Martin G. Abegg on Electronic Dead Sea Scrolls

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.

‘Warning’ or ‘Turning’ in Isaiah 8.11

This text-critical problem has been my hobby horse for a while now. I’ve posted on the problem before, but since then I have changed my mind and completely reworked my paper as a critique of the solution offered by the Comité pour l’analyse textuelle de l’Ancien Testament hébru. I presented this last semester in the Isaiah seminar at SBTS, and I am posting it here for feedback. Though I have revised and rewritten the paper several times, it is still technically under construction. So whether you agree or disagree, your comments are welcome.
You can access the paper here. Below, I’ve included a portion of my introduction and conclusion without the footnotes:

In 1969 the United Bible Society launched the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project (HOTTP). As an aid to their translators, six scholars were commissioned to analyze roughly 5,000 of the most significant text critical problems in the Hebrew Bible. Dominique Barthélemy drafted the committee’s “final report” in his magisterial four-volume Critique textuelle de l’Ancien Testament. This paper is a critique of the committee’s report on וְיִסְּרֵנִי in Isaiah 8:11. The Masoretic Text reads as follows:

כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְהוָה אֵלַי כְּחֶזְקַת הַיָּד וְיִסְּרֵנִי מִלֶּכֶת בְּדֶרֶךְ הָעָם־הַזֶּה לֵאמֹר

The HOTTP committee proposed repointing the form as a hiphil wayyiqtol from סור (“and he turned me”). Barthélemy concludes as follows: “The reading וַיְסִירֵנִי, read here by Symmachus, appeared preferable to the committee, as holding an intermediate position between that of MT and those of 1Q-a and G…”

I propose, against Barthélemy, that MT’s וְיִסְּרֵנִי is the more original reading—a qalwəyiqtol 3ms of יסר, “to warn, instruct”… Reading ויסרני as a form of יסר allows one to better explain how the alternative readings might have arisen, and the form וְיִסְּרֵנִי, a qal wəyiqtol, can be translated in the context of Isaiah 8:11 in a way that fits with the conventions of Classical Hebrew syntax.

Weston Fields’ Full History of the DSS, vol. 1

I just read the last page of Weston Fields’ The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History, and I want to share a few reflections in order to bring this book to your attention if you do not already know about it and, hopefully, to motivate you to pick it up in the near future.

I have never been a “history guy.” History books do not line my shelves. I say this with a little shame, but it is true. Nevertheless, Weston Fields’ Full History of the Dead Sea Scrolls is on my short-list of books to buy this year at SBL. This history does not consist of boring, broad generalizations about events the author merely read about in other history books. Fields’ book is based on eye-witness testimony from,  interviews with, and the letters and diary entries of the people involved in the discovery, acquisition, research, and publication of the DSS. Fields writes,

Between 1999 and 2003 my wife and I traveled to every one of the people whose interviews are cited here, to Israel, the Netherlands, Jordan, Germany, Switzerland, France, the Isle of Man, England, and in the United States to New York, Boston, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Claremont. We met and learned from these men whose names are forever melded to the scrolls. (14-15)

This is real history writing. The difficulty of putting together the history of these fragmentary documents is no doubt comparable to the monumental task the Scrolls team faced in trying to piece together the thousands of fragments from Cave 4. It is an intriguing story told with the level-headed rigor of a scholar and the genuine excitement and passion of an enthusiast.

Toward the end of last semester I read the first couple chapters, which document the discovery of and initial research on the Cave 1 materials. My reaction:

I picked the book up again this summer during vacation. The remaining chapters tell the story of the discovery and acquisition of materials from Wadi Murabbaʿat (ch.3) and Caves 2-11 (ch.4-13), with special focus on the Cave 4. My favorite chapter is chapter 6, where Fields gives short biographies of each member originally considered for and/or a part of the Cave 4 team (Cross, Milik, Wernberg-Moller, Allegro, Emerton, Starcky, Strugnell, Hunzinger, Skehan, Baillet, and de Vaux [an administrator over the team], pp.193-231). Leslie, my wife, read this chapter to me while we drove to her parents for vacation, and she seemed to enjoy it, too. Fields has accomplished his goal of writing a history of the DSS for “all audiences.” He writes,

The book is intended for all audiences. Many books have been written about the Dead Sea Scrolls by specialist for specialists. This is not one of them. (16)

As is clear from the glowing review by Charlotte Hempel, the newly appointed executive editor of the Dead Sea Discoveries, the book certainly has something to offer to the specialist, as well. I walk away from Fields’ Full History feeling like I know these scholars. How could I not? The book is beautifully illustrated, and a large chunk of the 592 pages is filled with the (often witty and humorous) letters written between team members.

Four of the team members stood out to me in particular. I was inspired to immediately start gathering articles and books written by Frank M. Cross, Jr. “‘The Great Cross,’ as Allegro called him in a letter to Baillet in 1982, ‘Paragon,’ as W.F. Albright described him in 1950…” (193). If you get your hands on a copy of this book, please note the stately picture of this scholarly “paragon” on page 194. It’s impressive. Fields’ portrayal of Józef T. Milik leaves me with the impression that any work bearing Milik’s name is worthy of careful consideration. John Strugnell’s solid scholarship and gracious personality, especially in his dealings with Allegro, stood out as well. Fields’ description of John Marco Allegro’s descent from colleague of the scrollery to exile had me in one moment sympathizing with Allegro’s plight and in the next shaking my head in agreement with the decision of de Vaux (et al) to disassociate with him. When you get to hear this drama play out from the actual letters written between Allegro and the other team members, it is moving–an absolutely tragic story.

Thank you, Weston W. Fields, for a fantastic read! You have helped kindle within me an interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls that I suspect will not soon be extinguished. As Charlotte Hempel said, “We look forward to the next installment.”

4Q174 and Isaiah 8:11

What value have the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls for the biblical scholar? The document linked below provides just one example.

While researching for a paper on Isaiah 8:11-22, I became quite captivated by a textual problem in Isaiah 8:11 (BHS 8:11 “b”). Working on this problem piqued within me an interest in the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls because though the quotation of Isaiah 8:11 in 4Q174 is not extant, the preceding lines are instructive as to how the author understood the phrase ויסרני. See the linked document for my explanation of how 4Q174 is relevant to our understanding of Isaiah 8:11. [UPDATE: DOC PULLED FOR A FULL REVISION] Here are a few lines of introduction to the issue:

The second half of verse 11 opens with a much disputed verbal form, וְיִסְּרֵנִי. As it is pointed in the MT, the verb should be read as a piel wəqatal from the verb יסר, “to admonish”… Nevertheless, there is support for reading סור, instead. If יִסְּרֵנִי is a piel wəqatal from יסר, the pointing is irregular… One witness that is not often brought to bear on this text critical problem is 4Q174 (4QFlorilegium)…

UPDATE 10/2012 – In the conclusion of this document I say that I think one should read a verbal form from the root סור. Shortly after posting this I changed my mind. I will soon post my updated “final report,” interacting with Dominique Barthélemy’s Critique textuelle de l’Ancien Testament.
UPDATE″>revised paper is available here.