By Noel B. Reynolds
BYU and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies are collaborating to create an electronic library of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In the winter of 1992, Bill Hamblin, a BYU history professor stationed at the BYU Jerusalem Center, called some of his associates in Provo with an exciting proposition. Would we have the ability and the interest to bring the Dead Sea Scrolls together on computer? Truman G. Madsen, director of the Jerusalem Center, had recently been invited to serve as a member of the advisory board of the new Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation (DSSF), and the need for such an electronic library of the scrolls had surfaced as a major item for discussion by that board. Madsen mentioned the need to Hamblin, and Hamblin called Provo. Professor Madsen himself called a few weeks later to pursue the issue. Utah County’s reputation as a center for advanced computer applications, particularly textual databases, had inspired this inquiry.
Both Madsen and Hamblin had directed their Provo inquiries to officers of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, known best by the acronym FARMS.
Noel Reynolds (president of FARMS) and Jack Welch (its founder) are BYU professors of political science and law respectively who serve on the FARMS board of trustees on a volunteer basis. They had been discussing for several years plans for FARMS to create a comprehensive text database that could provide background materials for scholars doing research on the Book of Mormon. Such a database would contain all biblical and other ancient Near Eastern texts in their original languages and in English translation. A Dead Sea Scroll (DSS) electronic library would fit nicely into that concept. FARMS was definitely interested.
Why were scroll scholars interested in such a database? The first discovery of ancient scrolls at Qumran occurred just 50 years ago. What began as a chance discovery by Palestinian shepherds soon evolved into a series of major archaeological excavations and even more successful clandestine digs by the bedouin.
The scrolls were not immediately recognized for what they were. But as the world began to realize that Qumran was an ancient repository for Jewish scriptures, along with other religious and legal documents, the excitement exploded. A high-power search began, fueled by the quest for new knowledge, fame, or profits, according to the motives of different searchers. Over the next decade hundreds of caves were explored, 11 yielding fragments from at least 800 different scrolls.
All Old Testament books except Esther were represented by at least one fragment, and some by several complete or nearly complete scrolls. The new discoveries were twice as old as the oldest known biblical manuscripts coming from the medieval period, and all were written between 300 B.C. and A.D. 70. Some were thought to have been copied within one or two scribal generations of their original composition. Furthermore, numerous previously unknown texts had appeared, promising to shed new light on Judaism in the time of Christ. Part of the motivation to put the Dead Sea Scrolls on disk stemmed from the highly publicized inaccessibility of the scrolls, even 45 years after their first discovery. The failure of the scholars to get their texts into print was developing into an international scandal with critics alleging wilder and wilder speculations to account for the tortoise-like pace of publication. The Israeli government finally intervened in an attempt to get things moving. In 1991, Emanuel Tov, a leading Israeli Dead Sea Scrolls scholar at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was given the responsibility for overall coordination of the project. At the same time, the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation was organized to raise funding to pay for preservation and publication activities.
While most of the scrolls and fragments were housed in two Jerusalem museums, others were scattered among other institutions and private collections. Access was strictly limited to the assigned scholars because of the extremely fragile condition of the materials. Scholars worked principally with photographs made in the 1950s. But the difficulty for the scholars was compounded by the fact that none of them had access to the materials assigned to others. There was nowhere a scholar could go to consult all the Dead Sea Scrolls simultaneously. There was no concordance to look up a particular word or phrase in the other manuscripts to make essential comparisons. Without this capacity, it was extremely difficult to know how to interpret the hundreds of new words not known from the Hebrew Bible.
The potential BYU contribution to such an electronic library was WordCruncher, the text manipulation software developed in BYU’s Department of Instructional Applications Services. James S. Rosenvall and Monte F. Shelley had developed WordCruncher as a scholarly application and had used it to prepare the LDS scriptures on disk in a version that is now distributed by the Church. WordCruncher had made an excellent reputation for itself among scholars who wanted powerful search capabilities in the use of textual materials.
But the personal computer was not easily adapted to texts not in Roman script. Hebrew presented additional challenges not only as a non-Roman script, but one that is written right to left. Reynolds went to see Rosenvall to discuss the possibilities and learned that a Windows version of WordCruncher was in development that could be adapted to meet the requirements of a Dead Sea Scroll electronic library.
