Unraveling Records of the Past
previous next

“Unraveling Records of the Past,” Ensign, Aug. 2001, 64


Unraveling Records of the Past

  • Members of an ancient Syriac Christian group in the Middle East are looking far to the west for the preservation of some of their most precious religious texts—to scholars at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

  • That same BYU group is serving Islamic scholars by translating selected works of Muslim philosophers.

  • And that same BYU group makes available to other researchers what is believed to be the world’s largest library of digital images of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient documents discovered in caves near the Dead Sea in 1947.

The scholars are part of BYU’s Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts. The institute also includes the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). But FARMS devotes its efforts largely to the study of the times, places, and cultures of the Book of Mormon and ancient scriptural texts of interest to Latter-day Saints.

The BYU scholars who work with texts from other religions (their group was originally called the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, or CPART) gained international attention in the mid-1990s for their efforts to put digital images of all the Dead Sea Scrolls into a CD-ROM database. The database now includes thousands of images.

The scholars’ later publication of the translated writings of important Islamic philosophers opened dialogues with Muslim scholars, and their efforts to preserve those Dead Sea Scroll images drew the attention of Syriac leaders. Some of the Syriac documents they have been asked to publish are located in the Vatican Library in Rome.

The BYU institute focuses on three activities that are of great value to scholars and leaders of other faiths: preservation of ancient documents, translation (by scholars who are recognized experts in their field) and subsequent publication, and inclusion of documents in readily available electronic databases.

Their work in preservation is fascinating—sometimes amazing. They can “stitch” together document fragments on the computer to make one integrated image. Using computer technology, they have taken black images of carbonized documents—scorched in a burning church in Petra, Jordan, or volcanic ash at Herculaneum, in Italy, centuries ago—and produced easily readable images.

The Dead Sea Scrolls database produced at BYU has literally changed the world for scholars studying the scrolls. In the past, a researcher might have expected to wait half a lifetime to examine just one fragment of one scroll. Now, a scholar anywhere in the world can slip a CD from BYU into a computer and read in one sitting an entire text written two millennia ago.

Weston Fields, executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation in Jerusalem, commented that not long ago, none of his publication team knew where BYU was. Now, “Provo [Utah] has suddenly become an international center of Dead Sea Scrolls study.”

[photos] Photography by Mark A. Philbrick

[photo] Top left: Scholars photograph an ancient document as part of their preservation work.

[photo] Left: This small silver scroll, shown here unrolled, is among artifacts donated to BYU’s Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts.

[photo] Right: Kristian Heal, who studied the Syriac language at Oxford University, examines a sampling of texts by Syriac Christians.

[photo] Inset, right: The institute staff includes researchers such as Irena Abramian, who is fluent in Armenian, Russian, Hebrew, and English.

[photo] Left: BYU researchers work in a library in the Vatican as part of their examination and translation of ancient scriptural texts.

[photo] Inset, far left: Computer software allows researchers to compare an English translation from Hebrew, left, with the Hebrew text, center, and a photograph of the original document.

[photo] Above: Steve and Susan Booras, both part of the BYU research team, study images of an ancient carbonized scroll whose writings can be recaptured through use of computer technology.

[photo] Inset, right: Steve Booras, institute operations manager, searches for a CD from the institute’s extensive collection of Dead Sea Scroll images, located in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU.