As It Happens

Researchers crack one of the last coded shreds of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Jonathan Ben-Dov says deciphering one of the last of the obscured Dead Sea Scrolls was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with "about half the pieces thrown away."
A fragment of the Dead Sea Scroll deciphered by Jonathan Ben-Dov and Eshbal Ratson at Haifa University in Israel. (Shay Halevi/Leon Levy Library of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Israel Antiquities Authority)

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Jonathan Ben-Dov says deciphering one of the last obscured parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with "about half the pieces thrown away."

Ben-Dov and his colleague Eshbal Ratson painstakingly pieced together 60 small fragments of the 2,000-year-old text over the course of a year.

They identified it as a calendar — possibly a first draft written by a novice in training.

"It's a roster of Sabbaths and holy days during the year," Ben-Dov, a researcher at the Department Of Biblical Studies at Israel's Haifa University, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It's a very strange and intriguing calendar of 364 days."

The scrolls, considered by many to be the most significant archeological find of the 20th century, are thought to have been written or collected by an ascetic Jewish sect that fled Jerusalem for the desert 2,000 years ago and settled at Qumran, on the banks of the Dead Sea.

The 900 or so manuscripts that survived in caves near the site have shed light on the development of the Hebrew Bible and the origins of Christianity.

Using a digitized photographs, Haifa University researchers painstakingly assembled more than 60 tiny sections of the scroll written in a secret code. (Shay Halevi/Leon Levy Library of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Israel Antiquities Authority )

The scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956, and the ravages of time have left them blackened and unreadable, Ben-Dov said.

Fortunately, infared photos of the originals have been digitized, allowing researchers like Ben-Dov and Ratson to piece together the fragments and unravel ancient mysteries using computer programs.

What they found sheds light on how the sect's unique calendar worked, Ben-Dov said.

"It's a year that works with numerical harmony. So 364, this really falls neatly divided into seven and into four and into all sorts of other numbers. Their year is very symmetrical and each festival falls on the same day every year," he said.

The researchers discovered the name used by the sect for a festival that marks the transitions between the four seasons — Tekufah, which in modern Hebrew means "period."

Corrections scribbled in the margins

They also discovered plenty of notes in the margins, including corrections by a second author — possibly an editor or a teacher.

"We can see corrections," Ben-Dov said. "Actually, the most important festival in the year was completed afterwards between the lines. "

Those annotations helped them translate the mysterious text.

"It's written in some kind of cipher — a code. I'm not sure it was a very secret code because it's a very simple one, and the content of the scroll is not very secret," he said.

This caused the researchers to conclude the scroll is just a first draft — or perhaps even some sort of test.

"We think this was a kind of draft for a particular author before he made it into something," Ben-Dov said.

"So maybe a leader, maybe a priest — somebody with access to more prestigious knowledge. That sect was very strong about pushing hierarchy. People can get knowledge, but more important people get more knowledge."

The pair's findings have been published in the Journal of Biblical Literature.


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