Politicians + Archaeology = A Bad Mix. The Case of the Temple Purity Seal

A unique and important find connected with the rituals of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was announced the other day by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and quickly made the rounds of the usual media outlets. Quick out of the gate on this one (as usual) was Todd Bolen with his post on Monday 26 DEC (He was supposed to be enroute to Israel with a tour group — I don’t know how he does it! Elves, I think.) Anyway, there you will find the basic information along with links to the official press release, photos, and various stories in the media.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, I’ll chime in with my two cents’ worth. For those who may have missed the story, it has to do with a tiny sealing that was recovered in the sifting of material excavated from around the foundations of the Haram al-Sharif/ Temple Mount, near the southwest corner and well below the level of the Herodian street. It is tiny — the size of a button — but inscribed with the phrase in Hebrew characters “pure to God”, according to the excavators. What’s especially interesting is that the object seems to reflect an administrative protocol practiced in the Temple for certifying commodities as “pure”, a system which is mentioned in some detail in the Mishnah — nice confirmation, if we needed it, that the Mishnah, compiled ca. 200 CE, contains actual memories of the Second Temple. It is interesting, too, that the IAA seems to have “sat” on this find until, wonder of wonders, Chanukkah rolled around and a nice connection could be made to the Maccabees’ rededication of the Temple and the story of the cruse of consecrated oil that burned miraculously for eight days. Oh, well, I guess we can forgive the IAA their penchant for dramatic flair…

Photos: Vladimir Naykhin

There were a few curious aspects of this find which I puzzled over at first: For one, it was not immediately clear to me if this was a seal (i.e., a “master” used to make multiple impressions) or a seal impression. It seems now it must fall rather outside the usual seal/impression paradigm: the material is clay, but the clay is fired — and the inscription is a “positive”, not the mirror-image writing you’d see on a typical seal. And, what I saw at first as a “handle” on the reverse of the object I learned from a colleague just yesterday are actually pinch-marks, complete with fingerprints! Thus, it seems like the lump of clay was held between the thumb and forefinger and pressed onto a master or into a mold to get the impression, then it was intentionally fired. This latter aspect is certainly atypical for a seal impression (despite the fact that the vast majority of known seal impressions (bullae) survived only because they were inadvertently “cooked” in some great conflagration.) So, this was really a manufactured object that was issued as a token (see video below).

Click on image to go to VIDEO

UPDATE, 01 JANUARY 2012: Here is some VIDEO from the Jerusalem Post which I have just gotten around to watching, about 3 minute’s worth of Ronny Reich explaining in some detail how the object was probably actually used, based on the Mishnah. Essentially Reich’s interpretation, from the Mishna, is that a worshipper coming to the Temple would pay money to a priest for an offering and receive the token. He would then take the token to another priest and receive the certified “pure to God” offering in its container. Finally, he took the offering to yet another priest, who would actually perform the ritual.

OK, since I’m already being provocative here (just wait!), I’ll just say that the rather bureaucratic procedure that’s being described seems — to this Baptist, at least — well, a bit sterile and removed from personal spirituality. I know, I’m imposing a modern religious paradigm on ancient practices — not fair. Still, it occurs to me to at least ask: Could this — and the larger practice of selling offerings in/around the Temple at all — be part of what Jesus was railing about in the NT “cleansing” narrative (John 2 and elsewhere). Commentators often obsess on where exactly this incident took place, but is it possible that Jesus’ problem was with the whole “business” aspect of the Temple operations which, even according to some Jewish sources, had become a sort of money-driven industry? It’s a thought question. Or maybe scholars are already way ahead of me on this. Comments?

