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2,000-year-old scroll previously thought written by one hand

Doing what no human eye can, AI reveals secrets of Dead Sea Scroll’s creation

Computers analyzing tiny details of famous Isaiah Scroll spot different styles indicating 2 scribes, and opening new avenues into understanding origins of ancient documents

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

The Dead Sea scrolls at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, November 5, 2018. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
The Dead Sea scrolls at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, November 5, 2018. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

New research has revealed tantalizing evidence in the mystery of who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, identifying that two scribes were apparently behind one of the most famous of the manuscripts, and not just a single workman as had been largely assumed.

Harnessing the keen attention to detail of computer-assisted pattern recognition boosted by artificial intelligence, biblical and computer researchers from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands analyzed the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the first of a trove of ancient scrolls discovered in the caves in the Qumran region near the Dead Sea in 1947.

The study focused on examining minute differences in the way letters were written. It uncovered evidence that there are two distinct halves to the scroll, with the break at columns 27-29, written by two scribes who were apparently trying to match their styles.

That there were two scribes “sheds new light on the production of biblical manuscripts in ancient Judea,” the authors of the study wrote.

The results of the study by Mladen Popovic, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism, Lambert Schomaker, professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, and PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence Maruf Dhali, all from Groningen, was published Wednesday in the PLOS ONE archaeological journal.

“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,” they said.

Part of the Dead Sea scrolls at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, on May 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Isaiah Scroll is a 7.34-meter long manuscript that contains almost the entire Book of Isaiah and that has been dated to around 300-100 BCE. Though debated, the accepted opinion was that the entire scroll was copied by a single scribe.

Over the decades, thousands of fragments of scrolls have been found in the Dead Sea area, the most recent in March this year, but the author — or authors — did not sign their work or leave clues as to their identities.

“The next best thing to scribes identified by name is scribes identified by their handwriting,” the study said.

Traditional paleography, the study of ancient writing methods, is challenged by the difficulty in identifying the difference between variations in a single scribe’s writing and that of text written by others in writing in a similar style.

“On the one hand, scribes may show a range in a variety of forms of individual letters in one or more manuscripts,” the study said. “On the other hand, different scribes might write in almost the same way, making it a challenge to identify the individual scribe beyond general stylistic similarities.

However, by training artificial neural networks to identify patterns in the way characters were written, researchers could let computers compare a large range of letters in ways that are beyond the capabilities of the human eye.

The researchers used digital images of the scrolls and were able to identify distinctive ink traces, unique to each scribe.

“This is important because the ancient ink traces relate directly to a person’s muscle movement and are person-specific,” they wrote.

By identifying individual scribes from the differences in their penmanship, archaeologists may be able to piece together the links between fragments of other scrolls and gain a better insight into their origins. The same process could also be applied to other ancient manuscripts in the future.

“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,” the study said.

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