Prof Gabriel Barkay
By David Parsons and Jonathan Parsons, ICEJ Staff

Professor Gabriel Barkay is a living legend in the field of Biblical Archaeology. A colorful figure, he is considered the leading expert on the history of Jerusalem. He has studied and taught about archaeology at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Most notably, Barkay is credited with discovering the oldest biblical Hebrew inscriptions ever found – two silver amulets with the Aaronic Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26, dating to the time of King Hezekiah. We spoke to him recently about this and other key finds in the Land since Israel’s rebirth 75 years ago. Here is a transcript of our interview.

ICEJ:  You were born in Eastern Europe during the war, correct?

Prof Barkay: “I was born in a time and place where nobody should be born. I’m a product of the ghetto, in the city of Budapest, capital of Hungary. And I guess that between myself and death camps, there is something like a week or so. I owe my life to the Russian army, to nobody else than Joseph Stalin. Many others owe him their death, I owe him my life.”

Q: You made aliyah when?

A: In 1950, when I was around six years old. I grew up in Jerusalem.

Q: What got you interested in in the field of archaeology?

A: In my childhood, I lived in the area of Rehavia and was wandering into the Valley of the Cross and various other places. Much of present-day Jerusalem was not yet built up. And there were lots of open areas. I collected all kinds of artifacts, ancient coins and pottery vessels, and other stuff. I wondered to whom could that belong? I understood that I’m not the first in this country and there were many others before me. I got more and more interested. I forced my father to buy me some books. And this is how I got into archaeology in my childhood.

Q: You studied at Tel Aviv?

A: I studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There I got my bachelor’s degree. I have my PhD from Tel Aviv University, where I also taught for 27 years.

Q: I understand your doctorate was a survey of the Jewish burial tombs and burial customs, especially in Jerusalem?

A: That is correct. I dealt with the northwest suburbs of Jerusalem towards the end of first Temple period. And one of the elements that delineate the city’s expansion are the burial fields. I thought the mapping of the burial fields would show me the limits of the urban expansion at that time. You can tell that because the custom was to bury them outside the inhabited city. According to latest sources, there had to be a distance of 50 cubits, at least, between the first tomb and the last building of the city, as Israelites buried their dead outside the settlements, unlike the Canaanites, who buried them inside their settlements. And there are other characteristics as well. I located around 150 burial caves around Jerusalem, which represent a very small percentage of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Most people were simply interned in the ground, and they did not leave any remnants after them. But the more well-to-do people, they had hewn themselves burial caves, and there are certain characteristics of these burial caves which typify them to belong to the First Temple period rather than any other period. So, I located three burial fields, one east of the village of Siloam, another one north of the city. That is the area of Damascus Gate today. And the third one, all along the valley of Hinnom, from approximately the Mamilla area until the meeting of the Hinnom valley with the Kidron Valley, south of the original city of David.

Q: This was a big contribution to the field of archaeology at the time. You have this reputation, well deserved, that because of that survey and other digs, you are one of the foremost experts on the history of Jerusalem and its archaeological record…

A: Since my childhood, I was interested in the history and archeology of Jerusalem. It is a fascinating city, and no other place matches the complexity of the history of the city. So, I went into studying the city’s history in the Second Temple period, the Roman period, the early Christian period, the early Arabic period. I’m interested very much in Crusader remains in Jerusalem, in the Mamluk remains, and further up until the establishment of the new city somewhere in the 19th century of the Common Era.

Q: What other excavations have you been involved in or conducted outside of Jerusalem?

A: I was involved for 15 years in the excavations of Lachish, which is they still ongoing – the second city of importance after Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Judah. I excavated at Megiddo in the North, and at Tel Zeit, which is on the border between Judea and the lands of the Philistines. I participated also in a dig in Iran, in Sousa (Shushan), connected with Queen Esther. This was in 1969. I was there for three months.

Q: And what did you find there?

A: I excavated mainly early Arabic remains. But it’s a fascinating site. And very important as a very, very interesting encounter with the Iranian people. The Iranian landscapes. Such a wonderful country, it’s a pity that they have such a non-friendly regime. Altogether, they’re nice people.

