BYU produces Dead Sea Scroll database: 'Window on the ancient world'

PROVO, Utah — A computerized database created by BYU professors marks "a quantum leap" for researchers and scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls which, for much of the 52 years since their discovery, have been almost entirely inaccessible.

Early in 1947 on the western rim of the Dead Sea a young shepherd discovered old scrolls wrapped in linen and stored in clay jars. They contained biblical texts and other ancient religious writings dating back to as early as 200 B.C.

This discovery, the first of a series of documents known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls, is considered by many as the greatest manuscript discovery of this century — a window through which people today can view the ancient world at the time of Christ.

Since 1947, scholars around the world have been wanting to study the ancient documents, which give priceless insights into the Old Testament — all the Old Testament books except Esther were recorded on at least one or more of the 800 scroll fragments — as well as the time out of which Christianity arose and the New Testament was written.

"The scrolls date from about 200 B.C. to 50 A.D. As such they represent the largest cache of written materials that we have from ancient Israel in that period," said Dana M. Pike, a professor in the BYU Department of Ancient Scripture and a member of a team of international scroll scholars.

However, years after the first discovery, much of the information stored on the scrolls was still inaccessible — scattered in various libraries throughout the world.

Now, thanks to the collaborative efforts of numerous BYU professors, scroll scholars everywhere have a tremendous tool to aid their research.

BYU's Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies recently produced a database that contains a fully integrated and computerized collection of Dead Sea Scrolls texts and photographs, as well as reference materials, said Donald W. Parry, a BYU professor of Hebrew Language and Literature who also is a member of the prestigious team of international scroll scholars.

The database, available on CD-ROM, has a number of functions that enable scholars and researchers to access the scrolls in ways not possible through other means, he added. It "offers complex, instantaneous, comprehensive searches of the transcriptional texts."

BYU's WordCruncher software developers provided the software and assisted with designing the program to make the database possible. The database includes photographs of the original scrolls, as well as translations and transcriptions of the writings — which were recorded mostly in Hebrew.

Before the computer database, Brother Parry and Brother Pike studied the Dead Sea Scrolls from microfilm, among other things. Without a search device they spent hours reading the microfilm for information or even phrases that they remembered seeing before. Now they have instantaneous access and search capabilities to much of that information.

"This has been a project in the making for a number of years," said Weston W. Fields, executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, headquartered in Jerusalem, that collaborated with FARMS on the CD-ROM project. "The CD will be a tremendous tool for all scroll scholars. It is really a quantum leap," Mr. Fields said in a Church News interview.

Noel B. Reynolds, BYU associate academic vice president and former president of FARMS, noted that the CD will be invaluable to not only Dead Sea Scroll scholars, but also scholars in other disciplines as well. Historians, linguists, archaeologists and any others with those kinds of interest will be able to use the scrolls as a "window on the ancient world," he said.

Although the CD is not a comprehensive record of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it does contain some material that has not yet been published in other forms. The majority of the CD, explained Daniel Oswald, executive director and chief executive officer of FARMS, is the non-biblical texts included in the scrolls. In the future, he continued, the BYU team hopes to expand the database to include the rest of the ancient biblical documents.

However, their work — the culmination of seven years and thousands of hours — is already receiving the acclaim of scholars around the world.

"BYU is now seen as one of the world-leading centers of Dead Sea Scroll scholarship because of this project," said Brother Reynolds. "The LDS community has emerged in the last five years as a principal supporter of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship and publication internationally."

Indeed four of the 65 members of the International Dead Sea Scrolls Editorial Team are BYU professors — Brother Parry, Brother Pike, Andrew Skinner and David R. Seely.

"Our involvement with the CD program drew attention to BYU and made it possible for these people to get on the scrolls team," said Daniel C. Peterson, chairman of the board of trustees for FARMS and director of the FARMS Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts. CPART is now overseeing the administration of the project.

Scholarly work by FARMS and interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls also resulted in nine of the scrolls being displayed at the BYU Museum of Art in 1997, as a companion to the exhibit on Masada. In addition, the Provo International Conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls attracted scholars from around the world to BYU in 1996.

"Now Provo has become one of the few centers of Dead Sea Scrolls study," said Brother Peterson.

Brother Oswald noted that the Dead Sea Scrolls project is just the beginning point and has opened doors for FARMS and BYU within other scholarly communities.

As a result, concluded Brother Oswald, "we are now working on projects with other communities or parties that have control of other ancient religious texts."

The CD-ROM will be published by E. J. Brille and is available through FARMS. For more information on the project, call 1-800-327-6715 or visit the FARMS Internet site:

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