happy to retract my preliminary conclusion on the bulla, but before doing so, I’d like to hear from one or two other epigraphers who can inspect the bulla itself. Chris Rollston, you’re up!

This raises the issue of the way epigraphic finds are announced. It would seem sound practice to employ two independent epigraphers and have their opinions accompany any such announcement. This is especially vital when the published photograph seems to speak against the announcement.

A New Seal that DOES NOT refer to Bethlehem

The Israel Antiquities Authority is reporting the discovery of a clay bulla (a seal originally impressed into soft clay) during sifting of soil and debris from the City of David excavations. According to excavation director, Eli Shukron, the seal dates to the seventh century BC and is our earliest evidence for Bethlehem. But, quite frankly, I don’t buy it.

Download a high resolution photo of the bulla (zipped)

The newly discovered bulla from the City of David excavations

Shukron claims the bulla reads as follows:

בת לחם

He transliterates this as:

bat lechem

He gives the following interpretive comments for this:

…it seems that in the seventh year of the reign of a king (it is unclear if the king referred to here is Hezekiah, Manasseh or Josiah), a shipment was dispatched from Bethlehem to the king in Jerusalem. The bulla we found belongs to the group of “fiscal” bullae – administrative bullae used to seal tax shipments remitted to the taxation system of the Kingdom of Judah in the late eighth and seventh centuries BCE. The tax could have been paid in the form of silver or agricultural produce such as wine or wheat… […] this is the first time the name Bethlehem appears outside the Bible, in an inscription from the First Temple period, which proves that Bethlehem was indeed a city in the Kingdom of Judah, and possibly also in earlier periods.

In other words, it seems that Shukron is translating the bulla as follows:

In the seventh (year).
For the king.

Once again, however, it seems that we have an Israeli archaeologist jumping to inordinate conclusions that simply do not reflect the actual evidence, all so that they can make a sensational political statement about Israel or Judah in antiquity. There are a number of issues with Shukron’s proposal:

  1. The first register (line) of the bulla is quite fragmentary, with the beginning and end of the line no longer extant. If Shukron’s reading of the third register as למלך (‘for the king’) is correct, then there is ample room for at least one or two letters before the initial extant ב (b). If this is the case, then it opens up the possibility that the first register does not relate to the number seven (Heb: שבעת), but could instead be a name, perhaps beginning with אב (Ab—).
  2. After the ש (sh) in the first register, Shukron reads ע. However, given the shape of the other letters, which seem to resemble Hebrew letters of the seventh to sixth centuries BC, one would expect this ע to be represented by a plain circle—the standard shape for this letter in that period time. But this does not appear to be the case here. On the contrary, the shape of this letter seems to resemble a narrow floating figure ‘7’. This shape is much closer to the relevant forms of letters נ ,ו, or פ, (w, n, p). though in each case, the letter would still be an unusual shape. Now it simply could be that the photograph is masking the true shape of the letter. This type of photographic distortion certainly occurs, as I found out first hand when I discovered an extra letter on the Tel Dan Inscription that simply did not show properly in photographs. So, we’ll reserve final judgement on this until we have the testimony of other skilled epigraphers who have the chance to inspect the bulla personally. But, going by the current photograph, Shukron’s reading here doesn’t seem to match what’s there.
  3. In the second register, Shukron reconstructs the first letter, which is mostly broken off, as ב (b). This is certainly possible, but not necessary. In fact, it looks to me as though ר (r) is a slightly better fit for this fragmentary letter. Nonetheless, let’s give Shukron the benefit of the doubt here. The next two letters are not problematic. They unambiguously read תל (tl). However, Shukron claims the next letter is ח (ḥ). However, there is one big problem with this: normally the letter ḥeth has two vertical strokes, one on each side of the three horizontal ‘rungs’, producing a kind of ladder shape. But there is clearly no vertical stroke on the left side of this letter. What we are left with is, rather, the classic ‘brush’ shape of the letter ה (he). This means that the bulla simply cannot be referring to Bethlehem (בת לחם), for that would require the letter ח, not ה. But we clearly here have a ה. Add to this the fact that the word division in this seal (as is the case with most others) is not actually apparent, and the connection to Bethlehem becomes even more stretched. So what has happened here? Has there been an absolute bungle of epigraphic analysis here? Did Shukron and the IAA totally miss the fact that this letter is he, not ḥeth? Or are they trying to make the bulla read what they want it to say and hope that the non-epigraphy-skilled public just go along with it? Whatever the reason behind it, this just simply does not refer to Bethlehem—unless the published photograph is not just distorting something, but actually fibbing. What the bulla does refer to is unknown—we’ll have to do some more thinking on that. But I am not a little astonished at the reading offered by Shukron.
  4. Given that the second register almost certainly does not refer to Bethlehem, it’s just possible that the second register is a patronymic for a woman. If, as Shukron suggests, the first letter is ב (b), then it could read […]בת לה (bt lh…): daughter of Lah[…]. Seals of prominent women are not unknown, but it would suggest that the owner was most likely royalty—either a wife or daughter of the king. This reading is a distinct possibility, but ultimately cannot be verified.
  5. The third and final register has but one extant letter: כ (k). This could certainly be part of the word למלך (‘for the king’), as Shukron suggests. It seems he is being led here by the other fiscal bullae we have discovered, in which the word למלך is clearly there. If this is the case, then as is the norm, this bulla may well represent a stamp indicating the origin of some commodity sent to the king of Judah in the seventh or sixth century BC. However, as I’ve suggested above, there is just as much chance that this is a personal seal mentioning someone’s name. If this is the case, then perhaps the extant end of the first register reads בן (‘son of’). But that’s more of a guess than a hard-and-fast observation.

