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Age of Dead Sea Scrolls Determined Through New Carbon-dating Method

April 4, 1991
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A laboratory in Zurich employing a new, improved method of carbon-14 dating has pinpointed the age of the Dead Sea Scrolls to between the second century BCE and the beginning of the first century C.E., according to Magen Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, where some of the most important scrolls are kept.

The scientific finding should put an end to a 40-year challenge to the scrolls’ antiquity by some wary scholars.

The determination of the amount of radio-active carbon-14 remaining in the scrolls means they were written between 2,000 and 2,200 years ago.

“This is how it should be. I have waited for this a long time,” said Dr. Samuel Iwry, a scholar at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in the formative years of the group called the New Covenantlers, or the Essenes, the people believed to have written the scrolls.

“We all knew all the way from internal evidence, by reading the scrolls and by reading the script,” Iwry said.

Broshi said the Zurich lab is one of only three in the world using the new dating method.

Of more than 800 scrolls found, only two refer to historic events which suggest a date.

Previous estimates of their age were based mainly on paleography, the study of ancient writing. On this basis, scholars had deduced that the scrolls were written over the course of three-and-half centuries, from the mid-third century BCE to the eve of the Roman conquest, or 68 C.E.

Broshi said the Israeli government’s Department of Antiquities decided last summer to submit samples of scroll material to the Swiss firm for dating.

The old method of carbon-14 dating required the destruction of parts of ancient documents to obtain the necessary carbon-14 samples. The new method requires only a pinhead-size sample, Broshi explained.

It dates the material to within 30 to 60 years, whereas the older method left a 230-year margin of error.

The Antiquities Department employed careful controls to confirm the authenticity of the test results. In addition to the 10 scroll samples, it sent Zurich samples of four other ancient parchment and papyrus scrolls clearly dated by their texts. None of the samples was identified, so their origin was unknown to the Swiss lab.

According to Antiquities Department officials, the findings submitted by the laboratory two weeks ago correlated with the known dates of the dated documents and the estimated dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The scrolls, probably the most momentous archaeological find of the century, were stumbled upon by a young Arab shepherd in 1947 in the caves at Kumran on the shores of the Dead Sea.

(JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum in New York contributed to this report.)The JTA Daily News Bulletin will not be published on Friday, April 5, the seventh day of Passover.

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