The next stop was the BYU Administration to see if the university would support such a joint project. In early spring of 1992, Reynolds met with Bruce C. Hafen, Provost of the University. Hafen was enthusiastic. He saw immediately the opportunity for BYU to become involved in a major scholarly effort of great interest to the world and to the LDS community. He proposed that FARMS and BYU enter into a collaborative venture to create the Dead Sea Scrolls electronic library. FARMS would provide the funding, management, and texts. The university would provide WordCruncher software and support. FARMS would pay for adaptations of WordCruncher to the Dead Sea Scrolls materials.
The language of the scrolls is the major issue. It is not quite the same as biblical Hebrew, and subtleties of usage and meaning are difficult to recover 2000 years later. The most helpful exercise in recovering ancient meanings and usages is the comparison of ways a root word is used in various contexts. For scholars, the electronic library makes this difficult or impossible task trivial and instantaneous. A scholar who wants to consider various occurrences of a particular Hebrew root can select the forms he wishes to see and view them immediately in their respective texts, whether there be only one or thousands of occurrences.
By a remarkable coincidence, at the very time the discussion of a Provo-based Dead Sea Scrolls database developed, Noel Reynolds was scheduled for a one-year tour of duty as a research scholar at BYU’s Jerusalem Center. By the fall of 1992, Rosenvall had prepared a demonstration version of WordCruncher for Windows using some Dead Sea Scrolls texts and images. Although its searching facility was not yet well-adapted to Hebrew, and it only appeared on screen to work right to left, it was clear that WordCruncher could manage images connected to texts and non-Roman scripts. By the time fall semester opened in October at Hebrew University, Reynolds was in Jerusalem and prepared to show what the FARMS/BYU database would be like.
Reynolds called Tov and offered a demonstration, following up on the inquiry made the previous year. Research was not a high priority of the Jerusalem Center program, and Reynolds was offered the small wing of the bomb shelter for an office. Though it had no windows or finished walls and floor, it proved sufficiently large to house a couple of tables for a desk and a bookshelf. Once the computer was installed, he was ready to show off the demo.
Descending to the bowels of the building, Tov and Madsen observed that it might be an appropriate place to examine scrolls which had lain hidden in Judean caves for two millennia. The demonstration only took a few minutes. Not visibly impressed, Tov mumbled a polite thank-you and departed. It did not seem a promising start.
But there was more going on. The most persistent supporter of the electronic library concept at the DSSF was its executive director and founder, Weston Fields. During graduate studies at Hebrew University he became involved with prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholars in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Fields proved himself to be a man of vision and saw the need to establish a foundation to attract financial support if the scrolls were ever to be properly published. The Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation came into existence largely because of his initiative and foresight.
Fields could also see the central role computers would play in the future of textual studies. While the scholars were generally using computers as word processors to produce the transcriptions and commentaries they would publish on the scrolls, they were not using the graphics capability of computers to provide on-screen images or powerful search engines to manipulate the texts they had on disk. The next step would be big, but its time had come. Several biblical and Dead Sea Scrolls scholars were talking about a computerized concordance or library of Dead Sea Scroll materials.
Not much seemed to be happening after the October demonstration in the Jerusalem Center bomb shelter. However, the development plans for the software continued, inasmuch as Rosenvall and Shelley had multiple purposes in mind for their new Windows version of WordCruncher. FARMS helped a northern California group organize a conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls that featured scroll scholars Joseph Fitzmeyer, a distinguished Catholic scholar from National Catholic University in D.C., and Nathan Golb, a University of Chicago scholar, who was advancing distinctive, controversial explanations of the Qumran phenomenon. As chairman of the board of directors of FARMS, BYU’s Stephen Ricks was the moving force behind the organization of this conference. Ricks had in mind the writing of a book on the Dead Sea Scrolls that would be oriented to a Mormon audience. New on the scene was an emerging Hebrew scholar and FARMS employee, Donald W. Parry, who was in the final stages of a doctoral program in biblical Hebrew at the University of Utah, supplemented by work at Hebrew University. Bringing these two on board the electronic library project provided a local source of expert guidance and criticism for the new project. Parry quickly emerged as the technical director responsible for compiling the texts that would be included in the database and for working with the software team to bring texts and program together. But as yet everything was mostly just talk.
