Christian In Israel

Dating the Ezekiel plates

The relative obscurity of the tiles may be about to change, if tests date them back to the first century.

EZEKIEL Tablets on display
Photo by: ICEJ/Matthias Guggisberg
Aset of 66 stone tiles known as the “Ezekiel Plates,” believed to have come from the prophet Ezekiel’s traditional tomb along the Euphrates River in Iraq, are in the process of being dated by modern technological methods to finally establish whether they should be considered on a par with the Isaiah Scroll as among the oldest existing biblical texts ever found.

Currently on display at the Yad Ben- Zvi Institute in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, the Ezekiel plates have been around a while but have failed to draw visitors like the impressive parchment containing the complete book of Isaiah, which dates to the first century and is housed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum.

Part of the problem is that the institute is located on a small side street in a residential area of the capital that affords very limited access for the public. The tiles have also failed to convince many in the archeological community that they date back to antiquity.

But that question may be settled soon, as two of the tiles were recently handed over to the Israel Museum to undergo dating tests. Results are expected soon, and the conclusions may require that the unique collection of stones be moved to a facility in Jerusalem that can give them more prominent display.

Until then, the Ezekiel plates are still a marvel – both in the text they contain and the manner in which they were apparently discovered.

First, each marble or black basalt tile is about 12 inches square and contains raised lettering on one side in an ancient Hebraic script, with no spaces between the words. Examples of such raised lettering are known from the distant past, though most ancient stone tablets had the words etched or chiseled into the stone.

This particular bas-relief work would have been tedious and required masterful skills. But David Zwebner, whose parents-in-law provided the funds to publicly display the tiles at Yad Ben-Zvi, says it may come from an easier and very precise wax-and-acid method used in ancient times which ate away at the stone to leave only the raised letters.

In any event, taken together the series of 66 stone plates contain the entire Book of Ezekiel, with only a few notable variances in wording compared to today’s accepted Hebrew text. These do not change the message of the prophet to any extent, but they may provide hidden clues to Jewish scholars on certain mysteries surrounding the prophet, Zwebner recently told The Christian Edition.

“The lack of differences could also highlight the authenticity of this incredible book shared by Jews and Christians,” he added.

The tiles’ authenticity is also open to question because the time and location of the find, as well as its chain of custody, are not as well documented as scholars now demand for wider acceptance. A number of forgeries have infiltrated the field of biblical archeology in recent decades, and thus the standards of proof are being forced upward.

In this case, the tiles were supposedly found over 100 years ago when visitors to the traditional tomb of Ezekiel in the small Iraqi town of Kfar al-Kafil, located about 50 miles south of Baghdad, noticed a stone tile had fallen off the inside of the burial chamber. Oddly, its back side contained an ancient lettering which had been deliberately hidden, facing the wall. Other tiles were removed and similar inscriptions were found on their back sides as well.

The entire set of Ezekiel plates were then taken to Lebanon, where decades later a Christian Arab widow, on the advice of her priest, wanted to place them in Jewish hands before she moved to France. She sold them for a mere two pounds sterling to businessman David Hacohen in 1947.

He smuggled the plates into Israel in 1953, and they were eventually acquired by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president and a noted historian, who considered them a valuable national treasure.

After Ben-Zvi’s death, the Ezekiel plates became the property of the Institute in Jerusalem set up in his honor, which had them in storage until Zwebner convinced his wife’s parents, Max and Lombi Landau, to sponsor their public display.

Yet they have still lived in relative obscurity, drawing few crowds and even less scholarly attention. That may be about to change, however, if the tests date them back around the first century.

Until now, estimates of their age have varied widely. According to the British Museum, the plates could be anywhere between 300 to 2000 years old.

Veteran Israeli archeologist Dan Bahat of Bar-Ilan University, while cautioning that artifacts from Mesopotamia are outside his field of expertise, told The Christian Edition that the script is similar to ones he has seen from the 7th or 8th century CE.

Dr. Stephen Pfann, head of the University of the Holy Land and a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, also suggested that studying the style of the script – a discipline known as paleography – is probably a better method of dating for such stone objects than carbon dating and other tests.

Yet there is an old Talmudic tradition that Israel’s prophets and other great sages were often buried with copies of their writings. One such Talmudic legend held that the original book of Ezekiel was buried with the prophet in his tomb and was left there to be revealed in the last days.

Whether or not that legend turns out to be true, Ezekiel remains the most mysterious of the Hebrew prophets and his writings – with their accounts of strange flying objects and other rare “visions of God” – are reserved by strictly observant Jews only for the most learned.

Meanwhile, the tomb of Ezekiel has gone from being a major pilgrimage site for Jews and Christians to a neglected shrine, after the mass Jewish exodus from Iraq in 1951.

Amid the turmoil and conflict that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jewish leaders began voicing concerns about acts of desecration at the site. But Iraqi authorities have recently given assurances about preserving the tomb.


Stay on top of the news - get the Jerusalem Post headlines direct to your inbox!
   
Jpost.com, the online edition of the Jerusalem Post Newspaper - the most read and best-selling English-language newspaper in Israel. For analysis and opinion from Israel, the Jewish World and the Middle East. Jpost.com offers expert and in-depth reporting from Israel, the Jewish World and the Middle East, including diplomacy and defense, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Arab Spring, the Mideast peace process, politics in Israel, life in Jerusalem, Israel's international affairs, Iran and its nuclear program, Syria and the Syrian civil war, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel's world of business and finance, and Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora.

All rights reserved © The Jerusalem Post 1995 - 2014