Oldest Biblical text since the Dead Sea Scrolls deciphered from charcoal scroll
Scientists using high-tech methods have deciphered a charred fragment of the Bible that is the oldest known biblical text other than the Dead Sea Scrolls. The parchment or animal-skin scroll, which burned around 1,500 years ago in a fire that destroyed the town of Ein Gedi, is from the second chapter of Leviticus, which concerns burnt offerings to the Lord.
Ein Gedi was a Jewish oasis village in ancient Palestine that burned to the ground centuries ago for unknown reasons. It was noted for its balsam plantations and for being a refuge for David 3,000 years ago when King Saul hunted him. David turned the tables and caught Saul unarmed and spared his life. David later became king.
Beginning in the 1960s, excavations there revealed the town's ruins and a synagogue with a mosaic floor.
The beautiful mosaic floor of the 1,500-year-old synagogue that burned when the town of Ein Gedi was destroyed by fire (Photo by Stéphanie Gromman/ Wikimedia Commons )
After the ancient Jewish village entirely burned in the 6 th century AD “none of its residents returned to resettle it or to pick through its ruins in order to rescue valuables,” said Yosef Porat, an archaeologist who helped excavate Ein Gedi. Consequently, a bronze menorah and the parchment fragment and the box that contained it and about 3,500 coins from the alms box of the synagogue were unearthed.
The greenery of the oasis contrasts with the surrounding desert of Ein Gedi in the Dead Sea area. (Photo by Daniel Baránek/ Wikimedia Commons )
“We have no information about the cause of the fire, but theories for the destruction range from conquest by Bedouins from the region east of the Dead Sea to conflicts with the Byzantine authorities,” Porat said in a statement.
“The document, found during the excavation of the synagogue in Ein Gedi 45 years ago, was burned 1,500 years ago while stored inside the ark in the ancient house of worship,” reports The Times of Israel . “Since then, however, the text has been unreadable. Using micro-CT scanners, specialists at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls laboratory in Jerusalem discerned the text written on the charred scroll: verses from the second chapter of the Book of Leviticus. The results of the CT scans were sent to computer scientist Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, who created a 3D reconstruction of the scroll.”
The charred scroll containing Biblical text. Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority
Ein Gedi is now a tourist destination. It is near the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth. It is a lush oasis crossed by two streams and has four springs in the stark desert of the area. In addition, there are eight smaller springs outside the oasis. Archaeologists say the area’s first known habitations date back more than 5,000 years.
The springs allowed intensive irrigated agriculture and a permanent settlement, says the Israel Antiquities Authority website , which has a long article about Ein Gedi and its natural surroundings and human presence since the Chalcolithic of the 4 th millennium BC.
The first evidence of construction there was a temple near the Ein Gedi spring. But uninterrupted settlement didn't come until the Iron Age of the late 8 th century or early 7 th century BC, the authority says. Activity at Ein Gedi reached a peak in the Roman-Byzantine era. Farmers cultivated up to 1,100 dunums (110 hectares) of the oasis and grazed their goats and sheep in the desert just outside it. The desert surrounding the oasis is called the Wilderness of Ein Gedi in the Bible.
After fire destroyed the settlement in the 6 th century AD, a new group established a permanent settlement in the Maluk period of the 13 th to 14 th centuries. After that there was no settlement there until the modern era. Now there is a kibbutz, a spa and a tourist destination in the area.
Featured image: the charred scroll and its virtually unwrapped image with biblical text. Credit: Shai Halevi / IAA; Seth Parker / University of Kentucky.
By Mark Miller