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Secrets Unlocked from Ancient Scroll

Recently, technology allowed for an ancient Dead Sea scroll, too fragile to unfurl, to be read — the findings and the significance of the technology are incredible!

The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS) provides a regular column to PE News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, Wave Nunnally, Ph.D., professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and a regular instructor in Israel for CHLS, examines the significance of what was recently found in the Ein Gedi scroll and the technology that allows it to be read.

On the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea lies the ruin of Qumran, whose 11 caves have yielded parts of almost 900 scrolls, now referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The recovery of most of these materials took place between the years of 1947 and 1956. What most people are unaware of, however, is that the recovery of ancient texts directly relevant to our understanding of the Scriptures today is still underway, albeit at a much slower pace.

One such scroll was found in a destroyed synagogue at nearby Ein Gedi. This small village is also located on the western shore of the Dead Sea, but some 20 miles further south of Qumran and 10 miles north of its more famous neighbor, Masada. Ein Gedi (Hebrew for “spring of the wild/young goat”) more than once provided refuge to David when fleeing from King Saul (1 Samuel 23:29; 24:1). The wife boasted of the attractive fragrance her husband exuded, “My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of Ein Gedi” (Song of Solomon 1:14). Even the prophets employ this location as a point of reference when describing the abundant life that will characterize the new heavens and the new earth, “And it will come about that fishermen will stand beside it [the Dead Sea, which is 33 percent saline and mineral!]; from Ein Gedi to Ein Eglaim there will be a place for the spreading of nets” (Ezekiel 47:10). 

After all this time, a scroll discovered there in the early 1970s has this somewhat obscure location back in the spotlight today. According to Emanuel Tov and Ada Yardeni, both expert paleographers from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, this scroll contains portions of the first two chapters of Leviticus (1:1-9 and 2:1-11) and derives from the first century AD. That determination makes the Ein Gedi scroll the oldest complete copy of this part of Leviticus in existence (there are six fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls that overlap parts of the text that the Ein Gedi scroll provides, but all are badly damaged, not preserving the complete text). This also means that it is almost 2000 years old, and that it was in use about the time of John the Baptist, Jesus and His disciples, Paul, and the writing of the New Testament! During the period that witnessed the spread of Christianity throughout the Mediterranean world and the composition of the New Testament, this scroll was also being copied and read by a thriving Jewish community that revered its every word! 

If this discovery is so important, one might ask, why would it take half a century for us to hear about it? In the destruction of ancient Ein Gedi, the synagogue was burned and its scrolls with it. The Leviticus scroll was carbonized by the heat and vapors, and looking much like a cigar, could not be unrolled for fear of destroying it. Other ancient scrolls, when they were found in similar condition, simply crumbled into unreadable tiny flakes when attempts were made to unroll them. For this reason, this scroll was left unopened, its contents a mystery, until September of 2016 — four short months ago. 

This past September however, Professor W. Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky announced the recovery of these Bible passages that was made possible by a breakthrough in technology. After 13 years of work, he and his team were able to create a software program that refined existing “X-ray-computed tomography,” which is similar to CT-scan technology. This enhanced technology enabled them to digitally recreate the surface of the parchment without opening it. Once the surface of the document had been “mapped”, subsequent scans on a different setting mapped the raised areas on its surface created by the dried ink of the writing on it. What emerged from this still-unopened scroll amazed almost everyone.

Not only was the text that emerged easily readable, but the words and even the letters of this first-century piece of Leviticus also perfectly matched the traditional Hebrew Bible that is still in use today. Emanuel Tov described the importance of the discovery in this way: “This is the earliest evidence of the exact form of the [“Masoretic”] text.” Tov noted that this first century scroll reads letter-for-letter exactly as do the copies of the Hebrew Bible from about 1000 AD, and prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, these medieval texts were the earliest copies in our possession. 

So what does this technological breakthrough mean to the “man on the street”? First, it is further evidence that during the thousands of years that the Bible was passed down in the form of handwritten copies, its contents remained stable and consistent. The care exercised by Jewish scribes in ancient times has provided for us a Bible we can trust today as accurately preserving a textual tradition that goes back to the New Testament Period itself. 

Second, the technology created by Dr. Seales and his team will eventually be applied to literally hundreds of other scrolls that have been in our possession, some for over 200 years, to be digitally “unrolled” for the first time since their discovery. This includes some of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as more than 300 intact scrolls and fragments of scrolls from a library at Herculaneum, Italy, that were carbonized during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Only time will tell what secrets these scrolls contain that will advance our understanding of the New Testament and its world.

Third, scholars are already suggesting that this new technology will renew interest in further excavation. One likely location for this is Herculaneum, the location of the first of such finds. Archeologists believe that the majority of the library of a villa likely owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar has yet to be excavated. Because scientists are now able to “virtually unwrap” such previously unreadable texts, the probability is high that funds and effort will be more readily available to find more of these volcanically carbonized scrolls. These works of history and philosophy written in Greek and Latin will almost certainly reveal more than we now know about life and thought before and during the time of the New Testament. 

Fourth, this chapter in the history of the study of Scripture reminds us yet again that science and Scripture are not enemies, but belong together. As believers living in the modern world, we have nothing to fear from scientific advances and the discoveries they produce. What we are learning through archeology, ancient manuscripts, geography, language, culture, literature outside the Scriptures, and even new computer technologies is only serving to further validate and illuminate the powerful and life-changing message of the Bible. Stay tuned, because in this ongoing saga, the last chapter is almost certainly yet to be written!

IMAGE - Completed virtual unwrapping for the En-Gedi scroll.