Over 70 years after they first mystified archaeologists, some of the last remaining unread fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been decrypted.
A year of fiddly work by scholars from the University of Haifa in Israel has reassembled and deciphered 60 tiny fragments of the script, some smaller than a centimeter in size, that was written in a secret code. Analysis of the mysterious document has also revealed the ancient traditions and festivals of an early Jewish sect, as well as the writing of a second scribe who was correcting the errors made by a previous author.
“The scroll is written in code, but its actual content is simple and well-known, and there was no reason to conceal it. This practice is also found in many places outside the Land of Israel, where leaders write in secret code even when discussing universally-known matters, as a reflection of their status,” the researchers explained in a statement.
“The custom was intended to show that the author was familiar with the code, while others were not. However, this present scroll shows that the author made a number of mistakes.” It was the annotations in the margins by this second scribe that helped them decode it.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in the 1940s and 1950s in a series of 12 remote caves, known as the Qumran Caves, near the Dead Sea in the West Bank. Consisting of over 900 scrolls made of papyrus, animal skin, and copper, the texts document the traditions, stories, and beliefs of an early Judean Desert sect called the Essenes over 2,000 years ago.
But what’s the big deal about these scrolls anyway? Well, aside from sounding like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, the scrolls are one of the oldest surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible, dating to around 4th century BCE. Analysis of the scrolls has already thrown light onto the history of Judaism and Christianity. It’s also deepened our understanding of the Bible since they are the closest thing to the Biblical text's original incarnation.
Another one of the main discoveries from this recent work is that this ancient sect followed an unusual 364-day calendar.
“The lunar calendar, which Judaism follows to this day, requires a large number of human decisions. People must look at the stars and moon and report on their observations, and someone must be empowered to decide on the new month and the application of leap years” added the researchers.
"By contrast, the 364-day calendar was perfect. Because this number can be divided into four and seven, special occasions always fall on the same day. This avoids the need to decide, for example, what happens when a particular occasion falls on the Sabbath, as often happens in the lunar calendar."