JERUSALEM – Undercover Israeli officers foiled an attempt by two Palestinian men to sell an ancient, valuable papyrus document on the black market, police said Wednesday.
The men were arrested at a Jerusalem hotel Tuesday after a sting operation lasting several weeks, police said. The 1,900-year-old Hebrew document, previously unknown and valued at millions of dollars, was rescued, and police showed it to reporters.
It was unclear where the two men obtained it, police and archaeologists said. Similar documents have been found in caves in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, where they have been preserved over the centuries by the dry climate, they said.
The most famous of those are the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient holy books and apocalyptic treatises thought to have been collected by an ascetic Jewish sect two millennia ago.
The document, six inches by six inches, contains 15 lines of Hebrew characters of a type also used in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but is a legal text apparently unrelated to the more famous scrolls.
In this document, a widow named Miriam, daughter of Yaakov, legally transfers property to her late husband's brother, said Amir Ganor, an archaeologist with the government department entrusted with fighting antiquities theft.
Dated to the 2nd century A.D., it is unique because it includes the names of Jewish villages and a date — "four years from the destruction of the house of Israel." Ganor said that was likely an allusion to a Jewish revolt put down violently by Rome around 135 A.D.
Ganor said scholars are "95 percent sure" the document is genuine, but it will be tested to make sure it is not a fake like the ones that surface periodically on the lucrative market in Holy Land antiquities.
"Only few scrolls like this were found in Israel and all of the Middle East, and we hope that the historic situation of discovering this scroll will be helpful to the research about the period," Ganor said.
The suspects, ages 48 and 60, are from the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, near Jerusalem, police said.
After receiving information on the men and tracking them for several weeks, police caught the two at a Jerusalem hotel where they had arranged to sell the document, Superintendent Eli Cohen said.
"They came to a place we chose, and they were arrested there," Cohen said, while refusing to reveal whether police agents posed as buyers.
They are suspected of violating Israeli antiquities laws by illegally possessing and trafficking in archaeological artifacts and could face several years in prison if convicted. Police are trying to determine how the document fell into their hands.
If authentic, the document could help scholars learn important details about Jewish life two millennia ago, said archaeologist Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv.
"It could be important to understanding everything from the geography, the names of people, the type of contracts they used, and the status of women, of weddings and relationships between families," he said.
Similar documents belonging to a woman named Bavta, who lived around the same time, were found in the 1950s by the famed Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, Maeir said, and this one could "fit in nicely" with those findings.