Virtually Anyone Can See The Dead Sea Scrolls Now

Dec 29, 2012
Originally published on December 29, 2012 2:38 pm

This week, an ancient and largely inaccessible treasure was opened to everyone. Now, anyone with access to a computer can look at the oldest Bible known to humankind.

Thousands of high-resolution images of the Dead Sea Scrolls were posted online this week in a partnership between Google and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The online archive, dating back to the first century B.C., includes portions of the Ten Commandments and the Book of Genesis.

"Most of these fragments are not on display anywhere," says Risa Levitt Kohn, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University.

"In fact, even if you were to go to Israel, to the shrine of the book, you would not be able to see the 5,000 pieces that are online here," she tells Weekend Edition Saturday guest host Linda Wertheimer.

Some scrolls were already online — last year, Google and the Israel Museum collaborated to post five of them. This latest collection uses imaging techniques developed by NASA, allowing users to zoom in close enough to examine the texture of the skin the scrolls were written on.

Looking at an interactive image of the Book of Psalms, Kohn points out an example of a scribe's mistake — a letter written on top of a line of text.

"Parchment being very, very valuable, you couldn't scrap it and throw it in the trash," she says. "In the absence of a delete button, I guess you could say, they had to go write the additional letter that was missing. The only place they could actually do that is on the top of the line."

Over the years, Kohn has curated several Dead Sea Scrolls exhibitions. She says the Bible drives most people's interest in the scrolls.

"When it comes to Judaism and the early biblical period, this is really all we have in terms of ancient Hebrew texts," Kohn says. "This is really it, and I think that's incredibly powerful."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This week, an ancient and largely inaccessible treasure was opened to everyone. Anyone with access to a computer can look at the oldest Bible we know about. Thousands of high-resolution images of the Dead Sea Scrolls were posted online in a partnership between Google and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The online archive includes portions of the Ten Commandments and the Book of Genesis dating from the 1st century B.C. Using imaging techniques developed by NASA, you can zoom in close enough to examine the texture of the skins made into parchment. Risa Levitt Kohn is a professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University. She joins us. Welcome.

RISA LEVITT KOHN: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, as a scholar, what is exciting to you about this?

KOHN: This really gives us access to actually see the fragments themselves. So, most of these fragments are not on display anywhere. In fact, even if you were to go to Israel to the Shrine of the Book, you would not be able to see the 5,000 pieces that are online here.

WERTHEIMER: Could we look at one of the images together? You've sent me a link. What are we looking at?

KOHN: You're actually looking at several columns from the Biblical book of Psalms. So, why don't you go all the way over to the right-hand side, because, of course, if you're reading Hebrew, you're moving from right to left.

WERTHEIMER: OK.

KOHN: So, you want to start with the first column.

WERTHEIMER: All right.

KOHN: And if you zoom in close, towards the bottom of that column on the left-hand side, you should notice that there's a letter that's sort of written on top of the line.

WERTHEIMER: Oh, yes. I do. I see it.

KOHN: So, that's a great example of a scribe who obviously wrote this word and then at some point realized that they forgot a letter. And so, parchment being very, very valuable, you know, you couldn't just kind of scrap it and throw it in the trash. In the absence of a delete button, I guess you could say, they had to go and write the additional letter that was missing. And the only place they could actually do that is on top of the line.

WERTHEIMER: You have curated several Dead Sea Scrolls exhibitions over the years. Why do you think that people are so fascinated by the Dead Sea Scrolls?

KOHN: I find people, especially in North America, are very interested in the Bible. And at least when it comes to Judaism and the early Biblical period, this is pretty much all we have in terms of ancient Hebrew text. This is really it. And I think that's incredibly powerful.

WERTHEIMER: Risa Levitt Kohn is a professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University. Professor Kohn, thank you very much.

KOHN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.