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Museums and the Web

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The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls - Working on a Google Cloud

Susan Hazan, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel


The Israel Museum has recently launched the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project, allowing users to examine and explore these most ancient manuscripts from Second Temple times at a level of detail never before possible. Developed in partnership with Google, the new website gives users access to searchable, fast-loading, high-resolution images of the scrolls, as well as short explanatory videos and background information on the texts and their history. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the oldest known biblical manuscripts in existence, offer critical insight into Jewish society in the Land of Israel during the Second Temple Period, the time of the birth of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. Five complete scrolls from the Israel Museum have been digitized for the project at this stage and are now accessible online.

Keywords: Dead Sea Scrolls, Isaiah, Bible, scrolls, Israel Museum, Google

Since their discovery in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls have held a unique attraction for both scholar and layman alike. Those who may be curious about a time when it is said that Jesus of Nazareth lived and preached, and those who are interested in the Second Temple period in the Land of Israel sense that these primary texts could throw new light on society at the nascent period of Christianity and pre-Rabbinic Judaism. Access to the scrolls, written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, was initially granted only to a handful of scholars, however, and they were unwilling to share their own research with the larger community those first years after the discovery.

Access to the ancient texts gradually opened up through the distribution of images of the scrolls, the research surrounding them, as well as the translations and transliterations of the ancient scripts. Later on, books and print publications were to appear, and gradually the circle widened as microfiche, as well as CD-ROMs, started appearing, until eventually parts of the scrolls began to make their appearance on-line.

Still, intellectual access to the scrolls was limited to a small group: those with the ability to be able to read, decipher, and translate their message. The international scholarly community who made the Dead Sea Scrolls their life work shared a vocabulary that enabled only academic discourse. Discussions that revolved around the scrolls; their graphic quality, the scribal features, and their historical message, was elucidated in a lingua franca that was not actually expressed in a language easily shared by outsiders. Scholars referred to specific texts by cryptically calling the fragments by their identification numbers, such as 11QPsa, 4Q179, CD, 1Q59-61, 2Q18, and the insights that they shared were not easily deciphered by the uninitiated. While scholars earnestly engaged in these kinds of debates with one another – discussions dappled with cryptic footnotes and savant references – these were not the kinds of conversations that made it easy for you and me to be able to jump into. What actually stood out in stark contrast to the evolution of the Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship – at a snail's pace, and, with great caution – was the exact opposite of the breakneck speed that conversations take place today at electronic pathways and social networks.

At the same time the scrolls held a magnetic attraction to those outside of the cabal; those individuals who also desired to be able to share the conversations after hearing about them from perhaps from a Dan Brown novel or from TV and were more than curious to see for themselves what all the excitement was about.

It was with all this in mind that the Israel Museum, Jerusalem partnered with Google to develop the ambitious project of bringing the first five of the scrolls online.

"We are privileged to house in the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book the best preserved and most complete Dead Sea Scrolls ever discovered," said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum. "They are of paramount importance among the touchstones of monotheistic world heritage, and they represent unique highlights of our Museum's encyclopedic holdings. Now, through our partnership with Google, we are able to bring these treasures to the broadest possible public." (from the project press release).

Figure 1: James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum introducing the Dead Sea Scrolls

While there are literally thousands of scroll fragments available, the museum decided to prioritize the full scrolls, and deliver them in a way not previously possible, even to scholars. The five Dead Sea Scrolls that were selected for this first phase were the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Community Rule Scroll, the Commentary on Habakkuk Scroll, the Temple Scroll, and the War Scroll. Representatives from the Tel Aviv Google Office met with the museum team March 2011 and began to conceptualize the joint venture.

The Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project is funded by George Blumenthal and the Center for Online Judaic Studies, which first envisioned the project in order to make these manuscripts widely accessible, and to create an innovative resource for scholars and the public alike. Dr. Adolfo D. Roitman, Lizbeth and George Krupp Curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Head of the Shrine of the Book, and Dr. Susan Hazan, Curator of New Media and Head of the Museum's Internet Office, directed the project for the Israel Museum, working in collaboration with Eyal Fink, Technical Lead, and Eyal Miller, New Business Development Manager, at Google's R&D Center in Israel. This was not the first of this kind of project from Google as Professor Matias explains:

The Dead Sea Scrolls Project with the Israel Museum enriches and preserves an important part of world heritage by making it accessible to all on the Internet. Having been involved in similar projects in the past, including the Google Art Project, Yad Vashem Holocaust Collection, and the Prado Museum in Madrid, we have seen how people around the world can enhance their knowledge and understanding of key historical events by accessing documents and collections online. We hope one day to make all existing knowledge in historical archives and collections available to all, including putting additional Dead Sea Scroll documents online.[NP1]  from the project press release

