The Scroll from En-Gedi
In 2015, Dr. William Brent Seales and his team digitally unfurled the scroll from En-Gedi, revealing it to be the book of Leviticus. It is the oldest Hebrew Bible ever found after the Dead Sea scrolls and the only one ever uncovered in an ancient Jewish synagogue.
En-Gedi, Israel is the desert oasis where David hid from King Saul in the biblical account of 1 Samuel. But in 1970, it became the site of an exciting discovery. Right there on the shore of the Dead Sea, an Israeli archeologist pulled a blackened, 3-inch, cigar-shaped stick out of the ground. He was excavating the ruins of an 8th century BCE synagogue, and the ground where he was standing was actually the site of the ancient temple’s holy ark.
This piece of charcoal, therefore, represented a dramatic discovery, as it was almost certainly a sacred scroll. But, burned and charred from a fire in the 6th century AD, then further damaged by 1500 ensuing years of deterioration, it was impossible to unroll and verify the crumbling scroll’s contents without completely destroying it. So, despite the archaeologist’s hunch that he had found something incredibly significant, the artifact was shelved and then eventually locked away in a vault at the Israel Antiquities Authority. There it remained untouched and unread for almost half a century.
In 2014, Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority, contacted us and wanted to know if we could take a look at some data she had acquired from a volumetric scan of the scroll. We agreed, she gave us a hard drive containing the CT scan data, and in a few short months we achieved the impossible. Using our process of virtual unwrapping that we had worked for 15 years to develop, we revealed the scroll to be part of the Bible, the first chapter of Leviticus to be exact, and we did it without ever touching, opening, or even seeing the scroll.
When we sent Shor our preliminary results, she immediately called a press conference for the following week. She told the press, “When we saw the results we almost fainted. We had been certain it was just a shot in the dark.”
Shor’s shot in the dark — when pushed through our virtual unwrapping software pipeline — turned out to be the oldest Hebrew Bible ever found other than the Dead Sea scrolls and the only one ever uncovered in a Jewish synagogue. As such, it is one of the most significant biblical findings of the 21st century.
Using our pipeline, we restored and revealed the Hebrew text on five complete wraps of the En-Gedi scroll and made possible a complete textual critique of the writing. Thanks in part to the remarkable spatial resolution now possible with micro-CT, our resulting master image equals the best photographic images available in the 21st century, with an effective resolution of 1500 dots per inch. The high quality of our final result enabled Hebrew and biblical scholars to arrive at dramatic conclusions regarding the scroll’s significance.
One can clearly see in the master view the remains of two distinct columns of Hebrew writing. These columns contain legible and countable lines, words, letters, and spacing. Clearly restored 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 lines contain 33- to 34 letters and spaces between letters; spaces between the words are indicated, but are sometimes minimal. The two columns extracted 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.
Armed with the extraction of this readable text and its historical context discerned from carbon dating and other related archeological evidence, the scholars were able to accurately place the En-Gedi writings in the canonical timeline of biblical text. The dating of the En-Gedi scroll to the third or fourth century CE falls soon after the period of the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls (third century BCE to second century CE) and several centuries before the medieval biblical fragments found in the Cairo Genizah, which date from the ninth century CE onwards. As such, the En-Gedi scroll provides an important extension to the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls and offers a glimpse into the almost 800 years of near silence in the history of the biblical text.
Scholars also noted that, based on their knowledge of the development of the Hebrew text, the En-Gedi Hebrew text is not vocalized, there are no indications of verses, and the script resembles other documents from the late Dead Sea Scrolls. The text deciphered is completely identical with the consonantal framework of the medieval text of the Hebrew Bible, traditionally named the Masoretic Text and which is the text presented in most printed editions of the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, one to two centuries earlier, the so-called proto-Masoretic text, as reflected in the Judean Desert texts from the first centuries of the Common Eraera, still witnesses some textual fluidity. In addition, the En-Gedi scan revealed columns similar in length to those evidenced among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
For more information on the En-Gedi unwrapping process and results, please refer to the following publications:
- W. B. Seales, C. S. Parker, M. Segal, E. Tov, P. Shor, Y. Porath, “From damage to discovery via virtual unwrapping: Reading the scroll from En-Gedi.” Sci. Adv. 2, e1601247 (2016).
- A. Yardeni in M. Segal, E. Tov, W. B. Seales, C. S. Parker, P. Shor, Y. Porat, “An Early Leviticus Scroll from En Gedi: Preliminary Publication,” Textus 26, 2016.
Funding for this project provided by the NSF (awards IIS-0535003 and IIS-1422039). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF. Additional funding from Google and support from S. Crossan (Founding Director of the Google Cultural Institute).
Original microCT and segmentation data is available to download from the Internet Archive.
The significant progress we are making with fragments from the Dead Sea Scroll collection inspires us to keep working toward a comprehensive set of tools for revealing every manuscript in the invisible library.
When we saw Dr. Seales' results on the scroll from En-Gedi, we almost fainted. Never in our wildest dreams did we think anything would come of it. We had been certain it was just a shot in the dark.