After 12 years of researching the Dead Sea Scrolls, UCLA archaeologist Robert Cargill couldn’t believe his luck last January when he finally got to penetrate archaeology’s Holy of Holies — the underground vault beneath the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. There he read from the Isaiah Scroll, the oldest-known copy of any book of the Bible.
Archaeologist Robert Cargill examines a full-scale facsimile of the 2000-year-old-plus Isaiah Scroll at Jerusalem's Shrine of the Book.
"Nobody I know has ever been down there," recalled Cargill, the instructional technology coordinator for UCLA’s Center for Digital Humanities and an adjunct assistant professor of Near Eastern Languages and Culture. “As a scholar, it’s as close as you can get to a religious experience.”
The moving moment is captured in an hour-long exploration of new research on the Dead Sea Scrolls that will air next week on the National Geographic Channel. Religious texts dated between 150 BC and 70 AD and written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek on parchment or papyrus, the scrolls include the oldest-known surviving copies of the Bible as well as religious commentary from the flowering of Jewish culture that followed the return from the exile in Babylon.
As the on-air investigator for “Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Cargill talked to nine archaeologists and other scholars who are conducting research that is challenging old assumptions about the authorship of the texts.
Cargill is best known for his work on a three-dimensional computer model of Qumran, a first-century settlement on the shores of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 11 nearby caves at various times between 1947 and 1956. In his 2009 book, “Qumran through (Real) Time,” Cargill argued that at least some of the more than 800 scrolls now known to exist were produced at Qumran.
With Shrine of the Book curator Adolfo Roitman (left), Professor Cargill looks at the longest segment of the actual Isaiah Scroll, the oldest copy of any book of the Bible known today. Only a few select scholars are allowed access to the document.
“I’ve spent my career reading the work of major scholars involved in the archaeology of Qumran,” said Cargill. “Actually meeting many of them opened up a whole new depth of understanding for me.”
Over the course of the visually stunning documentary, Cargill visits Qumran and its nearby caves. He also travels to other first-century settlements on the Dead Sea, including ‘En Gedi, which appears to have played no role in scroll production, and Masada, a mountaintop fortress where similar scrolls were discovered.
Cargill also takes viewers to the Western Wall, one of the last remnants of Jerusalem’s Second Temple, where scrolls may have been kept and used prior to the first-century Jewish Revolt. He also visits an ancient sewer system beneath Jerusalem that may have been used to smuggle scrolls and other possessions out of the city during the revolt.
The authorship of the scrolls has been the subject of intense debate since their discovery. They have long been thought to be the handiwork of the Essenes, an obscure breakaway Jewish sect that may have occupied Qumran during the first century A.D. But new research suggests other Jewish sects may also have had a hand in producing scrolls. With the destruction of the Second Temple by Roman soldiers in 70 A.D., the sects may have spirited the scrolls through the sewers to the caves around Qumran, tipping the Essenes off to the need to hide their own scrolls there as well.
“There’s a lot of new research on the authorship and origins of the scrolls, and it’s shaking up the field,” Cargill said. “It’s an exciting time.”
The documentary is scheduled to air Tuesday, July 27, at 9 p.m. It will be rebroadcast on Tuesday, Aug. 3, at 2 p.m. For more information, go here. For more details about Cargill’s digital model of Qumran, go here. To view images from the model, go here.