(credit: University of Haifa)

This book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth. but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. – Joshua 1:8 (ESV)

It took more than 12 months for researchers to reconstruct 60 tiny fragments of a scroll originally found in the Qumran caves decades ago – the smallest one measuring only 0.155 square inches.

Fragments of the 2000-year-old Dead Sea scroll at a laboratory in Jerusalem. (credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images).

In a recently published article in the Journal of Biblical Authority, researchers Dr. Eshbal Ratson and Professor Jonathan Ben-Dov of Haifa University Department of Bible Studies, detail how they were able to piece together this ancient scroll.

The reward for their painstaking work was the reconstruction of a Dead Sea scroll. There are likely many other undecoded scrolls yet to be found, but for those that are known, this was one of the last two to be decoded. The scroll featured a secret calendar. The text verified that this Qumran sect, who as noted in the Jerusalem Post, “referred to themselves as the Yahad (“Together Community”) was, in fact, a fanatical group that lived a hermitic lifestyle in the desert, facing persecution by the dominant establishment at the time. They wrote numerous scrolls, a small number of them in code.

This sect followed a 364-day calendar which was a tempestuous topic of debate in the Second Temple Period. The 364-day calendar is said to be “perfect”, the researchers shared, “Because this number can be divided into four and seven, special occasions always fall on the same day.”

Ratson and Ben-Dov explained that Judaism today follows a Lunar calendar. This “requires a large number of human decisions. People must look at the stars and moon and report their observations, and someone must be empowered to decide on the new month and the application of leap years.”

They continued in a joint statement why the 364-day calendar was used, “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.”

Not Just A Matter of Assembly

Before they were able to piece it together, other researchers had believed the fragments were likely from several scrolls.

In order to determine what was on the scroll, the researchers had to solve another puzzle. The scroll was written in a cipher.

Ratson and Ben-Dov stated that it was not uncommon for documents to be written in code. “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.” They further explained that the custom was to show that the author was familiar with the code while others were not.

Researchers say that it was the notations in the margins of the original text that helped them piece the fragments together. It appears that the original author had either forgotten or omitted some information that was added by a second author, which included dates celebrated by the group.

The calendar gives additional information about how these people ordered their lives. Previously translated writing from the Temple Scroll of Qumran revealed that they celebrated the festivals of New Wine and New Oil. However, Ratson and Ben-Dov explained from this recently pieced-together scroll that, “According to this calendar, the festival of New Wheat falls 50 days after the first Sabbath following Passover, the festival of New Wine comes 50 days later; and after a further interval of 50 days, the festival of New Oil is celebrated.”

Qumran Caves (Photo: Wikipedia commons)

Another exciting discovery in the scroll was evidence for the word used to describe the special day set aside to mark the change in seasons. Researchers now know the word for this time is called tekufah, which translates from Hebrew to “period.”

Despite how important the evidence in these texts has been for confirming translations found in other places, researchers are hoping to recover items already looted so that they can be studied. As quoted in Haaretz, “The most important thing that can come out of these fragments is if we can connect them with other documents that were looted from the Judean Desert, and that have no known provenance,” says Dr. Uri Davidovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is among the scientists investigating the caves.

Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left,  – Joshua 23:6 (ESV)

The Biblical Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea scrolls were first discovered in 1946 by a shepherd tossing a stone into a cave. Over the next decade, a total of 11 caves were found in the vicinity of Qumran along with the remains of as many as 1,100 various documents written on both animal skin called parchment or leather, and a type of paper called papyrus. Most had deteriorated to tiny fragments, but others were more fully preserved. A few were nearly intact manuscripts, including whole books of the Hebrew Bible.

Over time, caves were discovered at other locations in the Judean desert, in the region west of the Dead Sea. These sites would produce more scrolls, including biblical manuscripts.

The Dead Sea scrolls are so significant to biblical studies because they pushed back the date for the oldest known copies of books of the Bible by about a thousand years.

Previously, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible were Masoretic texts from the 10th century AD. This led to questions about how accurately the wording was transmitted from biblical times down through the centuries. The Dead Sea scrolls helped answer that question because they included several families of biblical manuscripts, and among them were manuscripts that matched modern versions very well. Although there were numerous variations in things like the spelling of individual words, the message being conveyed was virtually identical to copies from more than a thousand years later.

Race to History: Finding the Evidence Before the Looters

As more scrolls and scroll fragments show up on the black market, a search has been launched for additional caves that might contain more scrolls. This survey is being carried out as part of a larger project by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The IAA is racing to identify and excavate any caves in the Judaean Desert that may contain archaeological remains. Several looters operating in the Judaean Desert have even been caught by authorities over the past few years. Some of the looters were found carrying the remains of possible scrolls.

One important reason for getting to the evidence before the looters is because when a scroll is properly removed from its position on the cave floor, archaeologists can carefully record the context of a scroll’s surroundings, including other items left behind. This paints a clearer picture about the people who recorded the documents and also the time period of the layer in which they are found. “Provenance” is the term used for an artifact’s history, especially the place and context of its discovery.

(Photo, Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld)

In 2017, a 12th cave was found near Qumran (adding to the original 11). It had been plundered in the 1950s and ‘60s. However, according to a report on Live Science News, researchers have found a blank scroll along with some of the tools used by the looters. They are surveying other caves to see if there was anything else missed or left behind.

Finding and sharing the scrolls for all to read and study from, by scanning them to make them available digitally, is a goal shared by many researchers to piece together a more accurate view of history. Look for more updates as new finds are made public in the coming months. There’s no telling what the next big discovery might show us. And Keep Thinking.