The Dead Sea Scrolls: every little dot counts

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In a masterful Smithsonian Magazine (January-February 2023) article, Chanan Tigay documents:

How an Unorthodox Scholar Uses Technology to Expose Biblical Forgeries:  Deciphering ancient texts with modern tools, Michael Langlois challenges what we know about the Dead Sea Scrolls

This engrossing account is so rich that I can only touch on a few of the highlights.  It's about a would-be, and to some extent still is, rock musician — looking like the bassist from Def Leppard — named Michael Langlois.  But, at 46, "he is also perhaps the most versatile—and unorthodox—biblical scholar of his generation."

What makes Langlois so special?  Reading through Tigay's article, it is his relentless quest to get to the bottom of puzzles posed by tiny details of the Dead Scrolls, and his creativity in devising unconventional tools and approaches for doing so.

…his facility with sophisticated technologies, some of his own design (he briefly worked constructing simulations to chart the route of a high-speed train through a mountain tunnel), has armed him with techniques that allow him to make sense of texts so badly damaged by age, climate or human folly that they are now nearly illegible. His approach, which combines the close linguistic and paleographical analysis of ancient writings with advanced scientific tools—from multispectral imaging to artificial intelligence-assisted “texture mapping”—can sometimes make long-gone inscriptions come back to life.

Or it can bury them for good—as in his most widely publicized feat of scholarly detective work, an exposé involving arguably the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Beginning around 2012, Langlois joined a group of scholars who were working to decipher Dead Sea Scrolls fragments in private collections and small museums.

…Langlois examined the fragments with computer-imaging techniques he had developed to isolate and reproduce each letter written on the fragments before beginning a detailed graphical analysis of the writing. And what he discovered was a series of flagrant oddities: A single sentence might contain styles of script from different centuries, or words and letters were squeezed and distorted to fit into the available space, suggesting the parchment was already fragmented when the scribe wrote on it.

Ultimately, the comparative-technological methods employed by Langlois led to the realization that many, if not most, and sometimes all the Dead Sea Scrolls fragments in the collections mentioned above were fakes, amounting to a revolution in scholarship on the scrolls.

Tigay goes on to describe Langlois' engagement with the Book of Enoch, also among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and written in an ancient Ethiopic  language called Ge'ez.

To faithfully reconstruct the text of Enoch, he needed digital images of the scrolls—images that were crisper and more detailed than the printed copies inside the books he was relying on. That was how, in 2004, he found himself traipsing around Paris, searching for a specialized microfiche scanner to upload images to his laptop. Having done that (and lacking cash to buy Photoshop), he downloaded an open-source knockoff.

First, he individually outlined, isolated and reproduced each letter on Fragment 1 and Fragment 2, so he could move them around his screen like alphabet refrigerator magnets, to test different configurations and to create an “alphabet library” for systematic analysis of the script. Next, he began to study the handwriting. Which stroke of a given letter was inscribed first? Did the scribe lift his pen, or did he write multiple parts of a letter in a continuous gesture? Was the stroke thick or thin?

Eventually, Langlois wrote a 600-page book that applied his technique to the oldest known scroll of Enoch, making more than 100 “improvements,” as he calls them, to prior readings.

His next book, even more ambitious, detailed his analysis of Dead Sea Scrolls fragments containing snippets of text from the biblical Book of Joshua. From these fragments he concluded that there must be a lost version of Joshua, previously unknown to scholars and extant only in a small number of surviving fragments. Since there are thousands of authentic Dead Sea Scrolls, it appears that much still remains to be learned about the origins of early biblical texts. “Even the void is full of information,” Langlois told me.

Langlois' next triumph has to do with the celebrated Stele of Mesha.

The Mesha Stele, a three-foot-tall black basalt monument dating to nearly 3,000 years ago, bears a 34-line inscription in Moabite, a language closely related to ancient Hebrew—the longest such engraving ever found in the area of modern-day Israel and Jordan. In 1868, an amateur archaeologist named Charles Clermont-Ganneau was serving as a translator for the French Consulate in Jerusalem when he heard about this mysterious inscribed monument lying exposed in the sands of Dhiban, east of the Jordan River. No one had yet deciphered its inscription, and Clermont-Ganneau dispatched three Arab emissaries to the site with special instructions. They laid wet paper over the stone and tapped it gently into the engraved letters, which created a mirror-image impression of the markings on the paper, what’s known as a “squeeze” copy.

But Clermont-Ganneau had misread the delicate political balance among rival Bedouin clans, sending members of one tribe into the territory of another—and with designs on a valuable relic no less. The Bedouin grew wary of their visitors’ intentions. Angry words turned threatening. Fearing for his life, the party’s leader made a break for it and was stabbed in the leg with a spear. Another man leaped into the hole where the stone lay and yanked up the wet paper copy, accidentally tearing it to pieces. He shoved the torn fragments into his robe and took off on his horse, finally delivering the shredded squeeze to Clermont-Ganneau.

Afterward, the amateur archaeologist, who would become an eminent scholar and a member of the Institut de France, tried to negotiate with the Bedouin to acquire the stone, but his interest, coupled with offers from other international bidders, further irked the tribesmen; they built a bonfire around the stone and repeatedly doused it with cold water until it broke apart. Then they scattered the pieces. Clermont-Ganneau, relying on the tattered squeeze, did his best to transcribe and translate the stele’s inscription. The result had profound implications for our understanding of biblical history.

In time, Clermont-Ganneau collected 57 shards from the stele and, returning to France, made plaster casts of each—including the one Langlois now held in his hand—rearranging them like puzzle pieces as he worked out where each of the fragments fit. Then, satisfied he’d solved the puzzle, he “rebuilt” the stele with the original pieces he’d collected and a black filler that he inscribed with his transcription. But large sections of the original monument were still missing or in extremely poor condition. Thus certain mysteries about the text persist to this day—and scholars have been trying to produce an authoritative transcription ever since.

The end of line 31 has proved particularly thorny. Paleographers have proposed various readings for this badly damaged verse. Part of the original inscription remains, and part is Clermont-Ganneau’s reconstruction. What’s visible is the letter bet, then a gap about two letters long, where the stone was destroyed, followed by two more letters, a vav and then, less clearly, a dalet.

In 1992, André Lemaire, Langlois’ mentor at the Sorbonne, suggested that the verse mentioned “Beit David,” the House of David—an apparent reference to the Bible’s most famous monarch. If the reading was correct, the Mesha Stele did not just offer corroborating evidence for events described in the Book of Kings; it also provided perhaps the most compelling evidence yet for King David as a historical figure, whose existence would have been recorded by none other than Israel’s Moabite enemies. The following year, a stele uncovered in Israel also seemed to mention the House of David, lending Lemaire’s theory further credence.

Over the next decade, some scholars adopted Lemaire’s reconstruction, but not everyone was convinced. A few years ago, Langlois, along with a group of American biblical scholars and Lemaire, visited the Louvre, where the reconstructed stele has been on display for more than a century. They took dozens of high-resolution digital photographs of the monument while shining light on certain sections from a wide variety of angles, a technique known as Reflectance Transformation Imaging, or RTI. The Americans were working on a project about the development of the Hebrew alphabet; Langlois thought the images might allow him to weigh in on the King David controversy. But watching the photographs on a computer screen in the moments they were taken, Langlois didn’t see anything of note. “I was not very hopeful, frankly—especially regarding the Beit David line. It was so sad. I thought, ‘The stone is definitively broken, and the inscription is gone.’”

It took several weeks to process the digital images. When they arrived, Langlois began playing with the light settings on his computer, then layered the images on top of each other using a texture-mapping software to create a single, interactive, 3D image—probably the most accurate rendering of the Mesha Stele ever made.

And when he turned his attention to line 31, something tiny jumped off the screen: a small dot. “I’d been looking at this specific part of the stone for days, the image was imprinted in my eyes,” he told me. “If you have this mental image, and then something new shows up that wasn’t there before, there’s some kind of shock—it’s like you don’t believe what you see.”

In some ancient Semitic inscriptions, including elsewhere on the Mesha Stele, a small engraved dot signified the end of a word. “So now these missing letters have to end with vav and dalet,” he told me, naming the last two letters of the Hebrew spelling of “David.”

Langlois reread the scholarly literature to see if anyone had written about the dot—but, he said, no one had. Then, using the pencil on his iPad Pro to imitate the monument’s script, he tested every reconstruction previously proposed for line 31. Taking into account the meaning of the sentences that come before and after this line, as well as traces of other letters visible on RTI renderings the group had made of Clermont-Ganneau’s squeeze copy, Langlois concluded that his teacher was right: The damaged line of the Mesha Stele did, almost certainly, refer to King David. “I really tried hard to come up with another reading,” Langlois told me. “But all of the other readings don’t make any sense.”

Langlois arced his phone slowly over the inscription, shining light over the words from different angles. Then he stopped over line 31. “The sequence of letters is from here to here,” he said. “So you can see the bet here at the beginning, then the vav and the dalet and the dot.”

Together we marveled at how much seems to rest on the presence or absence of a tiny mark carved onto a stone 3,000 years ago and recovered from distant sands—nothing less than evidence suggesting the existence of King David.

But it was hard to make out the mark, so I asked him if there was another on the stele that he could show me for comparison. He pointed to a better-preserved dot elsewhere.

“It looks like your dot got a little damaged,” I said.

“It’s a bit damaged, but with the correct angle”—here he moved his light again—“you can see the diameter is the same and the depth is the same.”

And it was true. Illuminated this way, it looked like a dot—effaced by water, by fire, by time itself. But a dot.

Every jot and tittle, which Anthony C. Yu told me he paid attention to in his translation of the 16th-century Xī Yóu Jì 西遊記 (Journey to the West).


Selected readings

[h.t. Hiroshi Kumamoto]


  1. GH said,

    January 11, 2023 @ 4:10 am

    Together we marveled at how much seems to rest on the presence or absence of a tiny mark carved onto a stone 3,000 years ago and recovered from distant sands—nothing less than evidence suggesting the existence of King David.

    I'm always a bit puzzled by the claims that archeological finds with apparent references to the House of David are evidence of the historical existence of King David.

    Was there ever any real doubt that the rulers of the Kingdom of Judah (many of which were certainly historical) claimed descent from a King David? Isn't the question not whether there was a self-styled "House of David," but whether David himself was an historical figure, or merely a legendary progenitor who never actually existed (or whose original historical inspiration—or inspirations—is so far removed from the figure of legend as to be irrelevant to the question of an historical "King David")?

    Anyone who has glanced at a few royal genealogies from the ancient world should be familiar with the tendency for historical rulers to claim ancestry from legendary ones whose existence is highly doubtful. If the existence of dynasties claiming descent from some heroic or divine forebear is proof that their supposed ancestor actually existed, then we would have to accept the historical existence of Aenas and Francio of Troy, of Hercules, of Odin and Frey, of Amaterasu, and of a host of others from all over the world.

    A more modest argument would be that any evidence that pushes back the attestation of claims of Davidic descent closer to the period he is supposed to have lived makes his historicity more likely, but I don't think this argument has much force.

  2. Stephen Goranson said,

    January 11, 2023 @ 8:33 am

    Michael Langlois also proposed that some Qumran mss written in Paleo-Hebrew script are older than previously thought.

    Some additional C14 tests, not yet completely published, reportedly suggest that at least some previous paleographic estimates might be revised to earlier date ranges.

  3. david said,

    January 11, 2023 @ 9:17 am

    Curiously, in the print version, the title of the article is “The Polymath” and the subtitle is subtly different, using “a scholar” instead of Langlois’s name. The body of the text seems the same but I haven’t compared every dot.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    January 11, 2023 @ 10:00 am

    Tigay goes on to describe Langlois' engagement with the Book of Enoch, also among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and written in an ancient Ethiopic language called Ge'ez.

    That got a bit too shortened. Wikipedia has all the details:

    The full-length text of has only survived in Ethiopia, in the local classical language, Ge'ez (which is most closely related to Tigre and Tigrinya). That's because all Jewish and Christian denominations outside of Ethiopia & Eritrea kicked the book out of their canon already in Roman times, even though canonical New Testament books (among other works) cite it as scripture; and that's because it simply got too embarrassing. Among other things, it explicitly describes a flat earth.

    However, it is clear that the book is older and comes from the Ancient Middle East. Apart from the mentioned citations/quotations, there are Aramaic fragments of it among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and fragments in Koiné Greek and in Latin have been found elsewhere.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 11, 2023 @ 10:02 am

    1. Michael Langlois is 15 years younger than Rick Savage (the actual still-extant bassist of the actual, historical Def Leppard), so I'm not sure quite how flattering a comparison that is? Although perhaps the author has a mental image of Savage based on photos taken several decades ago rather than recently?

    2. Something got a little garbled in the summary about the Book of Enoch. As the full linked article explains correctly, the various fragments of 1 Enoch found in the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Aramaic, not Ge'ez, but the only surviving manuscripts we have of the complete work are of an early translation into Ge'ez,* although there are also a few fragmentary remains of early translations into Greek and Latin. (Whether the original was written entirely in Aramaic, or in a blend of Aramaic and Hebrew a la the Book of Daniel is not known and not knowable, although apparently some have hypothesized the latter.)

    *I believe that some pious Ethiopian folks hold that the work was indeed originally composed in Ge'ez, but buzzkill outside scholars generally seem not to take this possibility seriously.

  6. Stephen Goranson said,

    January 11, 2023 @ 2:25 pm

    The Smithsonian article also reported that "Experts date the [Dead Sea] scrolls between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D. (though Langlois believes several may be two centuries older)."

    Langlois proposed, based on paleography that e.g. 4QGenesis (4Q46) and maybe 4QDeuteronomy (4Q12) probably date to the 5th or 4th century, earlier than the time a minority of scholars have proposed that the Torah was composed.

    Details here:

    Langlois, Michael. “Dead Sea Scrolls Palaeography and the Samaritan Pentateuch.” Pages
    255–85 in The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Edited by Michael
    Langlois. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 94. Leuven: Peeters, 2019

  7. Chris Button said,

    January 11, 2023 @ 2:48 pm

    Very cool. Someone needs to let him loose on the oracle-bone inscriptions.

  8. AntC said,

    January 11, 2023 @ 3:12 pm

    em every jot and tittle counts? Too obvious?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2023 @ 5:30 pm

    it's at the end of the o.p.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    January 12, 2023 @ 12:25 pm

    I believe that some pious Ethiopian folks hold that the work was indeed originally composed in Ge'ez, but buzzkill outside scholars generally seem not to take this possibility seriously.

    Yes to both, as the Wikipedia article makes clear.

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