Dead Sea Scrolls

Voice Card  -  Volume 22  -  Paul Card Number 4  -  Thu, Oct 31, 1991 9:43 PM

Computer Hacker Bootlegs Version of Dead Sea Scrolls

by John Noble Wilford

Researchers using a desktop computer say they have broken the grip a coterie of scholars has held for 40 years on the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the great finds of Biblical archaeology.

The scholars have published transcriptions of less than half of the scrolls and have allowed only limited access to the rest. The scrolls, containing accounts and insights into the history of Judaism and the origins of Christianity, have long tantalized Biblical researchers who have sharply criticized the slow pace in publishing transcriptions and translations of them.

But in what amounts to an end run around the scholarly blockade, two researchers at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati devised a computer program that used a listing of all the words in one collection of scrolls to reconstruct part of the original text.

The listing, called a concordance, is organized like a dictionary, listing every use of every word that appears in a text, identifying the places where the word is found and also giving the context in which the word is used. Similar concordances have been prepared for most of the texts found in 11 caves near the Dead Sea, and the computer method could theoretically be used to produce texts from other unpublished scroll material as well.

In announcing the publication at a news conference here, Hershel Shanks, president of the Biblical Archaeology Society, said the first volume contained no historical or theological "bombshells." Instead, he said, its significance lay in the publication itself.

"We've broken the monopoly," he said, referring to the small group of editors who have controlled the study and publication of scroll material over the last 40 years.

These editors and other scholars working directly on the documents cautioned that this reconstructed text would be highly unreliable for research and even questioned the ethics of using other people's work on the concordance to produce such texts. They also said that they were speeding up their own research and that the official versions of these scrolls should be available by the end of the decade.

But the researchers said comparisons of some previously published sections with the same sections generated by the computer indicated that the computer version is remarkably reliable. The reconstructed accounts are in the original Hebrew, without translation.

Dr. Frank M. Cross, a scholar at the Harvard Divinity School who has worked with the scrolls since the 1950's, described these unauthorized versions as "pirated." He defended his colleagues form the frequent charges of undue secrecy and procrastination, saying the critics did not understand the difficulties of working with the remaining unpublished documents that are mostly a collection of fragile fragments of parchment.

"About the only thing it should do," Dr. Cross said, "is to remove some of the paranoia surrounding the unpublished scrolls." He had in mind recent charges by a few scholars that the controlling editors were suppressing texts that could cast early Christianity in an unfavorable light.

The scrolls, first discovered in 1947 in a cave in present-day Israel, contain the oldest known copies of the Old Testament, other Biblical writings, ancient literature and poetry. They are kept at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem and the Israeli Antiquities Authority oversees the research.

In the 1950's a group of eight scholars was given exclusive publishing rights to the scrolls. The group has since been expanded to 10 to 15 members. Less than half the scrolls, mostly the parts associated with Biblical texts, have been published so far.

Dr. Lawrence Shiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, said: "I don't know if what they've done is ethical. You're really publishing another person's work."

The existence of the concordance was disclosed only in 1988. Dr. Ben-Zion Wacholder, professor of Talmudic studies at Hebrew Union College and one of the researchers who compiled the reconstructed version, said the copyright on the concordance had expired.

{New York Times, Sept. 5, 1991, p. 1}