Q: What were some of your important finds or discoveries?

A: In the last 15 years or so, I have directed the Sifting Project, sifting through soil illicitly removed from the Temple Mount, which is the most important archeological site in this country. I’m especially proud of my dig in the western side of Jerusalem, at Katef Hinnom, the shoulder of Hinnom, next to St. Andrews Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Over there, I had nine seasons of excavations. We had a series of burial caves, and an important early Christian church. The burial caves are from the seventh century BCE, the time of the Prophet Jeremiah and King Josiah, some 2600 years ago. In most of these seven caves, their top part was quarried away, and they were looted in antiquity. In one of the burial caves, we found a very interesting architecture with elevated shelves for burying bodies with scooped out headrests for the deceased. We found hundreds of burial shelves in this repository, which is a unique find. In that chamber, they collected the bones and burial gifts of people who were buried upon the benches. We had over 1,000 objects in one chamber. About 125 of them were made of silver, 360 in-tact pottery vessels, and 140 beads made of semi-precious stones. We had glass objects, ivory objects, and even some pieces of gold. Among the finds in that repository, we had two tiny rolled up plaques made of 99% pure silver. And after three years of efforts, we managed to unroll those two tiny scrolls and they were densely covered with ancient Hebrew script, which included in both cases, the priestly benediction from the book of Numbers from chapter six, verses 24 to 26. And these are the earliest biblical verses that we own today. They are from the seventh century BC, about 2600 years old, from just before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, before King Josiah. It is from the time that the first temple, Solomon’s Temple, still stood in Jerusalem. And those two tiny scrolls they mentioned six times the name of the LORD, which was also the first word that I managed to decipher when I first saw them after they were unrolled. The tetragrammaton of the unpronounceable name of God, in the Bible where you have the word Lord, which appears as YHWH.

Q: That’s amazing! So, this was a cave that no one had plundered it yet, there was a lot of stuff in there?

A: It was an interesting case. We worked that season in 1979 with the help of some kids from an archeology club in Tel Aviv. These were kids of the ages 12 to 13, which is a dangerous age. They have the brains, but they don’t know how to use them. Among those kids there was a boy that was a nagging type. He used to pull my shirt from behind. And when I turned around, he would ask me silly questions. In any case, in order to get rid of this boy, I put him into that repository. After we discovered the repository, I had the impression that the place was looted, that there was nothing in it. I saw some stones at the bottom and I thought: ‘Well, that’s the floor.’ And then the floor was cleared from all the contents of the repository. I left him there to clean the place for photography. And he, in his boredom, took a hammer and began banging on the stones which I thought were the floor. And he began to pull out complete objects from underneath, which was against all instructions they had been given. Actually, I saw my shirt being pulled from behind and turn around and saw this boy handling in-tact pottery vessels from the First Temple period. So, I asked him: ‘Where did you get it?’ He couldn’t supply me an answer, and I was ready suffocate him on the spot. He made the discovery of my life. Mine, not his! This is the oldest Hebraic inscription from the Bible we’ve ever found. And these are the oldest Biblical verses that we own, all around the world. Nothing parallels with it. In addition, we found out in the 1990s, with more advanced methods for photography as well as computer programming, that there are some more verses on these. And one of them was a verse from the book of Deuteronomy saying: ‘The great God who keeps the covenant to His followers and keepers of His commandments.’ This verse is from the Book of Deuteronomy. It’s very interesting that in this same cave, we also have the Book of Numbers. So, it is another nail in the coffin of the Documentary theory, the higher critics. It has immense significance to Biblical studies and various other fields. The priestly benediction, which appears on those two objects is, first of all, a very beautiful one. The Hebrew composition is very poetic. It is 60 characters, 15 words arranged in three blessings, one of three words, another of five, and the next one of seven words. The second word in each of these three blessings is the name of the LORD, and it culminates in the word ‘shalom’, which usually is translated as ‘peace’ or non-belligerency. But shalom in a biblical sense means total harmony between all components of the Creation, total wholeness and coexistence of the Creation with the Almighty Himself. This is so beautiful. And it has a meaning also, for me personally; it is a kind of closing of a circle. Because in my early childhood, in Hungary, before the age of five, I remember my father coming back from synagogue on a Friday night, putting his hands on my head, and uttering these very same words. So, these were the first words in Hebrew that I knew.

