The Cambridge Digital Library and The Israel Antiquities Authority are both launching an online collection of images from ancient scroll fragments, at a quality never seen before. Because of their age and delicacy these manuscripts are seldom able to be viewed — and when they are displayed, we can only show one or two pages. Now anyone with a connection to the Internet can select a work of interest, turn to any page of the manuscript, and explore it in extraordinary detail.
The Cambridge Digital Library has just made available thousands of pages from fragile religious manuscripts for Internet users’ perusal, including a 2,000-year-old copy of the 10 Commandments, known as the “Nash Papyrus.” The Israel Antiquities Authority is launching the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, an online collection of some 5,000 images of fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, at a quality never seen before.
The Israel Antiquities Authority texts include one of the earliest known copies of the Book of Deuteronomy, which includes the Ten Commandments; part of Chapter 1 of the Book of Genesis, which describes the creation of the world; and hundreds more 2,000-year-old texts, shedding light on the time when Jesus lived and preached, and on the history of Judaism. Millions of users and scholars can discover and decipher details invisible to the naked eye, at 1215 dpi resolution. The site displays infrared and color images that are equal in quality to the Scrolls themselves. There’s a database containing information for about 900 of the manuscripts, as well as interactive content pages.
The texts are of great historical and religious significance and include the earliest known surviving copies of biblical and extra-biblical documents, as well as preserving evidence of great diversity in late Second Temple Judaism. They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Nabataean, mostly on parchment, but with some written on papyrus and bronze. These manuscripts have been dated to various ranges between 408 BCE and 318 CE.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are traditionally divided into three groups: “Biblical” manuscripts (copies of texts from the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 40% of the identified scrolls; Other manuscripts (known documents from the Second Temple Period like Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, Sirach, and additional psalms, that were not ultimately canonized in the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 30% of the identified scrolls; and “Sectarian” manuscripts (previously unknown documents that shed light on the rules and beliefs of a particular group or groups within greater Judaism) like the Community Rule, War Scroll, Pesher on Habakkuk (Hebrew: פשר pesher = “Commentary”), and the Rule of the Blessing, which comprise roughly 30% of the identified scrolls.
In biblical Hebrew, the Ten Commandments are called עשרת הדברים (transliterated Asereth ha-D’bharîm) and in Rabbinical Hebrew עשרת הדברות (transliterated Asereth ha-Dibroth), both translatable as “the ten words”, “the ten sayings” or “the ten matters”. The Tyndaleand Coverdale English translations used “ten verses”. The Geneva Bible appears to be the first to use “tenne commandements”, which was followed by the Bishops’ Bible and the Authorized King James Version as “ten commandments”. Most major English versions follow the Authorized Version.There are three versions of the Ten Commandments. Religious groups use one of three historical divisions of Exodus 20:1–17 into ten parts tabulated below:
- Phi. The Philonic division is the oldest, from the writings of Philo and Josephus (first century), which labels verse 3 as number 1, verses 4–6 as number 2, and so on. Groups that generally follow this scheme include Hellenistic Jews, Greek Orthodox and Protestants except Lutherans. Most representations of the commandments include the prologue of verse 2 as either part of the first commandment or as a preface.
- Tal. The Talmudic division, from the third-century Jewish Talmud, makes verses 1–2 as the first “saying” or “declaration” (rather than “commandment”), and combines verses 3–6 as number 2.
- Aug. The Augustinian division (fifth century) starts with number 2 of the Talmudic division, and makes an extra commandment by dividing the prohibition on coveting into two. Both Roman Catholics and Martin Luther adopted the Augustinian method. Roman Catholics use Deuteronomy by default when quoting the Ten Commandments whereas Luther used the Exodus version.
The Cambridge Digital Library, which draws on the British university’s vast collection of manuscripts are among several important religious documents that were made public in a series of high-quality zoom-friendly images. Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947, the “Nash Papyrus,” also called “The Ten Commandments,” was the oldest known manuscript containing a text from the Hebrew Bible. It gets its name from the Egyptologist Walter Llewellyn Nash who purchased the manuscript from an antiquities dealer in 1902.
Other texts posted include an ancient copy of the New Testament, called the “Codex Bezae,” which contains all four Gospels (though the only complete one is the Gospel of Luke) and the Acts of the Apostles in both Greek and Latin. The Codex Bezae, thought to date from the late fourth or early fifth century, includes the oldest copy of the story of the adulterous woman (John 7.53-8.11). The phrase “let him who is without sin, cast the first stone” comes from that story.
Beyond texts with Jewish or Judeo-Christian significance, the online collection includes several very early fragments of the Quran, from the eigth or ninth centuries, and Sanskrit manuscripts covering all the major religious traditions of South Asia.
You can explore some of the Cambridge library’s ancient texts here: http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/.