One of the Last Two Known Dead Sea Scrolls Is Deciphered
Researchers from the Haifa University have reconstructed the contents of one of the last two undeciphered Dead Sea Scrolls, disclosing a distinctive calendar used by a Jewish sect that lived in the Judean Desert during the Second Temple period.
Most Important Archaeological Find in Israel’s History
Sixty small fragments were pieced together over a period of twelve months, identifying the name of a festival marking the changes between seasons. It also revealed a second scribe corrected mistakes made by the original author as BBC reported . The collection is considered the oldest copy of the Hebrew Bible ever found, dating to at least the 4 th Century BC.
This scroll is a collection of psalms and hymns, comprising parts of forty-one biblical psalms. ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
The 900 scrolls, written by an ancient Jewish sect, never stopped amazing historians and archaeologists from the day they were discovered in a cave in Qumran in 1947. “Tens of thousands of fragments belonging to over 900 scrolls were found in the caves at Qumran,” Dr. Eshbal Ratzon from the Bible Department at Haifa University told Haaretz . And adds, “This is the most important archaeological find ever made in Israel. This is literature from the Second Temple period, and that’s rare.” It is not known who wrote the scrolls, even though several historians have suggested that the writers were an ascetic desert sect called the Essenes. They said they were assisted in deciphering the code by annotations discovered in the margins by a scribe correcting omissions made by the author.
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Scholars examining the Dead Sea Scroll fragments. ( Public Domain )
Written in Three Different Languages
Dr. Ratzon explained that it took decades that involved many scientists and researchers to piece the fragments together, decrypt them and then publish their contents. Still, two of them remained undeciphered. The scrolls are written in three languages: Hebrew for the most part, Aramaic, while a few of them are written in Greek. The scroll Dr. Ratzon worked on with Prof. Jonatan Ben-Dov, also from the Bible Department at Haifa University, was written in coded Hebrew and some of the fragments were smaller than 1 square cm. “Very few scrolls that had previously been deciphered were written in this language,” she says via Haaretz .
Unique 364-Day Calendar
The two experts noticed a unique 364-day calendar, which was already known to researchers and differs significantly from the one Jews used at that period. “Most Jews used a calendar that is similar to the one used today. The sect used a calendar that is almost based on a solar year, comprising 364 days. There are months with 30 or 31 days in every season,” Dr. Ratzon stated via Haaretz . And adds, “364 divides into 7, so every date falls on a specific day of the week and every holiday has a fixed date. We know that in the Temple there were disputes between different sects over what happens if Passover falls on Shabbat. What supersedes what, Shabbat or the holiday? This sect solved the problem, since no holiday fell on Shabbat. This scroll details all dates on which Shabbat falls and all the days of the week on which holidays fall.”
Dr. Ratzon also explained that when significant events took place inside a Temple, such as the High Priest making a sacrifice on Yom Kippur, only one calendar could be used. “But this calendar was disputed, which may be one of the reasons this sect left the Temple and went to the desert. They had many disputes and this was one of them – they couldn’t celebrate holidays together,” she told Haaretz .
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The scrolls were found in caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, located at Khirbet Qumran in what was what was then British Mandate Palestine – now known as West Bank. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Furthermore, the researchers also noticed the name used by the sect for a festival commemorated four times a year that marked the transition between the seasons: the Tekufah. The same word in modern-day Hebrew means "period". “This shows us that the researchers who believed the day of celebrating the transition between the seasons was called by this name were correct, and that this word, as used in the Mishna, was preserved from the days of the Second Temple – it’s a very early concept in halakha [religious Jewish law],” Dr. Ratzon stated via Haaretz , adding that the unique calendar also refers to annual wine and olive harvest festivals no longer observed in Judaism.
Meanwhile, a research team is currently excavating in a 12 th cave that might hide further scrolls to be deciphered. The cave was discovered last year and only one blank scroll was found at that time. Details of what has been discovered by the team from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia are due to be revealed soon.
Top image: 60 pieces of scroll have been reassembled in the latest scroll. (Image: University of Haifa)