The Dead Sea Scrolls, With Access For All

The Dead Sea Scrolls, With Access For All

Israel Museum-Google digitization project a boon for public but perhaps not for scholars.

When Google and the Israel Museum announced three weeks ago that they were digitizing images of the Dead Sea Scrolls — perhaps the most important biblical discovery of the last century — the praise was nearly ubiquitous.

More than one million viewers logged onto the website in the first four days to look at the scrolls, which date to the second century B.C.E. and represent the oldest biblical manuscripts ever discovered. That is more visitors than the Israel Museum gets in an entire year, said its director, James Snyder.

Even scholars who have assiduously studied the scrolls since they became widely available in translated and transcribed form about 15 years ago could not hide their enthusiasm.

“The new technology is sensational,” professor James Charlesworth, a leading scholar of the scrolls who teaches at the Princeton Theological Seminary, told The Jewish Week. “A word like ‘shalom’ that we could barely see one letter of now looks like it was written yesterday.” The images were taken using sophisticated cameras that capture the scrolls better than the naked eye.

But once the initial amazement at the digital images wore off, it became clear that many obstacles remain. Interviews with several prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholars revealed gaping holes in the digitization project that few mentioned amid the first days of the project’s announcement.

Most problematic is that the digitized scrolls, five in total, represent a sliver of the roughly 900 scrolls that exist. The scrolls vary in size, of course, and the five now available online are some of the largest. Yet three other scrolls held by the Israel Museum await digitization, and some of the most vexing scholarly issues deal with the other 890-odd scrolls, many of them held by a different — and many say, rival — institution, the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“It would be nice if there were a little more collaboration,” said professor Martin Abegg, a prominent scholar of the scrolls at Trinity Western University in Canada and co-director of its Dead Sea Scrolls Institute. “It doesn’t help for the scholarship.”

A year ago, Google announced plans to digitize the Israel Antiquities Authority’s scrolls as well. That project has yet to materialize, however, and many scholars said they were surprised to hear that, almost out of nowhere, the Israel Museum had suddenly announced its own digitization project.

Paul Solomon, a Google press representative in Israel, said that the I.A.A.’s scrolls would not be accessible on the same site as the Israel Museum’s scrolls. He would not say when the I.A.A.’s scrolls would be put up online, either. “The project with the I.A.A. is ongoing and we hope to have news on that in the near future,” said Solomon in an e-mail.

(The I.A.A. also has a thriving business putting its scrolls on loan around the world; an upcoming exhibit at the Discovery Museum in Times Square will feature them later this month. But this has nothing to do with the Google project and the Israel Museum.)

While Abegg, like most others, was mainly supportive of the digitization effort, he noted that in terms of being helpful to scholars, the Google project was probably too little, too late. “The effect this will have on scholarship is not as great as if it would have been done 20 years ago,” he said. “That’s probably why there hasn’t been a great deal of buzz within the guild, so to speak.”

By the mid-1990s, he said, all 900 scrolls had already been transcribed, translated and published in many different printed editions. Those editions are readily available at research libraries, but the five scrolls now freely available online by Google, which include links that allow you to scroll over any Hebrew or Aramaic passage and read it in English translation, are still only a fraction of what’s available in print.

Apart from a few small corrections in translation, many scholars don’t see any revelations likely to come in the future.

“Scholars are likely to correct a letter here and there,” said professor Lawrence Schiffman, another prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholar now at Yeshiva University, “so that’s not why this is important. What this is really about,” he continued, “is getting it available to the general public.

“It’s hype,” he added, “but that’s good for us,” referring to scholars.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have long fascinated scholars and the general public alike. The first scrolls were discovered in a handful of caves not far from Jerusalem in 1947, but they were soon scattered among several institutions and private collectors. They were made available only to an extremely select group of scholars for almost four decades, and only a small number of the scrolls were published.

That changed in the mid-1980s, when outside scholars lobbied for open access. Within a decade, all of the scrolls had been transcribed and translated into several languages, in many different editions. Since then, several scholarly debates have emerged over the identity of the scrolls’ original owners.

Some argue the scrolls belonged to an exclusive sect of Jews called the Essenes, who lived in the caves where the scrolls were found, but who did not actually live in Jerusalem itself. Others believe they belonged to Jews who lived in Jerusalem at the time when they ruled over the city. The scrolls were only deposited at the nearby caves, these scholars argue, when Jews were escaping Jerusalem as the Romans were sacking the city, in 70 A.D.

Norman Golb, a professor at the University of Chicago, and the chief advocate of the latter view, said the Google digitization project might only harm his theory. Both the Israel Museum and the I.A.A., he says, generally favor the Essene theory and only grudgingly recognize his own. Digitizing the scrolls with the Israel Museum and the I.A.A. controlling the editing will only proliferate the theory he rejects.

While he is not mentioned by name, his theory is in fact noted on an overview of the scrolls presented on the Israel Museum site ( “That’s very nice of them,” Golb said, “but the public is still not getting a fair introduction to the problem. The value that’s been put on the digitization —“really, it’s too much. There are other matters that are much more important.”

Professor Rachel Elior, who teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and who also believes the scrolls belonged to Jews escaping Jerusalem, said the Google project might actually help views like her own get a larger hearing. Because anyone can see the original texts now, and even post comments on them, the debate might open up, she says.

But she said there were several problems with Google digitization as it exists now. She mentioned that only five of the 900 scrolls are online, for instance, and that none of the current printed transcriptions are tagged to the digitized manuscripts. This will only slow efforts to figure out, once and for all, what the correct transcription — and in turn, translation — should be.

“There are un-needed mistakes due to haste or lack of scholarly supervision observed in the first day when the project was online,” Elior wrote in an e-mail.

The Google project has many defenders as well. Scholars like Timothy Lim, author of the “Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls” and a professor at the University of Edinburgh, said it is inappropriate to argue that the current availability of only five scrolls is a mark against Google.

“My understanding is that [the digitization of the other scrolls] is going to take place,” Lim said. He added that the new ability to verify rivaling transcriptions and translations is nothing to take lightly, either. Some of the larger debates, he said, are wrapped up in seemingly picayune matters of transcription and translation.

“To get to the heart of some of these issues, you have to get to the real text,” he said. “Now you can go directly to the scrolls themselves.”

Other scholars like James VanderKam, an editor of several volumes of Dead Sea Scrolls print editions and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, noted that Google’s digitization might not solve any serious debates about the texts. But the scrolls’ free and open access represents a high-water mark after decades of seclusion.

“I don’t see this so much as advancing scholarship as the culmination of a long process of gaining access to the scrolls,” he said. “I’m very much in favor of it.”

Many noted that the Google project wasn’t about advancing scholarship, in any event. Jon Stokes, a former doctoral student of biblical studies at the University of Chicago, and now a technology blogger for Wired magazine, said that digitization might finally move debates about the scrolls beyond the ivory tower.

“Scholars will be debating the same four things for the next 100 years,” he said. “Let’s let the people look at the text itself. Maybe it’s a naive democratic faith, but I think this is an amazing event.”

James Snyder, the Israel Museum’s director, also brushed aside much of the criticism. “As a museum, our goal is to reach the broader public,” he said, not necessarily advance scholarly debates. He said the general idea to digitize all of the museum’s eight scrolls came about several years ago, when it was planning a $100 million renovation that began with newly built galleries that opened last year.

Almost 80 percent of all the museum’s holdings have been put online already, and when the New York-based philanthropist George Blumenthal agreed to a $3.5 million gift to digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls using extremely high-resolution cameras about a year ago, the Google project took off. Google already had an agreement to put the I.A.A.’s scrolls on its servers, and was open to the Israel Museum doing something similar.

But where the I.A.A. effort has stalled, the Israel Museum’s project is almost complete. Snyder said it took the Israel Museum six months to actually scan the scrolls and create the hyperlinked site for the first five scrolls it holds. And he expects the remaining three scrolls to be available on the site in a comparable amount of time.

Though he said he was not in contact with the I.A.A. about their digitization efforts, he was supportive of them. “In a way,” he said, “we wanted to show that it’s not hard to do this.”

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