The Dead Sea Scrolls entered the digital age this week with the launch of an online project that allows users to search through and read high-resolution versions of the 2,000-year-old texts.
The online launch features five of the 950 manuscripts believed to have been written between 200 BC and AD 68, including the Great Isaiah Scroll, which was discovered in 1947 and is considered the best preserved and most complete.
Religious scholars say the documents provide a deeper understanding of the diversity of Jewish religious thought in the period leading up to the birth of Jesus, and how Jesus' teachings might have fit into that historical context.
“They’ve reminded everyone who isn’t a specialist of how complex the tapestry is around Christianity and Judaism around the time of Jesus,” says Richard Rosengarten, who teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School. “The Dead Sea Scrolls have underscored that for everyone, which is exciting and good.”
The online project represents a partnership between Google and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which has presented the scrolls for public viewing since 1965. The scrolls exhibited at the museum are the 950 discovered in 11 caves on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956.
Because the scrolls were discovered by different expeditions, they are not stored in a single location. The first seven scrolls are entrusted to the Israel Museum while others are the property of other museums in Israel, Amman, Paris, as well as private collectors.
While the scrolls have long been available in competing translations in book form, the actual manuscripts have never been as accessible for viewing outside their respective homes. The new website is available here.
The online launch precedes a public display of 20 scrolls at Discovery Times Square in New York City, opening Oct. 28 and presented by the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is accompanying the exhibit with over 500 other artifacts from ancient Israel. The organization expects to launch a similar online exhibition of its Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts by 2016.
Upon their excavation last century, the scrolls “startled” scholars for the picture they created of an early Jewish group, widely thought to be the Essenes, whose teaching later had resonances in the teachings of Jesus, says Elaine Pagels, a religious scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey. While they are, on one hand, appreciated as historic artifacts, they are also pinholes for religious scholars to look through to understand the various strains within Judaism and how they were shaping the religion.
“For people who really haven’t looked into the richness and diversity of Jewish groups, [the scrolls] could be exciting to see different perspectives than the ones that have been more commonly been known,” Ms. Pagels says. “There is quite a lot that we can put into context to what happened in the first century and the divisions in the Jewish community that even survive to this day.”
The five scrolls that appear online include the Great Isaiah Scroll, which contains the Book of Isaiah – meaning the book was at least 1,000 years older than what was previous thought.
Viewers can read the Great Isaiah Scroll line by line with pop-up boxes that contain English translations. Magnifying tools allow users to zoom in on the text – a feature made possible through digital photography that provides resolution almost 200 times higher than the resolution of a conventional camera.
The Israel Museum said it plans to upload more scrolls in the coming years to create a complete historic archive for public viewing.
“One cannot think of content and information which is more important than content related to the culture and religious heritage of so many people in the world," said Yossi Matias, the managing director of Google’s R&D Center in Israel.