This week, incredible cutting-edge technology allowed archaeologists to finally read the contents of a burned 1,500-year-old scroll found near the Dead Sea in 1970. The remarkable discovery of verses from the Book of Leviticus, which matched, letter for letter, the Hebrew text still in use today, is the first instance of one of the Five Books of Moses ever found in a Holy Ark.
On Wednesday, researchers in Kentucky and Jerusalem announced in the Science Advances journal the success of new technology called ‘virtual unwrapping’. A complicated and difficult process based on the technology used in medical CT scans, researchers said it “represents a significant leap forward in the field of manuscript recovery, conservation, and analysis”.
The technique allowed scientists to read the Ein Gedi Scroll, a charred, ancient parchment discovered in an ancient destroyed synagogue on the shores of the Dead Sea more than forty years ago which has sat on a shelf, untouchable and indecipherable, ever since.
When the researchers saw the first results, it made for a startling revelation: the scroll contained the first eight verses of Leviticus, making it the earliest Torah writings ever found in the Holy Ark of an ancient synagogue and marking a significant discovery in Biblical archaeology.
Studies based on historical handwriting placed it at either the first or second century CE. When the researchers read the digitally enhanced text, they discovered that all of the words and paragraph breaks were absolutely identical to the Torah text still used today.
“This is quite amazing for us. In 2,000 years, this text has not changed,” Emmanuel Tov, a participant in the study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told the Times of Israel,
“There are clear signs of continuity of tradition,” Professor Tov said in an interview with National Geographic. “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.”
Torah-observant archaeologist Benyamin Storchan, who straddles the two worlds of science and religion, agreed. According to him, the discovery fits perfectly into Judaism’s spiritual history.
“This a textual building block in the big story. The consistency of the text shows that we have an unbroken chain, the end result being present day Judaism,” Storchan told Breaking Israel News.
The scroll was first discovered in 1970, when archaeologists were working near Ein Gedi, a natural spring oasis on the shore of the Dead Sea. They discovered the remains of a Jewish community dating back to eighth century BCE.
The small city had thrived until 600 CE, when it was destroyed and the buildings burned. In the remains of the ark of the synagogue, the archaeologists found a parchment rolled up but entirely burned, so damaged by fire that it was impossible to unroll it for inspection without the charred parchment crumbling into ashes.
The scroll was faithfully stored away by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) with little hope of ever being able to study what was written on them.
Forty years later, in 2015, computer scientists at the University of Kentucky developed software for unraveling damaged and delicate texts. Originally designed for deciphering Roman scrolls, the technique is even more successful with ancient Jewish texts written with ink containing a metal element that shows up more clearly on the X-ray scans.
The researchers scanned 100 sections from the charred remains of the Ein Gedi scroll, which had been rolled five times. Incredibly, they were able to create a digital image of the scroll and “unroll” the image without even touching it. The scan revealed two columns of writing, composed of 35 lines, 18 of which were preserved while the other 17 had to be digitally reconstructed.
Until 1947, the oldest known Biblical texts dated only to the tenth century. The Dead Sea Scrolls, written in approximately the third century BCE, provided a rare and exciting glimpse into even earlier ancient Jewish texts. Now, the Ein Gedi scroll is filling out that picture and confirming the authenticity of present-day texts.
Jewish scribal tradition ensures that discrepancies in reproduction do not occur. Holy texts are hand-copied letter for letter from accepted originals. Strict guidelines are given for writing techniques, shapes of letters, and breaks in the text, striving to maintain an unbroken chain from Sinai. The latest discovery is the closest Jews have yet come to proof that the chain has remained intact.