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Dead Sea scrolls alive on computer

worn scroll

April 18, 1996
Web posted at: 3:15 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Al Hinman

PROVO, Utah (CNN) -- A team of biblical scholars and computer experts from Brigham Young University has created a new computer program that will give scholars from all over the world access to the ancient Dead Sea scrolls.

The scrolls contain the biblical writings of a small religious community that occupied the West Bank region 2,000 years ago. Fifty years ago, the scrolls were found in caves near the Dead Sea, but they have been seen only by a few scholars since then.

"One of the great challenges in scroll scholarship has been the fact that there is so much textural information, and it's scattered, and it's not available in any way that individual scholars had access to everything," said Noel Reynolds, one of the team members from the university.

At BYU, scholars decided to remedy the problem by creating an inexpensive computer database that catalogs the texts and corresponding pictures.

scrolls collage

"We will bring together in one place all the texts of the Dead Sea scrolls in Hebrew or the original language -- it's different in some cases -- translations of those materials, also the images, the pictures," Reynolds said.

To computerize the scrolls, the team had to develop a unique Windows program that could read the complicated language in the documents. Since the scrolls are written in a language similar to Hebrew, the database had to be formatted to read and search text right to left.

Additionally, the program must understand English translations and be able to read video elements, because each character has a hyperlink to a photograph of the text where students can examine magnified versions of the original.


Until the creation of the database, few people were able to look at the ancient scrolls. The Israeli government had authorized only a small team of international experts to study them. While the experts have been examining the scrolls for decades, the work has been slow.

Scroll specialists are confident that the database will increase understanding of the Dead Sea scrolls and improve information gathered from the documents.

"Certainly the database is going to help motivate and facilitate increased study ... in kinds of areas that haven't been possible or easily possible in the past," BYU's Dana Pike said.

The BYU team hopes to have a completed version of the database ready for scholarly review by summer and a CD-ROM for release by the beginning of 1997.

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