In early spring of 1993 Professor Tov called Reynolds at his Jerusalem Center office, inviting him to lunch at Hebrew University so they could talk about the “wonderful software and database demonstration” he had seen several months before. As the situation clarified, it became evident that Tov and Fields had taken the opportunity to check out other proposed electronic Dead Sea Scrolls database projects. They had clearly concluded that the FARMS/BYU proposal had the best prospect of becoming a reality and of meeting the needs of scholars. They were ready to explore the possibility of throwing their support in the direction of Provo.
While avoiding any quotable endorsements, Tov carefully probed our plans and our objectives, tested our standards, and countered with suggestions and criticisms where he sensed deficiencies in our approach. It was clear that there were enormous sensitivities in the community of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars and institutions, and FARMS needed his guidance to steer around the lethal reefs in these waters. His interest and support, however, moved the Provo project to a new level.
The next step would be the acquisition of digitized transcriptions of the individual scrolls and electronic versions of the photographs. While the images were of secondary importance from the scholarly point of view, they can be extremely useful, and they would give the database a unique power and attraction. Transcriptions of the text of the scrolls in the original languages were essential as the core of the database. Getting a complete set without violating the intellectual property rights of the scores of scholars and the publishers already involved was a truly impressive challenge–and one that worried Tov a lot. He did not know FARMS, BYU, or Mormons well. He did not know if we could be trusted not to take short cuts. Everyone else seemed willing to do that. Why should he think the Mormons would be different? Reynolds explained repeatedly that FARMS would not include any transcriptions in its collection for which it had not been able to acquire permission. For cases where permissions were not forthcoming, interim transcriptions would be prepared. Meanwhile, FARMS would work with Oxford University Press (OUP), the publishers of the official publication series of the scrolls, and with E. J. Brill and other publishers to gain permission to use their published transcriptions.
Again, Weston Fields came forward with a helpful solution. Stephen J. Pfann had been working for some time on a concordance of the scrolls that could provide much of what the Provo project needed. Perhaps FARMS could contract with Pfann to provide the material needed for the database. Steve and Claire Pfann are transplanted Californians who are dedicating their lives to Biblical studies. They run their small Center for the Study of Early Christianity in Jerusalem on a shoestring out of adjacent apartments that house their young but growing family. Claire serves as secretary (and chief administrative assistant) to Professor Tov, while Steve works on his concordance, teaches classes at his Center, and manages a number of other projects. Reynolds met with Pfann at the Jerusalem Center for extended discussions before his return to Provo in June of 1993. A contract was soon established. FARMS would help Pfann financially in the completion of his concordance and in the provision of transcripts to FARMS.
With Reynolds back in Provo, the operation swung into high gear. More detailed plans for the database were developed under Don Parry’s direction. The WordCruncher software was scrutinized more closely and detailed development objectives were established. FARMS began searching for a full-time staff person to manage the day-to-day requirements of the project. Parry had taken full-time employment teaching Hebrew at BYU and so, like Reynolds, had only limited time that could be devoted to this endeavor. Steven Booras, a WordPerfect project manager and FARMS volunteer emerged as a wonderful candidate for the staff position and enthusiastically accepted the opportunity to combine his work with his hobby, taking a great deal of pressure off Reynolds and Parry. As Dead Sea Scrolls computer files began to come in from Pfann, the work began in earnest.
Now all that was lacking were images or, more precisely, the rights to use images. Booras began experimenting with electronic scans of a microfiche edition of scroll photographs published by E. J. Brill in the hope that this might prove to be a usable source of images.
In January 1996, Dr. Jan Wilson joined the FARMS team with specific responsibility for text preparation. A convert to the Church from Ohio, Wilson had left his practice as an opthamologist to become a scholar of Hebrew and other ancient near eastern languages. During 1995 he had been employed by a privately sponsored LDS educational program in Israel, which closed its doors at Christmas. His move to Provo and FARMS proved essential to successful acceleration of the project for completion in time for the July conference.
