Artificial intelligence based writer identification generates new evidence for the unknown scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls exemplified by the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa)

April, 2021


The Dead Sea Scrolls are tangible evidence of the Bible’s ancient scribal culture. This study takes an innovative approach to palaeography—the study of ancient handwriting—as a new entry point to access this scribal culture. One of the problems of palaeography is to determine writer identity or difference when the writing style is near uniform. This is exemplified by the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa). To this end, we use pattern recognition and artificial intelligence techniques to innovate the palaeography of the scrolls and to pioneer the microlevel of individual scribes to open access to the Bible’s ancient scribal culture. We report new evidence for a breaking point in the series of columns in this scroll. Without prior assumption of writer identity, based on point clouds of the reduced-dimensionality feature-space, we found that columns from the first and second halves of the manuscript ended up in two distinct zones of such scatter plots, notably for a range of digital palaeography tools, each addressing very different featural aspects of the script samples. In a secondary, independent, analysis, now assuming writer difference and using yet another independent feature method and several different types of statistical testing, a switching point was found in the column series. A clear phase transition is apparent in columns 27–29. We also demonstrated a difference in distance variances such that the variance is higher in the second part of the manuscript. Given the statistically significant differences between the two halves, a tertiary, post-hoc analysis was performed using visual inspection of character heatmaps and of the most discriminative Fraglet sets in the script. Demonstrating that two main scribes, each showing different writing patterns, were responsible for the Great Isaiah Scroll, this study sheds new light on the Bible’s ancient scribal culture by providing new, tangible evidence that ancient biblical texts were not copied by a single scribe only but that multiple scribes, while carefully mirroring another scribe’s writing style, could closely collaborate on one particular manuscript.

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