Miniature Writing on Ancient Amulets

Ketef Hinnom inscriptions reveal the power of hidden writing

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.
—Numbers 6:24–26

ketef-hinnom-ancient-amulets-unrolled

When unrolled, the two ancient amulets from Ketef Hinnom revealed miniature writing that had been painstakingly inscribed on them. Researchers discovered that the inscriptions included blessings similar to Numbers 6:24–26. Photo: © Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Nahum Slapak.

In 1979 during the excavation of a late Iron Age (seventh century B.C.E.) tomb at the funerary site of Ketef Hinnom outside of Jerusalem, archaeologist Gabriel Barkay uncovered two small silver scrolls—no bigger than the diameter of a quarter—that were originally worn as amulets around the neck. When researchers from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, unrolled the sheets of silver, they detected tiny lines of the ancient Hebrew script inscribed on them. High-resolution photos of the miniature writing were taken in 1994 by the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California, giving researchers the opportunity to study and decipher the Hebrew text on the ancient amulets. When they finally read the arcane writing, the researchers discovered that the inscriptions, dating to the eighth–sixth centuries B.C.E., contained blessings similar to Numbers 6:24–26.1

The miniature writing on the silver scrolls was clearly not meant to be read—the letters are too small, and the writing was furthermore concealed inside the rolls. If this was the case, then what purpose did they serve? In “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hebrew Bible scholar Jeremy D. Smoak discusses what these ancient amulets from Ketef Hinnom can tell us about religion in ancient Judah.

Upon discovery, Amulet 1 was 1 inch in height and 0.4 inches in diameter; unrolled, the scroll measures 3.8 inches in height and 1 inch in width. Amulet 2 was 0.5 inches in height and 0.2 inches in diameter; unrolled, the scroll has a height of 1.5 inches and a width of 0.4 inches. The second scroll contains about 100 words arranged in 12 lines of text—thus, the person who inscribed the text was able to fit all of that onto a silver sheet the length of a match stick.

Israel Museum curators have called “Gabriel’s Revelation” the most important document found in the area since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Read the original English publication of “Gabriel’s Revelation” by Ada Yardeni along with Israel Knohl's article that made scholars around the world reconsider links between ancient Jewish and Christian messianism in the free eBook Gabriel’s Revelation.

ketef-hinnom-ancient-amulet-1

Amulet 1 from Ketef Hinnom measured just 1 inch in height and 0.4 inches in diameter before it was unrolled. Photo: Zev Radovan/biblelandpictures.com.

In addition to containing blessings similar to Numbers 6:24–26, the inscriptions are illuminating for what they reveal about the deity Yahweh as well as amuletic magic in Iron Age Judah. As Smoak writes:

Amulet 1 refers to Yahweh as the one who shows graciousness to those who love him and keep his commandments. This expression exhibits close parallels to several Biblical texts (cf. Deuteronomy 7:9; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4). Amulet 2 refers to Yahweh as the deity who has the power to expel Evil.

As the amulets from Ketef Hinnom contained small inscriptions that were not meant to be read, Smoak further considers in his article the significance of miniature writing:

Miniatures—especially those worn on the human body … create a sense of intimacy, privacy, and personal time between the body and the object. Such objects became part of one’s daily routine and lifecycle. Their lightweight quality allows them to dangle comfortably from necks, producing a feeling that they are part of the body. In the case of miniature texts on jewelry, this means that even though the writing might be invisible or hidden from eyes, the words are always accessible in the wearer’s mind as the writing interacts with the body on a physical level. As the jewelry dangles from, bounces off, and returns to the body, the words inscribed on their surfaces are replayed in the mind.

Read Jeremy D. Smoak’s complete analysis of the ancient amulets’ miniature writing in “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” in the January/February 2018 issue of BAR, and discover what these unique artifacts illuminate about religion in Iron Age Judah.

——————

BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” by Jeremy D. Smoak in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

Notes:

1. See Gabriel Barkay, “The Riches of Ketef Hinnom,” BAR, July/August September/October 2009.
 


 

More on ancient amulets in Bible History Daily:

Ancient Amulets with Incipits by Joseph E. Sanzo
The blurred line between magic and religion

Word Play by Glenn J. Corbett
The power of the written word in ancient Israel

The Shema‘ Yisrael
Monotheistic Jewish amulet discovered near Carnuntum

Amulet with Cartouche of Thutmose III Discovered in Jerusalem

Egyptian Scarab Amulet Unearthed at Sepphoris

1,500-Year-Old Christian Amulet References Eucharist
 


 

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  • Elena says

    Rather like a worn Mezuzzah today. Tiny writing placed in a tiny case and worn about the neck. The words are also burned into the heart of the wearer.

