From cave to computer: Dead Sea Scrolls go online

Oct 6, 2011 by

From cutting-edge brand names let’s hop back to the subject of old manuscripts. Very old manuscripts, this time. But it is cutting-edge technology that now makes them available for study to anyone with a computer and an internet connection: on September 26 Israel’s National Museum and Google launched the Dead Sea Scrolls online project by making five of the Dead Sea Scrolls available online.

Dead Sea Scrolls were written some 2,000 years ago; the first seven scrolls were discovered in 1947 in desert caves near Qumran on the northwestern coast of the Dead Sea in a story of intrigue, scholarship and black market that features a Bedouin shepherd, a Syrian Orthodox “dealer in antiquities”, a Hebrew University in Jerusalem professor and… a goat. Yes, a goat!

It all started with three Bedouin shepherds of the Ta’amra tribe looking for a lost goat from their herd. While searching around the caves in the Judean desert northwest of the Dead Sea, one of them threw a stone through the top opening of a cave and heard a sound of it hitting something hollow. The Bedouin went into the cave to investigate and found ten potted jars. Eight of them were empty and one contained only dust, but they hit the jackpot with the last jar, which contained three scrolls, two of them wrapped in cloth. The members of the tribe later returned to the cave and found four more scrolls.

Perhaps not realizing their true significance, the Bedouin eventually took the jars and the scrolls to market in Bethlehem. After several unsuccessful attempts, they found a “dealer in antiquities”, Jalil “Kando” Iskandar Shalim, who were willing to purchase them. But Kando didn’t keep the scrolls for long either: he resold four of the seven scrolls to Athanasius Samuel, the archimandrite of a Syrian Orthodox monastery in Jerusalem for about $110 total. Samuel tried to resell the four scrolls again; to make them sound more valuable to potential buyers, he claimed to have found them in his monastery, in the Jewish quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. But still no buyer has materialized.

And what about the other three scrolls that Samuel didn’t purchase? Kando managed to sell them to Professor Eliezer Lipa Sukenik of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who used university money to buy them, and two of the jars in which they had been stored.

And then the war broke out in 1948.

Unsure of the situation in and around Jerusalem, Samuel — who, as you will recall, had four scrolls on his hands — smuggled them to the U.S. and tried to sell them. However, by then three of the four scrolls had been photographed so the scholars could use the photos and had no need for the originals. At least not for the asking price. By 1954, Samuel got really desperate and at this point he published an advert in the Wall Street Journal, which read:

This advert caught the eye of a man called Yigael Yadin, who (despite having a different last name) was the son of Professor Sukenik. Yadin was able to raise $250,000 to buy the four scrolls, which he sent to his father in Israel — thus, the seven original scrolls were finally reunited in Jerusalem. Ultimately, the scrolls were entrusted to the Shrine of the Book Foundation and copies of the scrolls have been on display in the Shrine of the Book at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, since 1965 (the originals are kept in a secured vault in a Jerusalem building constructed specifically to house them; access requires at least three keys, a magnetic card and a secret code).

From 1949 to 1956, additional fragments of some 950 different scrolls were discovered in ten nearby caves, both by Bedouins and by a joint archaeological expedition of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française and the Rockefeller Museum, directed by Professor Father Roland de Vaux. The richest yield came from Cave 4, just opposite the site of Qumran, and consisted of some 15,000 fragments. The last cave, Cave 11, was discovered in 1956, and the scrolls found there were in a reasonable state of preservation.

Apart from the first seven scrolls, which are entrusted to the Israel Museum, the majority of the fragments found by archaeologists and Bedouin are property of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Others are in the possession of institutions outside of Israel, such as the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, or in private hands.

The scrolls discovered in the vicinity of Qumran have all been ascribed to the Hellenistic-Roman Period, from the third century BCE to the first century CE. Most of the scrolls are written on parchment; a smaller number are written on papyrus. Hebrew is the most common language, though a small number of scrolls are written in Aramaic and a few in Greek. Most of the scrolls are written in the Jewish script, also called the “Assyrian” or “square” script, which was widely used from the sixth century BCE on; however, about 14 biblical scrolls are written in the ancient Hebrew script, and many texts use a cryptographic script, combining mirror writing and a mixture of Jewish, ancient Hebrew and Greek scripts.

What made Dead Sea Scrolls particularly exciting to scholars from various disciplines (including some linguists) is that they contain the oldest extant copy of Biblical texts, such as the Book of Isaiah. In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls are 1,000 years older than the previously-known oldest Hebrew Bible copy, the so-called Leningrad Codex. All in all, approximately two hundred copies of biblical books, most of them very fragmentary, were found at Qumran, encompassing almost all the books of the Hebrew Bible, except the books of Nehemiah and Esther.

But not all Dead Sea Scrolls are biblical in content. Some, like the Community Rule Scroll, describe various aspects of life in the Qumranic society. Yet other manuscripts contain halakhic writing (“Halakha” is Jewish law); eschatological literature (i.e. texts dealing with death, the end of the world, final judgment and so on); exegetical literature (translations and interpretations of Biblical texts), such as the Commentary on Habakkuk Scroll; non-canonical or para-Biblical texts, such as Tobit, Jubilees, 1 Enoch, the Genesis Apocryphon and the Temple Scroll; poetic texts; liturgical texts; and astronomical texts, calendars and horoscopes.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by an ascetic Jewish sect that fled Jerusalem for the desert 2,000 years ago and settled at Qumran, on the banks of the Dead Sea. While we do not know for sure who these people were, they seem to fit with the great 1st-century CE historian Flavius Josephus’s description of the Essenes, one of the three major groups of Jews (the other two major Jewish groups were the Sadduccees and the Pharisees, but let’s not forget Samaritans, Zealots, followers of Jesus and John the Baptist, and others). The Essenes were a separatist group that seceded from mainstream Judaism when the Maccabees took over the office of the high priest in the middle of the 2nd century BCE. Still, not all scholars agree with this interpretation and debates on this topic are still raging. But one way or another, the scrolls have shed new light on the development of the Hebrew Bible and the origins of Christianity.

Today, five of the original seven scrolls, considered by many to be the most significant archaeological find of the 20th century, are available to surfers, who can search high-resolution images of the scrolls for specific passages, zoom in and out and translate verses into English. Photography work on the project — which is quite incredible — began earlier this month with a former NASA scientist using an advanced $250,000 camera developed in Santa Barbara, which allows researchers to discern words and other details not visible to the naked eye.

And what of the other Dead Sea Scrolls? The Antiquities Authority project, aimed chiefly at scholars, is tentatively set to be complete by 2016, at which point nearly all of the scrolls will be available on the Internet.

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