Curator at The Israel Museum: ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls may be Most Significant Discovery in 20th Century’

May 6, 2018

4 min read

In yet another exceptional encounter with antiquity, a new discovery was announced at an international conference entitled “The Dead Sea Scrolls at 70: A Clear Path in the Wilderness.”

With the aid of advanced multispectral imaging equipment at the Dead Sea Scrolls’ conservation labs, an IAA researcher was thrilled to discover a hidden script that was uncovered in fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, invisible to the naked eye.

“The new script was discovered by Oren Ableman, a scroll researcher at the Dead Sea Scrolls Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority and a PhD student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When he examined a few dozen fragments that were discovered in “Cave 11” near Qumran, he was excited to discover traces of ink on many fragments that appeared blank to the naked eye,” the IAA said in a release.

New fragments were identified from the Books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Jubilees, Psalms 147:1, as well as fragments belonging to the Temple Scroll, a text dealing with directions for conducting the services in the ideal Temple.

The Great Psalms Scroll (11Q5) together with the new fragment containing Psalm 147:1. (Photo credit: Shai Halevi, The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library)

The conference was held at The Israel Museum and Hebrew University’s Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), The University of Vienna, and New York University, to mark the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The program included lectures by various experts on topics related to the Scrolls’ discovery, preservation, narratives, themes, language, documentation, and ongoing efforts to combat looting of artifacts in the Judean Desert to protect valuable the Scrolls’ national cultural heritage.

Dead Sea Scrolls Symposium at The Israel Museum
(Credit: Eliana Rudee)

The modern history of the Dead Sea Scrolls dates back to the 1950s, when archaeologists and Bedouin found tens of thousands parchment and papyrus fragments belonging to approximately 1000 different manuscripts in the caves near Qumran. The Scrolls, 2,000 years old, provided a comprehensive and scholarly dictionary of various Hebrew and Aramaic texts of Palestine from the period between Biblical and Rabbinic texts, and include the earliest extra-biblical sources relating to Jerusalem.

Ido Bruno, Director of the Israel Museum called The Dead Sea Scrolls “the most important treasure that the museum holds.”

According to Pnina Shor, archaeologist and head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Projects at the IAA, the new imaging technology (first developed by NASA) is now being used further to identify script on some fragments.

“We also undertook a multi-million dollar imaging project, with the main idea being to look for a non-intrusive way to monitor the well-being of the scrolls. The byproduct is the Dead Sea Scrolls digital library, which is an open access site with images of the scrolls for everyone to enjoy,” she told Israel365 News.

In order to further increase accessibility to the public, the scrolls are also exhibited abroad, presented as documents that “preserve our common heritage.”

Adolfo Roitman, curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls told Israel365 News, “The Dead Sea Scrolls may be the most significant discovery of the 20th century. Everything we thought we knew about origin of Christianity and rabbinical Judaism changed after the discovery of the Scrolls.”

According to Roitman, the most significant feature of the Scrolls is that the large majority are religious documents.

“They are not about administration or regular life of the people, but they tell us about the thought, literature, and religious experience of Jews who lived in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago,” he said.

Before their discovery, he told Israel365 News, “We had no original first-person materials from the last 100 years of Second Temple times. What we have now are very ancient testimonies of the Biblical tradition and, in the context of later incorrect translations, we can recover the ancient versions. In this sense we can see how the text developed over centuries, which is a major contribution to textual history and a new perspective of ancient Judaism.”

A fragment of Deuteronomy (11Q3) after IR imaging at the scroll lab of the Israel Antiquity Authority. (Photo credit: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)

In the past, because of the small size and precarious physical state of the fragments, some were placed in boxes without being sorted or deciphered. But now, as part of the Scrolls’ digitization project, sample examinations were conducted among these boxes.

“The scrolls were written at the time that Judaism and Christianity were formalizing,” Shor told Israel365 News. “The content of the scrolls, which talks about the Messiah, apocalypse, end of days, etc. brings the monotheistic world together in our common heritage.”

Likewise, Roitman said, “the Scrolls are not only significant for Jews. The original materials coming from relevant years offer hope that we might find new information about the main characters of Christianity in the backdrop of Judaism during those times.”

Bruno voiced his hope that the Museum will “continue to look deeper and wider into the ways we can both preserve and exhibit the scrolls.”

He said, “There is a lot more scientific research to be done on the scrolls as artifacts, not only for preservation and conservation but a way to better understand the way they came into being.”


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