Scholars unwrap ancient biblical text

Religion | Text from charred artifact mirrors Old Testament verses from the Bible’s third book
by Samantha Gobba
Posted 9/22/16, 01:07 pm

When archeologists in the 1970s found a charred scroll in the Holy Ark in the Synagogue of Ein Gedi, an ancient Hebrew town burned in A.D. 600, they never imagined they might be able to read it.

But recent advancements in non-invasive imaging and even newer processing software allowed an international team of experts to “unwrap” five damaged, but legible layers of the animal skin to reveal Leviticus 1:1-9 and Leviticus 2:1-11.

The Ein-Gedi scroll is now the oldest known Pentateuchal scroll, apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

When the first letters came through on his computer screen, University of Kentucky professor Brent Seales was thrilled.

“We were laughing. We were just so happy,” he told me. “It was like, OK, we’ve waited for this moment. We can do it.”

But that first moment was soon overawed, when partner researchers in Israel read the text and emailed him back.

“Knowing that it was a biblical scroll, a Torah scroll, previously undiscovered and unread, made it so much sweeter a discovery than just the technical part of, we can read writing,” said Seales, a computer scientist. “We’re discovering a piece of biblical history that hasn’t been seen before, for almost 2,000 years. So that moment was a lot more humbling, I have to say.”

Getting to that moment took years of painstaking process.

Seales had worked for years with his “virtual unwrapping” software on charred scrolls found at Herculaneum, a city buried by the Mount Vesuvius eruption in A.D. 79. After learning about that project, Pnina Shor, head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority, had the Ein-Gedi scroll scanned with a three-dimensional micro-computed tomography and sent the data to Seales.

When he received the images, Seales said he and his colleagues “adopted it at first as sort of a side project.”

It wasn’t easy.

“The layers with the writing on [scrolls] are rolled up. They’re stacked, they’re crushed, they’re fused. It’s totally unpredictable," Seales said in a news conference Monday. 

And the segments didn’t align automatically. Seales had to work systematically on each one. By the summer of 2015, he had “unwrapped” just the first layer. 

Now with five layers successfully laid out, Seales thinks the work is complete. He has another year of funding, and in that time hopes to crack the Herculaneum scrolls and get his software ready for release as open source code.

Once the Ein-Gedi scroll was available for biblical scholars to study, it proved highly significant: The text scholars can read is identical to the Hebrew Masoretic Text used today.

Radiocarbon results indicate scribes copied the scroll in the third or fourth century, but a report from paleographer Ada Yardeni, an authority on Hebrew text, states it likely dates back to the second half of the first century. 

Either way, the scroll proves those 18 lines of God’s law have not changed, one jot or tittle, in at least 1,700 years.

Regent University’s Corné Bekker said this latest discovery is yet another score for biblical accuracy through the centuries.

“Every new discovery in biblical archeology has served to underscore the trustworthiness of the Bible,” Bekker told me. “Science and faith are not enemies, but friends.”

Samantha Gobba

Samantha reports on the pro-life movement for WORLD Digital.

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  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 09/23/2016 10:30 am

    "shows Scripture's inerrancy" (title)

    "is yet another score for biblical inerrancy" (next-to-last paragraph)

    I think we're a bit confused here as to what counts as evidence for what. What this does count as evidence for is that the Scriptures have been very faithfully transcribed over the two most recent millennia. To count it as evidence for more than that is mostly wishful thinking. I happen to believe a whole more about Scripture than that it's been faithfully transcribed over the last 2000 years, but it is a huge conceptual leap to move from faithful transcription (supported by this example, and others) to inerrancy. I am somewhat pleased with the implicit suggestion that inerrancy carries practical implications for more than just the original autographs, but this doesn't count as evidence for inerrancy, per se.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Fri, 09/23/2016 11:10 am

    This discovery is certainly fascinating, but the headline is very misleading, as the only thing demonstrated by this discovery is the textual integrity of the Masoretic tradition, which was already largely calcified by this point in time, as has been known well before this discovery.

