98A study published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University has revealed that researchers have identified a well-preserved substance found in a 2,700-year-old temple in Tel Arad (in the Negev desert, about 95km south of Tel Aviv) as cannabis. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) – all compounds found in cannabis – were found on an altar at the temple.

Researchers know that Arad was a Judahite fortress because of the discovery of an archive of Hebrew inscriptions dated to the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E., shortly before the kingdom was overrun by the Babylonians. The researchers say that Arad was part of a hilltop fortress at the southern frontier of the Kingdom of Judah, and the shrine is said to match a scaled-down version of Biblical descriptions of the First Temple in Jerusalem.

Frankincense, a resin collected from Boswellia trees, was also found on one of two altars found at the site. This is the first time frankincense has been identified in an archaeological dig in the Levant, although its presence isn’t particularly surprising as the ritual burning of frankincense resin is described in the Bible and other ancient sources.

Eran Arie, curator for archaeology of the Iron Age and Persian Period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which now houses the ancient artifacts, says this discovery means that it is possible that the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem would also burn cannabis on their altars. A report of the cannabis discovery in the Israeli newpaper Haaretz, asks the question “why doesn’t the Bible mention the use of cannabis as a substance used in rituals, just as it does numerous times for frankincense?” In actual fact, the Bible may very well mention cannabis. Our English word comes from the Latin word which itself is derived from the Greek κάνναβις kánnabis, which further borrowed from the Persian kanab. This Persian word, or another related Semitic term such as the Sumerian kunibu, may be behind the Hebrew term קְנֵה־בֹשֶׂם  kene-bosem, which is sometimes translated as “sweet-smelling cane” (Exodus 30:23-33). It is described as one of the ingredients of a holy oil blend used to anoint the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, and the Aaronic priesthood. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to see how kene-bosem could have come from the same origin as kunibu or kannabis.

This discovery of cannabis compounds on a Judahite altar in Arad confirms that the plant was used in ritual worship in the Biblical period and gives strength to the view of those etymologists who already suspected that the Biblical קְנֵה־בֹשֶׂם  kene-bosem was cannabis.