Meanwhile, the search for an image collection led Weston Fields to Professor James Sanders and his staff at the Ancient Biblical Manuscripts Center (ABMC) in Claremont, Calif. The primary function of this center is to collect, preserve, and provide access to photographic images of a wide variety of manuscripts that are important to the Biblical textual tradition. This includes a copy of the PAM (Palestine Archaeological Museum–pre-Israel name for the Rockefeller) negatives collection and other Dead Sea Scrolls photographs. It seemed likely that the ABMC collection was the world’s best. Its catalog had provided the basis for the Brill microfiche edition and catalog. Would the center be interested in providing access to its images to FARMS?
Sanders wanted to convert the PAM images into computer files as a means of preservation and future distribution. Funds were not available, and ABMC approached FARMS for help. After long negotiations, an agreement finally emerged by which FARMS would scan all the ABMC images of the Dead Sea Scrolls and provide ABMC with archival copies on disk. In return, FARMS would be allowed to use the images on its database. It would be up to FARMS to clear that usage with the Israel Antiquities Authority, which claimed all rights to the original scroll photographs. This scanning actually began in early 1996 under the direction of Steve Booras and a temporary staff assembled for that task. FARMS has now scanned over 5000 ABMC scroll images in two formats. The low resolution images (200 lpi) will be used in the database. The high resolution images (800 lpi) require enormous storage space (almost 40 megabytes per image) and will be used by ABMC as archival images.
November features an annual conference which is the obligatory Mecca for all biblical scholars–the combined meetings of the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Academy of Religion (AAR). In 1993 the meetings were held in Washington, D.C. Directors of the FARMS project decided it was time to make some announcements so that the community of Bible scholars would know what they were planning to do. Accordingly, the FARMS staff hosted a booth, gave demonstrations of the emerging program, and handed out literature to interested persons. The interest level was high. This same procedure has been followed in successive years with a corresponding increase of interest as the program has improved.
During the 1994 SBL/AAR meetings held in Chicago, Weston Fields called Noel Reynolds to report the happenings at the one-day meeting of the international Dead Sea Scrolls publication team. He said, “Noel, I just wanted you to know what happened here today. Two years ago none of these people knew where BYU was or what a Mormon was. Today, half our time was spent discussing the FARMS/BYU projects and the great things the Mormons are doing for Dead Sea Scrolls studies. Provo has suddenly become an international center of Dead Sea Scrolls study.”
The original collaborative agreement between FARMS and BYU specified that FARMS would bear the responsibility for raising funds for the project. As overall producer of the DSS database, Reynolds assumed this responsibility and met with early success, finding anonymous Utah County supporters who were willing to stake the project with several hundred thousand dollars. This generous early funding was essential to the success of the project. Weston Fields also came to Provo in 1994 and found exceptional support for the publication projects of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation.
When Fields first came to Utah he paid a courtesy call to Elder James E. Faust, then a senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Fields had arranged for Elder Faust and President Howard W. Hunter to visit the scrollery in the Rockefeller Museum a couple of years earlier. Elder Faust, joined by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who now carries the Church’s Middle East portfolio, graciously hosted Fields and Reynolds and established a pattern of visits and progress reports that continues to the present time. As President Faust received the most recent report in early 1996, he observed that the FARMS/BYU database was part of a fulfillment of prophecy about the growing effectiveness of the Church in the world (see D&C 105: 3132).
President Faust’s interest and encouragement was not the only way that Church leaders have been of assistance in this project. BYU’s WordCruncher is a key component of the project. WordCruncher might not have gained continuing support in the University had it not been for the active interest taken by the Board of Trustees, particularly Elder Boyd K. Packer, who quickly grasped how such software would make the scriptures available to people everywhere in a powerful computer format and whose personal involvement contributed directly to improvements in the software’s user-friendliness.
