Interview with Martin G. Abegg on Electronic Dead Sea Scrolls

martin-abegg

One person stands behind all electronic versions of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Martin G. Abegg, professor and co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University.

His name and infamous Mac computer are mentioned in almost every history of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but we wanted to give him the opportunity to tell a little of his story in his own words.

Ken Penner:       When did you first start creating a database of Dead Sea Scrolls texts?

Martin G. Abegg: The database began in the Spring of 1988 when I took Prof. Ben Zion Wacholder’s Qumran Sectarian Literature course at Hebrew Union College. I had typed several extended passages into MS Word in order to more conveniently search them and realized that I should find a way to collect these and future additions. Apple’s Hypercard became my first search engine.

KP:       What kind of computer equipment and software did you initially use and why?

MA: I started my grad studies in the fall of 1984 at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was sometime early in that first semester that Steve Pfann took me down to the new computer labs on the Mt. Scopus campus. The PC and Mac rooms were next door to one another. The PC room was nearly empty but the Mac room was a buzz of activity. So armed with Steve’s home-made Masora font (see the first and second fascicles of the Preliminary Editions) I dove in. In the fall of 1987 I purchased my own Mac SE as part of a ploy launched by my Mom to entice me to move back from Israel and continue my studies in the States.

KP:       What kinds of controversies did this project land you in?

MA: Nothing at this early stage. The events leading up to access to the Preliminary Concordance and the September 1991 publication with Prof. Wacholder brought a bit of controversy and have been well documented by Ed Cook (Solving the Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls: New Light on the Bible, Zondervan, 1993) and Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College and the Dead Sea Scrolls, HUC Press, 2012).

KP:       How did you connect with Accordance to bring these texts to that platform?

MA: I met Dr. Roy Brown (creator of Accordance) in Nov. of 1991 at a Mexican restaurant in Kansas City while there for SBL. I had known of his “Perfect Word,” and “Mac Bible” and he was in the early stages of writing new software to take advantage of the morphologically tagged Hebrew databases that were just then becoming available. I began “tagging” my text files and working with Roy to use Accordance to search them. It was several years before we released my data. Roy invested 100s of hours as we both worked out the bugs in both my data and Accordance itself.

KP:       How and when did other Bible software makers begin to publish your database?

MA: I believe Olive Tree was the first software—aside from Accordance–to license the data for the “Sectarian” data base. Followed by Logos and BibleWorks. Eventually this data became the basis for Brill’s Electronic Library publication (the second edition shepherded by BYU). And of course the DSS Concordance vol. i.

KP:       What are some examples of discoveries made possible by such databases?

MA: Wow, this could be a lengthy research project in and of itself. Emanuel Tov’s work has leaned heavily on my data (e.g. Scribal Practices and Approaches). His queries about how to search for various phenomena in the data have also improved various functions within Accordance itself.  Ebert Tigchelaar sends me regular corrections, so I know the tagged data is an important part of his arsenal of tools. The folk at ThWQ have indicated that I have made their work much easier. Lange and Wiegold’s recent Biblical Quotations and Allusions in Second Temple Jewish Literature used the Accordance infer function and my data to produce the Qumran lists.

KP:       What has improved over the years since your database was first released?

MA: The database itself was updated rather dramatically after the publication of the first concordance to accord with DJD. Aside from that the main updatings have come on the side of the search software and the speed of computers. And of course we have moved on to the DSS Biblical mss (Accordance modules DSSB-C/M), the refuge caves (Accordance JUDEAN), and Hebrew Ben Sira (Accordance SIRA-C/M).

KP:       What are the next developments you foresee in electronic DSS research?

MA: Rob Holmstedt (University of Toronto) and I developed a tagging scheme for syntactic analysis and with the help of Roy Brown have been working the bugs out of an Accordance syntax search function. With a group of TWU students I have syntactically tagged some 20 major Qumran documents. I read my first paper describing the project and initial results at IOQS in Munich this past summer. This means of searching the text promises to replace the “cherry-picking” approach to Qumran grammar and to provide us with a detailed and scientific description of Second Temple Hebrew.

Thanks for taking the time to give us the short version of this story; I’m sure you could write a book about it! We know recognition for this kind of tedious and meticulous work can be hard to come by (as you say, there’s “no honour in databases”), yet we all are the beneficiaries of this passion of yours.

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