Digital imaging techniques have revealed what may be oldest biblical text discovered since the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The 1,500-year-old scroll was unearthed in 1970 at Ein Gedi, about 40km south of the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, but forensic techniques at the time were not able to decipher the script on it.
Now though, a team of US and Israeli researchers have used advanced medical and digital technology to examine the object, discerning what experts say are the first eight verses of the Bible's Old Testament book of Leviticus.
"This is a really big discovery," Pnina Shor, curator at the Israel Antiquities Authority, told a news conference where the five-centimetre-long (two-inch) cylindrical object was put on display. "After the Dead Sea Scrolls, this has been the most significant find of an ancient Bible."
The Dead Sea Scrolls were a collection of hundreds of ancient texts found in the late 1940s near the shores of the inland sea after which they were named. Scientists estimate that the Dead Sea Scrolls, widely considered the oldest written biblical fragments ever found, date to between the third century BC and 70AD.
The new scroll, which is dated to around the year 600 AD, was badly charred when it was found 45 years ago, meaning forensic techniques of the time were unable to reveal its message. But micro CT (computed tomography) scanning provided by Merkel Technologies, an Israeli company specialising in high-tech medical equipment, helped decipher the text, Shor said.
The findings were sent to Brent Seales, a computer expert at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, who used digital imaging software to "virtually unwrap" the scroll and visualise its text, enabling experts to identify the biblical passage.
"The discovery absolutely astonished us. We were certain this was a shot in the dark," Shor said.
More research was needed to determine the full extent of text on the scroll and what lessons it might hold for biblical scholars, she added, but she said the findings had already turned out to be far more significant than anticipated.
The scroll was discovered by archaeologist Sefi Porat, 75, co-director of the dig, inside the remains of an ancient synagogue, which he chanced upon while exploring ceramic tiles at the beachside site. After the initial failure to uncover the scroll’s text he sought more help from Israeli experts handling the Dead Sea Scrolls a few years ago.