8:00am

Sun October 2, 2011
Digital Life

Dead Sea Scrolls Come Alive On Google

Originally published on Sun October 2, 2011 10:44 am

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

For 2,000 years, the Dead Sea scrolls were seen by no one. Today, they can be viewed by anyone with access to the Internet. Google and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem teamed up to put high-quality images of the scrolls online. Images of the relics - the oldest known copies of biblical text - went live on the Web last week. Jon Stokes writes about technology for Wired.com. He is also a scholar of biblical history. And he joins us from KALW in San Francisco. Jon Stokes, welcome to the program.

JON STOKES: Thank you. It's good to be here.

CORNISH: Now, the scrolls may be new to the Web, but they were discovered in 1947, and historical scholars have had access to copies and translations for decades. I mean, what's the big deal about having them online now?

STOKES: So, there's a long and kind of sordid and really interesting publication history behind the scrolls. Because if you're a scholar, you dig something up out of the ground that's brand new or you're assigned to work on something that hasn't been discovered, you might take, you know, a decade to publish this, to really get it in shape to publish it because this is your career. I mean, this is going to be your piece of immortality. You're going to be the guy that did the first critical edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, you know, Isaiah Scroll or what have you. And so there was fierce scholarly competition and the work just dragged on and on and on and scholars got really frustrated at the delays; the wider scholarly community, because they said, hey, you know, this is a once in a generation kind of find and it's been, you know, 20 years and we haven't had access to this, especially not in the way that we want. So, when I was in grad school, there would be a special day in the semester and everybody would get excited because we would get to go and have an in-person look at some of the manuscripts that were in the University of Chicago's collection, or in Harvard's collection. And, you know, the students would sit and these things would be laid out for us and we wouldn't be able to touch them and you could look at them with a magnifying glass. But that was, like, you know, once or twice in my life that happens. Most scholars are lucky if you're able to just get your hands on a really good high-quality color copy of a text that you're working on. So, now this thing has been put online and anyone, you know, my daughter, you know, God forbid, decides to follow in my footsteps and try to become a humanity scholar or a historian, she'll have grown up in a world where she can get really, really close to these manuscripts in a way that almost nobody could.

CORNISH: How close will you be able to get. I'm trying to imagine - what will the scrolls look like online? Will you be able to zoom in on the material the way you can like Google Earth or?

STOKES: Yeah, that's correct. So, these were photographed at a 1,200 megapixel resolution. You know, so if you think about an eight megapixel camera. I mean, this is, you know, 10-Xed out or better. And you can scroll up and see the fibers, you know, and the particles in the manuscript.

CORNISH: Jon, you're a biblical scholar, so I have you ask: have you gone online and looked at the Dead Sea Scrolls and are you excited about the possibilities of what it means for your own work?

STOKES: Absolutely, absolutely. These are searchable. You know, I can actually search these, you know, by English translation. You know, I can go to a specific verse or a specific phrase and I can zoom in and I can attach comments to it. But, yeah, I mean, it's definitely the kind of tool that scholars need.

CORNISH: So, it's not the same as actually getting to touch it but it's the closest any of us are going to get.

STOKES: It's almost better. I mean, I've seen these things in person. And, you know, you look at them with a magnifying glass and it's almost better to be able to do the kind of really, really high-level zoom in and that's going to be incredible.

CORNISH: Jon Stokes is a technology writer and biblical scholar. He joins us from KALW in San Francisco. Jon Stokes, thank you so much for joining us.

STOKES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.