BYU Projects Aid Dead Sea Scrolls Studies


Scholars at Brigham Young University are receiving attention and accolades for their multiple roles in aiding research on the Dead Sea Scrolls and in helping to make the scrolls’ contents available to a worldwide audience.

1. In conjunction with the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation of Jerusalem, Brigham Young University and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (F.A.R.M.S.) at BYU recently unveiled a working version of a comprehensive CD-ROM database of the scrolls at the Judaean Desert Scrolls Conference held at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. The conference featured research papers by several prominent Dead Sea Scroll scholars, including Emmanuel Tov, head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project in Jerusalem, and BYU professors Dana M. Pike, David R. Seely, and Donald W. Parry, who have been translating portions of the scrolls since last year.

“The scholars at the conference were quite supportive of our efforts,” says Brother Parry, who demonstrated the database at the conference along with Steven W. Booras, director of special projects for F.A.R.M.S., a nonprofit education corporation headquartered at BYU and dedicated to the study of ancient scripture. “They are very happy that they will have at their fingertips materials which before were available only by thumbing through dozens of volumes of texts.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls database, which BYU and F.A.R.M.S. have been working on since 1993 and hope to make available to scholars and the public within a year, allows users to display graphic images of scrolls and scroll fragments, to simultaneously access Hebrew texts and accompanying translations, and to magnify scroll writings. The database also allows users to enhance the resolution of pictures of scrolls and scroll fragments, which number in the hundreds and thousands, respectively, and to conduct almost instantaneous word comparisons and searches.

The database, which will be demonstrated again this November at an American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conference in Philadelphia, contains commentaries, journal articles, bibliographies, a concordance of scholarly works on the scrolls, and comprehensive concordance of the scrolls in Hebrew, Aramaic, and English.

Other materials that may be included on the finished database include Greek and Hebrew versions of the Old Testament, the Greek New Testament, apocryphal and rabbinic writings, and the writings of hellenized Jewry.

2. In a separate but related project, a BYU research team in Jerusalem is using DNA analysis to reassemble fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written on animal skins and parchment.

Handwriting analysis, previously the most useful technique in reassembling the scrolls, only shows which fragments were written by the same scribe. But DNA analysis allows researchers to match scroll fragments using the genetic fingerprints of the animal skins on which the scrolls were written, says Scott Woodward, a BYU associate professor of microbiology who specializes in DNA studies. By determining which scrolls and scroll pieces are from the skins of related animals, researchers also may be able to discover which scrolls are from different herds or geographic areas.

“We should be able to group scrolls or pieces of parchment together as coming from the same location in ancient Israel,” says Brother Woodward, who presented his DNA research on the scrolls at the Judaean Desert Scrolls Conference. “That will give us an idea of how widespread the religious thought presented in the scroll material was at the time.”

3. Dead Sea Scrolls researchers are receiving further help from BYU thanks to the university’s development of “synthetic aperture radar,” which can penetrate the ground up to thirty feet. Noel B. Reynolds, BYU political science professor and president of F.A.R.M.S., has received permission from Israeli antiquities officials for F.A.R.M.S. to use the radar in low-flying aircraft to search for undiscovered caves surrounding the Dead Sea that may be repositories of additional scrolls.

The contributions BYU and F.A.R.M.S. are making toward Dead Sea Scrolls research have sparked interest among biblical scholars and strengthened the university’s scholastic reputation. BYU is scheduled to host an international conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1997.

The scrolls, discovered in 1947 in caves just northwest of the Dead Sea, contain the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament, as well as apocryphal and sectarian writings. Scholars believe the scrolls were written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 70 by Jews living in a settlement known as Qumran.

4. Donald W. Parry, BYU assistant professor of Hebrew, said the scrolls provide new insights into early Judaism and early Christianity. He says Latter-day Saints will find some of those insights especially interesting.

“The Qumran community, for example, had an abiding interest in the temple,” Brother Parry says. “The Dead Sea Scrolls also offer an expanded view of a Messiah who is affiliated with the last days, and they feature texts dealing with Moses, Enoch, and Melchizedek. In addition, they discuss such topics as the New Jerusalem, blessings and cursings, purification rules, and warfare between ‘the sons of light and the sons of darkness.’”

Brother Parry, who is translating the scrolls’ version of 1 and 2 Samuel, says translation of the scrolls sometimes vary from corresponding books in the Old Testament.

In the Dead Sea Scrolls text of 1 and 2 Samuel, which is a thousand years older than previously known Hebrew copies of Samuel, “the divine name Jehovah, or in Hebrew, Yahweh, is found a number of times. But on several occasions in the Hebrew Bible from which our Old Testament English Bible came, Yahweh has been changed to Elohim or deleted from the text of Samuel,” Brother Parry says.

“That is significant, given that the Book of Samuel found among the Dead Sea Scrolls is only a small portion of the Book of Samuel in our Bible. Sometimes the text in the Bible, compared with the Dead Sea Scrolls, appears to have been altered intentionally, perhaps for theological reasons; other times the alterations appear unintentional.”

[photo] BYU scholar Donald W. Parry, left, is one of the scroll translators. Emmanuel Tov is head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project in Jerusalem.

[photo] Ruins at Qumran, a short distance from caves where Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

[photo] A view from the mouth of Qumran Cave 11.