* * *

BUT… my real comments have to do with a completely different aspect of the story. For this, please fast-forward 2,000-plus years to the political winds blowing in the State of Israel (not to be confused with the ancient, biblical faith-community of the same name). I encountered the story of this find as it appeared in the Haaretz print edition, which makes much of the political mileage two Israeli politicians have tried to get out of this humble little object that came out of the dirt: “Government officials who attended the [announcement] ceremony seized upon the finding as proof of Jewish continuity in Jerusalem”, the paper reported. It is reporting, by the way, which I found in no other media source. Now, I’m sure the left-leaning Haaretz takes no delight in making the reigning crop of Israeli politicians look foolish (although I certainly do), however this bunch manage quite well on their own, without much help! It’s a toss-up which is more troubling, their obtuseness or their provocative arrogance.

Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s Minister of Education

Honorable mention here goes to Israeli education minister Gideon Sa’ar: “Sa’ar said ‘these excavations could not have taken place without Israeli sovereignty.'” Well, OK, I think that goes without saying. I mean, who else but the Israelis would be probing around the foundations of the Haram al-Sharif/ Temple Mount (funded by the right-wing settler organization Elad), arguably the most sensitive piece of real estate in the world!? So what’s Sa’ar really saying? We’ve got the city — all of it. We get to dig up the goodies. And — surprise — we get to monopolize the Jerusalem narrative. It’s a case (as my parents would have said) of “rubbing their noses in it” , the allusion being to paper-training a puppy. I’ll let you make the application.

There’s a problem with Sa’ar’s arrogant boast of “sovereignty”, though: Yes, Israel claims sovereignty and exercises sovereignty over East Jerusalem (and over the Temple Mount, when they think nobody’s listening), but that sovereignty is 100% self-declared. There is virtually no nation on earth, and no international organization — including Israel’s most consistent defender on the world stage, the good ole U.S. of A. — who accepts this definition. Under international law, until it’s status is negotiated to be otherwise, East Jerusalem is occupied territory, plain and simple, just like the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights — all taken by Israel by force of arms in 1967.  Sorry to be the one to let the cat out of the bag, to call attention to ‘the elephant in the room’, but everything that goes on in the 70 sq. km of East Jerusalem must be viewed in this light. It’s not that I expect anything to change — who, after all, is going to challenge the State of Israel on these things? — but a little less arrogance would be nice. (Footnote, totally unrelated: To his credit, Sa’ar has sought to ban cosmetics testing on animals.)

Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture & Sports

First place in this round, however, is reserved for Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture and Sports: “Livnat called the find ‘a seal of verification of our right to the Land of Israel.'” Really? I thought the little seal was a window into ancient Jewish practices in the Second Temple. But it’s really about control over real estate in the 21st Century — My God, what power these objects have! Now, it would be nice to be able to dismiss this lady as just another right-wing ideologue who found her way into Netanyahu’s shamefully bloated, 30-plus-member cabinet (coalition politics: you have to give out lots of candy to get the kids to play together!). Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury. Let me ‘connect some of the dots’ for you on Ms. Livnat: First, she heads the government ministry under which the Israel Antiquities Authority operates, so on some level she has the power to set the tone of things and to set — and execute — an agenda. In this regard, Livnat was at the center of a recent controversy over the future makeup of both the IAA’s board of directors and Israel’s Archaeological Council, worrisome developments that we reported on at the time HERE and HERE. The net effect of these machinations, if they are allowed to go through: Israeli archaeology becomes less scientific and objective and more politicized and nationalistic.

UPDATE:  October 2012

Nir BarkatThe same kind of nationalistic abuse of archaeology as highlighted above was voiced perfectly by yet another politician, Jerusalem’s current mayor Nir Barkat, at an Oct. 2012 conference. His words are quoted from a Jerusalem Post article:

“A picture is worth 1,000 words,” he told the packed room of archaeology scholars.  “If we want to prove our right to be here and our history here, there is no better way than to market our archaeology.”

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This entry was posted in Archaeology & Politics, Haram/ Temple Mount, Issues in Archaeology, JERUSALEM, VIDEOS and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Politicians + Archaeology = A Bad Mix. The Case of the Temple Purity Seal

  1. Tom Powers says:

    Great post, Tom — This is what blogging is all about!

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