Q: When this boy brought these whole pottery vessels, and then you started bringing everything out, it was still a while before you realized exactly what you had in these two amulets.

A: First of all, when I discovered that it was an untouched repository, all the kids were sent home. We introduced a new group of diggers, students of archaeology from Tel Aviv University and an American studies program in Jerusalem, and we worked there around the clock for about a week. And on one of these days, an American student working inside the cave called me in and showed me the first silver scroll in the soil. I had the feeling that might be of importance, but I didn’t know how much. In any case, after the dig we made several attempts to unroll it. The attempts were unsuccessful, and they damaged the object. So, part of it is missing today as a result of the unsuccessful attempt.

Q: It’s a silver leaf with the Hebrew words inscribed on it?

A: We tried to soften it to unroll it, and found that is the wrong way. And finally, the labs of the Israel Museum managed to open it, but it took three years. And when they called me into the lab of the Israel Museum, I saw the letters were very delicately scratched on with a sharp instrument upon the silver. It’s very interesting because the Prophet Jeremiah mentions point, the lion diamond, and he mentions that on the metal altars, the sins of Judah would be written with a pen of iron and a point of diamond. So, the scratching of the characters on metal was known in that very same period.

Q: Did you have one of these eureka moments, where you danced because of what you found?

A: It all came slowly. I worked for several years on deciphering the two inscriptions They were found in 1979 and it was finally published only in 1986. But then we had the second round in the 1990s, using new techniques of photography and computer programs, when we discovered more verses we did not see the first time.

Q: Did you at some point begin to use the Bible as like a guide or a tool in your research? This is the essence of Biblical Archaeology using the Bible as a guide, but not necessarily to prove it.

A: The connection between the Bible and theology is a well-known subject in the field of archaeology in this country. Actually, the Bible is the main motivation of people coming to dig in the Holy Land, and especially in Jerusalem. But with the years there developed among archaeologists a mixed attitude towards the Bible. There were some people since the 1970s who denied any possible connection between the Bible and they challenged and rejected the biblical accounts as non-historical. On the other hand, there were others who were following the biblical account without any criticism, and they thought it is an accurate description of the history of the Israelites. The truth is that the middle way is the right way; we should use the Bible and we should use archaeology, and whenever they fit – that’s very good. One does not cancel the value of the other. In any case, I have a more conservative view of the subject. I think that somebody who discovered the earliest Biblical verses cannot deny the value of the term ‘Biblical Archaeology”. I do sense a very close connection to the people who were here and are described in the Holy Scriptures. So, I don’t try to prove the Bible, and I don’t think the Bible needs any proof.

Q: So, it has deepened your faith?

A. It is strong enough, it doesn’t need my proof. I don’t think that I have to strengthen the Bible, or anything like that. I don’t think that the Bible proves archaeology. I think that archaeology enhances our ability to better understand the Bible. And it supplies also the chronological framework, and the aspects of daily life. Where the Bible is sometimes silent, we add more information about the people who left us this magnificent literature.

Q: Israel is approaching its 75th anniversary. And it seems to me that restored Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel has been very important in unlocking the history of this land, particularly the Jewish history. How important has it been for Israel to rule over most of the land in order to help rediscover this history? Would some of these things never been found?

A: First of all, you should remember that the first years after the establishment of the State of Israel, archaeology was a kind of a national hobby. The founding father of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion, used to visit the digs. And one of the major figures in archaeology was my teacher, Yigal Yadin, who was the commander of the War of Independence, and in the State of Israel he was the second Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, and he was also an archaeologist. He was also a major public figure, who later became Deputy Prime Minister.

