Friday, September 23, 2016

Ein Gedi Leviticus Scroll

The past couple of days have seen exciting developments in the release of results from the virtual unrolling of a charred Leviticus scroll from Ein Gedi. For popular news articles, see:

New York Times


Jerusalem Post

National Geographic

More importantly, two scholarly articles have now been published--one from a computer science perspective and the other from that of manuscript studies and textual criticism--both of which are freely available online:

From damage to discovery via virtual unwrapping: Reading the scroll from En-Gedi in Science Advances

An Early Leviticus Scroll from En-Gedi: Preliminary Publication in Textus 26

The first results were announced already last year, but now the full published papers have revealed the full significance of the results to the broader public. Essentially, this is the first time anyone has been able to scan, virtually unroll, and decipher a charred manuscript with ink on a soft writing support. The images are surprisingly clear and allow for detailed analysis of the scroll, and the methods have great promise for the study of other carbonized manuscripts, such as the Herculaneum papyri.

The scroll started with blank space and the beginning of the book of Leviticus rolled on the inside of the scroll, and the authors of the article have so far unrolled and deciphered two partial columns from Leviticus 1 and 2; there is more material yet to be unrolled and read. The text so far revealed agrees exactly with the Leningrad Codex.

The biggest controversy I anticipate in the study of this manuscript is the proposed dating. The scroll was found in 1970 inside the burned Torah ark of a synagogue at Ein Gedi that was burned towards the end of the 6th century CE, which is the latest possible dating of the manuscript. Elisabetta Boaretto carbon-dated a sample of the scroll at the Weizmann Institute DREAMS Radiocarbon Laboratory using AMS, yielding a result of nearly 90% confidence that the scroll should be dated to the 3rd-4th century, and only a small chance that it could come from the 2nd. Ada Yardeni's paleographical analysis, however, suggests that the closest comparanda are a Psalms scroll from Nahal Hever and scribe B of 11QTemple Scroll-a, and thus dates it to the second half of the 1st century CE, or possibly as late as the early 2nd century. Both of these proposed dates have their complicating factors, but I am somewhat skeptical of Yardeni's dating for three reasons:

  1. The archeological context leads me to anticipate a scroll that is as much as a couple hundred years old when the synagogue was burned, so a date around the 3rd-4th century seems expected. I find it highly unlikely that the scroll would have still been in use 500 years after it was written, as would be the case if Yardeni is correct. Even the oldest scrolls from Qumran were only a maximum of about 300 years old when the settlement was destroyed, and these are exceptional.
  2. The carbon dating seems to confirm what I would expect from the archeological evidence.
  3. There is a near total lack of appropriate comparanda from the 3rd-4th century, so I fail to see how Yardeni can confidently exclude the possibility of a later date paleographically. Indeed, several features of the Ein Gedi scroll seem typologically later than her 1st century comparanda (as she herself recognizes). Just because it has many similarities with 1st century scrolls does not necessarily mean that it would not also have many similarities with 3rd-4th century scrolls if we had any good examples to compare it with.
Thus, this example provides a challenging test case for our dating methods, and it will be exciting to see what develops as more people focus their attention on this important scroll.

Congratulations to Brent Seales, Seth Parker, Michael Segal, Emanuel Tov, Pnina Shor, Yosef Porath, and Ada Yardeni--as well as the Virtual Unwrapping Project and the IAA--for a successful project and a job well done... or at least well underway. :) I look forward to seeing the rest of the Leviticus scroll soon!


  1. Having read both of the published reports I noticed there were 2 major omissions
    The first is that there is no mention in the reports of any attempts to test the amount of shrinkage of parchment when it is carbonised - so we have to assume nobody has tried this yet
    The second is that apart from naming where the C-14 tests were done and the percentage results for different time periods, there is no mention of any actual report on the C-14 testing. I'm left wondering if the C-14 dates are later than the palaeographical dates due to contamination such as might have happened when the scroll was burnt. Hopefully there will be a C-14 report published soon


    Matthew Hamilton
    Sydney, Australia

  2. Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for the good comments! I spoke with Michael Segal in May about it, and he had been reading an article on the amount of shrinkage in carbonized parchment in modern experiments (I think max 30% or so, similar to papyri?), but I don't know of any way to actually test it on the Leviticus scroll. It would have been interesting to see a reference to that experiment, though at least they do explicitly state that the measurements are not original.

    As for the C14 tests, I agree completely. Without knowing the details there is no way to double check the work. Something's got to give, and Yardeni's paleographical date is not the only one that should be critically analyzed in detail.