  • JeffD
    Posted: Fri, 09/23/2016 01:55 pm

    Science and faith may be friends, but textual criticism and faith are enemies.  "Scholars" and pastors today do not beleive in the inerrancy of the Bible.  Despite their pretense of piously proclaiming its inerrancy from the pulpit, they then turn around and cast doubt on it, promote corrupt modern versions, and make the "divine, inerrant, plenary, preservation" of the Bible out to be completely meaningless.

    Jeff D.

  • Postmodern Redneck
    Posted: Fri, 09/23/2016 09:52 pm

    Anonymous, there are two kinds of "textual criticism."  "Lower" criticism deals with the text itself, comparing manuscripts, sorting them into families (sometimes by shared misspellings or other minor errors) and trying to work out the actual original text.  And scholars in this field have done good work:  all of the seriously disputable passages in the New Testament, put together, add up to about half a page, with no important doctrines involved in those passages (unless you consider "snake handling" an important doctrine--the closing verses of Mark are not found in the oldest and best manuscripts).  "Higher" criticism started in the 1700s with speculations about who really wrote the Bible and when--almost always denying the traditional authors and dates.  Some of their theories have been discredited by archeological discoveries.

    But over the years, I have seen a lot of inaccurate things said about Inerrancy of Scripture, often by local pastors and teachers; and sadly, in the headline of this article.  When the serious scholars talk about Scripture being "inerrant" they mostly add the words "in the autographs."  What that means is, inerrancy applies to the original writing, in the original language, from the hands of the authors or their personal scribes.  Inerrancy does not apply to the centuries of copies, nor to any of the translations into languages other than Hebrew and Greek.

    This successful reading of a damaged ancient manuscript does contribute to showing that the Bible has been handed down accurately through the centuries.  But it really has nothing to do with the teaching of inerrancy, because that manuscript, though older than most, is still only a copy.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 09/23/2016 11:36 pm


    It probably isn't quite as simple saying whatever inerrancy means it applies only to the original autographs. It's hard to square that view with the way the author of Hebrews quotes from the Septuagint using such phrases as, "as the Holy Spirit says," and "as God has said." The Bible itself doesn't recognize a distinction between autograph, transcription, and translation. It quotes the Septuagint--which involves both transcription and translation--as the very word of God. Our view of inerrancy needs to be nuanced enough to accommodate the very language of Scripture, doesn't it?

  • JeffD
    Posted: Fri, 09/23/2016 11:46 pm

    So, in short, you do not belive we have the preserved, inerrant Bible today.

    Jeff. D.

  • JeffD
    Posted: Sat, 09/24/2016 12:23 am

    The "oldest and best manuscripts" are a myth perpetuated by your "serious scholars".  I know the matter can get pretty involved, but your "serious scholars" don't like to look at the fact that the "oldest and best" manuscripts out-survived  other manuscripts because they were tossed aside unused.  The manuscripts that were trusted were much used, copied from, and wore out.  You discredit the ending of Mark, but if you want to disregard all scripture that is misused, you're not going to have any scripture left.  One thing it comes down to is if you are going to place your trust in God, or men; particularly your "serious scholars".  "Inerrancy", "preservation", and such words used to mean exactly what they say.  "Bible believers" used to be Bible believers.

    Jeff D.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Mon, 09/26/2016 06:48 pm

    Jeff, it's pretty easy to talk a big talk about the evil scholars perpetuating lies to tear down the Bible, but once you actually sit down with the different manuscript traditions and ask yourself which version is oldest, you will find that it is not at all an easy nut to crack. I happened to have studied this exact subject in some of the leading universities in the world, and I can assure you that the scholars who are studying it are not in my experience part of a vast conspiracy to undermine the Bible, but they are working with something very complex and ambiguous. At the same time, I can happily report as others have already pointed out, that in spite of the fact that there is so much that is very confusing, the core of the gospel message is unambiguously represented across all textual traditions. If the mere presence of ambiguity in your Biblical text bothers you, I suppose that is understandable, but it really can't be avoided once you look into the issues.

