Israeli Researchers Decipher One of Last Two Undecoded Dead Sea Scrolls

Text reveals unique calendar used by Jewish sect that withdrew to the Judean Desert over disagreements with the ruling establishment

Plate 240 of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Shai Halevy/Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library/Antiques Authority

Scientists at Haifa University have reconstructed the contents of one of the last two undeciphered Dead Sea Scrolls, revealing a unique calendar used by a Jewish sect that lived in the Judean Desert during the Second Temple period. The scroll, which is written in encrypted language, consists of 60 tiny fragments, some of them smaller than one square centimeter. A researcher had previously determined that these fragments were parts of six different scrolls, making it particularly difficult to assemble them in the correct order.

Most of the 900 Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin in the 1940s and ’50s in caves adjacent to the ancient Jewish settlement known as Qumran near the Dead Sea, where an ascetic Jewish sect called the Essenes are believed to have lived. Most scrolls were subsequently deciphered. Dr. Eshbal Ratzon and Prof. Jonatan Ben-Dov from the Bible Department at Haifa University successfully decoded and reconstructed one of the last two scrolls, finding in it a 364-day calendar used by the Judean Desert sect.

The calendar also contains the name the sect gave to the special days denoting the transition between the four seasons: tekufah. The results of their work, which was funded by the Israel Science Foundation, were published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. The two are now working to decipher the last Dead Sea Scroll.

“Tens of thousands of fragments belonging to over 900 scrolls were found in the caves at Qumran,” Dr. Ratzon told Haaretz. “This is the most important archaeological find ever made in Israel. This is literature from the Second Temple period, and that’s rare.” She says that it took decades to put these fragments together, decrypt them and then publish their contents, and only two had remained undeciphered. The scrolls were written in three languages: mostly Hebrew but also Aramaic, with a few in Greek. The scroll Ratzon worked on with Ben-Dov was written in coded Hebrew. “Very few scrolls that had previously been deciphered were written in this language,” she says.

A part of the scroll reconstructed at the University of Haifa.
Haifa University

The Qumran sect was an extremist group that withdrew to the desert after suffering persecution at the hands of the ruling Jewish establishment. According to Ratzon, the 364-day calendar, which was already known to researchers, differs from the one used by other Jews at that time. “Most Jews used a calendar that is similar to the one used today. The sect used a calendar that is almost based on a solar year, comprising 364 days. There are months with 30 or 31 days in every season,” she explains. “364 divides into 7, so every date falls on a specific day of the week and every holiday has a fixed date. We know that in the Temple there were disputes between different sects over what happens if Passover falls on Shabbat. What supersedes what, Shabbat or the holiday? This sect solved the problem, since no holiday fell on Shabbat. This scroll details all dates on which Shabbat falls and all the days of the week on which holidays fall.”

Ratzon says that when there was one Temple with important events taking place inside, such as the High Priest making a sacrifice on Yom Kippur, only one calendar could be used. “But this calendar was disputed, which may be one of the reasons this sect left the Temple and went to the desert. They had many disputes and this was one of them – they couldn’t celebrate holidays together.”

The sect’s calendar begins on a Wednesday, the first of Nisan, the beginning of Rosh Hashanah – the New Year. “The fourth day [Wednesday] was the day the heavenly bodies were created, making it possible to count time. All the holidays fell on Wednesdays: Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Sukkot. Shavuot was on a Sunday,” says Ratzon.

Another discovery in the now-deciphered scroll is the first mention of “tekufah,” a word that researchers had believed denoted the beginning of a season but which was not preserved in Second Temple-era literature. “This shows us that the researchers who believed the day of celebrating the transition between the seasons was called by this name were correct, and that this word, as used in the Mishna, was preserved from the days of the Second Temple – it’s a very early concept in halakha [religious Jewish law].”

Aside from Shavuot, the desert sect had two more holidays marking the harvest. “After Shavuot they counted 50 days and celebrated the first wine, and 50 days later they celebrated the first olive oil of the season. Then they had a six-day festival called ‘Sacrifice to the Trees.’ The Mishna also mentions this sacrifice, but [the references are] scattered,” says Ratzon.

The scroll also indicates how the writers went about their task. The original scribe forgot some words and a later one added comments to fix the mistakes. For example, the first one forgot the mention Yom Kippur and Sacrifice to the Trees, but the second writer corrected these omissions. Ratzon says that comments in the margin don’t indicate disputes, only negligence. “What’s nice is that these comments were hints that helped me figure out the puzzle - they showed me how to assemble the scroll,” she says.

The researchers note that “while the scroll is written in code, the content was a known and simple matter that there was no reason to conceal. This was a well-known custom in those days, even outside Israel, in which a [group’s] leader wrote in code, even regarding matters known to everyone, in order to maintain his elevated status. This was meant to show that he knew the code while others didn’t. This scroll shows that on many occasions, he bungled it.”

See part I and part II of the deciphered scroll at the Israel Antiquites Authoritys Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.