Discussions with the Diggers: Gordon Franz

The goal of Discussions with the Diggers, is to interview archaeologists and learn from them about their experiences and discoveries. My next guest was involved in one of the top ten discoveries related to the Old Testament: the silver Ketef Hinnom scrolls.

Gordon Franz is a Bible teacher and a retired archaeologist who holds an MA in Biblical Studies from Columbia Biblical Seminary, SC. Beginning in 1978, he engaged in extensive research in archaeology and has participated in a number of excavations in and around Jerusalem, including Ketef Hinnom and Ramat Rachel; as well as the excavations at Tel Lachish, Tel Jezreel and Tel Hazor. He has taught the geography of the Bible and led field trips in Israel for the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies, the Institute of Holy Land Studies, and the IBEX program of Master’s College. He also co-taught the Talbot School of Theology’s Bible Lands Program. Gordon is a former staff member of the Associates for Biblical Research.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: How did you become interested in archaeology?  

GORDON FRANZ: I like to tell the story of when I was a young boy. My father built a sandbox in the backyard for my brothers and I to play in. We would play with our plastic toy soldiers and jeeps. Inevitably we would lose some toys. The next spring we would go back to the sandbox and eventually find them, You know the excitement of finding a lost object. 

My parents also took us to historical sites on our vacations, for example Morristown, Valley Forge, Stony Point, Lexington and Concord, so I had an interest in history.

During the first year of college I trusted the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior and had the desire to learn the Word of God. I transferred to a Bible college and took as many classes as I could, especially the historical books and the prophets. I enjoyed learning about the historical background of the text. I also did another undergraduate program in history. The best class I ever had was a Biblical archaeology class taught by Dr. David Livingston, the founder and director of the Associates for Biblical Research. He encouraged me to go to Israel and do graduate studies in the archaeology and geography of the Bible at the Institute for Holy Land Studies, now the Jerusalem University College. I did, and the rest, as they say, is history.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: What digs have you been a part of?

GORDON FRANZ: I have participated in a number of excavations in Israel over the years. I started out working with Dr. Gabriel (“Goby”) Barkay on various projects in and around Jerusalem, including Ketef Hinnom, the Temple Mount sifting project, a tumulis in western Jerusalem, and on a survey of Iron Age tombs in Jerusalem. I also worked with Dr. Livingston at Kh. Nisya, Biblical Ai, for two seasons. Lachish beckoned for five seasons in Area S, the “section” under the directorship of Dr. Barkay, and I also worked for one season at Tel Jezreel and one season at Tel Zayit with Goby. I also worked at Hazor, the largest Canaanite / Israelite site in Israel for nine seasons.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: Can you describe for us the discovery of the Ketef Hinnom Scrolls?

Gordon Franz (in the white shirt) at the Ketef Hinnom Tomb. Photo: Associates for Biblical Research / BibleArchaeology.org

GORDON FRANZ: The discovery of the two silver scrolls from Ketef Hinnom is something I will never forget. I remember the experience like it was yesterday. It was the last week in July of 1979. I was the area supervisor of the burial caves just below the apse of the St. Andrews Scottish Church on the edge of the Hinnom Valley. When we started, the director of the excavation, Goby Barkay, asked me how energetic I was. I said I was as energetic as a 25 year old person could be. He said, “Good, I’m going to put you in this cave with three junior high Israeli boys. I suspect the tomb has not been disturbed so I want you to clean it out.” We had a problem at first, they were junior high boys! Junior high boys are the same the world over. You tell them to do one thing and they do something else. We also had a communication problem. They did not speak English and I did not speak Hebrew! In archaeology, an object has to be left in situ (in place) until it is drawn on a plan, recorded in a log book, with proper heights and descriptions. Goby told them in Hebrew to clear around the objects and leave them in place, but they kept pulling things out of the ground before they could be properly recorded. We realized quickly enough that this was not going to work. We replaced them with adult students from the Institute of Holy Land Studies across the valley from the church. Because of certain elements in the population and the excavations location in Jerusalem we had to excavate (literally) around the clock to clean the cave out before anybody found out about it. All the dirt removed from the cave was sifted so we found the beads, one coin from the island of Cos (one of the oldest coins ever minted), a personal seal with the name “Paltah” on it and a number of gold, silver, and bronze jewelry objects. I asked Goiby the significance of these objects and he mentioned the list of objects worn by the men and women of Jerusalem in Isaiah 3. The first scroll was found by Judy Hadley, a student at Wheaton College (now a professor at Villanova University). I recorded it on the plan and described it. The second amulet was found during sifting from dirt in the back of the cave. The silver amulets were rolled up and Goby suspected there might be inscriptions on them, but that had to wait.

