Infrared imaging has revealed new fragments of text on pieces of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls that were previously thought to be blank, according to an announcement by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
The findings provide further insight into how Judaism was practiced during a historically loaded period when Israelites clashed with the Roman Empire nearly 2,000 years ago and hint at the existence of a completely unknown manuscript.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of more than 900 religious manuscripts and small text fragments that were discovered in a cluster of caves perched near the shore of the Dead Sea in Israel’s West Bank and next to the ruins of an ancient settlement called Khirbet Qumran.
Archaeological explorations beginning in the 1850s had shown that a Jewish sect community occupied Qumran between 100 BCE and 68 CE, when it was burned down by Roman Army forces. Yet the scrolls remained hidden until a Bedouin boy serendipitously unearthed the first in 1946, sparking a 10-year-long excavation of 11 caves. (Unused parchment and scroll-making materials were found in a 12th cave in 2017.)
Scribed onto parchment or linen, principally in various Hebrew dialects (a few are in Aramaic or Greek), the scrolls are copies of the five books that constitute the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – plus versions of passages within the wider, 24-book Hebrew Biblical canon, and non-canonical spiritual or instructional texts. The works have been dated to range from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE.
Decades spent carefully translating and analyzing the texts has helped researchers understand the evolution of Judaism during this critical period, but because the ancient manuscripts are so fragile and tattered, handling them or setting them up in museum displays has been challenging.
So, the IAA initiated a project to scan the entire collection and store the images in a publicly accessible digital library. It was during this ongoing work that scroll researcher Oren Ableman decided to take a closer look at fragments found in cave 11.
His infrared scans revealed ink invisible to the naked eye on a fragment now known to belong to a third copy of the Temple Scroll, a text of God dictating to Moses how a temple should be built and how its services should be performed. Previously, there were only two copies of the Temple Scroll; the fragment makes three.
Next, Ablemen identified a fragment belonging to the Great Psalms Scroll that showed the manuscript's version of Psalm 147:1 is shorter than it is in contemporary religious books.
Most intriguingly, we now know that one fragment bears letters of a paleo-Hebrew language that could not be attributed to any of the manuscripts that have been discovered thus far.