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February 2001 - Nr. 2


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German Laser Technology to shed Light on Dead Sea Srolls

  TWIG - Israeli archaeologists hope to unlock the secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the help of a German microscope that can trace letters invisible to the naked eye. "The days of the Messiah have finally arrived," joked Professor Emmanuel Dov upon receiving a symbolic key to the microscope from Rudolf Dreßler, Germany’s ambassador to Israel. Priced at about DM 250,000 (U.S. $120,00), the confocal laser scanning microscope is expected to help researchers read some of the most faded sections of the legendary leather and papyrus texts discovered in caves near Qumran in 1947.

Scholars have translated portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but progress has been slow, and some passages of text are so faint and fragmented that their wording has been in dispute for years. The confocal microscope will ease this problem, allowing researchers to identify letters written on the scrolls even in places where the ink is missing. Using a special computer-controlled laser scanning technique, the microscope can produce extremely sharp three-dimensional pictures of a surface within a few minutes, and is expected to clear up uncertainties where previous methods had failed. It also has the advantage that it can be used while the scrolls are kept behind glass, protecting them from decay. "Work that used to take years, because everything had to be painstakingly deciphered, examined, compared and interpreted, can happen in months now," Dov said in explaining the importance of the new technology.

Religious historians have long been debating the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Written mainly between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D. by members of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, they have survived the centuries only because of the extremely arid atmosphere in the desert surrounding the Dead Sea. According to Dov, about two-thirds of the approximately 900 scrolls are copies of the Hebrew Bible. But many of the remaining scriptures offer a detailed account of the theology of the Essenes, including passages that bear striking resemblance to the Christian Gospels.

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