Now, with infrared- and computer-enhanced photography, anyone with a computer can view these 2,000-year-old relics, which include the oldest known copies of biblical text and a window on the world and times of Jesus.
High-quality digitized images of five of the 950 manuscripts were posted for free online for the first time this week by Google and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the scrolls are housed. The post includes an English translation and a search feature to one of the texts, the Great Isaiah Scroll.
The scroll, one of seven animal skin parchments discovered in 1947 a cave in Wadi Qumran in the West Bqnk, is the largest and best preserved in the collection.
"Some of these images are appearing for the first time in Google — what no one has seen for 2,000 years and no scholar since the Dead Sea Scrolls were found," says James Charlesworth, director and editor of the Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project, who is one of the few who has handled the ancient pieces of parchment. "Now images and letters that were never found are appearing in Google."
Charlesworth said the new images allow him to decipher in 30 minutes fragments of documents that once took 14 hours to analyze. The digital project will preserve documents that were eaten by worms and so fragile they're turning to dust or rotting away.
Nathan Jastrum, an associate professor of theology at Concordia University in Mequon, Wis., says scholars were allowed to view scraps of some scrolls and prohibited from viewing others. The museum said allowing too many to handle the scrolls would destroy them.
Jesus and his disciples would not have been accepted by the Essenes, the separatist Jewish sect that is believed to have owned and created much of the Qumran library. Yet they shared so many customs that the Essenes help bridge a gap between Jesus' followers and the Pharisees, whose version of Judaism became the established norm, Jastrum says.
The disciples associated with common people; the Essenes avoided people. Both had ritual washings: The disciples had baptism, and the Essenes had daily purification rites. Both shared communal meals that early Christians called the Lord's Supper.
And both saw the world separated into two classes of people fighting a cosmic war of good vs. evil whom they called "sons of light and sons of darkness, each seeing themselves as sons of light," Jastrum says.
The scrolls were discovered in 11 caves near Khirbet Qumran on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea. They date from about 200 B.C. to about 68 A.D., Jastrum says.
Most were written in Hebrew, mostly on parchment, and most survived in fragments. They were found in clay pots and preserved over the centuries because of the dry desert environment, according to the Israel Museum.
The scrolls include the oldest known biblical manuscripts in existence, religious manuscripts not included in the Bible and documents that describe daily Jewish life in the land of Israel during the time of the Second Temple Period, and the birth of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.
The manuscripts span a time when the Holy Land was under Greek rule and then the Roman Empire, whose soldiers destroyed the Jews' Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. to quash a rebellion. All that remains of the temple today is the Western Wall.
Charlesworth says he was working last weekend with images of a Dead Sea document known as the Qumran Thanksgiving Hymns, which were illegible before the digital process. because of flaking off of the ink.
The book of hymns is believed to be written by a Jewish high priest accustomed to luxury who was exiled from Jerusalem to the desert wilderness with his followers by Greek conquerors in the second century before Christ.
"I thank you O Lord because you have placed me as the overflowing fountain in a parched land. … You have placed spring rain in my mouth," the author writes. He describes his followers as "trees planted in Eden."
"Even though you look out and see a horrible world the man sees people finding God through his inspiration," Charlesworth says.