Ein Gedi is one of the most beautiful places in Israel—a lush, verdant oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea (not far from Masada) that is a favorite with tourists and natives alike, a lovely place to swim, to hike, and to picnic. We did all three of those things when we were there two summers ago, plus we visited the ruins of the ancient synagogue there that archeologists have now more or less completely unearthed. First built in the beginning of the third century CE, the building lasted for more than three centuries until it was destroyed in a fire and for some reason not rebuilt. But it is not merely its age that recommends it as a must-see for visitors, but rather its magnificent (and huge) mosaic floor and its many ancient dedicatory inscriptions and public warning texts. It is, all in all, an extraordinary place to visit, one that leaves you feeling imbued with a sense that the ancient holiness of the place has somehow survived all these many centuries since Ein Gedi was a thriving Jewish community supported by profits derived for the most part from the manufacture of balsam for export.
The synagogue is oriented towards the north, and for the same reasons that synagogues in North America are oriented towards the east: because that was the direction in which lay Jerusalem, the Holy City. And there, in the northern wall, is the niche where the Ark of the Law must have stood in ancient times. Much more modest than the arks featured in most modern synagogues, the arks in ancient times were little more than portable wooden boxes that served as repositories for the sacred scrolls they housed. (In most places, the ark was stored for safety elsewhere than in the sanctuary, which was never locked, and specifically brought into the room when it was time to read aloud from the Torah.) No such ark from antiquity has survived, but there are many pictures of such arks that have, and scholars have a relatively clear idea what the typical one must have looked like.
About fifty years ago, the archeologists who were first working seriously on the ruins in Ein Gedi found an ancient scroll not far from the niche in which the Ark would have stood in ancient times. But it was not legible or even openable, just a lump of carbonized parchment that had fused into one blackened mass and that, it was thought, would never give up its secrets. And that is how things stood for half a century…until just last fall when scientists at the University of Kentucky under the leadership of Professor W. Brent Seales perfected an almost unbelievable way of “reading” scrolls like the Ein Gedi one that would crumble to dust if anyone tried forcibly to open or to unroll them. Since we’re just past Shavuot, I thought it would be interesting to read about an actual ancient scroll and to contemplate its fate.
The SciNews website has produced a remarkable video explaining the technique, which you can see by clicking here. The Wall Street Journal also produced a video presentation on the topic, one just a bit more technical and seriously more sophisticated. (To see it, click here. Both videos are well worth watching and supplement each other nicely since each is only about three minutes long.) As I understand it, the basic concept is that the scroll is sliced open sideways digitally by utilizing a process that makes it possible to read the ink on each unimaginably narrow sliver in light of the ink on the ones adjacent to it, something like taking a rolled-up newspaper and slicing into incredibly narrow strips with a butcher’s knife, then attempting to read an article by inspecting each piece of confetti sideways and trying to figure out what piece of which letter is featured on each of its one-millionth-of-a-millimeter wide strips. It’s hard to describe—I’m sure it was even harder than that to invent—but the videos referenced above do a yeoman’s job of making it sound almost simple. And so, from a lump of ancient animal skin long since fused into a charbroiled rock, the team in Kentucky, working with teams from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, managed to produce this:
And, of course, they managed not only to “unwrap” it (that is actually what they call the process: “virtual unwrapping”), but to read it as well: it turned out to be the earliest biblical text featuring the so-called Masoretic text that is the “official” text of Scripture that we read aloud weekly in synagogue and preserves the text we know as Leviticus 1:1-9 and 2:1-11. How old is it exactly? Very old! The original carbon-14 dating effort yielded a date around 300 CE, but the Hebrew script itself suggests an even earlier date to some. Ada Yardeni, one of the world’s experts in ancient Hebrew script, wrote in an essay that appeared in the journal Textus, for example, that she felt confident assigning it a date in the first century CE, a date seconded by Emanuel Tov, another leading voice in the field. And the fact that the scroll—which appears to have originally featured only Leviticus, not the entire Torah—mirrors “our” text exactly is key.
Until now, the oldest biblical texts were the ones discovered at Qumran, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, and at other nearby sites like the Wadi Murabbaat, but these texts deviate in thousands of ways from the “received” text that the synagogue promotes as the correct, authentic text of the Torah. But it was hard to argue that point persuasively when all the oldest manuscripts deviated in a thousand details, most admittedly picayune nonetheless real, and there simply was no evidence of “our” text being extant in earliest times. Nor was this just a point for scholars in graduate-school seminar rooms to debate—Judaism as we know it is the religion the rabbis of classical antiquity developed based on their elaboration of the law as found in Scripture, but their techniques of elaboration were often based on interpreting the most minor discrepancies between parallel or adjacent texts…and obviously rests on the fundamental assumption that the text of the Torah with which they were working was “the” sacred text so fixed and so invariable that it made sense to interpret even slight discrepancies between twinned or adjacent passages.
