How the Dead Sea Scrolls Work


The Significance and Future of the Scrolls
Shai Halevi, the photographer responsible for processing of thousands of fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, stands next to a special camera at the Dead Sea Scrolls digital laboratory at the Israeli Antiquities Authorities in Jerusalem. GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images
Shai Halevi, the photographer responsible for processing of thousands of fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, stands next to a special camera at the Dead Sea Scrolls digital laboratory at the Israeli Antiquities Authorities in Jerusalem. GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps future archaeological finds will illuminate the obscure source of the scrolls, or perhaps the identities of the people who inscribed them will remain forever lost to us. In the meantime, the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls remains multifaceted. Finding the ancient scrolls on the eve of Israel's re-founding was itself considered enormously meaningful. And although the initial belief that the texts revealed important details about the Essenes has since been questioned, the contents of the scrolls still have much to tell us.

The existence of the Apocrypha, for instance, reminds us that the Bible, in addition to being a book of vast religious import, is also an historical document that evolved over time. In fact, because many of the scrolls are actually ancient biblical texts, scholars have been able to refer to them to resolve controversies over the "authoritative" version of certain biblical passages.

For Christians, the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal the degree to which the tenets that underpin their faith were not brand new revelations at the time of Christ, but were actually deeply rooted in certain Judaic practices. In other words, the ideas preserved in many of the scrolls closely parallel the ideas attributed to Jesus, demonstrating clearly that he was not only born a Jew, but lived his life and practiced as a Jew of his time. In part, we can say that because the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown us that being a Jew 2,000 years ago didn't mean any one thing. Judaism, it's now clear, was incredibly diverse, an historical fact that was largely unknown before the discovery at Qumran in 1947 [source: Shanks].

One thing is clear, the more we look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, the more they reveal. No doubt, as scholars pore over the documents, more discoveries will reveal themselves. Fortunately, this is even more likely due to a bold project spearheaded by the Israel Antiquities Authority — the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. This project aims to digitize the entire collection of 930 manuscripts and upload them to the internet for global access. Currently the scrolls are carefully archived in climate controlled vaults in Jerusalem. Digitizing them will not only increase the availability of the texts, but also help preserve them by allowing scholars to examine the scrolls without actually handling them.

The digitization process uses extremely high-resolution imaging technology and the library intends to provide metadata that will include translations, transcriptions and bibliographies [source: Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library]. It seems highly likely that such a project will lead to a further revolution in our understanding of these endlessly fascinating documents.