Thanks to modern technologies, a portion of a burnt 1,500-year-old Hebrew scroll found in archaeological excavations at Ein Gedi 45 years ago finally has been deciphered. The mezuzah-sized scroll was revealed to contain the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus.
The parchment scroll was unearthed in 1970 in archaeological excavations in the synagogue at Ein Gedi, near the Dead Sea. Because it was charred, however, it was not possible to either unroll or decipher it.
Ein Gedi was a Jewish village in the Byzantine period. It had a synagogue with a holy ark, where the scroll was found. Originally built in the third century C.E. and later expanded, the synagogue, along with the entire village, was destroyed by fire. This was in the late sixth century C.E.
“None of its inhabitants ever returned to live there again, or to pick through the ruins in order to salvage valuable property,” said Dr. Sefi Porath, who led the 1970 dig. “In the archaeological excavations of the burnt synagogue, we found, in addition to the charred scroll fragments, a bronze seven-branched candelabrum, the community’s money box containing about 3,500 coins, glass and ceramic oil lamps, and vessels that held perfume. We have no information about the cause of the fire, but theories for the destruction range from conquest by Bedouins from the region east of the Dead Sea to conflicts with the Byzantine authorities.”
One layer of the scroll was decoded with help of a high resolution 3D scanner. Special digital imaging software developed at the University of Kentucky transformed the scan to allow the scroll to be unrolled virtually. Once that was done, researchers were able to read the text. Because the decoded text from Leviticus is only one layer of the tightly wrapped charred scroll, researchers hope to be able to read other layers.
The Ein Gedi scroll was the oldest Torah scroll that archaeologists had uncovered in a synagogue. And it is the oldest Torah manuscript after the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to a few hundred years earlier. Carbon dating pegged the scroll to about 500 C.E.