It seems we need to wait for some more reliable and unsensational epigraphic analysis to be done on this bulla. Unless I’m very much mistaken(1), it seems fairly clear from the published photo that this bulla does NOT refer to Bethlehem. I lean towards seeing this as the seal of a prominent woman, though ultimately I can’t even be sure of that. Could a decent epigrapher please go and have a look at this seal, or could a generous benefactor pay to fly me over to inspect it?

Links to other reports about this bulla can be found below. You can see from some of the links how quickly news of this find is being disseminated as ‘proof’ for Bethlehem. The thing is, we don’t need this bulla as evidence for Bethlehem’s existence. It’s all rather unnecessarily sensationalist.

UPDATE: More news here.

(1) I have been known to be wrong before. I remember it well, actually. It was a Wednesday.

A Currency Exchange Token? A New Take on the Recently Discovered Ancient Seal from Jerusalem

One thing that puzzles me about the recently discovered seal from Jerusalem is its Aramaic inscription. The seal reads דכא ליה (‘pure to Yah[weh]’), and evidently has some sort of ritual significance. Shukron and Reich argued that the seal was probably placed on objects to certify their purity and, therefore, declare them fit for use in the temple. The one thing that surprises me about this, however, is that the inscription is clearly in Aramaic, not Hebrew. This would be highly unusual for a priestly item. Deutsch offers an alternative theory that the seal was a token used in the monetary exchange for a libation offered in the temple. The use of Aramaic in this case would make more sense, as a lay person was involved in the exchange. However, the phrase ‘pure for Yaw(weh)’ seems a little peripheral to the exchange itself.

I want to propose a slightly different understanding of this little seal.

