Advanced technology has enabled researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority to decipher parts of a burnt scroll unearthed in 1970 at the ancient Ein Gedi synagogue.
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Scientists have dated the parchment scroll to the late sixth century C.E. The verses that have been deciphered are from the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, making it the most ancient Torah scroll found since the Dead Sea scrolls and the most ancient ever found in a synagogue.
The synagogue, along with the entire Ein Gedi settlement, was destroyed by fire in the sixth century, toward the end of the Byzantine Era. The residents did not return to the site after the fire, leaving the Torah scroll, a bronze menorah, a collection of 3,500 coins and other relics to be discovered by archaeologists. The synagogue was excavated in the 1960s.
Researchers, headed by Dr. Sefi Porath, believe the fire and subsequent destruction resulted from an attack by Bedouin raiders or as a result of a confrontation with Byzantine authorities.
Charred scroll fragments were found in what the archaeologists believe was most likely the Holy Ark of the synagogue. One of them was a roll that looked like a cigar. Initial attempts to decipher it, including efforts by the police forensics unit, were unsuccessful. Eventually, it was put in storage in the Israel Museum.
Scientists returned to the scroll recently, using new methods developed to scan and decipher ancient scrolls. High-resolution 3D scans of the scroll were sent to Professor Brent Seales at the University of Kentucky, developer of digital imaging software which allows the scroll to be virtually unrolled and the text visualized, according to an announcement by the authority.
The text that was rendered legible by the software is substantial parts of the first eight verses of Leviticus. From the initial reading, there are no major differences between the text and the traditional text recognized today.
Deciphering the scroll allowed researchers to declare that they had discovered the oldest Torah within a synagogue excavation. The next oldest scroll is the 10th-century Aleppo Codex.
Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scroll Projects, said that the plan is to continue deciphering the rest of the scroll’s layers and additional fragments in similar condition.
“The discovery absolutely astonished us; we were certain it was just a shot in the dark but decided to try and scan the burnt scroll anyway,” she said. “Now, not only can we bequeath the Dead Sea Scrolls to future generations, but also a part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year-old synagogue.”
“The historic discovery before us is fascinating and important,” said Culture Minister Miri Regev, who was at the press conference on Monday in which the Antiquities Authority revealed the discovery. “It is instructive about the Jewish people’s deep connection to its country and homeland.”
“The finding reflects a tradition of thousands of years, which I am glad encountered the professional determination of Antiquities Authority workers who utilized all the existing scientific capabilities to present the world with this wonderful find,” said Israel Hasson, the authority’s director, who was also at the press conference.