||How Were the Scrolls Created?
Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever! -Job 19:23-4 New International Version
From the beginning, Jewish scribes have sought to record important documents in a way that would endure. This was particularly true of sacred writings, which helps us understand Job's cri de coeur, quoted above, where he lists various types of writing in an increasing order of permanence. The most important and beautiful creations of the scribes' art were the Torah scrolls used in worship and study, such as those found at Qumran. Writing marriage contracts and other legal documents was a more secular facet of their skill. That we can still read some of these writings more than two thousand years later attests to the remarkable skill and dedication of these ancient scribes. The dry climate of the Dead Sea region also preserved writings that perished in the more humid areas of Israel.
The largest and most costly material used for the Dead Sea Scrolls was the carefully prepared parchment made from the hide of any kosher animal, including the cow, calf, sheep, goat, and even the more exotic deer and gazelle. Surprisingly, some of the scrolls were written on papyrus imported from Egypt, but the preferred material was locally produced leather from goats and cows, which has been identified by current DNA testing.9
Tanning, as well as the related art of making parchment, was a complicated and malodorous process performed by guild craftsmen employing many trade secrets, some of which remain a mystery. The fresh skin was washed and then soaked in water to cause it to swell. After the hair was scraped off, the skin was stretched on wooden frames and carefully shaved to make it as thin as possible and yet thick enough to withstand heavy use. Even today the finest parchment and vellum must be shaved by hand using a large, curved knife. Then the skin was soaked in a solution of salt, barley flour, gall nuts, and lime water for many days, after which it was rinsed, stretched on frames, and allowed to dry flat.10 It was then polished smooth with pumice stone, a process that also whitened the surface.
The most impressive examples of their craft are the small skins used to make the tefillin discovered at Qumran. Because they needed to be folded into tiny bundles, the parchments were also incredibly thin, perhaps made from fetal calfskin. The writing on them is the smallest script yet discovered from this period, yet it is still legible.11 It is obvious that the scribes took great pride in the creation of such miniature works of art and faith.
The process of making scrolls entailed cutting two rectangles from the hide, avoiding the spine. This left a lot of waste, but only the finest material could be used. The pieces were sewn together with heavy linen thread or thinly slices kosher animal tendons. The Great Isaiah Scroll required seventeen sheets,12 or the hides of at least nine animals. The thread holes were made with a wooden awl rather than a metal one to avoid touching the sacred texts with an element associated with war.13
At Qumran enigmatic fragments were found scattered on the ground floor of one room in the main building. Because they were found on top of ceiling debris, these fragments likely fell from a second-story room. When reassembled, the fragments formed three tables approximately twenty inches high and fifteen feet long. These tables, originally made from a mud-brick frame covered with carefully smoothed plaster, are remarkable in that nothing like them has been found, nor are they mentioned in the documents of that period.14 The tables are so low that a scribe would have been forced to kneel in order to write on them, leading some scholars to believe that these tables were only used to inspect a completed scroll in its entirety. The scribes may have written on small wooden desks, of which no trace was found.
Two inkwells, one ceramic and the other bronze, were also found in the debris of this same room. The traces of ink found within match the comparison of ink used on the majority of the scrolls.15 The traditional ink was a preparation soot from olive-oil lamps. Honey, oil, vinegar, and water were added to thin it to the proper consistency. In order for the ink to bite into the writing surface and not fade, later scribes added gall nuts to the formula. Sometimes the concentration of gall nut was so strong that the ink eventually ate completely through the parchment. The scribes probably tried their best to achieve the proper balance of the ingredients, hoping that the ink would stand the test of time. Their greatest concern was to achieve a rich, lustrous black, even if it was at the expense of a flexible, translucent ink. Occasionally the thick ink would flake off the surface, and then the Torah was considered unfit for use, necessitating restoration in a prescribed manner in order to maintain the perfection of the sacred writings and to enable their continued use.