We know that the moneychangers in the Jerusalem temple exchanged ordinary coins with Tyrian silver coins. These Tyrian coins were noted for the purity of their silver. While most silver coins in the Roman Empire were only 80% silver, the Tyrian coins were approximately 94% silver—the highest purity level of all coins. They were, therefore, deemed as fit for monetary exchanges in the temple, as well as the collection of the famous half-shekel temple tax. On their obverse, these coins bore the image of the Tyrian god Melqart (Olympian Herakles), also known as Baal Zebul (‘Eminent Lord’). The Jews often referred to this deity pejoratively as Baal Zebub (‘Lord of flies’). The reverse bore the image of an eagle. Both images were prohibited under the Mosaic Law. However, it was generally agreed that the purity of the silver outweighed the fact of the coins’ images. It was, after all, virtually impossible to find aniconic coins (i.e. coins without images on them) in antiquity, and the Romans never allowed Judea to mint aniconic coins, since it would be deemed too much autonomy. Control over the minting of coins was very important, since, like today, it signified political and economic sovereignty (this is why the Jews began minting their own coins during the Bar Kochba Revolt in AD 132–135). The Tyrian coins were minted in Tyre for over a century, until the Romans closed the Tyrian mint in c. 18 BC—just after Herod’s renovation of the Jerusalem temple began. The coins, however, continued to be minted, although exactly where we are unsure. In any case, the continued minting of these coins meant that Tyrian silver was deemed the official currency of the temple in the first century.

A Tyrian Silver Shekel (c.115 BC) showing Herakles on the obverse, and an eagle on the reverse.

Since all monetary purchases in the temple were made in Tyrian silver, it seems reasonable that there was some kind of system in place to guarantee that pilgrims were using the correct currency exchanged at the temple. The recently discovered seal from the Old City of Jerusalem may have served this purpose. A pilgrim would come to Jerusalem with whatever coins they had, and would go to an officially sanctioned moneychanger in or near the temple complex. They would hand over their coins, receive Tyrian silver in exchange, as well as a token (the seal) guaranteeing the purity of the silver they were receiving. Whether the seal was given loosely or attached to a bag in some way is not known. However, the token was written in Aramaic so that a lay person (a pilgrim) might understand that they had received pure currency that was officially endorsed by the temple authorities. The pilgrim would then take these Tyrian silver coins, along with the accompanying token, and use them to make purchases, such as sacrificial animals or libations, within the temple itself.

In other words, the recently discovered seal from Jerusalem is a currency exchange token enabling the bearer to make purchases within the temple.

Your thoughts welcome.

Ancient Seal found in Jerusalem

A small clay seal (bulla) has been unearthed during excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem. The button-sized seal dates approximately to the first century AD—close to the end of the Second Temple Era. It is inscribed in Aramaic with the words דכא ליה, meaning ‘pure to Yah(weh)’. This almost certainly suggests the seal was originally from the temple complex.

Archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron have interpreted the seal as something that temple officials placed on an object, such as a jar of oil, to mark it as fit for ritual use within the Jerusalem temple. The Mishnah documents the purity standards that were likely used in the temple, and stipulates the use of such seals.

Robert Deutsch, however, has a slightly different interpretation. According to Deutsch, the evidence of finger prints on the back of the seal precludes it from being something that was pressed into objects for ritual use. Instead, he points to a different passage in the Mishnah (Kedoshim, Tamid 3.3) that mentions a ‘chamber of seals’ in the temple. A pilgrim wanting to offer a libation at the temple would hand over money to one order of the priests in the chamber of seals, in exchange for which they received a token. This token was then given to another order of priests as proof of payment for a libation, and the libation was subsequently offered to God on the pilgrim’s behalf. Deutsch interprets the recently found seal as one of these very token.

My personal opinion? I like Deutsch’s explanation except for one thing: I can’t see how the inscription on the seal (‘pure for Yah[weh]) relates specifically to the ritual transaction described in the Mishnah. I tend, therefore, to favour Reich and Shukron’s understanding. But what surprises me about this is the use of Aramaic rather than Hebrew for something that appears to be rather priestly in nature.

Whichever way it’s understood, it seems almost certain that this tiny little find is one of the few physical artefacts that confirms documentary evidence of ritual practice in the Jerusalem Temple.

More on this can be found here.