  • JeffD
    Posted: Wed, 09/28/2016 04:36 am

    Originally posted by Hans:

    "Jeff, it's pretty easy to talk a big talk about the evil scholars perpetuating lies to tear down the Bible, but once you actually sit down with the different manuscript traditions and ask yourself which version is oldest, you will find that it is not at all an easy nut to crack. I happened to have studied this exact subject in some of the leading universities in the world, and I can assure you that the scholars who are studying it are not in my experience part of a vast conspiracy to undermine the Bible, but they are working with something very complex and ambiguous. At the same time, I can happily report as others have already pointed out, that in spite of the fact that there is so much that is very confusing, the core of the gospel message is unambiguously represented across all textual traditions. If the mere presence of ambiguity in your Biblical text bothers you, I suppose that is understandable, but it really can't be avoided once you look into the issues."


    First off, I was attempting to reply to Hans' post and accidently hit the "Report" button instead.  I apologize.

    Second, I resent the implication that, since I don't agree with you, I must be some  ignorant know-nothing who has not studied the matter myself and am just stupidly propagating conspiracy theories. I can assure you I have studied the matter, and there are legitimate concerns about the so-called "scholarship" of the day.  There are true scholars who are every bit as qualified who disagree with the methods and beliefs that are being taught in the leading universities of the world today. 

    What it comes down to is that God either preserved His word or He didn't.  There is no middle ground.  And if you believe He did, you need to find where that preserved word is.  Surprisingly, the answer may not be as difficult as scholars at the world's leading universities make it out to be.

    "Postmodern Redneck", for one, claims there are few changes in the various versions, and that they really don't matter. Look at the lists of changes for yourself and see if they only add up to an unimportant half-page as some claim, or whether the inerrancy and preservation of God's word are not important doctrines as is also being claimed.

    I'm not bothered by so-called "ambiguities" in the Biblical text.  I am bothered by scholars here in these last days who believe they can recover what God has supposedly lost.  I am concerned about the weakening of Churches and Christians as we approach the end times, and modern textual criticism is not helping, no matter how well intentioned the scholars may be, and yes, the Bible does predict that this would happen.  The Bible tends not to praise the beliefs of the majority, or the works of scholars and the learned religious elite, no matter how highly they may think of themselves.  Intentionally or not, their very effect is to undermine the Bible.

    Again, I apologize to the moderator for hitting the report button as there was no reply button that I was looking for,  I'm sure it's more evidence that I'm an illiterate man that should bow down to the scholars at the leading universities of the world. :)

    Jeff D.

  • JeffD
    Posted: Wed, 09/28/2016 09:40 am

    By the way Hans,  if determining which of the different manuscript "traditions" is oldest is not at all an easy nut to crack, as you say; why do scholars tend to present only one side of the issue and proclaim the Alexandrian type texts the "oldest and best" as has been done here, and then in effect proclaim those, like me, who proclaim otherwise, to be superstitious idiots?

    Shouldn't both sides be presented without bias if textual criticism is a true science?  And that isn't being done by the revered scholars any more than creationism or "climate change" is on a secular level.

    Jeff D.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Thu, 09/29/2016 06:14 am

    Jeff, it's fine to make arguments to put greater weight on the Alexandrian textual tradition. That is not what I interpreted you doing; instead, you seemed to be suggesting that the entire discipline was fraudulent, and being pushed by hucksters posing as scholars. After all, you were the one who said that "faith and textual criticism are enemies," and that the discipline is a "myth perpetuated by 'serious scholars.'" Having studied under some of those people, I am bothered the implication that they are pushing an ideological mythology rather than doing serious scholarly work.