But now we actually do have evidence that the text that the Masoretes promoted as “the” received text was out there precisely when the rabbinic movement was getting off the ground in the first century CE, that the text we regard as “the” text of “the” Torah was in use precisely when the rabbis began their endless work of interpretive exegesis and created Judaism as we know it. This is a huge discovery and constitutes a similarly huge validation of perhaps the most basic assumption of all regarding the text of the Torah: that the text we read weekly in synagogue is the precise text the ancients studied and promoted as the basis for the purposeful worship of God through the medium of obedience to the commandments of Scripture.
Professor Marc Z. Brettler of Duke University published an essay setting forth the reasons he finds this Ein Gedi scroll to be of the greatest importance and I recommend that work to you as an excellent place to begin reading. You can find that article, which appeared on the thetorah.com website last fall, by clicking here. Good follow-up pieces to look at would be Daniel Estrin’s article published on The Times of Israel website (click here) or Nicholas Wade’s piece in the New York Times last September (click here).
The technique perfected at the University of Kentucky will now be used to unlock countless other treasures preserved physically but until now deemed unopenable, unreadable, and unusable. Prime among those up-until-now unrecoverable treasures is the vast library of charred, fused scrolls—more than 300 of them—found back in 1752 at Herculaneum in Italy, a smaller town destroyed in 79 CE by the same volcanic eruption that annihilated Pompeii, in a villa that scholars believe belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Those scrolls were acquired by (of all people) Napoleon and given to the Institut de France in Paris, where they now reside…mute for millennia and now ready, perhaps, finally to speak.
Who knows what other treasures this new technique will yield? The Herculaneum scrolls alone could produce dozens of unknown texts from antiquity, but for me personally the virtual opening of the Ein Gedi scroll will always be of primary importance. We know such much, but also so little about Jewish antiquity. Regular readers will know this as a key concept for me personally: how little and how much we know about the past, and how we must learn to balance those two thoughts rationally and reasonably. The library of ancient Jewish texts is voluminous…but also filled with gigantic lacunae. We have almost no records of actual synagogue life, for example. We have no ancient prayerbooks to consult, no minutes of public meetings, no documents relating to the inner workings of the schools that produced the documents that we revere as the “stuff” of rabbinic Judaism. Why the synagogue at Ein Gedi owned a scroll that featured the Book of Leviticus alone none can say. Did they read from it during the service? That would certainly not be what we would expect by reading rabbinic documents that require that the Torah be read from a full scroll featuring all five of the Torah’s constituent books! But the rabbis did not control the synagogues of Roman Palestine any more than rabbis today control the synagogues in whose pulpits they serve today. Was the scroll used for study? That seems more likely, or at least as likely. But why was it stored then in a synagogue? Was the synagogue a school? (We regularly call a synagogue a shul in Jewish American English, generally glossing by the strangeness of referring to one institution by a word that literally denotes another.) Did single-book scrolls circulate in antiquity long before the text of Scripture was available in what we would call books or the ancient prototypes of modern books? Where could you buy such a thing? Were there public libraries? Did ordinary people own such scrolls? Were they somehow part of private worship, as opposed to the public reading of the Torah as part of the worship service? And what of this specific scroll? Who wrote it? Who owned it? Who used it? And why, after the conflagration that destroyed the synagogue and burnt its scrolls, did no one bury this specific scroll? Was that just an accident? Or is the story, now lost forever, far more complex and interesting than one of mere happenstance? To none of these questions do scholars have anything at all like definitive answers.
And so the Ein Gedi scroll, now that it speaks, prompts far more questions than it answers. But it is through the contemplation of just such objects that we grow wise as we look back and remind ourselves, not how much, but how little we know of the past. The study of history has the capacity to make us arrogant; far more reasonably should it make us humble. And yet there is strange power in old things: contemplating this ancient scroll—even without feeling in awe of the technology that made it readable—reminds us of just how long people have been gathering on Shabbat morning to hear the Torah read aloud…and allows us just for a moment to step out of time and join the worshipers in the old Ein Gedi synagogue and, as we sit quietly and contemplate the scene unfolding around us, to espy a slender scroll on a wooden shelf in a rickety bookcase on the shul’s southern wall and, alone among the others present, to know something of its fate.