Imagine trying to put together a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle without looking at the picture on the box. Imagine trying to put together the same puzzle without seeing the finished image and knowing that many of the pieces were missing. Why would anyone attempt such a challenge? The ‘puzzle’ is a mysterious section of a Dead Sea Scroll that not only consisted of just 60 tiny pieces, it appeared to have been written in code. Despite those obstacles, a team of scholars announced this week that they had solved the scroll, deciphered the code, confirmed who wrote it and even found where an editor had corrected it. Let’s hope their prize for finishing this puzzle is something more than a laurel and hearty handshake.
Haifa University announced this week that Dr. Eshbal Ratson and Prof. Jonathan Ben-Dov took a year to piece together the 60 fragments – some smaller than 1 sq cm (0.155 sq inches). The first thing they determined was that previous scholars were wrong – the fragments were not from different scrolls but were all from one scroll. The second clue was found when they noticed that some of the writing appeared to have been annotations in a margin rather than the main text – annotations that were corrections to the code which seemed to have been used incorrectly by the writer, who they assumed to be a leader of the Essenes – the ancient Jewish sect of celibate men who are believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls and maintained the early library.
Once they cracked the code and its corrective annotations, the researchers were able to determine that this scroll was a description of some known and previously-unknown important dates and festivals on the unique 364-day calendar used by the Essenes. Unlike the current Jewish calendar which is based on lunar events, this 364-day calendar was described by the researchers as “perfect.”
“Because this number can be divided into four and seven, special occasions always fall on the same day.
This avoids the need to decide, for example, what happens when a particular occasion falls on the Sabbath, as often happens in the lunar calendar.”
According to their study, published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Ratson and Ben-Dov said the scroll describes two special occasions not mentioned in the Bible — the festivals of New Wine and New Oil. Together with the New Wheat festival, these events were related to the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which is also known as the Festival of Weeks or Pentecost. They also found that the sect gave the name Tekufah to a festival observed four times a year that marked the changing of the seasons – a word that in modern Hebrew means “period.”
Needless to say, this a big deal in the Dead Sea Scroll world. So, will Ratson and Ben-Dov get a big bonus from the university? A new car? A cruise? Gold watches?
“The reward for their hard work is fresh insight into the unique 364-day calendar used by the members of the Judean Desert sect, including the discovery for the first time of the name given by the sect to the special days marking the transitions between the four seasons.”
Fresh insight? These two brilliant puzzle-solvers need to take some time off and try their luck on “Wheel of Fortune.”