Theyâ€™re not much larger than lentils, but size doesnâ€™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 phylactery parchments from Qumran, while unlikely to yield any shattering historic, linguistic or religious breakthroughs, could shed new light on the religious practices of Second Temple Judaism.
The Israel Antiquities Authority has been tasked with unraveling and preserving the new discoveries â€” an acutely sensitive process and one which the IAA says it will conduct painstakingly, and only after conducting considerable preparatory research.
Phylacteries, known in Judaism by the Hebrew term tefillin, are pairs of leather cases containing biblical passages from the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy.
One case is bound by leather thongs to the head and one to the arm during morning prayers, as prescribed by rabbinic interpretation of the Bible.
The case worn on the head contains four scrolls in individual compartments, while the arm phylactery holds one scroll.
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 phylactery 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 Temple 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 â€” 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 Authorityâ€™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 MRI 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 â€œfound a number of fragments of tefillin cases from Qumran Cave 4, together with seven rolled-up tefillin slipsâ€ which had never been opened.
â€œEither they didnâ€™t realize that these were also scrolls, or they didnâ€™t know how to open them,â€ Pnina Shor, head of the IAAâ€™s Department of Artefact Treatment and Conservation, explained.
JÃ³zef Tadeusz Milik, the most prolific publisher of the scrolls after their discovery last century, reported on the Cave 4 tefillin case finds but he â€œdidnâ€™t say why they didnâ€™t open them, [and] he also didnâ€™t say they were scrolls,â€ even though the parchments were identified as part of tefillin assemblage, she said.
Shor and her team have managed the painstaking task of maintaining the thousands of scroll fragments found at Qumran, removing them from the glass casings in which they were entombed in the 1950s and mounting them on fine cloth mesh, then digitizing each minute scrap with multi-spectral photography.
Each scroll fragment is photographed at 56 different exposures â€” 28 per side (as some scrolls have writing on both) â€” in 12 different wavelengths ranging as far as the infrared. The team will be tasked with a similar mission with the new scrolls once theyâ€™ve been opened.
Dead Sea Scroll expert Eibert Tigchelaar of the University of Leuven in Belgium said that the fact that these nine scrolls went undetected for so long should not come as a surprise, considering the scrollsâ€™ complicated administrative history (which includes a change in sovereignty in 1967). â€Things physically remained somewhere, but administratively were forgotten,â€ Tigchelaar said.
Moreover, â€œconfronted with 10,000 or more fragments from Cave 4, of which the last were only published a few years ago, there was little attention [paid] to those tefillin that might not be opened at all,â€ he said.
None of the phylacteries has been radiocarbon dated, but the cache of scrolls and religious objects from the caves at Qumran date from the second and first centuries BCE and first century CE â€” a critical time in the development of Judaism and early Christianity.
Like many of the finds at Qumran, some of the tefillin slips that have previously been opened have yielded astonishing differences from the standard Rabbinic text known as the Masoretic.
â€œSome tefillin use a spelling very close to the traditional one, [but] there are several tefillin that use an extreme form of divergent spelling that also occurs in many other scrolls,â€ such as additional letters in possessive suffixes, Tigchelaar said.
Professor Lawrence Schiffman, a vice provost at Yeshiva University and expert on Second Temple Judaism, explained that some of the tefillin texts from Qumran were identical to those used today, but others have the same text with additional passages, extended to include the Ten Commandments.
He also pointed out that it would be interesting to see the order in which the scrolls were placed inside the tefillin compartments â€” a practice debated by rabbis for centuries.
â€œFrom my point of view, the most significant thing about all of this is that they actually have tefillin from 2,100 and plus years ago,â€ Schiffman said of the Dead Sea Scrolls generally.
The continuity of phylactery traditions â€” over the centuries and across the various sects that comprised Second Temple Jewry â€” was something he found remarkable.
â€œWe have to be prepared for surprises,â€ Professor Hindy Najman of Yale University said, of the new discoveries.
â€œOn the one hand thereâ€™s tremendous continuity between what we have found among the Dead Sea Scrolls â€” liturgically, ritually and textually â€” and contemporaneous and later forms of Judaism. But thereâ€™s also tremendous possibility for variegated practices and a complex constellation of different practices, different influences, different ways of thinking about tefillin.â€
Schiffman, however, said he doesnâ€™t expect any â€œbombshellsâ€ emerging from the new scrolls that will â€œoverturn the concepts that we have.â€
â€œGiven the amount of research thatâ€™s been doneâ€¦ important discoveries like this donâ€™t overturn previous ideas,â€ he said. â€œWeâ€™re going to be able to augment what we know about the tefillin already.â€
Tigchelaar concurred, saying that the Dead Sea Scrolls in general, and these tefillin in particular, are important not because they would shed light on one particular sect during the Second Temple Era, but because they demonstrate that rabbinic practices had deeper roots.
â€œWhether one wants to emphasize the continuity, or the differences, is another thing,â€ he said.
Shor will be in charge of the project of meticulously unraveling the newfound scrolls and ensuring their preservation.
â€œWeâ€™re going to do it slowly, but weâ€™ll first consult with all of our experts about how to go about this,â€ she said, reluctant to say when the process would commence.
â€œWe need to do a lot of research before we start doing this.â€