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A Mission of Discovery

An Alliance scientist finds the key to his call

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The charred cylinder the researcher places in the small CT scanner is a scroll, an ancient specimen of literature, perhaps secular, maybe sacred. No one knows its secrets because it looks like a burrito that’s been rescued from a campfire or a cigar that was plucked from the ashes of a fireplace. The scan will allow scientists to “read” it using special software developed by a lifelong member of the Alliance family.

The Ein Gedi manuscript partially digitally unrolled.

Brent Seales, PhD, head of the department of computer science at the University of Kentucky, is the go-to guy for the international scientific community that wants to crack the codes of these fragile scrolls without destroying them. Brent has been on the faculty at UK since 1991 and the department chair for two years. The software he developed (with funding from the National Science Foundation) to virtually “unroll” these ancient treasures has placed him at the forefront of the digital imaging of ancient manuscripts.

Brent’s first project was to help decipher texts from the British Library’s Cotton Collection (which also contains the medieval Beowulf manuscripts) damaged in a fire several hundred years ago. However, he was in the news this summer when he was able to read a scroll found in the Holy Ark from a burned-out synagogue in Ein Gedi, Israel. The curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls gave Brent data from a CT scan of the scroll—information the Israeli team was unable to decipher without the scanning software Brent has been perfecting since 2000.

The Ein Gedi scroll turned out to be significant. A copy of the Book of Leviticus dating from the seventh century A.D., it is the oldest known Hebrew manuscript outside the Dead Sea Scroll collection.

Brent sees God’s hand at work in how the data came to him. “The scroll was excavated 45 years ago by someone I have never met, saved in an archive at a place I have never been, and [the scan] was handed to me by a woman who oversees the entire collection as the curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, who until then I had never met.

“I really had no expectations of what the scroll might actually contain. I was just hopeful that I could read anything. Coming from that place to the place where I realized this was actually the Bible and you can actually see the Lord’s name . . . You can imagine the impact that has.”

A cross-section of the Ein Gedi manuscript showing the complexity of text folding on top of text.

His experience with the Cotton Collection, which was written on flat vellum, led Brent to start brainstorming about a process of digitally unrolling fragile scrolls. It was then that someone pointed out that he didn’t have to merely hypothesize—such material existed. Scrolls from Herculaneum, the Roman city that, along with Pompeii, was destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., were stored in various museums. Many had been physically “opened” over the years, resulting in extensive damage to the scrolls.

The Herculaneum material that has been opened contains treatises—with titles such as “On Poetry” and “On Music”—that offer a glimpse into the thinking of the day, especially relating to the Greek Epicurean school of philosophy popular throughout the Roman Empire in the first century.

“It’s interesting to read what they thought about pleasure, pain, what it meant to live a life in that era in a way that was going to lead to happiness or bring some kind of fulfillment or joy. The Epicureans where trying to capture for them what that meant,” Brent observes. “These are all the same kinds of things we still struggle with, think about, write about, and ultimately, I believe, turn to Christ to answer.”

In order to image ancient or medieval texts, the scrolls are scanned in a micro-CT machine similar to ones used in medical practice. The X-rays penetrate the object at 360 degrees to generate an estimate of the density of what is being scanned, and that variation of density is actually what produces the image. Just as bones, which have the highest density, “pop out” on a medical scan, the high iron content of medieval-era inks, such as those used in the Cotton Collection, are clearly visible on the CT scan.

The process becomes even more complex with materials from the classical era because the inks used by ancient scribes did not contain iron. The researcher must look for shifts in frequency of the beam, indicating the presence of written characters.

A face-on view of the Ein Gedi manuscript.

“Instead of trying to see the letters as two-dimensional ‘bones,’ you have to figure out how to put them on a three-dimensional page, which is not flat,” Brent explains. “It’s all very geometric and text oriented because that’s what you’re searching for—the exact text.”

During the last two years, the team has seen breakthrough results in the Herculaneum scrolls by using a special X-ray beam from a particle accelerator. Though none of the 300-plus scrolls from the Herculaneum collection have yet been read in their entirety, Brent is excited about the possibilities.

“If they are the same as the opened ones [more Epicurean philosophy] some will be disappointed, because we have a lot of that already,” Brent points out. “But there is a world of possibility for other things they might be: new previously unknown Greek texts, examples of other classical literature that has since been lost to antiquity, Paul’s manuscript to the Romans, perhaps? Right now, it’s a big mystery.”

Brent and a colleague flew to Los Angeles to pick up a disc of the Ein Gedi scan from Pnina Shor (pictured with Brent), the curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection.

Finding the ancient Leviticus text is spiritually significant to Brent because, while attending Alliance churches growing up, it was clear that missionaries, who devoted their lives to sharing the gospel overseas, had aligned their life’s work with their faith. Active in Intervarsity throughout college, he and fellow Christian graduate students struggled with the question of how their faith would intersect their careers. “I didn’t know what my calling would look like because my calling was to be a computer scientist,” Brent says. “I hadn’t seen examples of computer scientists who had aligned their faith and their work.”

It took years of being a student and a professor before he was able to see the pieces come together in a way he never anticipated. “It feels like a huge blessing because [content] is not the part as a scientist one can control. I can control how I write software. I can control all the techniques we use every day and try to make them work through the scientific method. But I cannot control what might be written inside a scroll. The fact that it turned out to be God’s Word is a huge thing for me. It brings me to a position of trust and understanding that I didn’t have as a graduate student, that’s for sure,” Brent says.

“Every week at our church [First Alliance in Lexington] we read the Word and always end the reading with ‘This is the Word of the Lord, and we believe it.’ To stand in church on Sunday is one thing, but it’s quite another to stand in your lab and realize that what you are looking at is the Word of the Lord from 600 A.D. and you are the only one who has seen it for more than a thousand years.”

Brent feels that the reading of the Ein Gedi manuscript is just the beginning of access to sacred texts. He plans for his software to be open source so texts can be scanned, translated, and distributed beyond the scientific community. “There is archeology and then there is what I call ‘digital exploration’ or ‘digital archeology.’ There is a serious amount of unknown material out there, so I do see a future where maybe some new thinking will also bring some new encouragement and excitement about what may be coming next.”

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