As the project progressed (and struggled), Emanuel Tov came to Provo to present the annual FARMS lecture in February of 1994. The ensuing visit boosted the project to a higher level. Professor Tov lectured to large crowds in both Salt Lake City and Provo discussing current general issues about the scrolls. Thanks to the intervention of Wendall Ashton and Grant and Amy Cannon, the Church hosted a dinner honoring him, and missionaries at the Family History Library prepared a 200-year genealogy of his family during their personal evening time. It is not easy for a Jewish scholar, whose parents were lost in the Holocaust, to accept an unknown and aggressive Christian group like Mormons. But Tov was touched and impressed with his visit. He saw first-hand what was going on at BYU and FARMS. He met the project leaders and the staff. And he was hosted by Alan and Karen Ashton, who had begun by then to contribute to his DSS publication project. Doubts and suspicions were washed away and a strong relationship of trust and friendship grew in its place. As editor-in-chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls publication project, Tov would play an important role behind the scenes in shaping a positive opinion towards BYU and FARMS and their project among scholars internationally. Weston Fields continued to promote the same positive reputation, praising the Provo people and project wherever he went.
As Tov gained confidence in the competence of LDS scholars he began to think of more ways to take advantage of their interests and abilities. During the winter of 1994 Don Parry was at the Jerusalem Center and was spending a significant amount of time working with Tov. Out of this contact, Tov advanced a proposal inviting Parry to become a junior editor who could help Frank M. Cross, distinguished emeritus Harvard professor, to finish his Discoveries in the Judean Desert (DJD) volume on the two Samuel scrolls. After decades of research and analysis, Cross’s age was catching up with him. And because of his retirement status, Harvard could no longer provide him with qualified assistance. Cross and Parry discussed the matter and quickly agreed to collaborate. Parry’s youth and vigor gave the project an immediate shot in the arm which has since moved it toward a promising completion.
Parry’s effectiveness opened the way for other young BYU professors to receive similar assignments. BYU’s ancient scripture department gave Tov the names of three young religion faculty members with strong training in Hebrew. Tov was delighted to recognize the name of one former student, Dana Pike, and undertook contacts and negotiations with him and with David Seely and Andrew Skinner, all of whom are now involved as members of the world-wide Dead Sea Scrolls publication team, preparing scroll fragments for Oxford University Press’s DJD series.
The FARMS/BYU involvement with the scrolls was about to take on new dimensions. Scott Woodward, BYU geneticist, had for several years been perfecting techniques for the analysis of mitochondrial DNA taken from ancient animal and human materials. When he lectured in Israel on his work with the Egyptian royal mummies, a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar inquired whether his methods might work on parchment. The dramatic implications of the question were immediately obvious to everyone.
The most troublesome aspect of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship has been the proper identification of thousands of small parchment fragments. Many fragments have far too little text to permit traditional handwriting analysis to confidently match fragments from the same original scrolls. Woodward was intrigued. Upon returning to his BYU lab he experimented with old deerskins and found he could readily capture DNA molecules that would replicate with his techniques. He requested scroll fragments from Jerusalem, which also proved suitable for DNA analysis. Jerusalem scholars were thrilled.
With financial support from FARMS and the DSSF, the emerging arrangements for Woodward to be a visitor at Hebrew University during the 199495 academic year to help them establish a lab and staff that could conduct DNA analysis of archaeological artifacts were now expanded to include a preliminary study of scroll materials. Woodward’s subsequent work in Israel proved that scroll fragments can be identified through DNA analysis according to species, to individual animals, and to closely related animals (same herds). He has also been able to show how many pages of a parchment scroll were ordinarily derived from a single hide. Though the analysis is expensive, for truly important questions of fragment identification, a scientific process is now available.
BYU electrical engineers David Arnold and David Long have produced another technological device that may prove important in Qumran archaeology. Using expensive spy technology from the Gulf War, these two professors developed means whereby microwaves can be used inexpensively to locate ruins, objects, or cavities that are underground but near to the surface while flying over in an airplane. Variously referred to as ground-penetrating radar or synthetic aperture radar (SAR), the technique holds great promise as a technological tool for archaeologists. While in Israel and Jordan in 1995, Reynolds contacted archaeologists and public officials to assess potential interest and legal requirements. In August and October 1996 experimental aerial surveys were conducted at Qumran and other sites in Israel and Palestine using both SAR and multispectral scanning. It may help settle the question of whether there are other caves at Qumran or in the larger Dead Sea area that might contain additional scrolls.
