Nearly half a century ago, archaeologists found a charred ancient scroll in the ark of a synagogue on the western shore of the Dead Sea.
The lump of carbonized parchment could not be opened or read. Its curators did nothing but conserve it, hoping that new technology might one day emerge to make the scroll legible.
Just such a technology has now been perfected by computer scientists at the University of Kentucky. Working with biblical scholars in Jerusalem, they have used a computer to unfurl a digital image of the scroll.
It turns out to hold a fragment identical to the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and, at nearly 2,000 years old, is the earliest instance of the text.
The writing retrieved by the computer from the digital image of the unopened scroll is amazingly clear and legible, in contrast to the scroll’s blackened and beaten-up exterior. “Never in our wildest dreams did we think anything would come of it,” said Pnina Shor, the head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Scholars say this remarkable new technique may make it possible to read other scrolls too brittle to be unrolled.
The scroll’s content, the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus, has consonants — early Hebrew texts didn’t specify vowels — that are identical to those of the Masoretic text, the authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible and the one often used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles.
The Dead Sea scrolls, those found at Qumran and elsewhere around the Dead Sea, contain versions quite similar to the Masoretic text but with many small differences. The text in the scroll found at the En-Gedi excavation site in Israel decades ago has none, according to Emanuel Tov, an expert on the Dead Sea scrolls at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“We have never found something as striking as this,” Dr. Tov said.
“This is the earliest evidence of the exact form of the medieval text,” he said, referring to the Masoretic text.
The experts say this new method may make it possible to read other ancient scrolls, including several Dead Sea scrolls and about 300 carbonized ones from Herculaneum, which were destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
The date of the En-Gedi scroll is the subject of conflicting evidence. A carbon-14 measurement indicates that the scroll was copied around A.D. 300. But the style of the ancient script suggests a date nearer to A.D. 100. “We may safely date this scroll” to between A.D. 50 and 100, wrote Ada Yardeni, an expert on Hebrew paleography, in an article in the journal Textus. Dr. Tov said he was “inclined toward a first-century date, based on paleography.”