    For what it's worth, the reason that the Alexandrian tradition is not favored is because it is much easier to explain the evolution of the text into the tradition represented by the Alexandrian text type rather than the other way around. This is only a small part of the discussion, however. Text criticism actually gets much more difficult when you are examining the textual traditions of the Old Testament, which clearly demonstrate a long process of slow growth of the texts into the form that we have in the Masoretic text. The MT may represent a kind of calcification of one strand of that tradition, but it is not at all clear that it should be universally understood as the best. After all, the New Testament authors, meaning the Apostles, quote almost exclusively from the LXX tradition, which contains some remarkable differences--the fact that Jeremiah is about 30% shorter being perhaps the most significant, but hardly the only example. Some texts in the MT seem to be rather pristine; others, like the books of Samuel, for example, are quite a mess, and when you compare the various Greek traditions, it becomes quite clear that there are significant problems in the transmission of the text. And before you suggest that the Greek traditions should not carry significant weight, remember again that the Apostles quoted from the Greek, and also that we have found fragments of Dead Sea scrolls confirming that the Greek traditions were translations of earlier Hebrew versions that differ from the Masoretic text.


    On the one hand, I totally get why all this makes people feel uncomfortable. After all, you have a commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture that seems to demand crystal clarity and a rock solid text (if I misunderstand your views on this, I apologize). But from my perspective, we have to reshape our commitments to these doctrines in light of the plain insights of scholarship--meaning the undisputed presence of discrepancies between the different manuscript traditions which need to be resolved. It is difficult for me to see the insistence on the RT as the divinely "preserved" version to be anything other than an supposedly necessary implication of a theological commitment rather than a serious attempt to account for and analyze the manuscript data. 

    I apologize if I come across as snarky when talking about this. It is very frustrating to wrestle with these issues on a signficant level and then encounter people who seem utterly dismissive of the whole discipline. Like I said, it doesn't bother me that you might argue for more weight being given to the Alexandrian text type, but you aren't doing that. You're suggesting that serious scholars who have spent a lifetime comparing manuscript traditions (to include many committed Christians, by the way) should essentially be scorned. I strongly disagree.

  • JeffD
    Posted: Fri, 09/30/2016 03:05 pm

    Hans, I am not attempting to put more weight on the Alexandrian "textual tradition".  The Bible did not come out of Egypt.  The existence and use of the LXX even during Jesus' time is even questionable because of the idea of the highly traditional Jews who had even kept up their traditions to the point of superstition even during the "silent years" between the testaments, using texts produced in Egypt by people who they deemed not qualified to copy and interpret texts.  Not just anyone from any tribe, anywhere, was considered qualified.  Remember how bogged down in tradition the Scribes were in the time of Jesus?  The "facts" behind the LXX itself is something taken as gospel based on certain assumptions.  Again, just as the "fact" of evolution is in the secular world. (I know I shouldn't say that the "facts" behind the LXX are taken as gospel, as scholars actually believe much more strongly in their "facts" than they do in the Gospels, which are riddled with errors in their minds.)  I mentioned the Alexandrian texts as an example because as I understand they were often called the "oldest and best" texts.  That is the “myth” I referred to above as being perpetuated by scholars. I don't know if scholars have gone back and forth about which are the "oldest and best" since them,  It seems they may have gotten away from using the term "oldest and best" as they've been forced to admit that there may be other views and other "facts", but it was used in a comment above.  The Majority texts have comparatively far fewer and relatively minor discrepancies than the Minority texts the scholars love to hold up.

    Given the fruits of their efforts, I stand by my claims about modern textual criticism and faith being enemies.  The men you look up to may well be great, well-intentioned men.  But it seems people are placing more faith in them than in God and the Bible.  The Bible warns us about men who have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof.  In my view, that is exactly what these "serious scholars" at the "world's leading universities" are doing.  They are not looking in faith to see how or where God preserved His word, but instead are operating under the assumption that He didn’t. There are many other warnings found in the Bible concerning respect of persons and the general apostasy of the last days as Christians and churches brag about how much they have gained and have need of nothing. But we seem to be more intent on studying about the Bible than on studying the Bible.

    So, what have these scholars accomplished, what is the "good work" that they have done?  Showing that the Bible is 99 and 44/100% pure, and isn't God wonderful for being able to make it that pure, but as He wasn't able to keep His word through the ages we should be grateful to men like them to show us that the Bible isn’t as trustworthy as we had ignorantly thought, and to help us know which parts are good and which aren't?  And now that they've shown that the Bible is only 56/100% leaven, or whatever seemingly arbitrary percent, in error, what's to keep them from finding "new evidence" to cast doubt on the rest?  How many man-hours have been spent to critique and correct the Bible?  How much of those man hours could have been better spent providing accurate translations to other languages and peoples rather than making dozens of versions for the English language, each one being "more accurate" and "easier to read" (dumbed down, IMO) than the others?  But I suspect that being a Bible critic is more prestigious, profitable (in a physical sense), safer, and more comfortable than missionary type work.

