A bit over a month ago the Israel Antiquities Authority announced a stunning achievement: a burnt scroll found in excavations of the ancient synagogue of Ein Gedi in 1970 has been partially deciphered using micro-CT technology. It turns out to contain at least the beginning of the book of Leviticus and, after the Dead Sea Scrolls, is the oldest extant text of the Hebrew Bible. The strong implication of the press release, along with many subsequent news reports, is that this was a Torah scroll stored in the ark and used for public, liturgical recitation.
It might indeed be. The few facts that have been released to the public about the scroll, though, also give one pause. (It is worth noting that 45 years after the excavations there is no final archaeological report of this synagogue.) When the sensationalism is brushed aside, what do we really learn?
First, it is clear, this was a terrific technological feat. Not a lot of burnt scrolls are found in excavations, but they do appear and it is very exciting to see that there is yet hope for deciphering them. Second, we have yet further confirmation that a version of the Torah that was more or less identical to the Masoretic Text – the text of the Hebrew Bible that Jews have regarded as authoritative since the early Middle Ages – was present around the fifth century CE. Nothing particularly new or shocking there, but still kind of cool.
What is far less clear is whether this scroll served a liturgical purpose. It was found in the area of the Torah niche, which also housed the ark (no traces of which were found, which is expected since it was probably made of wood). That, however, does not mean that it was deposited in the ark. Remember that it was found along with coins, perfume bottles, lamps, and a menorah. It is unclear if all of these things were in or around the ark (why?) or whether they were somehow swept into the niche before or after the fire the destroyed the building.
More striking, though, is the size of the scroll, at only 7 cm. This is extraordinarily small for a scroll meant for public recitation. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, are several scrolls that are much bigger that seem written for this purpose. A scroll of this size might more typically be used as an amulet or as a personal scroll used for reading or study. Another intriguing possibility is that it was used as a “foundation deposit,” along with the coins and perhaps the other items in the niche. In that scenario, the community would have installed these items in the niche in order to enhance the holiness of the area, much as relics are used in Catholic churches. Whether or not this is true, though, given the facts released so far it is far from clear that this was the community’s Torah scroll.