  • John says

    The explanation re the miniature scrolls is more complex that it need to be. The amulets worn around the neck were a physical reminder to their owner of YHWH’s promises. “Around the neck” following Solomon’s similar advice (see Proverbs 3:3; 6:21).
    The text in a Mezuzah (on the doorpost) is not read but a reminder of the blessing that is written in its container – following the instructions of Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

  • Bryan says

    To touch on Mike’s comment about God’s name, I will comment below.

    In English, the four letters of the Tetragrammaton (יהוה) are represented by the consonants YHWH. As was true of all written words in ancient Hebrew, the Tetragrammaton contained no vowels. When ancient Hebrew was in everyday use, readers easily provided the appropriate vowels.

    About a thousand years after the Hebrew Scriptures were completed, Jewish scholars developed a system of pronunciation points, or signs, by which to indicate what vowels to use when reading Hebrew. By that time, though, many Jews had the superstitious idea that it was wrong to say God’s personal name out loud, so they used substitute expressions. Thus, it seems that when they copied the Tetragrammaton, they combined the vowels for the substitute expressions with the four consonants representing the divine name. Therefore, the manuscripts with those vowel points do not help in determining how the name was originally pronounced in Hebrew. Some feel that the name was pronounced “Yahweh,” whereas others suggest different possibilities. A Dead Sea Scroll containing a portion of Leviticus in Greek transliterates the divine name Iao. Besides that form, early Greek writers also suggest the pronunciations Iae, I·a·beʹ, and I·a·ou·eʹ. However, there is no reason to be dogmatic. We simply do not know how God’s ancient servants pronounced this name in Hebrew. (Genesis 13:4; Exodus 3:15) What we do know is that God used his name repeatedly in communication with his people, that they addressed him by that name, and that they used it freely in speaking with others.—Exodus 6:2; 1 Kings 8:23; Psalm 99:9.

  • Bryan says

    The divine name, represented by the four Hebrew consonants יהוה, appears nearly 7,000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. This translation renders those four letters, known as the Tetragrammaton, “Jehovah.” That name is by far the most frequently occurring name in the Bible. While the inspired writers refer to God by many titles and descriptive terms, such as “Almighty,” “Most High,” and “Lord,” the Tetragrammaton is the only personal name they use to identify God.

    Some feel that Almighty God does not need a unique name to identify him. Others appear to have been influenced by the Jewish tradition of avoiding the use of the name, perhaps out of fear of desecrating it. Still others believe that since no one can be sure of the exact pronunciation of God’s name, it is better just to use a title, such as “Lord” or “God.” Such objections, however, lack merit for the following reasons:

    Those who argue that Almighty God does not need a unique name ignore evidence that early copies of his Word, including those preserved from before the time of Christ, contain God’s personal name. As noted above, God directed that his name be included in his Word some 7,000 times. Obviously, he wants us to know and use his name.

    Translators who remove the name out of deference to Jewish tradition fail to recognize a key fact. While some Jewish scribes refused to pronounce the name, they did not remove it from their copies of the Bible. Ancient scrolls found in Qumran, near the Dead Sea, contain the name in many places. Some Bible translators hint that the divine name appeared in the original text by substituting the title “LORD” in capital letters. But the question remains, Why have these translators felt free to substitute or remove God’s name from the Bible when they acknowledge that it is found in the Bible text thousands of times? Who do they believe gave them authority to make such a change? Only they can say.

    Those who say that the divine name should not be used because it is not known exactly how to pronounce it will nevertheless freely use the name Jesus. However, Jesus’ first-century disciples said his name quite differently from the way most Christians do today. To Jewish Christians, the name Jesus was probably pronounced Ye·shuʹa‛. And the title “Christ” was Ma·shiʹach, or “Messiah.” Greek-speaking Christians called him I·e·sousʹ Khri·stosʹ, and Latin-speaking Christians Ieʹsus Chriʹstus. Under inspiration, the Greek translation of his name was recorded in the Bible, showing that first-century Christians followed the sensible course of using the form of the name common in their language.

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