They’re not much larger than lentils, but size doesn’t minimize the potential significance of nine newfound Dead Sea Scrolls that have lain unopened for the better part of six decades.
An Israeli scholar turned up the previously unexamined parchments, which had escaped the notice of academics and archaeologists as they focused on their other extraordinary finds in the 1950s. Once opened, the minuscule tefillin parchments from Qumran, while unlikely to yield any shattering historic, linguistic or religious breakthroughs, could shed new light on the religious practices of the period of the Second Bais Hamikdosh.
The Israel Antiquities Authority has been tasked with unraveling and preserving the new discoveries – an acutely sensitive process and one which the IAA says it will conduct painstakingly, and only after conducting considerable preparatory research.
At least two dozen tefillin scroll fragments were known to have been found during excavations of the limestone caves overlooking the Dead Sea at Qumran in the 1950s (several tefillin boxes and straps were unearthed as well). They were among the world-famous cache of thousands of scrolls and scroll fragments containing biblical and sectarian texts from the Second Bais Hamikdosh period. Since their discovery, the Qumran scrolls have been housed at the Israel Museum, and scholars have pored over the ancient documents and opened a window into ancient Jewish theology.
But these nine latest tiny scrolls had been overlooked – until now.
Dr. Yonatan Adler, a lecturer at Ariel University and a post-doctoral researcher on Qumran tefillin at Hebrew University, was searching through the Israel Antiquities Authority’s climate-controlled storerooms in the Har Hotzvim neighborhood of Jerusalem in May 2013. There he found a phylactery case from Qumran among the organic artifacts stored in climate-controlled warehouses. Suspecting the case could contain a heretofore undocumented scroll, he had it scanned by an CT at Shaare Zedek Hospital. The analysis suggested there might indeed be an unseen parchment inside.
While that analysis has yet to be confirmed, Adler was spurred on by the discovery, and in December visited the Dead Sea Scroll labs at the Israel Museum. There he found two tiny scrolls inside the compartments of a tefillin case that had been documented but then put aside some time after 1952. The scrolls were never photographed or examined, and so have remained bound inside the leather box for roughly 2,000 years.
Then, just last month, Adler told The Times of Israel he “found a number of fragments of tefillin cases from Qumran Cave 4, together with seven rolled-up tefillin slips” which had never been opened.
“Either they didn’t realize that these were also scrolls, or they didn’t know how to open them,” Pnina Shor, curator and head of the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, explained.
Read more: Times of Israel