By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
July 22, 2005— Three ancient scrolls — one parchment and two silver — recently have been identified as containing some of the world's earliest known verses from the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament.
The discovery of two fragments of a 2,000-year-old parchment scroll in the Judean Desert was announced last week by Israeli archaeologist Chanan Eshel of Tel Aviv's Bar Ilan University.
The fragments contain verses from Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible, attributed to the tribe of Levi from which Israeli priests are said to be descended. The book consists of regulations for both the priests and their followers.
The two silver scrolls were found by Bar Ilan archaeologist Gabriel Barkay in 1979 in a cave at Ketef Hinnom near Jerusalem. It was only until recently, however, that technology made it possible for scientists to read the scrolls, which date to the 7th century B.C. and likely were worn around the neck as protective amulets.
Project leader Bruce Zuckerman told Discovery News that the scrolls not only are the oldest known Hebrew amulets, but they also are the earliest known artifacts to quote Biblical verses.
"The silver amulets are even older than the Dead Sea Scrolls," said Zuckerman, who is associate professor of religion at the University of Southern California.
The more than 800 documents that comprise the Dead Sea Scrolls have been dated to about 300-200 B.C., meaning they were created as much as four centuries after the amulets.
Zuckerman and his team utilized electronic cameras, specialized imaging software, and infrared systems from NASA to peer into the etched surfaces of the once-rolled silver scroll amulets.
The scrolls contain only consonants, and one is etched with the Priestly Benediction from Numbers 6:24-26.
It reads, "May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and grant you peace."
Zuckerman said, "We don't yet know if the Book of Numbers existed then, or if this verse preceded it."
He added, "We do, however, know that the same prayer also pops up in early graffiti (wall writings), which at least suggests that it would have been a familiar prayer at the time."
The other scroll reads, "May he/she be blessed by Yahweh, the warrior/helper, and the rebuker of Evil."
Zuckerman believes the word "rebuker" is significant, because it echoes language used in earlier Canaanite literature describing the pagan god Baal.
It also appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls' Book of Zachariah and was used much later in exorcism rituals.
Zuckerman, who is compiling images of early Biblical texts for a USC Web site, thinks that together, the scrolls and other early documents support the theory that the Bible represents a collection of sacred materials gathered over hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years.
"The precedent established by the editors was not to gather the most clear and consistent materials, but those that were believed to be the most sacred," he said. "For example, two ideas are given for the origin of the universe. Both are included because to leave one out would have violated the sacredness of the tradition."