A group of researchers has been able to confirm, with the help of an artificial intelligence system, that the main scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls was drawn up by two different scribes. Despite the fact that their writing style was almost identical, they found subtle differences that divide one of the oldest religious texts in two. Although the specific identity of the authors cannot be known, machines have opened a new path in the study of documents that testify, whether one is a believer or not, one of the foundations of Western culture.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are also known as the Qumran Scrolls, referring to a riparian area in the Judean desert (West Bank) where they were found. The first were discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin in one of the caves in the region. And they still keep showing up. For many they are one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century. Written in Hebrew, Aramaic and a few in Greek, those of religious content are the basis of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. Its discovery supposed to delay in a thousand years the oldest versions, which were from the Middle Ages. Written between the third century BC and the second century of this era, most are highly fragmented. Their content, their implications for the canonical versions of the different Bibles and even the material where they were written have been studied. Almost nothing is known about their authors.
Mladen Popovic, director of Qumran Institute from the University of Groningen (Netherlands), tries to identify them by their way of writing. This paleographer has spent two decades studying the manuscripts. It began during his doctorate directed by the Spanish and world expert in the rolls, Florentino García Martínez. Since 2015, Popovic has been leading a project funded by the European Research Council. Combining artificial intelligence, palaeography, and carbon-14 dating, the name of the plan says it all about its intentions: The hands that wrote the Bible. And to identify them, Popovic has relied on machines.
“We have discovered that not one if not two scribes copied the Great Scroll of Isaiah,” says Popovic. This scroll is one of the jewels of Qumran. It is the longest biblical manuscript, with 7.34 meters of parchment, the best preserved of all and the only one almost complete, in this case the Book of Isaiah. Carbon 14 and palaeographic evidence indicate that they must have been written in the second century BC “They shared a very similar writing style, which made it difficult for the human eye to distinguish them throughout such a large scroll,” adds Popovic.
The manuscript studied is the Isaiah Scroll, the most complete and largest parchment, 7.34 meters
The distinction has been made with several layers of artificial intelligence that have gone from the most general, distinguishing the trace of the animal skin substrate, to the smallest, detecting the almost imperceptible differences when writing each of the letters. “We cannot see the 5,000 versions of a character, the aleph [la primera letra del alefato hebreo], for example, and compare if there are one or more groups ”, explains Popovic. That was left to the machines, which scanned all the forms in which the letters of the text appeared. For example, they studied the 5,011 times that aleph appears.
“Another advantage of using the computer as a smart assistant is that it can do all sorts of pixel calculations that we can’t, and that’s on the simple but fundamental premise that writing is based on a person’s specific muscle movement and as such it can be quantified ”, adds Popovic. All the details, results and conclusions of this work appear in the latest edition of the scientific journal PLoS ONE.
The professor of artificial intelligence and cognitive engineering at the University of Groningen Lambert Schomaker and his pupil Maruf Dhali were in charge of putting a digital copy of a text from almost 2,200 years ago in front of 21st century machines. His mission was to distinguish the differences, if any, of stroke, of strength when writing it, of distance between the letters or the curvature of each character. “Our PhD student Dhali observed that the data point clouds clumped into two,” says Schomaker. “These regions seem to correspond roughly to the first and second part of the series of columns that make up the text,” he adds. The manuscript of the book of Isaiah is written in 54 columns and it is from the 27th when the styles differ.
“Using another method breaking the letters into fragments and comparing them with a reference table, I was able to confirm that there was a transition around the middle of the series”, details Schomaker. To be sure, they put the images through a third test, introducing random modifications. “We reconfirmed the results: the difference between left and right was still detected in the series. These results were delivered to Professor Popovic ”, concludes Schomaker.
Popovic clarifies that this codicological separation was already known, “but now there is concrete evidence that there was also a change of scribes from this point on.” The paleographer adds: “The fact that two scribes wrote in such a similar way tells us [aspectos] on its formation or its origin ”. Also, this work goes beyond how many wrote this manuscript. For the paleographer “it is only the first step, we have opened the door to the micro-level of individual scribes; this will open up new possibilities to study all the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls ”.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.