‘Blank’ Dead Sea scroll fragment gives up secrets to research team with Maltese academic

A three-way international study involving the University of Malta has revealed words on a Dead Sea scroll fragment previously believed to be blank

The image on the left shows one of the Dead Sea Scrolls fragments held at The University of Manchester's John Rylands Library. The one on the right is a multispectral image of the same fragment revealing three lines of text in Hebrew, including the word
The image on the left shows one of the Dead Sea Scrolls fragments held at The University of Manchester's John Rylands Library. The one on the right is a multispectral image of the same fragment revealing three lines of text in Hebrew, including the word "Shabbat".

There was no rest for one ancient “Sabbath,” as new research by a team including a Maltese academic coaxed readable text from four Dead Sea Scroll manuscript fragments, previously thought to be blank.

The study undertaken by Professor Joan Taylor of King's College, London, Professor Marcello Fidanzio  from the Faculty of Theology of Lugano and Dr Dennis Mizzi from the University of Malta examined fragments of leather housed at The University of Manchester's John Rylands Library and used multi-spectral imaging.

Unlike other recent cases of forgeries assumed to be Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, all of these small pieces were unearthed in the official excavations of the Qumran caves in the West Bank, where the original scrolls were found, and were never passed through the antiquities market, said the University of Malta in a statement this morning.

In the 1950s, the fragments had been gifted by the Jordanian government to Ronald Reed, leather expert at the University of Leeds, so he could study their physical and chemical composition. It was assumed that the pieces were ideal for scientific tests, as they were blank and relatively worthless. These were studied and published by Reed and his student John Poole, and then stored safely away.

In 1997 the Reed Collection was donated to The University of Manchester through the initiative of Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis, George Brooke. These fragments were stored in Reed's own labelled boxes in The John Rylands Library, and have been “relatively untouched” since then, said the university.

But whilst examining the fragments for the new study, Professor Taylor thought it possible that one of them could contain a letter and so she decided to photograph all of the existing fragments, over 1cm, that appeared blank to the naked eye.

Fifty-one fragments were imaged front and back using high-resolution and multispectral photography equipment. Six were identified for further detailed investigation; of these, it was established that four had readable Hebrew or Aramaic text. The study has also revealed ruled lines and small vestiges of letters on other fragments.

The most substantial fragment has the remains of four lines of text with 15-16 letters, most of which are only partially preserved, but the word “Shabbat” (Sabbath) can be clearly read. 

The research team is currently undertaking further investigations of these fragments in consultation with The John Rylands Library and Professor Brooke, as part of a larger project studying the various Qumran artefacts at the John Rylands Library. The results will be published in a report.

"I am hugely grateful to Professor Joan Taylor and her colleagues, and to the brilliant work of our imaging specialists, for bringing this astonishing discovery to light," said Professor Christopher Pressler, John Rylands University Librarian.

"Our University is now the only institution in the UK to hold authenticated textual fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls. It is particularly fitting that these fragments are held here at The John Rylands Library, one of the world’s greatest repositories of Judaeo-Christian texts," he added.

 

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