Friday, September 23, 2016

A spectacular scientific reading of the Bible!

New technology allows researchers to read "unreadable" ancient Bible scrolls!  A burned scroll from the synagogue of En Gedi (where David hid from Saul for a while in 1 Samuel) turned out to be a copy of the opening of the book of Leviticus.

In the 1970s, excavations at En Gedi turned up the remnants of a "Holy Ark," the container where the Torah scrolls are kept.  The En Gedi synagogue was in use for centuries but destroyed and burned in A.D. 600.  What made this particular Holy Ark special was the burnt remnants of scrolls found in it.  The image above shows one of these remnants, a tiny burned fragment of an animal-skin scroll that could not be unrolled or read.

Until now.

Using extremely high resolution micro-CT scanning, researchers were able to reconstruct a digital model of the interior of the burned scroll.  Even with the digital scan, the scroll needed to be unrolled in order to be read.  Thanks to software developed by William Seales at the University of Kentucky, that limitation has now been overcome.  Seales's lab has developed a series of computational methods that allowed the scroll to be unrolled digitally.  The resulting image was so good that Torah scholars were able to read the scroll.  It records parts of the first two chapters of Leviticus, 1:1-9 and 2:1-11.  The results of their analyses are published in two papers, one in Science Advances describing the technique and one in Textus describing the scroll itself.

The Science Advances paper shows the digital reconstruction in the true blackened color of the scroll, but I think it's a bit more striking for a reader when you invert the color, as shown above.  Either way, the results are exquisite!  These researchers have read Leviticus from a bit of charcoal!

Why should we be excited about a copy of Leviticus from the En Gedi synagogue?  Let me remind everyone again that I'm not an Old Testament scholar, but I know enough "to be dangerous" as they say.  So here's my understanding of things:

The text that we use today to translate the Old Testament is a Hebrew text from the medieval period.  It's called the Masoretic text, and the oldest complete version of it is the Leningrad Codex, which dates from A.D. 1008.  This is considerably later than the original authorship of the O.T., and scholars want to know about the history of the Bible text before the Leningrad Codex.  How did we get the version of the Bible that we have today?

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to the centuries around the time of Jesus, provide one extensive witness to the Bible, but there we find some textual variations from the later Masoretic Text.  Still, there are texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls that closely resemble the later Masoretic Text, which implies that the medieval text has a long and stable history.

The En Gedi scroll has been carbon dated to about A.D. 300, which is later than the Dead Sea Scrolls (the latest of which is first century A.D.) but still much earlier than the Leningrad Codex (Masoretic Text).  The handwriting on the text resembles writing common to the first century, which would make it roughly contemporary with the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jesus' apostles.  Either way you go, the En Gedi scroll is a very early version of Leviticus.

The text itself is Masoretic, once again supporting the long and stable history of the Masoretic text.  The text that we currently use to study and translate the Old Testament has not undergone drastic changes at least since the time of Jesus.  The textual variations found in the Dead Sea scrolls still need an explanation, since some of them are quite dramatic.  For example, there is a version of Jeremiah that is substantially shorter than the Masoretic and organized differently.  But even with the variations, we can be pretty sure that the text of the Old Testament that we have today has been around for at least 2000 years.

Read all about it in the original papers:

Seales et al. 2016. From damage to discovery via virtual unwrapping: Reading the scroll from En-Gedi. Science Advances 2(9):e1601247.

Segal et al. 2016. An Early Leviticus Scroll from En-Gedi: Preliminary Publication. Textus 26:1-20. PDF

All photos in this blog post come from Seales et al. 2016.

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