‘Blank’ Dead Sea Scrolls have hidden letters on them

The Hebrew word “Shabbat” is visible in the upper right hand corner. A lamed (the letter “L” in Hebrew) is written on the left side of the fragment. (Image: © Copyright The University of Manchester)

Four Dead Sea Scroll fragments, previously thought to be blank, are anything but: Detailed imaging has revealed that these ancient pieces of parchment contain letters, sewn thread, ruled lines and even a discernible word, new research finds.

The finding almost went unnoticed, until Joan Taylor, a professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, took a magnifying glass to these fragments and noticed that there was a “lamed,” the Hebrew letter for “L,” written on one of them.

At the time, Taylor said she thought that she “might be imagining things. But then it seemed maybe other fragments could have very faded letters too,” she said in a statement.

Taylor’s hunch paid off. One of the four fragments had four lines of text, with a total of 15 to 16 completely or partially preserved letters. One word, “Shabbat,” the Hebrew word for “Sabbath,” is clearly visible, and this clue, as well as several other letters, suggest that this fragment might be from the biblical book of Ezekiel (46:1-3).

The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of more than 900 manuscripts written by an ancient Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Since the scrolls’ discovery in the Qumran caves of the West Bank in 1946, scholars have pored over the texts, which include versions of the Hebrew Bible, calendars, astronomical observations and community rules.

Although some parchments touted as Dead Sea Scrolls are forgeries, the fragments studied in this experiment are the real deal, according to a news statement from The University of Manchester in England. These fragments were discovered during the official excavations of the Qumran caves, and were never channeled through the antiquities market.

In the 1950s, the Jordanian government gifted some of the fragments to Ronald Reed, a leather and parchment expert at the University of Leeds in England, so he could examine their physical and chemical composition. At the time, it was thought that these fragments were blank and could be used for scientific tests. After Reed and his student, John Poole, studied the fragments, they stored them safely away.


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