“The problem with doing ancient history is that you don’t have very many sources,” said Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and part of the group convened by Bruce Zuckerman to study the Dead Sea Scroll fragments at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Teaneck. “You have to squeeze out as much as you can from everything that does exist.”

Fine, who also heads YU’s Center for Israel Studies, is clearly excited by the project and the doors that Zuckerman’s work have opened for students in the field.

He said that Zuckerman, a friend for some 30 years, first approached him when he was a graduate student in Jerusalem.

“I got a call saying, ‘Stop everything. Next week we’re photographing the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Shrine of the Book.”

According to Fine, by capturing new images of old documents, Zuckerman’s reflectance transformation imaging technology “changes how you look at them.”

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“The wonderful thing is that we can bring our students and our skills into this,” said YU professor Steven Fine. courtesy yeshiva university

While Fine’s expertise lies in Jewish history of the Second Temple and talmudic periods, “Zuckerman figured out in the 1980s that photography and later computer imaging could provide access to the inscriptions in ways that couldn’t be done even by real specialists in the field.”

By way of example, he cited an inscription on an abraded clay tablet, traditionally read as “cook the baby goat or kid in milk.” This was quickly cited as designating a practice condemned in the Bible, “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”

“Everyone loved [the interpretation],” he said, pointing out that it fit the teachings of the Rambam about Canaanite practices.

Nevertheless, after Zuckerman took a picture of the piece using the newest technology, scholars realized that “it couldn’t say that. The letters wouldn’t fit.”

Fine said imaging can be used to pull out a word and to follow the strokes of letters.

“It might seem trivial, but sometimes it matters,” he said, adding that he and his students are the “happy beneficiaries” of Zuckerman’s techniques, which, he said, are not unlike those used for star distinction by the Hubble telescope.

“The wonderful thing is that we can bring our students and our skills into this,” he added, noting that his students at YU, graduate and undergraduate, have already been involved in several projects using the technology.

Three years ago, with funding from YU’s Israel Center and the school’s Rabbi Arthur Schneier Center for International Affairs, a team of students from YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, supervised by Fine, decoded amulets dating from the talmudic period, the fifth-sixth century CE.

“They deciphered an aggadic story on a silver amulet that we knew from other places but in a different version than we saw before,” said Fine, explaining that he sent Pinchas Roth and Eytan Zadoff to USC to learn from Zuckerman and then use his technologies to decipher the text. (The Aggadah contains stories from the Oral Law.)

“They spent endless time figuring out the letters,” ultimately reading more than 30 lines, each a millimeter tall. “Before, only true experts could read these texts,” he said. “With Bruce’s techniques, I had two graduate students who could read it.”

Since then, Roth and Zadoff have presented their research at conferences and will publish their work in a forthcoming tribute to Zuckerman.

In addition, said Fine, “I worked with a group of students on Jewish Aramaic tombstones from the fifth century from Zoar, a city on the Dead Sea in modern Jordan.”

Their findings will soon appear in an academic publication and in an article written for the Biblical Archaeology Review.

Speaking to the importance of the fragments now residing in Teaneck, Fine said “sometimes little scraps matter. You never know what will be important. The people who, historically, put scrolls together had to remember that this piece might go with that piece. Now they go to their screens and fit strokes together to make sure it’s the same sofer,” scribe.

Fine said he has also given inscriptions to students in several of his courses – from freshman writing to graduate history on both the school’s Wilf and Beren campuses – challenging them to use their Judaic and computer skills to figure out what they say.

“It’s not a big deal to use Photoshop,” he added, but combining that knowledge with students’ Judaic knowledge is a big deal.

“Our students can excel with this,” he said, noting that by providing his students with Zuckerman’s technologies, he affords them the opportunity and independence to conduct higher caliber research.

“Our students compare with any, especially in the fields of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic,” said Fine. “It is only sensible that we bring them in to share and add to the scholarly enterprise.”