Americans are not the only ones whose political scene involves multiple perspectives and turbo-charged spin machines ready to frame any event to the advantage of a particular point of view.
Israel is a primary case in point. This past week, representatives in Paris at a UNESCO meeting (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) voted to approve a resolution declaring that the Temple Mount — site of the ‘Al Aqsa Mosque and the “Dome of the Rock” (known to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif, “the Noble Sanctuary”) is a holy site to Muslims.
Nobody denies that, but some Arab states were pressing for an official recognition. Israelis, however, were furious because the resolution — which passed on a split vote of 10 votes in favor, two against, and eight abstentions — used the Muslim names for the site, and did not refer to it as the Temple Mount, a name preferred by Jews and Christians. No serious historian or scholar of religion denies that the same site was once home to two temples sacred to the Jewish faith: the first destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the second dismantled by the Romans after a Jewish rebellion in 70 CE.
Muslims believe Muhammed was miraculously transported from Mecca to Jerusalem before ascending to heaven, making Jerusalem the third holiest site to Muslims (behind Mecca and Medina). Meanwhile, it’s the holiest site known to Jews, though a long-standing agreement restricts the site to Muslim worship. Jews, especially the Orthodox, do the next best thing by praying at the Western Wall, part of a huge retaining wall built by Herod the Great to support an enlarged platform for the temple.
Some Arabs play the game of pretending that no Jewish temple ever stood on Temple Mount, which is preposterous. Jews, in turn, ballyhoo every new discovery that demonstrates an ancient tie between Jews and Jerusalem. Though it used the Arabic name for the site, the UNESCO resolution did not deny that a Jewish temple had ever stood there, though Israeli newspapers, websites, and politicians were quick to claim that it had (e.g., the Times of Israel).
On the same day, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) held a press conference declaring that a small seventh-century BCE papyrus scroll had been found that included the name “Jerusalem” in Hebrew: the oldest written reference to Jerusalem known.
The find is indeed exciting, though the IAA has been sitting on it for some time. Officials report that it was found by looters in a cave in the Judean desert, not from from the Dead Sea — the same area in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The dry desert air allowed the papyrus to survive an incredible 2700 years. The IAA said it obtained the parchment in a sting operation against antiquities looters that began when it first surfaced on the antiquities market three years ago.
The tiny papyrus scroll, which originally served as a shipping label, contains two lines of text:
From the king’s maidservant, from Naharata, jars of wine,
In the second line, one can clearly read the consonants “lyrshlm,” which could be vocalized as “le-yerushalem,” or “to Jerusalem.” It apparently marked the shipment of two containers of wine from a woman living in Naharata (a village near Jericho) to Jerusalem, and it by far the oldest surviving example of “Jerusalem” written in Hebrew letters.
The identity of the sender as “the king’s maidservant” suggests that the wine was destined for the king’s palace. It may have been a gift, or more likely the payment of a tax or levy. While the scroll affirms the existence of a Judean monarchy and a complex administrative system in Jerusalem in the seventh century BCE, it says nothing about the temple.
The find is fascinating: but it should be appreciated for its own intrinsic value: not used as a pawn in a game of political gamesmanship.