Computers Decipher Burnt Scroll Found in Ancient Holy Ark
Scientists have formally announced their reconstruction of the Ein Gedi Scroll, the most ancient Hebrew scroll since the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some 1,500 years ago, a fire raged through an oasis on the Dead Sea’s western shore, destroying a thriving Jewish community that had lived there for centuries. Yet amid the conflagration, the town synagogue’s Holy Ark survived—housing a fragmented animal-skin scroll that the searing heat essentially converted into charcoal.
For decades, the Israel Antiquities Authority guarded the document, known as the Ein Gedi Scroll, careful not to open it for fear that the brittle text would shatter to pieces. But last year, scientists announced that they had scanned, virtually unrolled, and translated the scroll’s hidden verses—a feat now formally described in the scientific literature.
“I’ve worked for two decades now with technology and damaged materials, and over that time, I’ve become convinced that this day was possible,” says study author Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, who specializes in digitally reconstructing damaged texts. “The Ein Gedi Scroll is proof positive that we can potentially recover the whole text from damaged material, not just a few letters or a speculative word.”
Based on preliminary scans, Seales and his colleagues announced in 2015 that the Ein Gedi Scroll was a biblical text from the sixth century A.D. containing a column of text from the book of Leviticus. But the full CT scan results, published on Wednesday in Science Advances, tell a deeper story.
Bridging a Gap
Further analysis revealed an extra column of text, ultimately fleshing out the first two chapters of Leviticus—ironically, a book that begins with God’s instructions for burnt offerings. What’s more, radiocarbon dating of the scroll suggests that it may be between 1,700 and 1,800 years old, at least 200 years older than previously thought. In fact, the scroll’s distinctive handwriting hearkens back to the first or second century A.D., some five centuries earlier than the date ascribed to the scroll last year.
In and of itself, scholars aren’t shocked by the fact that the text is from Leviticus. “There’s little of surprise in finding a Leviticus scroll,” University of Cambridge lecturer James Aitken told Smithsonian’s Devin Powell in 2015, when the Ein Gedi Scroll translation was first announced. “We probably have many more copies of it than any other book, as its Hebrew style is so simple and repetitive that it was used for children’s writing exercises.”
But the scroll’s possible age means that it may sit squarely between the older Dead Sea Scrolls and the Cairo Genizah, a cache of medieval Hebrew books. In other words, the Ein Gedi Scroll bridges a centuries-wide gap in the history of biblical text.
“I think we can safely say that since the completion of the publication of the Corpus of Dead Sea Scrolls about a decade ago … the Ein Gedi Leviticus Scroll is the most extensive and significant biblical text from antiquity that has come to light,” says study coauthor Michael Segal, a biblical scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Emanuel Tov, a fellow co-author and biblical scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says that the Ein Gedi Scroll specifically helps by refining the timeline of how the authoritative Hebrew Bible—also known as the Masoretic Text—came to be.
“There are clear signs of continuity of tradition,” he says. “It can’t be coincidental that the synagogue in Ein Gedi that was burned in the sixth century housed an early scroll whose text was completely identical with medieval texts. The same central stream of Judaism that used this Levitical scroll in one of the early centuries of our era was to continue using it until the late Middle Ages when printing was invented.”
The researchers also emphasize that the study advances noninvasive imaging techniques, but challenges remain. The Ein Gedi Scroll’s letters popped out because they were written with a dense ink that probably contained iron or lead. However, other ancient inks were carbon-based, making them trickier to distinguish from carbonized writing surfaces—especially among the Herculaneum scrolls, a trove of documents preserved during the volcanic destruction of Pompeii. (Read more about Seales’s work to decipher scrolls recovered from Pompeii.)
“I would love to be able to extract texts from the substantial collection from Herculaneum that remains wrapped,” says Seales. “And so that is my focus.”