The Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum is home to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum is home to the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Berthold Werner via Wikimedia)

This may be the High Holy Days, but it's also Christmas for everyone who loves history, archaeology and the Bible. The gift is online: The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls.

Stocked by the Israel Museum and powered by Google, the site has five high-resolution photos of the documents that include the oldest known manuscripts of the Bible -- as early as the third century before Christ. The museum plans eventually to post all the Dead Sea Scrolls online.

Exploring the site is a pleasure. Click a scroll, and you'll get a moderate blow-up, partly unrolled. Click again, and you zoom in, up to 3x -- big enough to see individual brush strokes and the texture of the parchment. You can also click and hold down the left mouse button and move the page around, like you're using Google Maps.

To move back and forth on a scroll, click a verse on the far left or right, and the scroll unrolls to show it fully. You can also click chapter numbers strung across the bottom.

Even more tricks are built into the image of the Great Isaiah Scroll. Float your mouse pointer over it, and you'll see chapter and verse highlighted. Click it, and an English translation pops up, with a hyperlink to explain various versions like the Masoretic text.

Each of the scrolls has an explanatory video and text block. A two-minute video gives an eloquent introduction to the discovery of the scrolls, and the importance of a website for them.

"Now you are not just a passive reader from the scrolls; you become active," a narrator says. "You have the chance to understand why these ancient manuscripts became the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century."

Just be careful about downloading: The site says it's illegal for anything but research or private study without permission from the museum. And from the sound of the copyright management page, it sounds like it'll cost you. Better to get a free picture from Wikimedia or Flickr Commons.

Among those announcing the new site is Bible History Daily, which offers a bonus: a free downloadable book, "The Dead Sea Scrolls -- What They Really Say." The author is Hershel Shanks, editor of the parent Biblical Archaeology Review and a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar himself.

To get the book, you have to subscribe to Bible History Daily, but that's free, too.

James D. Davis