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Dead Sea Scrolls

Uncovering the history of the Bible with Artificial Intelligence

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Dead Sea Scrolls

While the Bible is the world’s most widely read book, little is known about the origin story of its writings.

The Bible is seen as a single publication, when in fact a large number of authors spent an estimated 800 years to compose its collection of stories, followed by many rounds of translations and rewritings over the next 20 centuries.

How well do we know these many different authors? And why are so many questions about the Bible’s history still unanswered?

Much of the history of the Bible remained obscure until the late 1940s, when archeologists first discovered a collection of scrolls in Qumran, Israel, near the shores of the Dead Sea. Now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, this extremely rare set of manuscripts includes writings in Old Hebrew that are more than 2,000 years old.

The Dead Sea Scrolls constitute the most ancient religious text in Judaism and Christianity that has ever been found. Like a time machine, they offer a glimpse into the historical process of the actual writing of the Bible. They demonstrate that, even then, many narratives were already being written in different versions, by different authors.

Recovery of the scrolls also revealed manuscripts that were entirely new as they were never included in the Bible we know today.

While such findings provide valuable insights, they immediately point to new questions as well: how many authors were there? Did they write together? What drove them? And how did they think of their own work?

Professor Mladen Popovic is the dean of the faculty of Religious Studies and director of the Qumran Institute at the UG. He has overseen years of comprehensive research programs concentrating on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of his projects have been supported by a community of alumni with close ties to the UEF.

Importantly, his work is not limited to traditional approaches but has included collaborations with experts from other, unexpected fields. Since many of the scrolls are damaged or incomplete, he built a novel partnership with Lambert Schomaker, a full professor in Artificial Intelligence who is also involved with CogniGron. Together, they developed a new algorithm for handwriting recognition, uniquely tailored to the composition of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Artificial Intelligence

The algorithm was designed based on other texts in Old Hebrew and has the ability to interpret the scrolls - some 8 meters long - through a lens of big data analytics.

This technology allows for the recognition of patterns not visible to the naked eye. It soon discovered the Jesaja scroll - of which the authorship had long been debated - should be attributed to two different writers, rather than one, as had been previously assumed.

The algorithm was able to distinguish two handwriting styles that looked very similar, possibly because both authors received the same education. Historically, this might have been common practice, or perhaps even a mandatory rule.

Thanks to professor Popovic’s efforts in linking historical expertise to technological skill, the Dead Sea Scrolls are providing new insights that seemed unthinkable as recently as a couple of years ago.

His approach could help clarify fundamental questions about the Bible’s history that have remained unanswered for more than 2,000 years.

Mladen Popovic

Prof. dr. Mladen Popovic is a full professor of Old Testament and Early Judaism and the dean of the faculty of Religious Studies at the UG. He is also the director of the Qumran Institute, a globally leading research centre for the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Prior to this, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Leuven, Belgium, took part in archeological research expeditions in Israel, and hosted the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Drents Museum as a visiting curator.

He obtained a PhD cum laude in Theology from the UG, and worked as a researcher at Yale University.

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