Charred Dead Sea Scroll read using X-ray technology

Using X-ray scanning technology, researchers from Israel and the US have managed to read an ancient, charred Biblical scroll discovered in the 1970s in a synagogue on the western shores of the Dead Sea, BBC News and the New York Times revealed on Wednesday.

Made from carbonized parchment, the document was determined to be too fragile to be opened and read, leaving its caretakers unable to do anything but conserve it, hoping that there would be a day that new technology would be able to reveal its contents. As reported in the latest issue of the journal Science Advances, after nearly five decades of waiting, that day has come.

Researchers from the University of Kentucky, along with  biblical scholars in Jerusalem, used a computer to create a three-dimensional image of the document using X-ray scanning technology, and found that it contained a series of passages from the Book of Leviticus virtually identical to the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible dating back to at least the third or fourth century.

At nearly 2,000 years old, the fragments represent the earliest known copy of the text ever found by archaeologists, and according to the Times, the digital image was able to capture words which were “amazingly clear and legible, in contrast to the scroll’s blackened and beaten-up exterior.”

“We were amazed at the quality of the images,” Michael Segal of the School of Philosophy and Religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told BBC News. “Much of the text is… close to as readable as actual unharmed Dead Sea Scrolls or high-resolution photographs of them.”

dead sea scroll

Some of the scrolls were too charred and fragile to unwrap. (Credit: Gali Tibbon)

Technique could be used to read other damaged ancient texts

The scroll contains the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus, and like the Masoretic texts (which the Times called “the authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible and the one often used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles”), it contains only consonants as early Hebrew texts did not include vowels.

Previously, the oldest known fragments of the Old Testament dated back to the 8th century, and according to BBC News, the researchers believe that the newly identified texts may help them to learn more about how the modern Hebrew Bible was developed. Furthermore, they are confident that this scanning technique could help them read other scrolls too fragile to be read normally.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we think anything would come of it,” Pnina Shor, the head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), told the Times. Now that their technique has been used successfully, the researchers believe that it could also be useful in reading other Dead Sea scrolls, and nearly 300 carbonized texts destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79.

“Our approach for recovering substantial ink-based text from a damaged object results in readable columns at such high quality that serious critical textual analysis can occur,” the study authors wrote in their paper. “Hence, this work creates a new pathway for subsequent textual discoveries buried within the confines of damaged materials.”


Image credit: Science Advances