Youssef Zeidan, director of the Manuscript Center and Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, feels that the digital facsimiles, despite claims of excellent clarity and magnification capabilities, are not tools for scholarly research.Some valid points here, but I would nuance them a little. The scrolls on display so far are very well preserved, have been studied extensively, and are all available in good editions. The photographs published by this project are useful up to a point for things like palaeography, but I would be surprised if they helped anyone establish new readings in damaged passages. For that it is correct, with one important caveat below, to say that you need to look at the original. But in most cases these well-preserved scrolls have been so closely studied that most, although perhaps not quite all, likely readings have already been established. But for less-studied, more damaged scrolls, direct examination of the original is more important.
“I cannot say something serious or real about these pictures. They are just pictures,” says Zeidan.
Zeidan lamented the fragmented nature of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, parts of which are spread out in museums across the world.
“When the scrolls were first discovered, Israeli institutions took some of them, some went to Europe and other places, and now we just have some copies,” he explains. “We cannot study these scrolls in the correct way because they are not complete.”
Mohamed Hawary, Professor of Jewish Religious Thought and Comparative Religions at Ain Shams University echoed Zeidan’s sentiments, saying “I advise scholars, if they want to study manuscripts to examine the original.”
Nonetheless, Hawary suggests that the digitization of the scrolls may encourage scholarship in general, and particularly among Arab scholars, for whom it is difficult to travel to Israel, or even to Europe or the United States.
“The fact that they are available will be helpful for scholars because now if I want to start to study documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls I can study them online, instead of living in Israel or going to Israel.”
Still, according to both Zeidan and Hawary, no scholar can publish anything that will be taken seriously without examining the actual documents.
“I could study the documents online, but before I finish or publish anything I would go for two nights to see the original,” notes Hawary.
And the fact remains that the community of scholars with the knowledge necessary to interpret the scrolls is very small. Michael Reimer, professor of History at the American University in Cairo, suggested the importance of the digitization of the scrolls has been overblown for precisely this reason.
“I do not think the fact that they are now available online makes very much difference because you have to have very specialized knowledge to read these things,” says Reimer.
It may be characteristic of scholars who deal so exclusively in the disintegrating fragments of ancient times to be dismissive of advances in technology. But the general accessibility of the scrolls may have consequences no one can foresee.
“Maybe a new generation of scholars will come around and look at this with a methodology that we do not even have now,” says Reimer.
I remember once when I was working on the Cave Four Genesis and Exodus manuscripts in Jerusalem, Émile Puech and I had to look at one spot in a Genesis fragment through a powerful magnifying glass to establish that a place on the leather was not damaged, but represented a space between two damaged letters. This limited the options for possible readings and established that there was a large haplography in the line (that is, a good part of a verse had accidentally not been copied). I had examined the originals when writing my dissertation, but I hadn't examined this spot closely enough, so the re-examination with Émile allowed me to correct the reading in the final publication. If you want to look at the passage, it is Genesis 42:15 in 4QGenj frag. 5, which you can find in DJD 12, pp. 69-70 and plate 9. I have noted a similar, if less dramatic, story here.
The caveat: for the many manuscripts that have become discolored by age a regular photograph is not much use, because the scroll leather tends to darken to about the same color as the carbon ink, so many scrolls are unreadable both from visible-light photographs and even from the original. In such cases, infrared photographs bring the ink out so it is visible again. The contrast can be dramatic. I have noted an example (which I also edited) here. I see from a past post that the infrared photos taken in the 1950s are slated to go online as well, and in some cases these could be more useful than consulting the originals. More on infrared photography and the Dead Sea Scrolls here.
Background to the Google/Israel Museum Digital Dead Sea Scrolls Project here and links.