Study: Ancient Israelites used cannabis in Temple worship

Burned cannabis remains found on alter of First-Temple era Jewish shrine in Tel Arad, suggesting widespread cultic use of the drug.

Gary Willig ,

Cannabis plants (illustrative)
Cannabis plants (illustrative)

The ancient Israelites used cannabis in their cultic worship and may have used the substance in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, according to a new study by the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

The discovery was made at the remains of a shrine in Tel Arad in the Negev Desert. The shrine was part of a hilltop fortress which guarded the southern border of the Kingdom of Judah from the ninth century BCE until the kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE.

The fortress was first discovered in the 1960s. The layout of the shrine was discovered to be a miniature version of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Hebrew inscriptions at the site and on pottery shards further confirmed that the fortress was a military outpost of the Kingdom of Judah.

Two limestone alters were found inside the shrine where the remains of burnt offerings were well-preserved by the desert climate. At the time, the remains could not be properly analyzed to determine their composition.

Eran Arie, curator for archaeology of the Iron Age and Persian Period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the artifacts are now housed, recently initiated a project to use modern techniques to analyze the remains, together with Dvory Namdar, a chemist and archaeologist from the Volcani agricultural research center.

After analyzing the larger of the two alters, which stood 52 centimeters (about 20 inches) high, they found remains of frankincense, an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes which is described in the Hebrew Bible as one of the substances burned with the grain offerings. This was the first time frankincense was discovered at an archaeological site in the levant.

The true surprise came when the smaller alter was analyzed. This alter, which was 40 centimeters (about 15 inches) high, was found to be covered in the chemicals teterahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol, all of which are found in cannabis.

The researches found that the frankincense was burned with animal fat while the cannabis was burned with animal dung. The fat would have helped raise the temperature of the frankincense to 260 degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit) the temperature at which the resin's pleasant aroma would be released. The dung would have been used to burn the cannabis at 150 degrees Celsius (302 degrees Fahrenheit), the temperature at which the psychoactive compounds would take effect. If the temperature were higher, the cannabis would burn away without any psychoactive effects.

The use of dung to control the temperature suggests that the worshipers at Tel Arad were deliberately using the cannabis for its psychoactive effects to get high, the researchers said.

As cannabis was not grown in Israel during the Biblical period, the drug must have been imported at a high price, the researches concluded, noting that the central monarchy in Jerusalem would have had to have sanctioned the use and importation of cannabis.

This means that the use of cannabis was likely not confined to the shine in Tel Arad, but was likely widespread in the Kingdom of Judah and may have been used and burned by the priests in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The shrine at Tel Arad was in use for approximately 50 years before it was decommissioned and the altars were buried in 715 BCE. While the precise reason the shrine was decommissioned while the fortress remained in use is unknown, it has been speculated that the shrine was one of the sites of worship which were targeted in the religious reforms of King Hezekiah, who ordered the destruction of all altars in the Kingdom of Judah outside of the Holy Temple in an effort to centralize worship in Jerusalem.