Not surprisingly, the pen was the symbol of the scribe.16 A carefully trimmed pen indicated the pride that the scribe took in his work. The minuscule size of the individual letters on the scrolls is especially impressive to anyone who has tried to write with a handmade pen, for the pen point had to be cut to a chisel shape of very narrow width. Although no pens have survived from Qumran, Jewish writings indicate that the scribes used reeds at this time.17 When repeated dipping of the pen in ink caused the reed fibers to grow soft, the scribe would have to retrim the point. The fact that no difference in stroke width is apparent among the finest scrolls testifies to the precision with which the scribes trimmed their pens.
As is usual with Aramaic alphabets, Hebrew letters hang from the line rather than stand on it, as in the Greco-Roman tradition. If a top horizontal stroke is called for, it should follow this line, whereas the bottom element of the letter usually slants down to the left, further strengthening the movement of the eye to the left. The strongest element in the Hebrew letter form, today as well as anciently, is the contrast between thick and thin strokes, the result of the way the pen point is trimmed. It appears that paleo-Hebrew favored a strong contrast, while, for example, The Great Isaiah Scroll shows a more uniform balance of thick and thin elements. The letters were written slowly and carefully, in contrast to modern calligraphy's emphasis on speed and rhythm.
Though Hebrew is read from right to left, the individual letters are written from left to right, since the pen must be pulled over the surface, never pushed.18 Today, Jewish scribes touch the letter with the pen immediately after completing a stroke, depositing a small amount of surplus ink on the wide stroke so that when it dries it will be even blacker and form a raised surface. This is a risky process, because any smudges could render the whole page unusable. This process also contributes to the problem of flaking.
The ancient scribes were willing to risk these problems to achieve the strongest contrast between ink and writing material. When we consider how tiny the letters are, we can appreciate this aesthetic. Some calligraphers accentuated the letter size by leaving a generous space between lines, allowing the reader to "breathe" as his eyes moved down to the next line. This minute script must have been written in direct sunlight by scribes with good eyesight. Since advancing age brings diminished visual acuity, most elderly scribes and readers would not have been able to read these scrolls, and this made the custom of public reading on the Sabbath even more significant. When Christ was in the synagogue at Nazareth and stood up to read the scroll of Isaiah, he was still a young man with good eyesight.19 Most of the elders in the synagogue would have already committed these scriptures to memory.
Scribes learned how to create beautiful letters by copying standard models. A potsherd, the scratch paper of the ancient world, discovered in a rubbish heap at Qumran shows what might have been the beginning of this long learning process. Presumably a student wrote a copy of the alphabet in a painstaking manner, repeating some letters twice. One can imagine him studying his teacher's model and then trying to reproduce every curve. To ensure absolute accuracy, even competent scribes were never to write a Torah scroll without a trustworthy copy in front of them. The meticulous care required in copying documents is emphasized in the following quotation from the first-century scribe Ishmael: "My son, be careful in your work for it is the work of Heaven, lest you err either in leaving out or in adding one iota, and thereby cause the destruction of the whole world."20
A scribe was to purify himself before beginning his day of writing, and especially before writing the name of God.21 A shallow washbasin discovered with the remains of the tables at Qumran may have been used for this very purpose. Some scribes used the paleo-Hebrew script for the sacred name of Deity while others, such as the scribe of 4Q175 Testimonia, used four dots.
So diligent were the scribes in accurately transmitting sacred texts that their work forms an unbroken chain of remarkable consistency over the centuries. The copying of a Torah scroll was the greatest opportunity for a Jewish artist to express his love of beauty, for it was believed that the art of writing itself was a gift from God. According to Jewish tradition, before the creation of the world the Torah already existed, written in "black fire on white fire."22 Thus the alphabet predates the world, and consequently no effort was spared in transmitting the written word faithfully.23
Because sacred scrolls were intended to be handled and used reverently, precautions were taken to ensure their longevity. One problem was that the leather scrolls could absorb moisture and oils from human skin, causing permanent stains. For example, the outside of the Isaiah scroll carries the handprint stains of those who unrolled it. Perhaps as a result of an awareness of this problem, the custom developed of not touching the written surface of a scroll.
When not being used, the scrolls were presumably kept on wooden shelves, traces of which have been found at Qumran. Synagogue floor mosaics represent the wooden cabinet built to contain the Torah scrolls as quite elaborate and evocative of temple images. It could have doors or a curtain to conceal and protect the scrolls.
