Was Noah's Ark Shaped Like a Pyramid? Digitized Dead Sea Scrolls Reveal New Secrets

Previously hidden sections of text on the ancient parchments are answering some long-standing questions – and raising others.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.
A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.Credit: AP
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The roof of Noah’s Ark was pointed, the ptil Judah gave Tamar in the book of Genesis was his belt, and residents of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, believed money could buy amnesty for sins. The above conclusions come from a new reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls – a reading made possible by a project to scan the scrolls with sophisticated technology that has revealed letters and words that were previously illegible.

For four and a half years, a laboratory established by the Israel Antiquities Authority as part of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library project has been scanning all the scrolls in the authority’s possession with a custom-made camera. Each fragment – and there are tens of thousands of fragments – is photographed 28 times at high resolution using different wavelengths of light.

In some cases, the camera has revealed letters and words that had been erased, or were illegible because that portion of the parchment was burnt. And some of these discoveries have sparked interest because they offer new interpretations of well-known Biblical texts.

Part of the scroll discussing judgment day, before being scanned.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

The reinterpretation is being done by members of the historical dictionary department of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Their findings were unveiled at a conference now taking place at the academy for Dead Sea Scrolls researchers from around the world.

Dr. Alexey Yuditsky, for instance, discussed the section on Noah’s Ark, where a word following the words “the ark’s tallness” had previously been illegible. Now the scan has revealed it as ne’esefet, meaning “gathered,” which Yuditsky interpreted to mean that the ark’s ribs were gathered together at the top – or in other words, that its roof tapered to a point. He then cited various proofs to back this claim, such as the fact that the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Bible done in the third century B.C.E., used a Greek verb with a similar meaning.

Medieval commentators like Maimonides also concluded that the ark’s roof was pointed. But the new find reveals that this conclusion dates back 2,000 years.

Yuditsky and Dr. Esther Haber also decoded another fragment that deals with Judgment Day. It describes a mythic hero named Melchizedek rescuing “captives” from a mythic villain named Belial.

A third researcher, Chanan Ariel, suggested that the captives’ sins were forgiven due to the sabbatical year, just like monetary debts are. From this, he concluded that the scroll’s author believed a sin could be converted into a monetary debt – a view antithetical to Judaism, but held for centuries by the medieval Catholic Church, which sold pardons.

Could this practice have originated in Qumran, or did it originate with Jewish cults in the Second Temple period and spread from there to both Qumran and Christianity? To that, the researchers have no answer.

Part of the scroll discussing judgement day after the scan.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Yet another discovery came from joining two fragments that shed light on a puzzling word in the Bible. Chapter 39 of Genesis describes how Judah had sex with his daughter-in-law Tamar, who had disguised herself as a prostitute. As a guarantee of payment, he gave her his signet, his staff and his ptil.

For centuries, commentators and translators have debated what ptil means, and offered various suggestions, including a cloak, a veil and a string of beads. But the two fragments, once joined, provide a clear answer in the form of the following sentence: “Ptil is his belt.”

“The word ptil is mentioned in the Bible 10 times,” said academy president Moshe Bar-Asher, who wrote a study of the word. “In every place, we know what it is and what its function is, except for the ptil Tamar received. On this, our ancestors were divided. But now we have an early text, from the first century at the latest, which gives the meaning of this ptil – it’s the belt with which he tied his trousers or his robe.”

The scanning project has yielded dozens of new interpretations of text, and it hasn’t ended yet. So far, about 80 percent of the fragments have been scanned.

All the new words and their interpretations can be found on the academy’s website, Maagarim.

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