Ein Gedi’s mystery revealed

45 years after its discovery, computer scientists read the oldest Bible text after the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The first eight lines of Leviticus virtually unrolled from a burnt Torah scroll, placed alongside the same text for comparison’s sake. (photo credit: ASAF SHILO)
The first eight lines of Leviticus virtually unrolled from a burnt Torah scroll, placed alongside the same text for comparison’s sake.
(photo credit: ASAF SHILO)
For the last 45 years, a highly fragile mystery resembling a small piece of charcoal or two-day-old dog poop has been ensconced in the bowels of the Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem.
Carbon-14 dated to circa 600 CE, the 7-centimeter-long charred cylindrical-shaped parchment was locked away in the authority’s offices in the sprawling campus of the Israel Museum. Protected by guards and doors with numeric locks, the tiny manuscript lay unread and illegible, defying scientists to discover a way to decipher it.
Excavating the 1,400-year-old Ein Gedi synagogue, archeologist Dr. Dan Barag found the scroll and dozens of even smaller fragments among the ruins of the Jewish village’s Torah ark. It was the first time texts had ever been found in the remains of a Torah ark, yet the contents of those texts remain tantalizingly out of reach.
Barag died in 2009 with the mystery still unresolved. But Dr. Sefi Porath, his co-excavator at the dig at the oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea, never gave up hope that scientific advances would one day allow the leather scroll to be read.
Speaking at a press conference last week at the Antiquities Authority, where the newly deciphered biblical treasure – found to contain the text of Leviticus 1:1-8, albeit with several lacunae – was displayed, Porath grinned like a giddy teenager. “There was no such thing as a personal computer in 1970 when this scroll was discovered,” he said.
Even getting a telephone installed in Israel was no simple matter in those days following the Six Day War. Every few years Porath would ring up the Antiquities Authority to see if there were any encouraging developments; in more recent decades he would fire off an email.
“I’m a lucky person. This is one of the peaks of my career,” he added.
That’s no small statement from the archeologist who in 1960 discovered the Babatha letters at a nearby site in the Judean Desert known as the Cave of Letters, where fighters aligned with the rebel leader Bar Kochba hid out. The priceless archive of 35 documents in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, tied with twine and placed in a leather pouch, contained the legal history including marriage, property transfers and guardianship of a woman who lived on the eastern side of the Dead Sea 1,900 years ago. The documents discovered by Porath revolutionized scholars’ views about the doomed revolt of 132-135 CE.
Last year, responding to one of Porath’s queries, Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, decided to take a gamble to try to decipher the mystery parchment using a combination of two new promising technologies.
The first involved an offer by Merkel Technologies Company, Ltd., based in Yehud, to voluntarily scan thousands of 2D images of the fire-damaged tiny scroll. Utilizing its microcomputed tomography machine (micro-CT), Merkel created a high-resolution 3D image.
This in turn was sent to the University of Kentucky, where a computer science team headed by Prof. Brent Seales was able to complete the virtual unrolling of the scroll last week, using proprietary digital imaging software which allowed for the visualization of the unseen text. That software was developed with funding from the US National Science Foundation.
This is “just like what they do in the doctor’s office but at a very high resolution, probably 100 times more accurate than the medical procedures that we do,” Seales explained.
Adding to the extraordinary atmosphere of hi-tech, hard work and international cooperation, Seales said in a Skype conversation broadcast at the Antiquities Authority offices at the capital’s Israel Museum that he doesn’t read Hebrew. “I’ve never seen the scroll – and that’s indicative of our digital age,” the chairman of the department of computer science at the university in Lexington, Kentucky, noted.
In the background were some of the eight students who worked with him at his pioneering lab in the tedious and exacting process of making the burnt scroll’s text legible.
Seales beamed, “We’ve all been celebrating here.”
He was not the only one reveling.
“After the Dead Sea Scrolls, this has been the most significant find of an ancient Bible,” said Shor, referring to hundreds of ancient texts found in the late 1940s near the shores of the inland sea for which the scrolls were named.
Until the virtual unrolling of the Ein Gedi fragment of Leviticus, there had been a millennium-long gap between the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls dating from the late Second Temple period and the medieval Aleppo Codex written in the 10th century CE. Now scholars have a point of reference in the middle centuries.
While only eight verses of Leviticus were decoded by Seales’s team, that text – which details animal sacrifices brought to the Tabernacle – confirms the Masoretic text of the Torah, according to Shor. In other words, the discovery at the Ein Gedi synagogue suggests the Torah has been faithfully preserved over the millennia, and that copyists’ mistakes have not crept in.
“Dealing with the Dead Sea Scrolls on a daily basis is really a privilege. The knowledge that we are preserving the most important find of the 20th century and one of the Western world’s most important cultural treasures causes us to proceed with the utmost care and caution and use the most advanced technologies available today,” said Shor.
“This discovery absolutely astonished us: We were certain it was just a shot in the dark, but decided to try and scan the burnt scroll anyway. Now, not only can we bequeath the Dead Sea Scrolls to future generations, but also a part of the Bible from a holy ark of a 1,500-year-old synagogue!” What of the future? Shor noted that 3D images made by Merkel’s Micro-CT scanner of ancient tefillin cases discovered at the Dead Sea have also been sent to the University of Kentucky. The Antiquities Authority is breathlessly waiting to discover if the texts placed 2,000 years ago inside those leather boxes are the same biblical passages which Orthodox Jews today wrap around their arm and head on weekday mornings.
The great surprise and excitement set off when the first eight verses of Leviticus suddenly became legible may be the harbinger of even greater discoveries.