Digitally unwrapped scroll reveals earliest Old Testament scripture (Update)

September 21, 2016
Completed virtual unwrapping for the En-Gedi scroll. Credit: Science Advances  21 Sep 2016: Vol. 2, no. 9, e1601247 , DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601247

An extremely fragile, ancient Hebrew scroll has been digitally unwrapped for the first time, revealing the earliest copy of Old Testament Bible scripture since the Dead Sea Scrolls, researchers said Wednesday.

Known as the En-Gedi scroll, it contains text from the Book of Leviticus, and dates at least to the third or fourth century, possibly earlier, according to the report in the journal Science Advances.

The deciphering of its contents is described in the journal as a "significant discovery in biblical archeology."

The scroll is not the oldest ever found—that honor belongs to the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls which range from the third century BC to the second century of the common era (AD).

Radiocarbon analysis has shown that the En-Gedi scroll dates to the third or fourth century AD.

Some experts think it is older than that. An analysis of the handwriting style and the way the letters are drawn suggests it could date to the second half of the first century or the beginning of the second century AD.

Its contents were long thought to be lost forever, because it was burned in a fire in the 6th century and was impossible to touch without dissolving into chunks of ash.

The scroll was found by archeologists in 1970 at En-Gedi, the site of a large, ancient Jewish community dating from the late 8th century BC.

The scroll was found by archeologists in 1970 at En-Gedi, the site of a large, ancient Jewish community dating from the late 8th century BC

Its fragments were preserved by the Israel Antiquities Authority for decades.

"Each fragment's main structure, completely burned and crushed, had turned into chunks of charcoal that continued to disintegrate every time they were touched," said the study.

So researchers used advanced digital scanning tools to "virtually unwrap" the scroll and see its contents, without ever touching it.

A micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) scan was able to pick up traces of metal in the ink.

"We were amazed at the quality of the images," said Michael Segal, head of the School of Philosophy and Religions at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"Much of the text is as readable, or close to as readable as actual unharmed Dead Sea Scrolls or high resolution photographs of them."

Back from the brink

Before the scroll was digitally unveiled, experts believed the artifact may have been an entire Torah scroll.

A conservator at the Dead Sea scrolls laboratory in Jerusalem works on fragments of a Dead Sea scroll on February 24, 2016

But a look at the images showed it was the Book of Leviticus, from the third book of the Book of Moses.

This makes it the earliest Pentateuchal book—relating to the first five books of the Jewish or Christian scriptures—ever found in a synagogue.

Some earlier evidence of Leviticus texts do exist in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were unearthed from caves or in excavations, explained Segal.

The En-Gedi scroll shows 18 lines of text in each column, which were originally 35 lines long.

Like other ancient Hebrew scrolls, it contains only consonants and no vowels.

Symbols for vowels were not introduced in Hebrew until the 9th century.

"We were immediately struck by the fact that in these passages, the En-Gedi Leviticus scroll is identical in all of its details both regarding its letter and section division to what we call the Masoretic text, the authoritative Jewish text until today," said Segal.

Its uniformity with the medieval texts stunned researchers, who said it was 100 percent the same, both in its consonants and in its paragraph divisions.

A screen shot shows the deciphered and original text of what is believed to be a 1,500 year old copy of the beginning of the book of Leviticus thanks to modern scanning technology

"We have never found something as striking as this," said Emanuel Tov, professor emeritus in the department of Bible at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"This is quite amazing for us that in 2,000 years this text has not changed."

Researchers hope the techniques developed to read it will be used on other scrolls, including some from the Dead Sea Scroll collection, which have remained undecipherable until now, and others from disasters such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the 1st century.

The technology, called "Volume Cartography" and developed with funding from the US National Science Foundation, will become freely available next year as open source software, researchers said.

It could also be useful to intelligence agencies or investigators.

"Damage and decay is the natural order of things, but you can see that sometimes you can absolutely pull a text back from the brink of loss," said co-author Brent Seales, professor and chairman in the department of computer science at the University of Kentucky.

"The En-Gedi scroll is proof positive we can potentially recover whole texts from damaged material, not just a few letters or a speculative word," said Seales.

Explore further: 21st century technology deciphers ancient Hebrew scroll

More information: From damage to discovery via virtual unwrapping: Reading the scroll from En-Gedi, Science Advances  21 Sep 2016: Vol. 2, no. 9, e1601247 , DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601247 , http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/2/9/e1601247

Related Stories

Robot writes Torah at Berlin's Jewish Museum

July 10, 2014

The robot's quill runs across the paper scroll, from right to left, scribbling down ancient Hebrew letters with black ink. It is penning down the Torah, the Jews' holy scripture, and it is doing it much faster than a rabbi ...

2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls go online

September 26, 2011

Two thousand years after they were written and decades after they were found in desert caves, some of the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls went online for the first time on Monday in a project launched by Israel's national museum ...

Google to bring Dead Sea Scrolls online

October 19, 2010

The Dead Sea Scrolls, among the world's most important, mysterious and tightly restricted archaeological treasures, are about to get Googled.

Google launches Dead Sea Scrolls online library

December 18, 2012

More than six decades since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls—and thousands of years after they were written—Israel on Tuesday put 5,000 images of the ancient biblical artifacts online in a partnership with Google.

