Virtually Anyone Can See The Dead Sea Scrolls Now

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This week, an ancient and largely inaccessible treasure was opened to everyone. Now, anyone with access to a computer can look at the oldest Bible known to humankind.

Thousands of high-resolution images of the Dead Sea Scrolls were posted online this week in a partnership between Google and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The online archive, dating back to the first century B.C., includes portions of the Ten Commandments and the Book of Genesis.

"Most of these fragments are not on display anywhere," says Risa Levitt Kohn, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University.

"In fact, even if you were to go to Israel, to the shrine of the book, you would not be able to see the 5,000 pieces that are online here," she tells Weekend Edition Saturday guest host Linda Wertheimer.

Some scrolls were already online — last year, Google and the Israel Museum collaborated to post five of them. This latest collection uses imaging techniques developed by NASA, allowing users to zoom in close enough to examine the texture of the skin the scrolls were written on.

Looking at an interactive image of the Book of Psalms, Kohn points out an example of a scribe's mistake — a letter written on top of a line of text.

"Parchment being very, very valuable, you couldn't scrap it and throw it in the trash," she says. "In the absence of a delete button, I guess you could say, they had to go write the additional letter that was missing. The only place they could actually do that is on the top of the line."

Over the years, Kohn has curated several Dead Sea Scrolls exhibitions. She says the Bible drives most people's interest in the scrolls.

"When it comes to Judaism and the early biblical period, this is really all we have in terms of ancient Hebrew texts," Kohn says. "This is really it, and I think that's incredibly powerful."

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