Study: Dead Sea Scrolls Written by Multiple Scribes

A new handwriting analysis found that several scribes penned the ancient manuscripts that include the oldest known copies of books of the Hebrew Bible.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in this cave in Qumran in the West Bank. (Effi Schweizer/Wikipedia Commons via Courthouse News)

(CN) — The Dead Sea Scrolls were transcribed by multiple writers despite a uniform appearance in the handwriting throughout, according to new research published Wednesday.

“Demonstrating that two main scribes, each showing different writing patterns, were responsible for the Great Isaiah Scroll, this study sheds new light on the Bible’s ancient scribal culture by providing new, tangible evidence that ancient biblical texts were not copied by a single scribe only but that multiple scribes, while carefully mirroring another scribe’s writing style, could closely collaborate on one particular manuscript,” according to the article published in the scientific journal PLOS One.

The evidence comes from an artificial intelligence-based handwriting analysis in the study led by Mladen Popovic, dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

A portion of the Temple Scroll, one of the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Israel Museum)

The Dead Sea Scrolls have always provided evidence of the Bible’s ancient culture. The new research centers around the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran, Israel, in 1947.

The Great Isaiah Scroll is the largest, best preserved and one of the oldest of all the biblical scrolls. Its 54 columns contain all 66 chapters of the Hebrew version of the biblical Book of Isaiah and dates from around 125 BCE, making it 1,000 years older than the oldest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible known before the scrolls’ discovery.

The penmanship in the Great Isaiah Scroll, however, presents a challenge to the study of ancient handwriting because its style appears uniform throughout, making detection of changing authors difficult to discern.

Using artificial intelligence, researchers were able to note that columns from the first and second halves of the manuscript ended in two distinct zones and found switching points between scribes, with a clear phase transition apparent in columns 27–29, according to the study. Researchers also found a higher variance among script styles in the second part of the manuscript.

The scrolls provide a unique vantage point for studying the latest literary evolutionary phases of what was to become the Hebrew Bible.

“As archaeological artifacts, [the scrolls] offer tangible evidence for the Bible’s ancient scribal culture ‘in action,’” the study says.

Previous theories of more than one scribe have been based on educated guesses at best, according to the article. Researchers refer to the scrolls’ script type as Hasmonaean and the style of writing is formal.

The report explains that in the process of producing character shapes, writers subconsciously slow down and speed up their hand movements.

While pattern recognition and artificial intelligence techniques don’t provide absolute certainty in identification, they do give statistical probabilities that can aid researchers in understanding the likelihood of various possibilities.

“In a way that was not possible before, our approach opens access to the tangible evidence of the hitherto almost completely inaccessible microlevel of the individual scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the possibility to examine the different compositions copied by each of the scribes,” the article states. “The change of scribal hands in a literary manuscript or the identification of one and the same scribe in multiple manuscripts can be used as evidence to understand various forms of scribal collaboration that otherwise remain unknown to us.”

Dead Sea Scrolls text analysis collage. (Credit: Mladen Popovic)
%d bloggers like this: