The Incredible Technological Feat Behind Reading a New Biblical Scroll

The Incredible Technological Feat Behind Reading a New Biblical Scroll September 21, 2016

An article was published today in the open access journal Science Advances, detailing how a badly damaged and fragile Biblical scroll found in Ein Gedi in Israel (west of the Dead Sea) was nonetheless able to be read and transcribed.

The article, “From damage to discovery via virtual unwrapping: Reading the scroll from En-Gedi,” outlines the process by which the scroll—”completely burned and crushed . . . turned into chunks of charcoal that continued to disintegrate every time they were touched”—was “virtually unwrapped,” enabling the researchers to discern its content without actually opening it, which would have almost certainly destroyed it. As the authors describe the process,

Virtual unwrapping is the composite result of segmentation, flattening, and texturing: a sequence of transformations beginning with the voxels of a three-dimensional (3D) unstructured volumetric scan of a damaged manuscript and ending with a set of 2D images that reveal the writing embedded in the scan

(A New York Times article gives a summary in a bit less technical language, describing how the mastermind behind the method, W. Brent Seales, uses this virtual unwrapping to “model the surface of an ancient scroll in the form of a mesh of tiny triangles. Each triangle can be resized by the computer until the virtual surface makes the best fit to the internal structure of the scroll, as revealed by the scanning method. The blobs of ink are assigned to their right place on the structure, and the computer then unfolds the whole 3-D structure into a 2-D sheet.”)

You can read all the technical details about the process in the journal article; but in any case it’s astonishing to see the finished product of the digital reconstruction, compared to the scroll in its original rolled up state: from

F1.large

to this:

F2.large

Besides the incredible process itself, this is all doubly significant because the scroll, identified as a portion of the book of Leviticus, has been radiocarbon dated to the third or fourth century CE, which is not that long after the time of the latest Dead Sea Scrolls—and fragments from the Hebrew Bible from around this time are quite rare, mostly not found until centuries later.

For the language nerds interested in a more thorough look at this scroll: the article highlights and gives a transcription of part of the text here (a complete verse of Leviticus 1:3, with little snippets of the preceding and subsequent verses, too); and I’ve highlighted its place in the larger scroll:

q2UXtTM

The Hebrew text of the highlighted segment here, and an English translation, is as follows:

קרבנכם אם עלה קרבנו מן הבקר זכר

תמים יקריבנו אל פתח אהל מועד יקריב

אתו לרצנו לפני יהוה וסמך ידו על ראש

your offering. If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, a male

without blemish he shall offer; to the entrance of the tent of meeting, he shall bring

it for acceptance on his behalf before the Lord. He shall lay his hand upon the head…

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