En-Gedi Scroll Finally Deciphered

An international team of researchers led by University of Kentucky scientist Prof. Brent Seales has unlocked the text in the early Leviticus scroll from En Gedi — the oldest Pentateuchal scroll in Hebrew outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

En-Gedi Scroll Finally Deciphered

Completed virtual unwrapping for the En-Gedi scroll. Image credit: William Brent Seales et al.
In 1970, a team of Israeli archeologists from the Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) made a surprising discovery at En-Gedi, the site of a large, ancient Jewish community dating from the late eighth century BC until its destruction by fire circa 600 CE.
Excavations uncovered the Holy Ark of the En-Gedi synagogue, inside of which were multiple charred lumps of what appeared to be animal skin scroll fragments.
The IAA experts faithfully preserved the scroll fragments, although in the four decades following the discovery, no one produced a means to overcome the irreversible damage they had suffered.
“The scroll was radiocarbon dated using the accelerator mass spectrometry technique,” the archaeologists said. “The test results indicate a probability of 68.2% that the scroll dates between 235–340 CE, and a probability of 88.9% that it dates between 210–390 CE. They allow for a 6.5% probability that the scroll dates to the 2nd century CE.”
In 2015, Prof. Seales and co-authors managed to reveal the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus in the scroll.
Now, in a study published in the journal Science Advances , they describe the process and present their findings, which include a master image of the virtually unrolled scroll.
“We are releasing all our data on the scroll from Ein-Gedi: the scans, our geometric analysis, the final texture,” Prof. Seales said.
“We think that the scholarly community will have interest in the data and the process as well as our results.”
“The images reveal the En-Gedi scroll to be the Book of Leviticus , which makes it the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book ever found in a Holy Ark and a significant discovery in biblical archeology,” the scientists said.
“Without our computational pipeline and the textual analysis it enables, the En-Gedi text would be totally lost for scholarship, and its value would be left unknown.”
The software pipeline, referred to as ‘virtual unwrapping,’ reveals text within damaged objects by using data from high resolution scanning, which represents the internal structure of the 3D object, to digitally segment, texture and flatten the scroll.
“What is clearly preserved in the master image is part of one sheet of a scripture scroll that contains 35 lines, of which 18 have been preserved and another 17 have been reconstructed,” the scientists said.
“The lines contain 33 to 34 letters and spaces between letters; spaces between the words are indicated but are sometimes minimal.”
“The two columns extracted from the scroll also exhibit an intercolumnar blank space, as well as a large blank space before the first column that is larger than the column of text. This large blank space leaves no doubt that what is preserved is the beginning of a scroll, in this case a Pentateuchal text: the Book of Leviticus .”
The text of the En-Gedi scroll and its analysis is published in the journal Textus .
“The discovery of text in the Ein-Gedi scroll absolutely astonished us. We were certain it was a shot in the dark, but the most advanced technologies have brought this cultural treasure back to life,” said Dr. Pnina Shor, curator and director of the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls Project.
“Now, in addition to preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls for future generations, we can bequeath part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year old synagogue.”