Bravo Hacker

GARRY WILLS

September 10, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- I am technologically retrograde. I have never tried a word processor, or used any other kind of computer. In fact, I do not even use a typewriter any more; I write everything in longhand.

But I realize that I am the beneficiary of technology, and I have seen how scholarly work has been improved by computers. For one thing, they have speeded the publication of historical documents.

That fact has made a number of scholars fume over the slow processing of the Dead Sea Scrolls, those ancient papyrus rolls and fragments full of biblical and other religious texts discovered in the 1940s and 1950s.

The scrolls have always been controversial -- both in their content and in their conditions of possession and publication. But now there is a ''hot book'' published from them, one that some Harvard scholars would like to see banned.

''Banned in Boston'' was a phrase that used to sell ''dirty'' books, but even the most dogged lover of scandal will not be investing in these patchy Hebrew texts generated by a computer. The smuggling of Bibles out of captivity has a long and glorious history, and the computer has now joined in.

A graduate student, expert at using his computer, did the job. His was only loosely, not technically, an act of ''hacking'' (getting into another computer's system).

It is really a rather mundane operation -- one that could be done from any concordance to a major text that lists words in their phrase-context. The standard Shakespeare concordance (computer-generated, by the way) contains all the text of Shakespeare -- most of it many times over -- in the phrases taken out, with their key words. All one has to do to ''re-create'' the complete text of the plays is program a computer to join the overlapping phrases and eliminate repetition, so that the original emerges from the multiple references back to it.

In Shakespeare's case, we would get the text used by those making the concordance. For the scrolls, what the computer got a hasty and provisional decipherment of the text first put into the concordance. This is not ideal; it is certainly not a critical text in the scholarly sense. All it gives people is what the early scholars made of the scrolls at the outset, as they compiled the concordance for their own internal use and convenience.

But the graduate student got hold of that concordance, and could reconstruct its source, imperfect as that may be. Even that is useful to scholars who have waited three or four decades to check particular points of great importance to them. Since the caretakers of the text have been possessive, lazy, inept and wrangling, the admittedly slow work of creating an authoritative text has been no work at all for much of the time.

Outraged members of the commission in charge of the text of the scrolls claim that the ''hacker'' has stolen what was not his.

That description rather fits them. They have stolen from public instruction the work of scribes dead now for 2,000 years, and kept it from the scholarly community that has a right to know what is knowable, however imperfectly, before a whole generation of Bible students dies off having waited for what they could never see.

Bravo hacker. Bravo computer.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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