FARMS and BYU have also collaborated in bringing these developments to the attention of scholars through conferences. In April of 1995, FARMS sponsored a Dead Sea Scrolls conference in Jerusalem in collaboration with the BYU Jerusalem Center under the directorship of Professor S. Kent Brown. All biblical scholars and archaeologists in Israel with an interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls were invited, and a few were brought in from Europe and the USA. The FARMS/BYU electronic Dead Sea Scrolls library was demonstrated for the first time in an academic meeting, and other Dead Sea Scrolls projects at BYU were also on the program. For most of the participants, it was the first time they had visited the Center, and they were delighted with the experience.
In March of 1996 FARMS sponsored a one-day conference at BYU in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discussed from an LDS point of view. Although there are no startling revelations in the Dead Sea Scrolls that would vindicate an LDS theology, there are many things of interest from an LDS perspective. One of the main discoveries in the Dead Sea Scrolls has been that pre-Christian Judaism had more in common with Christianity than had been previously believed. This was unwelcome news for Jews who assume that modern Jewish orthodoxy faithfully preserves ancient forms of worship and belief. And it was not welcome either for Christians who believed Christ’s Church was original and different in more respects than can now be believed. Some observers have pointed to these tensions as partial motivation for the long delays in getting the scrolls properly published. But Latter-day Saints believe there were many revelations of Christianity before Christ, and to find strong echoes of that in pre-Christian Judaism actually fits the LDS understanding of the decline of Israel before Christ better than the other historical traditions.
Donald W. Parry showed us how the Qumran biblical texts help us understand the procedures of ancient scriptural copyists and the kinds of errors they made. He also showed how the Qumran texts can correct our present Old Testament where they fill gaps or contain better readings than have been available previously. Dana M. Pike examined the scrolls for evidence of Jewish belief in the plan of salvation, as understood by Latter-day Saints, but only found faint echoes in references to pre-mortal life, complete with two leading spirits–the Prince of Lights and the Angel of Darkness, and an afterlife that features eternal perdition and annihilation for the wicked in the dark region. Most key plan of salvation concepts are absent. Stephen D. Ricks reviewed a short list of comparisons between themes of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Mormon showing several interesting similarities. David R. Seely analyzed worship practices at Qumran, finding it to be clearly patterned on the Old Testament, which accounts for a number of resonances with our understanding and practices that are based in the Restoration. (Anyone interested in a more exhaustive listing of interesting findings from the Dead Sea Scrolls from an LDS perspective will want to read the papers from this conference, which will be published by FARMS after July 1997.)
There has long been a high level of interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls within the LDS community. This is striking to Jewish and Christian scholars because this interest has not held up in their own communities. Funding for work on the scrolls has dried up virtually everywhere, both in the religious and the academic communities. Mormons, who take all ancient scriptures quite seriously, are especially interested in the question of how accurately the scriptures have been transmitted over the millennia. Latter-day Saints are perfectly comfortable with ancient books being hidden away for centuries and fully expect numerous additional sacred records to be found in the future. For us, the Dead Sea Scrolls have come onto the stage in a way that fits into a large and important pattern, though they themselves may be only a sideshow. One cannot help wondering if the world’s experience with the scrolls does not prepare it to accept the more important future revelations.
From 1993 forward, Reynolds had planned to host an international scholarly conference at the time the FARMS/BYU database would be ready for final public display. The date for this conference was pushed forward one year to avoid conflict with the 1997 Jerusalem conference which will celebrate the fifty year anniversary of the first discovery of scrolls at Qumran, and BYU joined in as a co-sponsor. Almost all the leading Dead Sea Scrolls scholars and scores of others gathered in Provo in July 1517, 1996. After three days of papers, technical demonstrations, and discussions it was clear that the conference organized by BYU’s Don Parry and Notre Dame’s Eugene Ulrich had been a major success. Though the unusual demands for kosher meals and other special needs kept the FARMS staff going, numerous participants reported that it was the best conference they had ever had. For almost everyone present, it was their first BYU experience.
