The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is undisputedly one of the most important archaeological moments of the last several centuries. In 1947 hundreds of ancient scrolls, including the oldest copy of the Hebrew Bible were found in a remote Judean Desert cave giving us an unprecedented insight into the society, religion and language during the Second Temple Period. To gaze upon and study these scrolls is an incredible opportunity that few have had up to this point. However, thanks to a collaboration between Google and the Israeli Antiquity Authority, anyone with an internet connection is now able to view these stunning pieces of history in high definition. Using the most advanced and innovative imaging technology, the IAA has imaged and uploaded the scrolls to a public online digital library and they’ve recently revamped their website to make the experience even more user-friendly. Technology is once again giving us the ability to understand and appreciate our past.
What are the Dead Sea Scrolls and why is access to them so important?
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of more than 800 texts, many in scraps, preserved in caves near Qumran by the Dead Sea. The scrolls date from between 250 BCE and 100 CE. This was a time period after the textual formation of the Old Testament, but before the official formation of Christianity and rabbinical Judaism.
The texts include fragments of every book of the Hebrew Bible (except the Book of Esther) as well as non-Biblical texts such as The Community Rule, which was a law book for a group referred to as the Yahad or Community. Some scholars have identified the owners of these texts as the Essenes, a Jewish sect living during the time of the Second Temple. Due to the inclusion of the Essene law book among the other Hebrew Bible texts, and because the scrolls were found near the ruins of an ancient dwelling thought to be Essene, a hypothesis quickly developed concerning the origin and authorship of all the scrolls. This hypothesis was developed by Roland de Vaux, an academic and Dominican priest, soon after the initial discovery of the scrolls. He surveyed the caves and led the initial excavation of the nearby ruins before determining that the scrolls were part of an ancient Essene library authored by the Essenes themselves. This Qumran Hypothesis was the prevailing theory for years. The theory retained its preeminence in part because of the “secrecy rule” enacted by de Vaux and other members of the first international excavation team. This rule ensured that only a small group of scholars had access to the scrolls. After de Vaux’s death, his successors continued the rule.
Over the years, scholars began to demand more access to the scrolls and controversy loomed over the Qumran Hypothesis. Finally, in 1991 the “Huntington Library announced it would make available without restriction a complete microfilm copy of the Scrolls in its archives. Soon after, Emanuel Tov, director of the Scrolls project, announced open access and right of publication would be granted to all material in the official collection”. Once everyone had access, both study of the scrolls and disagreement over their origin and authorship ramped up. Today, there is not one accepted theory, but it is widely believed that the scrolls did not originate at Qumran.
One thing is certain, the scrolls are a mystery that holds enormous significance for both the Christian and Jewish religions. There is much more to learn about what they say, who wrote them, where they originated, why they were collected and how they ended up in the Judean caves. The new IAA project will help this study to continue.
How is technology bringing the scrolls to the public?
In 2011, Google and the Israeli Antiquity Authority partnered up to digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls and provide access free of charge online at the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. Over the next several years they imaged and uploaded each of the scrolls using multispectral photographic methods that allowed the texts to be photographed at a resolution of 1200 megapixels. Just to put that into perspective, the camera on your iPhone captures images at 8 megapixels and an average high-end digital camera will photograph at 14-20 megapixels. Multispectral photography separates the color wavelengths and images outside the human-visible spectrum, which allows us to capture and view text that was previously not able to be seen. This offers entirely new information to be studied.
Even though providing brilliant images of the scrolls to the public for free was a fantastic accomplishment, the IAA didn’t stop at simply providing the images. In 2014 they made the digital library into a research destination. Visitors can search the more than 10,000 images for phrases in Hebrew or English, view the texts grouped according to the cave in which they were found and even see the cave locations on Google maps. Viewers are also provided with commentary and explanations on some of the more famous texts, all of which is provided in English, German, Arabic and Hebrew.
And now, the Dead Sea Scrolls have taken one more step into the hands of the public with a Dead Sea Scrolls Facebook page where anyone can stay updated on all the latest research being done on these fascinating texts.
So, join the Facebook page, visit the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library and study the ancient texts yourself as modern technology reveals the ancient past.
Check out the video below to learn more about the creation of the digital library and visit this site for some examples of how multispectral imaging can be used to reveal long-past lives and times.