Archaeologists have discovered and translated an ancient clay seal found in Jerusalem, near the site of the Temple Mount. The seal bears the Aramaic inscription “Holy for God” and was possibly used by the Temple workers to indicate that an offering was appropriate and approved for use in worship.
The seal has been dated to approximately the first century A.D., before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. In other words, this is a New Testament-era artifact.
One remarkable thing about this find is the fact that it appears to be a Temple object. Such finds are rare because the political and religious tensions in modern Jerusalem have resulted in a prohibition against archaeological exploration of the Temple Mount (on which the Muslim mosque, the Dome of the Rock, currently sits).
It’s also remarkable because it is a reminder of how widespread the use of Aramaic had become in the time of Christ. Many Christians are surprised to learn that the first language of the Jewish people in the time of Jesus was not Hebrew, but rather Aramaic. While Hebrew was still in use as a cultural and religious language (and while every Jew, being raised in the synagogue, would likely have been able to understand Hebrew), the Jewish people had been using Aramaic as their everyday language since their return from exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.
(As an aside, Jesus and his disciples were most likely trilingual – speaking Aramaic as a first language and being conversant in Hebrew, but also speaking Greek. Galilee was an area with many Greek speakers, and close to several Greek-speaking towns, and so it is virtually certain that even fishermen and carpenters in Galilee would have found Greek to be a necessity in carrying out their business).
What I find so interesting about this seal in particular is that it indicates that even some of the Temple activities and rituals had, by Jesus’ time, begun to accommodate the everyday use of Aramaic. If this seal was used by Levites and priests to indicate the acceptance of a particular offering, this would mean Aramaic would have been used, in at least a small way, in Temple worship.
I’ve mentioned in the past the possibility that the reason the disciples might have been accused of drunkenness at Pentecost (Acts 2) might have been the fact that they were using vernacular languages (Aramaic, Greek, and others) during a festival and in the sacred precincts of the temple (a proposal I first read about in an article by Robert Zerhusen here). It’s an interesting article, and even if one disagrees with its conclusions, it provides a very useful description of the linguistic situation in the day of Jesus and the Apostles.
However, if this seal was being used in worship, it indicates that the article’s argument that worship was conducted in Hebrew and Aramaic used elsewhere may be overstated. Aramaic may well have been entering elements of the Temple ritual. If so, one of the pillars of Zerhusen’s argument is in peril, I think.
Anyway, this discovery is an interesting glimpse into the world of the Bible and adds to our understanding of Jesus’ world. Read the whole news report here.