A personal computer has enabled two U.S. scholars to write a dramatic new chapter in the Dead Sea Scrolls controversy, a long-running tale of academic politics and intrigue that reads like a spy novel.
The editor of Biblical Archaeology Review has announced that today his journal will issue the initial volume of what he says will be the first complete edition of the scrolls, hailed as the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century upon their discovery in Palestine beginning in 1947.
The new computer-generated version is, in effect, a bootlegged copy of the scrolls because the material has never been released by the tightly knit group of scholars that has monopolized access to the ancient Hebrew manuscripts.
Hershel Shanks, the journal's Washington-based editor, has charged that this group has denied others access to important sections of the scrolls. His intention in issuing the new edition, he says, is to circumvent their controls and to make the texts available to a wide audience.
"We need a little glasnost here," Shanks says. "All scholars should be able to explore these documents, which lead back to our common cultural roots."
The texts were liberated (or pirated - parties to the controversy judge the coup differently) by Ben Zion Wacholder, a professor of Talmud studies and rabbinics at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and his associate, Martin Abegg, a biblical studies graduate student turned computer hacker.
Scholars estimate that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by ancient scribes over a period of several hundred years. Abegg reports that his desktop Macintosh computer took less than 15 minutes to reconstruct them.
Before the computer could work its magic, Abegg spent months typing in the contents of "A Preliminary Concordance to the Hebrew and Aramaic Fragments," a five-volume reference work about the scrolls. A concordance is a word list, something like a dictionary. But instead of definitions, it provides examples of the contexts in which words are used in a particular literary work.
The Dead Sea Scrolls' concordance lists every usage of every word that appears in the previously unpublished manuscripts, including the words that flank it on either side and the name of the scroll where it appeared.
The concordance was published privately with the approval of the scrolls' committee for use by the small group of scholars allowed access to the scrolls. When the library at Hebrew Union College, where Wacholder and Abegg work, acquired a copy, about a year ago, Abegg realized he could use it, with the help of a computer, to break the embargo on the scrolls.
Abegg said he programmed his computer to recognize overlaps between the concordance's "word strings," as hackers call them, and to assemble those into larger groupings.
Abegg's computer took strings of words from the scrolls' concordance and joined them into sentences. Then the computer linked those sentences into larger and larger units, ultimately reconstructing virtually all the scrolls.
According to Shanks, the scrolls have been so carefully guarded that even Abegg and Wacholder have never examined the originals or even seen photographs of them. Shanks' scholarly allies were able to overcome that obstacle, he says, through an inventive use of modern electronics and some old-fashioned hard work.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were recovered from a series of caves near the Dead Sea, in a remote part of Palestine then ruled by Britain and subsequently occupied by Israel. About 2,000 years earlier, the documents, handwritten in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic on parchment, evidently had been deposited there for safekeeping.
Some scrolls, chiefly biblical texts, were quickly made public and are on display at the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem. But many others were deposited at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem and their publication entrusted to a small committee of scholars from various institutions around the world.
The international academic community anxiously awaited release of the manuscripts, since the documents came from a part of the world where Judaism had developed and dated to the era when Christianity was born. Indeed, the portions of the scrolls already published have shed important light on the development of those religions. But about 200 key texts have never been released. Because of the secrecy surrounding the scrolls, their exact number is known to few.
Over the decades, photocopies of a few texts have been leaked to outsiders and circulated through a kind of biblical scholars' underground. But none of those earlier, unauthorized releases approximates in scope or significance Shanks' edition.
Shanks says the texts he is about to publish, at $25 a volume, could help resolve some thorny issues in the interpretation of the scrolls, including the question of their authorship. Most scholars think they were produced by the Essenes, a small sect of Jewish monks. Others assign the scrolls to authors within mainstream Judaism, and a few researchers say they were produced by early Christians.
Wacholder and Abegg brought the computer's handiwork to Shanks, who has been crusading in the pages of his journal for wider access to the scrolls. Shanks says he plans to publish Wacholder's and Abegg's version of the scrolls in five volumes.
"The computer program was a relatively simple one, but I had to learn to type Hebrew backwards, which isn't easy," Abegg says. "Hebrew is written from right to left, but my computer only accepts words when they are typed into it from left to right."
Wacholder says he gave Abegg the OK to produce a computer-generated version of the Dead Sea Scrolls after being frustrated in repeated attempts to obtain access to them through conventional scholarly channels. Last year, he says, he asked the Rockefeller Museum for microfilm copies of texts he needed for his research.
Wacholder's request was denied despite his standing as an internationally recognized authority on the period in which the scrolls were composed.
Nearly blind, Wacholder, 67, can recite the Bible by heart.
"The small group of scholars who control the scrolls have fallen into an ethical trap the Talmud calls `kula sheli,"' Wacholder says.
When informed by the Chicago Tribune of Wacholder's and Abegg's plan, Emile Puech, a member of the committee that controls access to the scrolls, expressed outrage.
"We'll sue!" Puech said, speaking by phone from Jerusalem. "What they are doing is a violation of international law."
Eugene Ulrich, another scholar who serves on the international scrolls committee, seemed more bemused than angered by this new twist in the Dead Sea Scrolls' saga.
"It's bizarre," said Ulrich, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. "But then, everything about the scrolls has been bizarre, beginning with the group that wrote them and continuing through recent controversies."
One of those occurred late last year, when Ulrich and other committee members ousted their chairman, John Strugnell, a professor of Christian origins at Harvard. For years, Strugnell had had the final word on who would be allowed to see the scrolls. Then, last November, he gave an interview to an Israeli newspaper in which he repeatedly attacked Judaism. Asked what it was about Judaism that bothered him, he replied, "The fact that it survived when it should have disappeared."
Shanks' publication of the new edition of the scrolls is certain to heighten the debate over how best to make them public.
From Jerusalem, Puech said he fears the unconventional methods employed by Wacholder and Abegg will result in the circulation of defective texts. That is the chief reason given by members of the committee for not releasing the scrolls: They have said deciphering the handwriting of ancient scribes is difficult and time-consuming, and that premature release of the scrolls would only burden future generations of biblical scholars with inaccurate texts.
Abegg and Wacholder reject that argument. They note that the scribes who produced the scrolls often quoted biblical verses. Abegg and Wacholder compared the versions of those verses reconstructed by their computer with those in the Bible itself. They claim their versions coincide with the originals almost 95 percent of the time. On the basis of that sampling, they conclude that their edition of the scrolls is accurate to a similar degree.
Abegg and Wacholder note the only way Puech's and Ulrich's committee can effectively question the accuracy of their computer-generated texts is by allowing impartial researchers to compare them with the originals.
Wacholder and Abegg say that is all they want: the release of all the Dead Sea Scrolls, so that scholars everywhere can form their own ideas on the meaning of the priceless documents.
Piecing together the Scrolls
Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin Abegg used a computer to put together their own version of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Abegg said he programmed his computer to recognize overlaps between the "word strings" in the Scrolls' concordance, and to assemble those into larger groupings. A concordance is a word list, something like a dictionary.
For instance, consider the following hypothetical entries from a concordance to the Bible:
Created: God created the Heavens and the Earth
God: In the beginning, God created
Abegg's computer would instantaneously recognize that the last two words of the second entry are the same as the first two words of the first entry. It then would electronically splice those two word strings, producing the opening sentence of the book of Genesis: "In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth."