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Israel is abuzz about yet another stunning archaeological find, this one a stone tablet reportedly found on the Temple Mount that may be the earliest external verification of a biblical text that also confirms the existence of Solomon's Temple.

The black stone tablet apparently was unearthed in recent years on the raised Mount where the First and Second Jewish Temples once stood, ironically during the course of determined efforts by Muslim authorities there to remove or conceal any trace of an historic Jewish presence on the disputed site.

Israeli geologists say the ancient stone tablet detailing repair plans for the Jewish Temple of King Solomon is genuine. "Our findings show that it is authentic," insists Dr. Shimon Ilani, of the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI) research institute, which performed tests on the tablet.

The fragment is said to date from the period of King Jehoash, who ruled Judea some 2,800 years ago and is mentioned in the Bible in II Kings.

The sandstone tablet contains a 15-line inscription in ancient Phoenician in which a king tells priests to take "holy money... to buy quarry stones and timber and copper and labor to carry out the duty with the faith." If the work is completed well, it adds, "the Lord will protect His people with blessing."

The words closely resemble the biblical narrative in II Kings 12 describing efforts by King Jehoash to repair Solomon's Temple, which stood for 400 years before it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.

The stone also is said to contain microscopic gold flecks, which mean it may have been in the Temple when it was burned down.

As with other recent finds related to the Bible, such as the stone burial box inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," experts are already divided on the authenticity of the Jehoash tablet. Some archaeologists and ancient language experts are suspicious it is a forgery, while others say the GSI conclusions have to be respected since they are based on scientific methods and not archaeological or linguistic theories.

Prof. Gabriel Barkai, considered the most knowledgeable archaeologist on ancient Jerusalem, says that if the tablet were definitively authenticated, it would be a "sensational" discovery. Barkai adds that the inscription's resemblance to biblical passages "has far-reaching implications of the historical importance of the biblical text."

The GSI tests involved examining the patina covering the tablet, a thin organic build-up that can be scientifically dated with relative accuracy. GSI geologists insist the patina is uniform across the entire tablet, including all the engraved lettering, and dates back to the First Temple era.

Since the tablet was not found during an organized archaeological excavation, carbon dating of the patina by geologists is the most reliable method for establishing its age and authenticity. Critics are contending other geologists should be given a chance to examine the tablet.

Other notable archaeological finds relating to biblical accounts of the First Temple include an ivory pomegranate believed to have been worn by Temple priests and a pillar found in northern Israel that mentions the "House of David," a reference to the Israelite king who first sought to build a "house for the Lord" in Jerusalem.

The tablet reportedly was uncovered during Muslim construction activity on the Temple Mount, where the Islamic Waqf (trust) has been working over recent years to wipe out any trace of an ancient Jewish connection to the site and to turn the entire compound into the largest mosque in the world. The Mount is Judaism's holiest site, but Muslim conquerors built the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine there centuries ago and now claim it as an exclusively Islamic holy place.

During construction work about two-to-three years ago, excavated dirt from the Temple Mount was dumped by the Waqf into the nearby Kidron Valley. Israeli archaeological students then sifted through the mounds of dirt and found numerous artifacts.

The tablet reportedly was found at about this time and fell into the hands of an Arab antiquities dealer in east Jerusalem, who tried to sell it to the Israel Museum last year. The museum was skeptical and turned it down, but the GSI agreed to examine it and established its authenticity.

If it were indeed found in recent years, Israeli law would allow the State to claim ownership.

The Arab antiquities dealer wants to remain anonymous and hopes to sell the item. He is now represented by prominent Israeli attorney Isaac Herzog, former cabinet secretary to Ehud Barak and 10th on the Labor party's Knesset list in the current Israeli elections.

Adnan Husseini, the director of the Waqf, denied this week that the tablet was found during construction work on the Mount.

The ironies in this discovery could not be more dramatic. In its frantic bid to wipe away any trace of the Jewish temples, the Waqf may have unearthed compelling proof of their existence. The Barak government turned a blind eye to charges of "archaeological crimes" on the Temple Mount and then proposed at the failed Camp David summit in July 2000 to resolve the dispute over the site by leaving any antiquities located there permanently buried in the ground. Barak's cabinet secretary is now trying to profit from an inadvertent find on the Mount that only bolsters the demands of many Jews and Christians that the entire compound be thoroughly excavated by trained archaeologists.