Qumran Scrolls: Hidden Texts Revealed

Analyzes reveal texts on supposedly empty scroll fragments

Untreated scroll fragment (left) and rendered caption © Shai Halevi / The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library
Read out

Surprising discovery: archaeologists have now discovered hidden passages of text on some previously overlooked fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Only the most modern analytical techniques revealed the Hebrew letters on the supposedly empty parchment snippets. A text fragment could even point to the existence of a still unknown scroll, others give new insights into familiar manuscripts, the researchers said.

They are probably the most famous scrolls in the world: 70 years ago Bedouins discovered clay jars in one of the Qumran Caves of the Dead Sea, which contained numerous scrolls and parchment fragments. Further research has shown that the scrolls date back to 250 BC to 50 AD and contain texts from the Old Testament as well as biblical commentaries - unique documents of Jewish faith life at the time of the early Christians.

Kept in cigar boxes - and forgotten

But not all parchment fragments found in Qumran have been analyzed and deciphered. Some were stowed away in cigar boxes by the archaeologists of the 1950s, taken to the air-conditioned storage rooms of the Israeli Antiquities Authority - and then forgotten. For in comparison to better preserved and larger parts of the scrolls these fragments were considered little promising: some were crumpled, others glued from several layers and text could not recognize.

"These fragments have never been cleaned or treated - they remained in the state they were once found in, " says Oren Ableman of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. He and his colleagues have now examined 82 of these forgotten scroll fragments - this time with state-of-the-art methods. They subjected the fragile, usually only one centimeter small snippets of a multispectral analysis and analyzed them with an infrared microscope and a multi-spectral analysis.

The scroll fragments and their hidden text © Israel Antiquities Authority / Haaretz

"Letters came to light"

"Already on the first fragment I saw a letter come to light", reports Ableman. "Then I knew there was something to be found here - an exciting insight." As it turned out, Hebrew text hid under the blackish, seemingly blank surface of several parchment pieces. display

In some cases, only one word was preserved on the fragments, and on other fragments entire text passages became readable. Among them are biblical passages from the 3rd and 5th books of Moses, as the archaeologists reported a few days ago at a conference in Jerusalem. Using the characteristic handwriting features and textual content, they were able to assign some of these redacted fragments to already known Dead Sea scroll texts.

One of the newly deciphered fragments (below) has proven to be another part of the Great Psalms Scroll. Shai Halevi / The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library

New view on known texts

One of the snippets contains words suggesting belonging to the Great Psalms Scroll - one of the largest and best-preserved Qumran finds. "The new fragment preserves parts of the beginning of Psalm 147: 1, " the archaeologists report. "It proves that the text of this psalm was a little shorter than in today's versions."

Another fragment probably belongs to the Temple Scroll, a text that contains instructions for performing temple rituals. Until now it was debatable whether two or three copies of this text were found in the Qumran cave 11. "The new fragment now strengthens the theory that there is a third copy of this text, " the archaeologists say.

Reference to still unknown manuscript?

Especially exciting is a third scroll fragment: It carries letters in a very old form of Hebrew and its content can not be assigned to any previously known text. "This raises the possibility that this fragment belongs to a still unknown manuscript, " say the scientists.

They hope to find more parts of this unknown text. The odds are good, because another 20 cigar boxes with scroll fragments await their investigation. Some of them contain nearly 100 pieces of parchment, others only three, as Ableman reports. However, it is still unclear whether there is a financial budget for the elaborate analyzes.

(Israel Antiquities Authority, Haaretz, The Times of Israel, 09.05.2018 - NPO)