What Goes Around

What Goes Around

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The Siloam Tunnel Inscription
The Siloam Tunnel Inscription

Jerusalem is loaded with curious stories linking stunning archaeological finds with utterly obscure people who are then associated with intriguing currents of politics, culture or religion. Jacob Spafford 1Sometime in 1880, a kid living in Jerusalem named Jacob Eliahu, who was skipping school, went swimming. He was the son of a Jewish couple who had adopted the protestant faith. He challenged a school buddy to join him in swimming the length of a long underground tunnel with a spring at one end that pulsed water on a pretty regular schedule. Found in 1838 by the American biblical scholar Edward Robinson, the tunnel was believed to be that dug by King Hezekiah of Judah around 701 BC. Jacob started at one end, and his buddy at the other. They swam in the darkness, except for floating a little candle on a small dish, feeling the chisel marks on the side of the tunnel. At one point, Jacob felt the chisel marks change direction and realized that the tunnel must have been dug by two teams coming from each end, meeting at the point where he discovered the changed chisel impressions. Jacob planned to meet his friend there, but his friend had given up and reversed course, swimming back. When his friend burst from the pool, he scared the daylights out of the Arabs lounging around. They thought the pool was inhabited by spirits and ghosts, who periodically stirred it to flow water. So when Jacob’s buddy came slamming up out of the water gasping for breath, he caused quite a stir! Jacob, meanwhile, continued swimming toward the Pool of Siloam, feeling the wall as he went, floating a little dish with a candle before him.

My son Lyman, at age 16, in the Siloam Tunnel
My son Lyman, at age 16, in the Siloam Tunnel

He found a place where it seemed something was carved into the wall that wasn’t chisel marks, but writing. He swam on out and later told the headmaster of his mission school about his exploits and about the inscription just a short distance from the Pool of Siloam. His headmaster waded into the tunnel and by candlelight examined it, verifying it was indeed an ancient Hebrew inscription. He began writing his study of the inscription when a horrible thing happened. A Greek trader picked up Jacob’s story, slipped into the tunnel and crudely broke the inscription off the wall, in several pieces, with plans to sell it. Such figures turn up often in the story of archaeology, and are remembered with loathing. Fortunately, he was apprehended by the authorities, who confiscated the pieces of the inscription which ultimately landed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum  where it remains to this day. Israel has requested the return of the inscription on several occasions, but the request has met with flat refusals. A true “Bible Geek,” Jacob realized he had found the physical, geological referent to 2 Kings 20.20:

Plaque marking the original location of the inscription
Plaque marking the original location of the inscription

And the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and all his might, and how he made a pool, and a conduit, and brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah?

Of course the tunnel is none other than Hezekiah’s tunnel linking the Gihon Spring to the pool of Siloam, and the inscription is the famous, and only, example of a Hebrew royal inscription.

But what about Jacob Eliahu? A year later he left his mission school and affiliated with an evangelical sect in Jerusalem known as the “American Colony,” founded by Horatio and Anna Spafford, after the catastrophic loss of their children on November 21, 1873 when the S.S. Ville du Havre  sank. Anna’s telegram to her husband, “Saved Alone” led Horatio Spafford, at approximately the site of the shipwreck, to compose the beloved song, “It Is Well With My Soul.” Following that experience, Horatio and Anna gathered a group of likeminded people seeking to recover primitive Christianity in communal living and service and traveled to Palestine, where they founded the “American Colony.” They adopted the young Jacob Eliahu, now Jacob Eliahu Spafford, who began teaching in the American Colony’s school. He also spent the rest of his life working alongside archaeologists!

