It’s not every day that the secular media does a feature story on Bible scrolls. But 60 Minutes recently did just that, with coverage on efforts by scholars to read thousands of damaged scrolls (which may contain biblical material, or other ancient Greek writings) of Herculaneum. Herculaneum was a neighboring city to Pompeii, both of which were devastatingly buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The conditions of their destruction also meant that parts of the cities were well preserved when buried in ash.
The 13-minute segment on 60 Minutes is a fascinating account of how computer imaging technology is opening possibilities of reading previously inaccessible scrolls. It is also a telling account of how academic rivalry can slow down innovation.
The key American scholar in the story, Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, had already broken international news in 2016 by recovering the script of an ancient scroll from a burnt synagogue in Israel. The scroll turned out to contain text from Leviticus, with this transcription probably dating to the first or second century. This means that the scroll is probably hundreds of years older than originally thought. Its text represents a major bridge between the Dead Sea Scrolls and medieval copies of the books of the Hebrew Bible.
National Geographic did a report on the Ein Gedi Leviticus scroll. Here is a key section assessing its significance:
“Since the completion of the publication of the Corpus of Dead Sea Scrolls about a decade ago . . . the Ein Gedi Leviticus Scroll is the most extensive and significant biblical text from antiquity that has come to light,” says study coauthor Michael Segal, a biblical scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Emanuel Tov, a fellow co-author and biblical scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says that the Ein Gedi Scroll specifically helps by refining the timeline of how the authoritative Hebrew Bible—also known as the Masoretic Text—came to be.
“There are clear signs of continuity of tradition,” he says. “It can’t be coincidental that the synagogue in Ein Gedi that was burned in the sixth century housed an early scroll whose text was completely identical with medieval texts. The same central stream of Judaism that used this Levitical scroll in one of the early centuries of our era was to continue using it until the late Middle Ages when printing was invented.”
Hopefully, the 60 Minutes story will help bring the most up-to-date technology to bear on the Herculanuem scrolls, and the treasures that are hidden in them.