Figure 2: The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls website

According to a report in the New York Times, Google partnered in the scrolls project under a new initiative aimed at demonstrating that the Internet giant’s understanding of culture extends beyond the corporate kind. Pfanner (2011) The newly opened Google Cultural Institute plans to make artifacts like the scrolls — from museums, archives, universities, and other collections around the world — accessible to any Internet user. “We’re building services and tools that help people get culture online, help people preserve it online, promote it online and eventually even create it online,” said Steve Crossan, director of the institute, which is based in Paris. Pfanner (2011)

The five scrolls, including those greater than five meters in length, were photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama at 1,200 mega pixels each, making them almost two hundred times higher in resolution than images produced by a standard camera. Each picture utilized UV-protected flash tubes with an exposure of 1/4000th of a second to minimize damage to the fragile manuscripts. This meant that online visitor could view each column of the scrolls in exacting detail, seeing the fine strokes of the calligraphy and even the parchment stitching through the ultra-high resolution digital photography.

Figure 3: Magnification of the Great Isaiah Scroll in the viewer

Museum Director, James Snyder, welcomes visitors to the project’s website in an introductory video and each scroll is described in background texts by Roitman on the especially designed website developed by the New Media Unit in the Museum. Roitman also takes visitors into the Shrine of the Book and around the galleries where the scrolls are on permanent display, and into the vault at the Israel Museum, where the most important patrimony of the State of Israel is kept for safekeeping. However, in addition to contextual information about the scrolls with the background explanations and accompanying texts, it was clear to us that one of the scrolls held a particular attraction for our potential online visitors: the Great Isaiah Scroll.

According to Roitman,

The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) is one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran in 1947. It is the largest (734 cm) and best preserved of all the biblical scrolls, and the only one that is almost complete. The 54 columns contain all 66 chapters of the Hebrew version of the biblical Book of Isaiah. Dating from ca. 125 BCE, it is also one of the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some one thousand years older than the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible known to us before the scrolls' discovery. Hazan 2011

In order to make this special scroll more accessible to the non-Hebrew reading public, a viewer was designed and developed by Google to facilitate searching by column, chapter, and verse. In addition an English translation tool was imbedded in the scroll-viewing window, which prompted simultaneous English translations of the Hebrew manuscript. Further languages are currently being developed, and the Chinese (simple) language is almost ready for publication. The background texts are currently in English, and a Hebrew version of the entire website is also planned for the near future.

Figure 4: The scroll viewer and the English translation pop up window

Inevitably questions arose as to which version of the English translation would be appropriate considering that even the Hebrew version of the Biblical text is a matter of academic and theological discussion. While the Hebrew version of the text in this specific scroll conforms to the Masoretic, or traditional version, canonized in medieval codices such as the Aleppo Codex written in about 930 CE, it does in fact contain many variant readings, alternative spellings, scribal errors, and corrections. According to Roitman:

Unlike most of the biblical scrolls from Qumran, it exhibits a very full orthography (spelling), revealing how Hebrew was pronounced in the Second Temple Period. Around twenty additional copies of the Book of Isaiah were also found at Qumran (one more copy was discovered further south at Wadi Muraba'at), as well as six pesharim (commentaries) based on the book; Isaiah is also frequently quoted in other scrolls (a literary and religious phenomenon also present in New Testament writings). Hazan 2011

Figure 5: Screenshot of video with Dr. Adolfo Roitman taking visitors behind the scenes

In spite of the decision to select the English translation familiar to most people from their own English Bible, we were grateful to Peter W. Flint, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair in Dead Sea Scrolls Studies, Professor of Biblical Studies, Trinity Western University, Langley, Canada who kindly shared his English translation of the Great Isaiah Scroll; an life-long enterprise that sheds light on the original Hebrew manuscript in a close reading, and more literal translation. The two English versions are now published side by side on the Museum’s website, allowing remote viewers to consider the implications of translating a sacred text and the variations that are inevitably created. On this note we must also point how, in spite of these relatively minor variations, the entire corpus has, in fact, been handed down from generation to generation; over two thousands years through the copying of the text by hand with what must be considered an amazing fidelity.

The Israel Museum and Google launched their joint project on September 26, 2011 in the company of friends, scholars and members of the press, but none of us were prepared for the waves of interest that this project was going to generate.