Q: His father was the one who realized the Dead Sea Scrolls were important…

A: Yes, and Yadin himself was a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In any case, for years, archaeology was something that occupied a very important role in public life. Archaeological discoveries were advanced in the President’s home, and they appeared on the front pages of daily papers. Archaeology was then regarded as one of the tools of re-establishing the contact between past and present in Jewish history. That enthusiasm of the 1950s and 60s does not exist anymore. And we do not have special correspondents for archaeology in the daily papers. But still, our connection to archaeology, to the history of this country, is still very, very strong.

Q: What are some of the other important archaeological discoveries of the last 75 years?

A: The Dead Sea Scrolls are the most important discovery, a collection of about 900 books or remnants of library of a Jewish sect which came to an end in the year 68 CE. They were probably the Essenes mentioned in historical sources, who established a spiritual center next to the Dead Sea. We have in the collection works from the third century BC and onward. This is a magnificent discovery. All the books of the Bible except the scroll of Esther are represented there. We have many books of the Apocrypha among them. We have also some sectarian words, which are of utmost importance, especially the Temple Scroll, which is very long text, very well preserved, telling us about the future temple to come, as they visualized it. Beyond any doubt, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the most important discovery.

Q: What about the Tel Dan stele? How important is that?

A: In the 1990s, there were doubts accumulating about the historicity of David and Solomon, and the united monarchy described in the Bible, especially in the Books of Samuel and First Kings. The Danish or Copenhagen school denied the historicity of David and Solomon, and they said these biblical figures never existed. There were many followers of that school in Britain, in the United States, and also here in this country. Now, the next decades since have showed something totally different. First of all, in 1993 at Tel Dan in the north, a fragment of a stone stele which was erected by king of the Arameans, King Hazael who conquered Tel Dan, he put up a monument at the gatehouse which lay there smashed to pieces, and it’s fragments were included in the building stones of a later gate at that site, with that inscription, written in the ninth century BCE, where he boasts that he killed many kings, among them the king of Israel and the king of the ‘House of David’. In their first reactions, one of the Copenhagen school claimed that the inscription was a forgery, which is not only a very cruel accusation but a very wrong one. Anyone can see it with their own eyes in an exhibit. Also, a site in the valley of Elah, near Beit Keyafa, was excavated by people from Hebrew University. And there they found out that David not only existed but he also built a city in the lowland, in the Shephela valley, and there was a kingdom of David not only mentioned 100 years after his lifetime in the stele of Tel Dan, but evidence in the physical remains of sites built by him. So, the whole denial of the historicity of the united monarchy slowly collapsed, including with the many discoveries in the original City of David. That is another story. Jerusalem is the center of archeological activity, especially since the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem. In the heart of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, the late Professor Avigad discovered a major city wall, which was about eight meters in thickness, about eight meters in height. A very massive city wall. And that brought an end to the idea of people that thought the Jerusalem described in the Bible was a small cow town, limited to the narrow City of David. This revolutionized the study of the First Temple period in Jerusalem, but also the Second Temple period of Jerusalem was studied in an intensive manner by Benjamin Mazar, who studied the vicinity of the Temple Mount. His work was continued later by his granddaughter, Eilat Mazar, in Shilo and many others excavated parts of the Old City, in the ancient core of the City of David, as well as in the Citadel, in the western part of Jerusalem. And altogether, we have a picture of Jerusalem along its entire history, from much before the First Temple period, and after the Second Temple as well.

Q: What are some of the important finds out of the Sifting Project?

A: First of all, we have about half a million finds, which is incredible, because the Temple Mount is an area which was never excavated in a systematic manner. There were others earlier in the 19th century, like Charles Warren, Charles Wilson, the German Conrad Schick and others. But the Temple Mount was never excavated properly because of political reasons. And the Temple Mount is the heart, soul and spirit of the Jewish people. The Western Wall doesn’t have any significance, it is an outer wall of the Temple Mount. And it gets its sanctity, it’s importance from what is behind it. It is leaning against the Temple Mount, which is the place chosen by the Almighty, according to tradition, where Creation began. This is the place where from the earth clay was taken to create the first man, Adam, and this is the place where Abraham tried to sacrifice his son Isaac to God. This is a place of the altar built by David to stop the plague among his people. This is the place where Solomon built his Temple, and the Second Temple was built on the same spot. In any case, the Temple Mount is also the largest religious compound of the ancient world. It occupies 144,000 square meters, which is 1/6th of the total area of the Old City. It’s an enormous place, much larger than the Acropolis in Athens or any other place. So, what we have in the Sifting Project is only small finds, because it comes from earth and debris without intact structures or architectural elements in them. They have only small finds, but these small finds are enough for us. For example, in order to reconstruct the magnificent floors of the Herodian dynasty’s time on the Temple Mount, we have about 150 colorful flooring tiles, which were sawn into various geometrical shapes, and when we looked at the dimensions, they follow the fractions of the Roman foot. It is no doubt a team of artisans sent by Emperor Augustus to King Herod the Great who carried out this work on the floor. The floor is made using a special technique which is Italian opus sectile. They are cut stones; these are magnificent. You have in the writings of Flavius Josephus, he writes that the courtyards of the Temple were paved with colorful stones, something which is mentioned also in the memoirs of Talmudic sages about the Temple, and maybe even the New Testament speaks about the tall structures and the stone pavements. We also have among the finds about 30 bullahs, tiny clay lumps to seal documents. One of them is of a priest, Pashhur the son of Immer, who beat and imprisoned the prophet Jeremiah. He was most probably the man in charge of the Treasury, up on the Temple Mount. So, we have finds of significance. We have a large number of over 7,000 coins. Among them, we have the largest collection of Crusader coins ever discovered in one place. And we have two large medallions of lead from the Knights Templar, who had their headquarters on the Temple Mount. They were named after the Temple. So, I could spend the next few weeks to describe you all the finds

Q: Some of these things are on display at the Israel Museum and Davidson Center?

A: None of them are on display yet. They are with us. In 2011, we opened a lab for the study of this immense quantity of finds. It is here in the Bakka neighborhood, and we are still at work on this.

The ones that are on display at the Sifting Project are all replicas, not the originals, as we don’t have proper protection yet.

Q: How grateful should Christians be that Israel has sovereignty here and is able to find all this biblical heritage?

A: Listen, all those years of my childhood and early adulthood, I participated as a soldier in the battles in Jerusalem. I know how to appreciate the freedom that we have now in Jerusalem. Not too many people appreciate it. They regard it as something that existed all the time, I don’t regard it as such. I think we have to appreciate it more. And I think that the discovery of Christian remains is of immense importance. I, myself, excavated several churches, and in the Temple Mount soil we excavated there was an abundance of finds from the early Christian period, which changed our view about the Christian presence on the Temple Mount, which is different than the common thought. There was much activity on the Temple Mount during the Christian period. We have coins, we have mosaic remains, we have tiny cross pendants lost by pilgrims who came to the Temple Mount. We have pottery in abundance, all this testifying to the fact that the Temple Mount was of importance in the early Christian period… And we have, all around the country, evidence of the importance of this country to Christians in the past. One can follow Jesus’ footsteps in the Galilee, in Jerusalem, and elsewhere. One can follow the early Christian period and other periods in which the Holy Land was important to Christians, which are very well represented in the archaeological record.

Q: One final question: If you could have one more project to excavate, what would it be?

A: The Temple Mount

Q: And what would you expect to find up there?

A: Every archaeologist has dreams. But dreams do not always come true. Whatever one can find and contributes to enhancing our knowledge about Solomon’s Temple will be most welcome. Unfortunately, some two years ago, I contracted a nerves disease which inhibits me from being able to continue working in the field as I hardly can walk. But I’m recovering and have started to work on a book about the material culture. reflected in the book of song of songs and Bible. I finished that book about a week ago.

Q: And you have many talmidim (students) that you’ve trained who will carry on the work?

A: Yes, I have had many 1000s of students through the years. I taught for over 40 years, including many Christian archaeologists.

Q: Thank you for your time.

Photo credits:

Prof. Gabriel Barkay – Wikimedia Commons

Silver Scroll – Ardon Bar-Hama

Burial cave at Ketek Hinnom –