In the biblical book of Joshua, lands are apportioned to the tribes of Israel. Judah's allotment included the En-Gedi region (Joshua 15:62), an area on the western bank of the Dead Sea. In that location, archeologists uncovered the remains of a community that was apparently established sometime around the eighth century BCE (Before the Common Era) and burned around the year 600 CE (Common Era is equivalent to AD). During excavations in the 1970s, archeologists found the charred remains of scrolls from the En Gedi synagogue. Looking inside the scrolls to see what they contained was impossible with the technology of the day, so the artifacts were carefully preserved.
Reports in September 2016 described a technique recently developed by scientists to peer inside the scrolls and read them. A team lead by William Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky designed a method that used micro–computed tomography (an x-ray based technology) and innovative software to scan the scrolls in a manner similar to how medical scans can create detailed 3D images of the human body. The process involved imaging a burned scroll's remains to identify the internal structure and locate the surfaces of its "pages." Next, information about the density of the surfaces enabled the team to locate the precise positions where ink existed. Customized software then digitally "unrolled" the information, transforming the 3D image into a 2D surface.
When examined, the text was discovered to be the opening chapters of Leviticus, one of the first five books of the Bible, known collectively as the Pentateuch (Five Books) or Torah (the Law). According to biblical scholars, the Hebrew script within the scroll matches the consonants of the Masoretic Text, which is commonly used as a source document for Old Testament writings. Ancient Hebrew writing contains consonants without vowels. The addition of vowel marks as an aid in pronunciation was not made by scribes until approximately the seventh century CE.
Attempts to pinpoint the date the scroll was written resulted in estimates that ranged from the middle of the first century to the fourth century CE. Carbon 14 dating suggests that the scroll may have been written sometime between the third and fourth centuries of the Common Era. An analysis of the handwriting suggests an earlier date during the first century CE. In either case, the scroll predates existing medieval texts by centuries and helps fill a gap in biblical textual scholarship.
Resources and More Information
This article, along with more images and links to resources, originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Observations: A Pier Press® Newsletter. To view the complete newsletter, visit our online archives. Also, please consider becoming a subscriber so that future editions can be delivered directly to your inbox. Subscriptions are free!
If you're looking for more information about biblical source documents and want a summary written for laypeople, read "Concerning Source Documents," from Which Good Book? An Impartial Guide to Choosing a Bible Translation, by Karen A. Bellenir (Pier Press, 2014).