Going viral - what happened in those first four days

The following days we were delighted to see that the Digital Dead Sea Scrolls had been covered by TV stations, newspapers, blogs and magazines all over the world, and had made their first, impressive foray into social networks. Although we were encouraged to see how well the project had been received, we had no idea at that stage of what kind of impact this project was to have. Luckily for us the site was parked on a Google cloud, and not on the Museum's usual server. Consequently, when the requests started flooding in, nothing crashed and our visitors were all able to see what they had come to see. Over those first four days in fact, the scrolls were viewed 2,691,195 times (page views), with 1,051,434 unique visits, (according to our Google Analytics), pouring in from 213 countries/territories.  

We monitored the site over the following days and, although, we received most of our visitors form the United States and Canada, we also noticed an impressive number of visits from Japan. Other countries in our top twelve included: the Netherlands, Croatia, United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain, and Argentina; with Israel coming in at number 12. This project, to our surprise had a truly global reach, with people from all over the world coming into the site and leaving after spending an impressive time clicking from one scroll to the next.

While we had anticipated that the Dead Sea Scrolls would generate the same sort of interest that they usually commanded, we launched only a modest marketing campaign at this stage together with our partners. Google had prepared a marvelous animated video that was hosted on their own blog, and on the day of the launch they also blogged about the project. Both the video and the Google blog generated the first wave over social networks, but according to the statistics recorded, clearly the way the project went viral was in the subsequent waves of peer-to-peer, word of mouth communications.

Figure 6: Animation clip posted on the Google blog

The impressive quantitative response that the project generated paled when we began to read the conversations left in the talkbacks – both on the site and the tweets that were winging their way around the world over those first few days. The qualitative responses were even more engaging that the quantitative stats were indicating. The initial response was an almost consensual approval, but more than that, we were reading how enthralled people were with discovering the Hebrew sources online in this way, as a gift, or as a blessing that some people saw as an affirmation of their faith. Typically conversations were pertinent, and passionate, but even more fascinating where how some people were asking questions, and how others were answering, even before our own curatorial team had time to intervene. We simply took a back seat and watched the conversations unfold online. While the visitor’s names have been taken out in this paper, the sincerity and intensity of the debate is clearly apparent here in these few examples (original spelling and grammar have, however been left in).

  • Lord, it's amazing. I love what you've done for us.
  • I am so pleased and blessed by this site and the sight of the anointed word of God! One of my favorite versions of the bible is exactly the same words of these Dead Sea Scrolls! Wow is all I can say! Precious!
  • I want to offer my congratulations to you all on this magnificent achievement. I hope that you manage to publish all the texts quickly. It would also be nice to see the oldest Christian Bible and Koran in Israel, along with other fine old books of Israel on these pages
  • Amazing. And to be able to view this online, connecting Cent -1 to Cent 21. Wow!!!
  • I'm speechless.

Figure 7: The onsite comments discussing the project

The questions and responses were soon to follow …

  • Was the lost gospel of Thomas in these writings somewhere?
    If not is it something that might be published? Thank you so much for putting these online – this is just what the internet was invented for!
  • No. The dead sea scrolls are mostly from before the time of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas was part of the manuscripts found in Egypt (Nag Hammadi) in 1945 three years before the DSS were found. The DSS were written by people who were part of a Jewish sect. The Nag Hammadi texts were about 400-500 years later and were written by Gnostics --a Christian sect. The Gospel of Thomas has been widely published and is still in print. An Amazon search should show several. Many of the Nag Hammadi texts are still in print in James Charlesworth's New Testament Apocrypha from Doubleday.


  • Ok I don’t get this, there is so much information missing, who ate the bottom of these scrolls, how are we going to figure out the missing parts?
  • We won't/can't --that is the frustration of studying ancient documents


  • Thank you for allowing the public to view these. I am however a little confused by the fact you would use the "BCE" term instead of "BC" while referring to
  • It's the new, hip way that scholars are using the term -- BCE (before common era) and CE (common era). The acronyms BC and AD are considered old school, now.


  • Is there any information about Mary Magdalene in these scrolls?
  • No. They were written before she was born.


The traditional and social media postings continued with frenzy as we continued to monitor the reports and to record them on the Dead Sea Scrolls site itself: - Everyone involved in the project was called upon to be interviewed for a radio or TV channel; newspaper or magazine article; blog or online article. If the list of these selected reports – indexed as headings and links – were to printed out with an average size font it in fact prints out as 10 full pages.

Tweets were exchanged both by individuals and organizations; by the press and academia. Some of the thousands of Tweets describe the kind of impact the project had and are included here:

  • Dead Sea Scrolls go online | Christians United for Israel
    Dead Sea Scrolls Online  ⒺⓇⒺⓉⓏⓎⒾⓈⓇⒶⒺⓁ
  • Glowinteractive 
    What happens when history and technology merge .... ?
    Dead Sea Scrolls 2.0
    Digital technology brings new life to Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Washingtonpost
    Dead Sea Scrolls go online, 2,000 years later
  • Israeli Consulate (@israelconsulate) 
    Dead Sea Scrolls can now be Google'd - Still behind glass, but we removed the "No Touching" signs
  • Jerusalem Post Jerusalem Post News
    Google and Israel Museum publish Dead Sea Scrolls online:
    Fragments are "our Mona Lisa," says museum director.
  • AP, The Associated Press
    Two thousand years after they were written, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls go online for the first time
  • RWW ReadWriteWeb
    Google Announces Digital Dead Sea Scrolls Project
  • @berkmancenter Cambridge, MA
    Dead Sea Scrolls Online: Biblical Texts Haven’t Been Viewed on this Many Tablets Since 70 A.D.
  • Engadget
    Google puts the Dead Sea Scrolls in the cloud, promises they won't dissolve when you touch them

With perhaps the most charming response from Theodora Chester, who calls herself Lapsed writer, collecting distractions who tweeted:

  • Can’t believe so many of you are here and tweeting when you could be reading the Dead Sea Scrolls online.

We continue to track visitor conversations, both on the comments platform on the site and over the media reports that are still circulating. Once we caught our breath, we began to explore other statistics and to learn from visitor’s comments and experiences.

The statistics we tracked were instructive. Looking at mobile platforms we recorded how iPads were in the clear majority and how these visitors tended to spend considerable time on the site, with iPhones following just behind. Androids proved to be third in line with iPods, BlackBerries, SymbianOS trailing behind. It was interesting to see how that our Japanese visitors, referred from Japanese TV stations and online reports, were finding a less satisfying experience when the NTT DoCoMo platform showed a particularly high bounce rate (96%). Clearly these systems were not supporting the site; something we decided need to look into.

Over the last few months we have had time to read the articles and blogs, the reports and interviews. We have watched the numerous YouTube clips that describe the digital scrolls; sometimes in earnest while other times spoofed. What we have learned from this project is how enthusiastically the public has received the Digital Dead Sea Scrolls, and specifically the Great Isaiah Scroll, and how our efforts are appreciated and have been appropriated by thousands of people all over the world.


Digital photography and video essays, Ardon Bar-Hama
Digital capture device by Leaf, camera and lenses by Alpa

Videos, Eytan Harris

English translation of the Great Isaiah Scroll (Masoretic Version), Portions copyright © 1997 by Benyamin Pilant, All Rights Reserved. JPS Electronic Edition Copyright © 1998 by Larry Nelson, All Rights Reserved

We are grateful to Peter W. Flint, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair in Dead Sea Scrolls Studies, Professor of Biblical Studies, Trinity Western University, Langley, Canada for his English translation of the Great Isaiah Scroll.

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls site designed and developed by the Israel Museum, directed by Dr. Susan Hazan, Head of New Media Unit, front-end development, Webmaster, Avi Rosenberg, website design, Haya Sheffer, editing, Varda Spiegel, and Hanna Caine-Braunschvig.

Irene Lèwitt, Photography Assistant, Shrine of the Book

Nancy Benovitz, English editing of background texts

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls promotional video, Aaron Producer Hutchinson, Producer, SHAW Joseph Shaw, Camera Operator, Across the Ponds Productions, UK


Hazan, S. (2001), From the First Millennium to the third, the Content is the Message. (David Bearman, Garzotto, Franca, Ed.) International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting: Proceedings from ichim01.

Hazan, S. (2011), The Dead Sea Scrolls Online: Taking On A [Second] Life Of Their Own (665-682) in The Dead Sea Scrolls and Contemporary Culture: Proceedings of the International Conference held at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (July 6-8, 2008), Edited by: A. D. Roitman, L.H. Schiffman and S. Tzoref

Pfanner, E. (2011) “Quietly, Google Puts History Online” New York Times, Published: November 20, 2011

Project press release <>

The Center for Online Judaic Studies <>

The Aleppo Codex, Ben Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, <>

Biblical Studies, Trinity Western University, Langley, Canada <>