An ancient, charred Torah scroll from 1,500 years ago has been translated as a text from the book of Leviticus.
The Hebrew scroll, found on the shore of the Dead Sea, was discovered 45 years ago by archaeologists in a burned down synagogue but researchers have only just been able to decipher it. It is the oldest known scroll after the Dead Sea Scrolls of 2,000 years ago.
Scientists at the Dead Sea lab at Israel's Antiquity's Authority and Kentucky university used micro_CT scanners and 3D reconstruction to establish that the scroll consisted of verses from the second book of Leviticus.
The scroll was found in the ark by archaeologists excavating the Ein Gedi synagogue and the latest findings were revealed this week at the Israel Museum.
Dr Sefi Porath, who led the Ein Gedi excavations, said: "The deciphering of the fragment, which was a puzzle for us for 45 years, is very exciting."
According to the Bible, Ein Gedi was a spring or oasis where David hid from King Saul among the craggy rocks. Its name means goat-kid spring. Dr Porath said that Ein Gedi prospered between the fourth and seventh centuries and had a synagogue with a mosaic floor. It was abandoned by villagers after it was burned to the ground. "The settlement was completely burned to the ground, and none of its inhabitants ever returned to reside there again, or to pick through the ruins in order to salvage valuable property," he explained.
"In the archeological excavations of the burnt synagogue, in addition to the charred scroll fragments, we found a bronze seven-branched menorah, the community's money box containing 3,500 coins, glass and ceramic oil lamps, and vessels that held perfume."
Pnina Shor, curator and director of IAA's Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, said it was the first time a Torah scroll fragment had ever been found in a synagogue ark. He said: "This discovery absolutely astonished us. We were certain it was just a shot in the dark, but decided to try and scan it anyway. Now, not only can we bequeath the Dead Sea Scrolls to future generations, but also a part of the Bible from the ark of a 1,500-year-old synagogue."