    As I've at least alluded to, I don't see Christianity today becoming stronger as we tell them that the TR texts that they've used, passed down, and actually believed, over the past 2000 years are full of errors.  I see the new kind of "pastors" and such that are being churned out by "Bible Schools" that are more concerned with critiquing the Bible than with following it.

    I’m trying not to be needlessly offensive, but I do want to stand for what I believe is right, and for my right to actually believe that the Bible that I use, and that has been passed down for centuries, “not only contains the word of God, but is the very word of God”.  If I'm ridiculed or held in contempt for doing so, I know that I'm in good company of others down through the ages.

    Jeff D.



    At least I didn’t hit the report button this time. I almost did, so I guess I can be a slow learner. I think it would be nice if there was an “unreport” button for when you accidentally report. Or am I the only one dumb enough to not be able to tell the difference between "reply" and "report"? :)


  • VSKluth's picture
    Posted: Mon, 01/02/2017 05:20 pm

    Anonymous is right on target.  Lower criticism attacks the Biblical doctrine of verbal plenary preservation (VPP).  Case in point:  the doctrine that Jesus actually rose on Sunday is only contained in the passage you demur (Mark 16:9), not being found in any other account.  Mark's ending is found in the oldest manuscripts, but the text critic refuses to acknowledge any NT language other than Greek.  Either all scripture is preserved (Ps 12:6, Isa 59:21, 1Pet 1:25), or it isn't.  Either the early church went into all the world, starting in their neck of the woods, taking the Word with them, or they didn't.  Westscott and Hort foisted a horrific error upon the church, and is the battle front of our time. I have identified 18 historic doctrines undermined by the text critics, with four (4) doctrinal statements totally eliminated (Westminster shorter catechism Q#107, and Heidelberg catechism questions 25, 119 and 128) -- let alone the doctrine of VPP!

    This article goes a long way to underscoring both biblical preservation, as well as inerrancy, for it is impossible to have one without the other.

  • Mike Beidler
    Posted: Sat, 09/24/2016 12:11 am

    The headline alone gives me a headache.  Let's not even get into the statements attributed to Bekker.  Reliable transmission of a text over centuries has NOTHING to do with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy or the Bible's "trustworthiness" as an historical document.  Rookie mistake, and if made by a non-rookie, all the more egregious.

  • JeffD
    Posted: Sat, 09/24/2016 02:13 am

    Reliable transmission of the Biblical text over centuries has NOTHING to do with the superintendance of God, or of His divine preservation either, according to the "serious scholar".

    The Bible happens to be more than a historical document.

    Jeff D.

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Sat, 09/24/2016 12:20 pm

    Commenters: Thank you for pointing out the confusion created by the word choice in the headline and in a portion of the story itself. We have changed the headline and clarfied that Regent University’s Corné Bekker was referring to the accuracy of the Bible through the centuries.

    Posted: Sat, 09/24/2016 02:19 pm

    Thanks for your humility and graciousness in responding to the commenters and in adjusting the headline. Blessings upon you.

  • SH
    Posted: Sat, 09/24/2016 07:51 pm

    This is a fine summary of the research and its significance. My comment relates to the weekly "Top Stories" email. The related weekly email contained the link title "Leviticus scroll discovery shows Scripture's inerrancy." Unfortunately, that title is not quite correct, since this discovery/article is about the preservation of Scripture, not the presence or lack of errors in the autographs. Manuscripts from this time period are rare, so this discovery helps to fill the gap.  According to one of the published reports, the manuscript confirms existing scholarly theories about the OT text and its transmission (p. 14, Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are still significantly older than this manuscript (e.g., from 250 BC).