Jacob’s Headmaster was Dr. Conrad Schick, who directed excavations for the Palestine Exploration Fund for over 50 years. Schick studied the inscription in situ an realized this was an important ancient Hebrew inscription. Schick also published the first scholarly description of the so-called Garden Tomb in 1874, which was declared by Charles Gordon to be the real site of Jesus’ burial, aka “Gordon’s Calvary.” In 1901, Schick carefully reviewed all the data and rejected Gordon’s claims. Schick, also an architect, is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Jerusalem on the grounds now home to Jerusalem University College, where our Asbury Seminary students go every summer to study the Bible “on location”—yet another curious connection!

Jacob Eliahu Spafford loved teaching his students about Hezekiah and the famous tunnel, and died in 1932 in an automobile accident.

He never told his students he was the discoverer of one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time, the Siloam Tunnel Inscription!


For the story of the American Colony, cf. Jane Fletcher Geniesse, American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem. New York: Doubleday, 2008.The story of Jacob’s discovery is noted in chapter 12, and in footnote 17 to that chapter.

A brief summary of this story is found in: Simon Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography. Knopf, 2010. Montefiore errs in saying the inscription was at the point where the chisel marks changed. In fact, the inscription was located near the Pool of Siloam about 20 feet from the south end of the tunnel.


2 Responses

  1. A very interesting post, I must say. I’ve done quite a bit of study on American Colony history and personalities, and am familiar with the story of Jacob’s finding the inscription, as first published in Bertha Spafford Vester’s 1950 memoir “Our Jerusalem”. Being intimately familiar with Hezekiah’s Tunnel (as I know you are too), I have tried to approach the story critically. (One of my projects – on the “back burner” for several years now — is to write a proper article for publication connecting all the dots on this, perhaps for BAR.)

    There are a couple of undeniably true facts: Jacob Eliyahu Spafford did in fact discover the inscription, in 1880 — when he was about 16 years old and before the Spaffords were ever in Jerusalem — AND he did tell his teacher, the venerable Conrad Schick. Beyond that, the details are mostly bunk, added by Jacob over the years for dramatic (and humorous) effect.

    You put your finger on a key problem when you state <>. But it’s not Montefiore. That assertion — a blatant fabrication to anyone who knows the place — is in the original published version of the story (1950), a story which Betha Vester must have heard her adopted brother recount dozens of times over the years, starting from the time she was a young child:

    “Jacob, feeling his way, suddenly was conscious that the chisel marks had changed and were now going from left to right. He realized he must be in the exact place where the King’s workmen had met under the city. Carefully he felt all around the walls, and was certain that his fingers detected an inscription chiseled in the stone.”

    Besides the mis-placed location of the inscription, there are simply too many details and interpretations that came to light only later (the chisel marks themselves, the meeting of the workers, etc.) that have been “read back” into the tale — not to mention the purely fantastic elements, like locating the incised letters by touch, in the pitch black!

    Many have no doubt re-told or cited this story over the years, more or less ‘as-is’. Besides Ms. Geniesse, and now Montefiore, it appears in Abraham Millgram’s book “Jerusalem Curiosities” (pp. 17-20); those are only the ones I am aware of. So, you’re in good company!

    It’s apparently true, by the way, that Silwan locals considered the spring haunted, or rather inhabited by a dragon or “jinn”. Because of the surging of the water, they called the spring the “Dragon’s Well” and the walled-off base of Warren’s Shaft the “Dragon’s Shaft”, the connection probably being (via a wrong translation?) to Neh. 2:13. In any event, several 17th-20th century western sources make note of the superstition (also this American Colony photo and caption: One can surely imagine local youths, emerging noisily from the tunnel, gleefully spooking the women gathered at the spring-head! It’s clear, however, that on the fateful day, from Schick’s own account at the time, Jacob and his friends were simply playing in the water — at the other end of the tunnel.

    It is also true that Jacob Eliyahu never named himself as the inscription’s finder — it was always “a certain schoolboy” — not out of humility, but because he had so shamelessly embellished the story! The joy of regaling people with an exciting tale over the years no doubt far outweighed any fleeting personal recognition he might have gained.

    TOM POWERS / Waynesville, NC

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