Virtual unwrapping software has revealed verses from the Book of Leviticus in a charred parchment scroll, making it the oldest biblical text after the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Monday.
Found 45 years ago inside the Holy Ark of the synagogue at Ein Gedi, on the western shore of the Dead Sea, the 2.7-inch scroll was dated by C14 analysis to about 500 AD.
"This is the first time in any archaeological excavation that a Torah scroll was found in a synagogue, particularly inside a Holy Ark," the IAA said in a statement.
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A Jewish village in the Byzantine period during the 4th-7th century AD, Ein Gedi boasted a synagogue with an exquisite mosaic floor and a Holy Ark. The settlement was completely burned in antiquity and none of its inhabitants ever returned to the site.
"We have no information regarding the cause of the fire, but speculation about the destruction ranges from Bedouin raiders from the region east of the Dead Sea to conflicts with the Byzantine government," Sefi Porath, who headed the excavation with the late Dan Barag back in 1970, said.
In the burned synagogue, Porath and Barag unearthed a bronze seven-branched candelabrum (called menorah), the community's money box containing some 3,500 coins, glass, ceramic oil lamps, vessels that contained perfume, and charred scroll fragments.
"The scroll was a puzzle for us for 45 years," Porath said.
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To decipher the 1,500-year-old charred remains, the IAA, working with Merkel Technologies Company, Ltd. Israel, first scanned it with a micro-computed tomography machine.
The results of the CT scans were sent to Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, author of a digital-imaging software capable of virtually unrolling the scroll.
Indeed, Seales's software produced a flattened readable text from the micro-computed tomography, discerning the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus.
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"The page actually comes from a layer buried deep within the many wraps of the scroll body, and is possible to view it only through the remarkable results of our software," Seales said.
Pnina Shor, curator and director of IAA's Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, admitted there was little hope to make the scroll readable.
"We were certain it was just a shot in the dark but decided to try and scan the burnt scroll anyway," Shor said.
"Now, not only can we bequeath the Dead Sea Scrolls to future generations, but also a part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year old synagogue," she added.