An interesting consequence of the FARMS/BYU involvement with the scrolls has been the growing reputation that the Mormons can put collections of ancient texts on computer more effectively than anyone else and in a way that makes these texts maximally accessible for careful, computer-assisted study. The Dead Sea Scrolls experience has also convinced people that we are seriously interested in the texts, just the way they are, and without some agenda or intent to interpret them in a particular way. This has long been a cause for suspicion as people from different religious perspectives have tried to put their own spin on the scrolls and their meaning. Admittedly, there have been Mormons as well who have gone on the fireside circuit making extravagant claims about how the Dead Sea Scrolls are going to prove the restored gospel true in various ways. These aberrations have limited visibility outside the LDS community. And the efforts of FARMS and BYU have been kept scrupulously clear of this kind of sensationalism. Part of what makes it possible for scholars from other religious traditions to collaborate with FARMS has been the clear determination of the project’s leaders to avoid getting into interpretive battles that carry religious implications. The FARMS/BYU electronic library avoids interpretation at every turn. Rather, it simply presents the original textual materials in the form in which they have been assembled, transcribed, and translated by other scholars. Interpretation is left to the users of the database.
The ripple effect of the Dead Sea Scrolls project is already evident as custodians of other collections of unpublished ancient texts take notice and make contacts with FARMS.
It was evident throughout the four-year history of the Dead Sea Scrolls electronic library project that access to images and texts and publication permissions posed a daunting obstacle to final conclusion of the project. This continued to be a primary concern and did not resolve itself as the technical aspects of the project took shape. Reynolds repeatedly responded to questions about permissions with assurances that nothing would be done without full legal clearance. In explanations to colleagues he continually pointed out that the overriding need of the Dead Sea Scrolls scholars for this kind of material and the interests of various publishers and bureaucracies in seeing that need satisfied would have to lead eventually to some agreement that would include the best database system and materials.
E. J. Brill publishers were first to see the great value of the FARMS/BYU electronic library and visited Provo in 1994 to begin negotiations toward some kind of joint publication. Brill brought the García Martínez English translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the microfiche images, and the Baumgartner Hebrew dictionary to the table. OUP had the rights to distribute digitized images and owned rights for half the transcriptions. And OUP was not responding. It was May of 1995 before Reynolds was able to set up a visit with OUP’s electronic publishing officers to demonstrate the database and offer some kind of collaboration. Finally, in February of 1996, a meeting was arranged in Oxford between FARMS, OUP, and E. J. Brill. Reynolds and FARMS research director M. Gerald Bradford came away from that meeting with an agreement between the three organizations to move ahead quickly with a joint effort in which an OUP image collection would be published in 1996 as volume one of a Dead Sea Scrolls electronic reference library. The FARMS/BYU database, with transcriptions, translations, and images would be published in 1997 as volume two. All the permissions and access problems were wiped away, and the two premier publishers of Dead Sea Scrolls materials would be taking responsibility for publication and distribution of the product.
One of the most interesting discoveries concerns the biblical texts. The Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s teachings indicate that the Biblical texts we have today have been modified in some significant ways since their original composition. But we do not know which texts were changed or when or how. The Dead Sea Scrolls show that the textual tradition of the Jews in diaspora has allowed almost no changes in the text of the Old Testament since the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Masoretic text which constitutes the basis of the Hebrew Bible today is virtually unchanged from some versions of Old Testament books that have been found at Qumran. But there lies the interesting discovery. There are other versions of those same books at Qumran, sometimes side-by-side in the same repository. In one extreme instance, Jeremiah scrolls differ by as much as 15 percent in the number of words they contain! It would appear that modifying the text was an accepted technique whereby a religious leader could advance his own religious insights or doctrines or historical views. Apparently it was acceptable to make changes in the scriptural texts for interpretive reasons. But once the Jews went into diaspora after A.D. 70, this practice ended, and further changes in the texts are rare.
Noel B. Reynolds is a professor of political science at BYU and is president of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS).