Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Artificial Intelligence identifies scribes responsible for Isaiah Scroll

Facsimile of Great Isaiah Scroll

Portion of the Great Isaiah Scroll (facsimile), showing just two of the 54 columns of the complete biblical text. Using artificial intelligence, researchers have determined that two different scribes worked together to produce the manuscript.

A recent computer analysis of handwriting from the Great Isaiah Scroll—one of the longest and best preserved of the Dead Sea Scrolls—found the 54-column text was produced by two different scribes who apparently worked in shifts to complete the task.

As reported April, 2021 in the journal PLOS One, researchers from the University of Groningen used artificial intelligence (AI) technology to train their computers to detect minute differences in the shape, styling, and curvature of the thousands of letters written on the scroll parchment. Although the styles of the letters appear nearly identical to the naked eye, the AI analysis revealed the work of two distinct scribal hands, with the second scribe taking over from the first about midway through the manuscript. Given the close similarity in penmanship, the researchers believe the two scribes likely received the same training or were even peers within the same scribal school.

In addition to telling us more about the scribes who produced the scrolls, the researchers believe that such analyses may also help answer a number of unresolved questions about the scrolls. For example, given that the Great Isaiah Scroll is securely dated by radiocarbon to the second century B.C.E., the AI-based handwriting analysis could potentially identify other scrolls written in a similar style and therefore likely produced at about the same time. Similarly, AI analysis of the handwriting found on the more than 40,000 scroll fragments could help scholars finally piece together at least some of the 900 scroll manuscripts from which the fragments originated.

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Hidden away nearly 2,000 years ago in desert caves adjacent to the ruins of Qumran along the shores of the Dead Sea, the Dead Sea Scrolls, first discovered by local Bedouin in 1947, include biblical manuscripts like the Great Isaiah Scroll, but also previously unknown sectarian writings likely associated with the early Jewish community who lived at Qumran. The scrolls revolutionized scholarly understandings of early Judaism during the Second Temple period and provided new information about the varieties of Jewish thought that flourished at the time.

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Hershel’s Crusade, No. 1: He Who Freed the Dead Sea Scrolls So, of course, the question: What would have happened if Hershel [and Biblical Archaeology Review] had not carried out his campaign to free the scrolls and had instead granted the new editor-in-chief the opportunity to turn matters about? I have actually debated this question on several occasions with Emanuel himself and have concluded—given Tov’s obvious talent for managing such a minor miracle—that the publications in the fall of 1991 that have been credited with freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls actually played a very different, and arguably more important, role.

Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? Most scholars believe the Dead Sea Scrolls (more than 900 of them) were either written or collected by a sect of Jews called Essenes, who are described by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo. However, the scrolls themselves make no explicit reference to the Essenes. Scholars infer the connection because of the congruence of Essene philosophy and doctrine as reflected in the scrolls and as described in Josephus and Philo.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament What do the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us about the New Testament? One possible answer is: Nothing. The scrolls were associated with a relatively small group, or, rather, with several small groups. Other Jewish people, like the first Christians, may not even have known about their sectarian writings. In fact, there is no evidence that any author of a New Testament book knew of or used any of the sectarian works found in caves near Qumran that we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Searching for the “Original” Bible When ancient Biblical texts differ from one another, which one should we believe? More specifically, in answering this question: How helpful are those ancient scrolls of the Hebrew Bible found among the Dead Sea Scrolls?


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