When a scroll became damaged and thus could no longer be used, it was not destroyed (doing so would be irreverent) but was placed in the synagogue in a special room called a genizah, where it was safely stored along with other worn scrolls. The copious fragments found in the Cairo Genizah have survived for centuries.
Some of the Qumran scrolls were found wrapped in plain linen cloth and sealed in jars. This simple but practical form of protection is perpetuated in the cloth mantle used today to encase the Torah scrolls when they are placed in the ark. The jars that were specifically designed to store scrolls show the same efficient use of material-straight-sided, widemouthed, with a broad, flat lid. Perhaps the most prized scrolls had jars custom-made for them by Qumran potters.
Many scrolls have survived the passage of centuries because of the ancient custom of hiding sacred texts during time of war. Athanasiüs Yeshue Samuel, the man who first acquired the Isaiah scroll, experienced this firsthand. At age thirteen, he and his relatives were driven from their village in Lebanon by Turks and Kurds. Separated from his widowed mother, Samuel found refuge in a mountain monastery. When hope of survival for everyone in the monastery seemed impossible, one of the monks asked him to help them "bury our books." While bullets whistled around them, they prayed and dug a hole in a valley outside the monastery walls. "Those who follow after us will have our books. . . . The work of God will prevail" was the hope expressed as they sealed the aperture with pitch and covered it with stones and earth.24
Decades later, Samuel held The Great Isaiah Scroll in his hands, a scroll that had been hidden away by men with the same hope displayed by the Christian monks who had buried their books. Samuel believed the scroll to be an ancient document even though he could not read Hebrew and several experts had told him it was not of ancient origin. We can be grateful that he trusted his heart as he admired the scroll's minute yet beautiful calligraphy and miraculous state of preservation. His efforts as well as those of others, have succeeded in bringing to light a marvelous treasure.
How remarkable it is that ancient writings from the Judean Desert have survived, even if in fragments, to our day. That they exist at all and are largely legible testifies as much to the religious devotion of the communities they originated from as to the prodigious skill and love of beauty exemplified in the scribes' art. It is a continuing paradox that the written word can possess such great power to move us, and yet the materials used to transmit it through the corridors of time are so very fragile.
9. See the research of Scott Woodward of BYU. This statement is based on personal conversations with professor Woodward.
10. See Roland de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 79.
11. See Yigael Yadin, "The Tefillin Discovered at Qumran," [auth: Need pub info]
12. See Frank Moore Cross, David Noel Freedman, and James A. sanders, eds., Scrolls from Qumrân Cave 1: The Great Isaiah Scroll; The Order of the Community; The Pesher of Habakkuk (Jerusalem: Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; and The Shrine of the Book, 1972), 3.
13. See the King James Version of Exodus 20:25, "For if thou lift up thy tool upon it [an altar], thou hast polluted it." Today the ultra-orthodox Jews use an ivory or wood pointer (yad) when reading the Torah in the synagogues, as opposed to the silver pointer in more common use.
14. See De Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 29.
15. See John Marco Allegro, The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls: In Text and Pictures (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958), 43.
16. See KJV Jeremiah 17:1: "The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond." The New International Version rendering is "Judah's sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point."
17. The Sephardic scribes (Jews descended from families originating in Spain or Portugal) continue to write exclusively with reed pens, while the Ashkenazi scribes (Jews descended from central or eastern Europe) write only with quills taken from turkey or chicken feathers.
18. Ismar David, The Hebrew Letter: Calligraphic Variations (Northvale, N>J>: Jason Aronson Inc., 1990), 2.
19. See KJV Luke 4:16-7.
20. Quoted in Natan Ausubel, "Sofer," in The Book of Jewish Knowledge (New York: Crown, 1964), 420.
21. This custom is still observed by orthodox scribes. Muslim scribes say a prayer whenever they write the name of Allah.
22. See Hugh Nibley, "Genesis of the Written Word," in his Temple and Cosmos (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 450-90.
23. Hermon Wouk, This Is My God (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959), 253.
24. See Athanasiüs Yeshue Samuel, Treasure of Qumran: My Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 56.