Search

Vatican News
A view of the newly-discovered fragments - Israel Antiquities Authority A view of the newly-discovered fragments - Israel Antiquities Authority  (ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

‘Historic discovery’ of ancient Biblical fragments made in Israel

Archaeologists have unearthed fragments of a 1,900-year-old Biblical scroll in Israel, in what experts are calling the most important discovery in the last 60 years.

By Devin Watkins

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has unveiled an historic discovery of Biblical proportions in several desert caves.

In a dig that began in 2017, archaeologists discovered around 80 new parchment fragments of Old Testament texts.

They contain verses written in Greek—with the name of God appearing in Hebrew—from the books of Zechariah and Nahum, which are part of the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets.

The fragments form part of a scroll which experts believe belonged to Jewish rebels, led by Simon Bar Kokhba, who hid in the caves after a failed revolt against Roman rule between 132 and 136 AD.

Israeli archaeologists began the operation in the Judean desert to prevent caves from being looted. They also unearthed a cache of rare coins from the same period, a 6,000-year-old skeleton of a child, and a large woven basket dating from around 10,500 years ago, the oldest intact in the world.

A cache of rare coins was also unearthed
A cache of rare coins was also unearthed

‘Cave of Horror’

The discovery was made in a difficult-to-reach mountain enclosure known as the “Cave of Horror”, which lies some 40 km south of Jerusalem.

It acquired that intriguing name after 40 human skeletons were found there during excavations in the 1960s. Experts say they were the remains of men, women, and children who fled to the cave to escape the Romans but died instead of hunger and thirst.

They brought with them what are now precious objects, including cooking utensils, personal belongings, and documents and Biblical texts.

A 6,000-year-old skeleton of a child was found in the caves
A 6,000-year-old skeleton of a child was found in the caves

New page in biblical discoveries

Marcello Fidanzio, the Director of the Archaeological and Cultural Institute of Biblical Lands in Lugano, described the find to Vatican News as “a new page in the history of archaeological excavations.”

He said it is the first discovery of note since the great excavations in the 1940s and ‘50s, which brought the Dead Sea Scrolls to light in Qumran and the Judean desert.

“Discoveries of such significance,” he pointed out, “rekindle the excitement of pioneers.”

The Cave of Horror lies high above the Judean desert
The Cave of Horror lies high above the Judean desert

Much left to find

The Israel Antiquities Authority says some 600-odd caves were mapped using drones and advanced survey technology. Besides the announced discovery, some 20 caves could still contain important artifacts.

“This is something we Bible scholars are passionate about,” according to Prof. Fidanzio, “but the discovery is also of great importance to Israelis, who highlight this research as being linked to their identity and the history of their presence in the land of Israel.”

Witness of ‘textual fluidity’

The fragments contain very small amounts of text from the Old Testament, but they still have something to offer scholars.

Prof. Fidanzio noted that they provide evidence of “textual fluidity”, which was when the Biblical text was not yet stable or fixed. “It was only later that the Scriptures were canonized, fixed, and then handed down with great fidelity to the present day.”

He said the Cave of Horror scroll can help scholars understand a stage which led to the definitive text.

“These discoveries show us an extremely fascinating historical moment: one in which the Bible finds its final form,” said the Lugano professor.

The fragments shown together
The fragments shown together

Respect for God’s name

As mentioned, the fragments are written primarily in Greek, with only the name of God written in Paleo-Hebrew, which was used at the time of the First Temple (until 586 BC).

Prof. Fidanzio said it shows “great respect for the unutterable name of God.”

“Writing it in another alphabet,” he concluded, “is a scribal strategy that seeks to focus the readers attention on those letters. It points God’s name out as something which commands great respect and sacredness.”

Listen to our report
17 March 2021, 10:55