Artifacts show that ancient temples used donations

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NEW YORK — Making donations to support the local synagogue is nothing new — it happened more than 2,500 years ago.

While scholars have long believed that donations financed the building and maintenance of temples, a shard of pottery that has recently come to light provides the oldest physical evidence of this practice.

The pottery, which appears to be a receipt for a requested donation of three silver shekels for the upkeep of King Solomon's Temple, yields the oldest known mention of the First Temple outside the Bible.

It was found along with another artifact from the same period that records a widow's request for property.

It's a "major find," said P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University.

How the relics were discovered remains a mystery, but McCarter believes they were found during a construction project in Jerusalem in the past few years. They were turned over to scholars by their current owner, the London collector Shlomo Moussaieff, who purchased them on the antiquities market.

While the exact vintage of the pottery is still in dispute, the pieces are believed to date from anywhere between the ninth and seventh centuries BCE.

In addition to providing additional proof of the Bible's historical authenticity, the artifacts help explain how people lived in biblical times.

"It certainly doesn't prove the Bible true. What it does is bring to life, in an exciting way, the reality of the times," said Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, which is publishing an article on the relics in its November/December issue.

"You just stand in awe of something so close to reality from 2,700, 2,800 years ago."

The second piece of pottery supports a notion mentioned in the Bible — that the king was a protector of widows and orphans.

That relic records a widow's petition for a gift that had been promised to her late husband.

In biblical times, women could not legally inherit property — or the promise of property. It went either to a male relative or back to the king, who would then decide what to do with it.

"What she is proposing is that since the land was a grant from the king, he has the right to give it to her," said Frank Moore Cross, a professor emeritus at Harvard University.

McCarter said the finding "sheds light on a legal situation and a social situation. We want to know about the king, and we want to know about the private lives of individuals."

Did the king grant the widow the property? Unfortunately, no one knows.

McCarter said it is possible that more than two pieces of pottery were found on the site, but no one knows where — or even if — those pieces exist.