Protons for studying the Dead Sea Scrolls

July 2, 2010

Researchers of the National Laboratories of the South (LNS) in Catania of the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN, Italy's National Institute for Nuclear Physics) have shed light on the origin of one of the extraordinary ...

Recommended for you

Egypt archaeologists discover mummy in Luxor

December 9, 2017

Egyptian archaeologists have discovered a mummy in one of two previously unexplored tombs across the Nile from the southern city of Luxor, the antiquities ministry said Saturday.

14 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Playonwords
2 / 5 (4) Sep 22, 2016
When you write an article about such manuscripts please place the correct era identification at the start of the article, not half-way through the text. It might also be politic to use the term CE (Common Era) rather than AD (Anno Domini) in referring to a Jewish text as Jesus is NOT "the Lord" of the Jewish people.
NoStrings
1 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2016
Playonwords, and who cares? What new wisdom they expect to learn from the ancient trash?

691Boat
not rated yet Sep 22, 2016
When you write an article about such manuscripts please place the correct era identification at the start of the article, not half-way through the text.

So you don't have to read the whole article? Why don't they put the ending of a book at the beginning? Cut out the 120 minutes of extraneous garbage in movies too. Just show the ending.
3251957
not rated yet Sep 22, 2016
I can't quite make it out, what does it say?
luxorion
not rated yet Sep 23, 2016
Congrats to those who developped this amazing and incredible imaging technology !
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Sep 23, 2016
Congrats to those who developped this amazing and incredible imaging technology !

I'm still amazed that they realized this was a scroll and not just some charred piece of something-or-other.
nuncestbibendum
not rated yet Sep 23, 2016
Terrific development. Let's use it for something interesting next.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Sep 25, 2016
Funny but there seem to be differing versions of bible efficacy from Hebrew U.

"a revelation that would startle many readers of the Old Testament: The sacred text that people revered in the past was not the same one we study today.

"An ancient version of one book has an extra phrase. Another appears to have been revised to retroactively insert a prophecy after the events happened.

"Scholars in this out-of-the-way corner of the Hebrew University campus have been quietly at work for 53 years.

"Other differences are more striking.

""The Book of Jeremiah is now one-seventh longer than the one that appears in some of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some verses, including ones containing a prophecy about the seizure and return of Temple implements by Babylonian soldiers, appear to have been added after the events happened."
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Sep 25, 2016
"Rafael Zer. ""A believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is prophecy," said the project's bearded academic secretary, Rafael Zer. "But as soon as the words are given to human beings - with God's agreement, and at his initiative – the holiness of the biblical text remains, even if mistakes are made when the text is passed on.""

-Uh huh. So when some manuscripts havent changed much it is evidence of gods will, but when others have changed a lot it is evidence of man's corruption of gods will.

This is akin to believing that if god grants our wishes then he is rewarding us but if he doesn't then he is testing us.

Explaining happenstance takes far fewer words.

I do agree however that there is a great deal of evidence for corruption.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Sep 25, 2016
Jesus is NOT "the Lord" of the Jewish people
Well jesus SAYS he is so whatcha gonna do about it? A billion xians can't be wrong ya know.

Interfaithism is such a fragile thing.
michael_frishberg
not rated yet Sep 26, 2016
Jesus is NOT "the Lord" of the Jewish people
Well jesus SAYS he is so whatcha gonna do about it? A billion xians can't be wrong ya know.

Interfaithism is such a fragile thing.

Indeed. However, belief in higher powers is easily found to be due to both environmental and genetic components.
We're social primates, and therefore have some built in respect for leaders (higher powers) or we couldn't form a group ( the 'golden rule' is part of our DNA, it's how we can form groups, and it's why giving feels better than getting (overall)).

And, someone stuck a teat in mouth, and wiped butt for 18 months, that's informing some that there are higher powers.
Anonym
1 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2016
What a mess this is. Headline is misleading, or WRONG. Lede paragraph contains the double redundancy "Old Testament Bible scripture." Article later refers to the Pentateuch as the "Book of Moses." (The "Book of Moses" is a Mormon confection.). ... And is it really so "amazing" that the text of Leviticus remained unchanged from 300 CE, considering that it had already been canonized by then? The technology is what's interesting here, not the Bible. Refocus please.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Sep 26, 2016
We're social primates, and therefore have some built in respect for leaders (higher powers) or we couldn't form a group ( the 'golden rule' is part of our DNA, it's how we can form groups, and it's why giving feels better than getting (overall))
We're domesticated apes, selected over 1000s of gens for the ability to forego our reason, kill and die on command, and surrender our repro rights, all for the good of the tribe.

The tribal dynamic demands internal amity in conjunction with external emnity. Thats why giving feels good within the tribe but squandering resources on outsiders feels bad.

"4 Give to religious people, but don't help sinners. 5 Do good to humble people, but don't give anything to those who are not devout. Don't give them food, or they will use your kindness against you. Every good thing you do for such people will bring you twice as much trouble in return. 6 The Most High himself hates sinners, and he will punish them." sirach12
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Sep 26, 2016
Pentateuch as the "Book of Moses."
Google these terms and find out what you dont know.
And is it really so "amazing" that the text of Leviticus remained unchanged from 300 CE, considering that it had already been canonized by then?

And which of the many canons are you referring to?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.