A photo of one of the silver scrolls before it was unrolled on a screen during a presentation by Gabriel Barkay (silhouetted), the archaeologist who oversaw the Ketef Hinnom excavations. Photo: Associates for Biblical Research / BibleArchaeology.org

It was not until 1982 that the amulets were finally unrolled by the Israel Museum. I stopped by Goby’s house during Succoth (Feast of Tabernacles) in 1982 and Goby invited me in to see the family’s booth. He said he had good news for me. The silver amulets were opened and they had inscriptions on them. Several times the Hebrew letters “Yod” “Hey” “Vav” “Hey” were on the amulets. I knew what that word was: “Yahweh” the personal name of the LORD. This was the first time the Lord’s name appeared in the archaeology of Jerusalem. A friend of mine, Bill Wilson, drew all the letters he could see with a high-powered microscope yet there were letters missing because the edges were corroded.

In the spring of 1986 the Israel Museum was preparing a “display of the month” of the material from Ketef Hinnom. One of the archaeologists at the museum redrew the amulets as best she could. She was talking to one of her religious colleagues in the museum over coffee and she mentioned she was working on an inscription with the name of the LORD three times on it. The  man suggested it might be the priestly blessing of Numbers 6. The archaeologist went back to her desk and read the blessing into the text. The missing letters fit perfectly. That was how the oldest Biblical texts were finally deciphered. It was a sensational discovery and the “display of the month” lasted almost a year!

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: What is the importance of this discovery?

Ketef Hinnom silver scroll, unrolled, reveals the priestly blessing from the book of Numbers. Photo Credit: Tamar Hayardeni / Wikimedia Commons

GORDON FRANZ: The importance of this discovery is its dating. Based on the style of the letters and the archaeological context in which it was discovered, the amulets date to the late 7th century BC, the time of Jeremiah the prophet and just before the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Judean captivity to Babylon. This makes these two amulets the oldest Biblical texts discovered to date. They predate the Dead Sea Scrolls by four-hundred years. The popular archaeological magazine “Biblical Archaeology Review” named this discovery one of the top ten archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

The implication for Biblical studies is this: According to critical scholars, the Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6:23-27 is what is called a “P source.” According to these scholars the passage was written during the Post-Exilic, or Persian period (after the Babylonian Captivity). That raises an interesting question: “How can you have a text already in existence when it has not been written yet, according to critical scholars?”! It is obvious we have two examples of a Biblical text in existence prior to the Babylonian Captivity and the Persian period.

A word of caution is in order. These two amulets cannot be used to prove when the priestly blessing was originally composed, or even who wrote it. The only thing they can tell us is that at the end of the seventh century BC the Priestly Blessing existed. We have to turn to the Bible to find out that the Blessing was composed by Aaron, the brother of Moses, at the end of the 15th century BC.

Numbers 6:22-27:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them:

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.” ’

“So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”

The tomb complex at Ketef Hinnom. Photo: Tamar Hayardeni
כתף הינום / Wikimedia Commons

I want thank Gordon for graciously taking the time to answer my questions and to share with us about the discovery and importance of the Ketef Hinnom scrolls.

Here are two articles by Gordon Franz from his website, LifeandLand.org that might be of interest to you:

Gordon has also written numerous articles for the Associates for Biblical Research. Here are several I recommend on the location of Mt. Sinai:

Disclaimer: As always, I allow each archaeologist to answer in his or her own words and may or may not agree with his or her interpretation of their work.

Title Photo: Screen capture of Gordon Franz from his YouTube Channel: https://youtu.be/pEDefA8mync


  1. Gordon is a careful student of the Bible and archaeology. I have always admired his work. Thanks for the interview.

  2. Gordon is extraordinary as both an archaeologist and a teacher. I traveled with him to Turkey, Greece, and Rome in December of 2010/January of 2011 and, again, to Greece in 2014, with my wife, Jeannie.

  3. I’m excited looking forward to seeing more little scrolls like these amulets to be discovered in the near future! I think I’ve recommended this before, but another scholar worth interviewing is Assyriologist Dr. George Heath-Whyte. Just saying…

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