We were understandably excited when Google recently announced that it had begun to put nearly the entire Dead Sea Scrolls library online, making it fully accessible to the entire world. To gain a deeper understanding of this major news story, we asked James VanderKam, veteran Scrolls scholar and author of the forthcoming book The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible, to explain the significance of the Scrolls digitization project, how it came to be, and what it will mean for future scholarship.
Google recently announced the availability of ultra high-resolution photographs of five manuscripts included in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The photographs are the first installment in the joint effort by Google and the Israel Museum to make the Dead Sea Scrolls available online. The digital photographs of the great Isaiah scroll, the commentary on Habakkuk, the cave 1 copy of the Community Rule, the cave 1 copy of the War Rule, and the cave 11 copy of the Temple Scroll can now be viewed and studied electronically. The digital photographs come equipped with some special search features. For example, one can click on a spot in the photos of the Isaiah manuscript and receive an English translation of that passage in the original text. The other four can be navigated by column, with the possibility of zooming in on them.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Online can be regarded as the culmination of a long process. Some will remember the often-acrimonious debate about access to the scrolls that raged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though many of the scrolls fragments remained unpublished at the time, access to the pieces themselves and to photographs of them were quite restricted. During the 1990s the problem was addressed by publishing print and microfiche photos of the scrolls fragments, and the official publication series, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (40 volumes published between 1955 and 2010), included not only editions of the texts but also excellent photographic plates in each volume.
All of the scrolls have been published, and the relevant material is far more readily available today than two decades ago, but the Google project makes the scrolls accessible to the widest public — to anyone who can tap into the Internet, expert and non-expert alike. Not everyone can afford to own the 40 volumes in the DJD series or the other publications of photographs, and not everyone has ready access to a research library. The Dead Sea Scrolls Online is the final step in democratizing the scrolls, one might say. Of course, making them available is only a first step in another exercise — appreciating the scrolls for their content and all they contribute to our understanding of Early Judaism as well as of Early Christianity. But it is an impressive and most welcome step in that direction.