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Friday, March 2nd, 2007

Minster man brings ancient words to life

By Shelley Grieshop
MINSTER - Dusty manuscripts filled with ancient scribble attract Jan Wilson like a child to a candy store.
A part-time eye doctor and surgeon, Wilson's in-depth knowledge and training in ancient religious studies has given him the ability to translate some of the world's oldest literature into languages that can be read and studied by scholars around the world.
His hobby, as he calls it, has taken him to faraway countries. One of the most famous manuscripts he has studied and helped digitally catalog was the Dead Sea Scrolls - 2,000-year-old documents that date back before Jesus was born.
"The Dead Sea Scrolls give us a lot of information on the world into which Christianity was born," says the 59-year-old Minster resident and Dayton-area native.
Wilson will lecture today in Kirtland at the visitors' center of the Latter Day Saints where a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit is on display to the public. He and his wife, Eileen, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in St. Marys.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, also known as the Qumran collections, were discovered in 1947 in a cave near the shore of the Dead Sea, by a shepherd boy searching for a stray sheep. The scrolls, found tucked inside clay jars, include biblical and non-biblical documents and fragments.
Wilson, who has a bachelor's degree in German and French, earned a medical degree in osteopathic medicine in 1973, completing his residency in Germany. In the '80s he received a doctorate in Hebrew and related studies from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
He and his wife spent five years living in Jerusalem before being asked to come to Brigham Young University in Utah in 1996 to translate the Dead Sea Scrolls onto a computer program with a user-friendly search system.
Fortunately, the team of Israeli scholars assigned to the scrolls from the date of their discovery, used large negatives to photograph the now deteriorating and fading manuscripts. Negative copies were used by Wilson, his wife and others to catalog and translate the scrolls at the university.
"I scanned in about 10,000 pictures," said his wife, who worked as the project's electronic artifact digitizer.
The team's work resulted in the first complete computerized database of the scrolls now kept on CD but not yet available online to the public. The digital view of the fragmented scrolls continues to be used by scholars all over the world for research, says Wilson, as he zooms in and out of the ancient text on his home computer screen.
Wilson and his wife, who have four adult sons and 15 grandchildren, are ongoing invited guests at the Vatican Apostolic Library in Rome where they are helping digitalize manuscripts tucked away in the basement, out of view of visitors. Jan Wilson has been "cleared" by Roman Catholic Church officials to view the secretly-held documents - some dating back to the 9th century and yet to be translated, he said.
"They have no idea what some of them are," he adds.
Wilson had a desire to learn about other cultures and languages since the age of 14, he says.
"My dad also was a doctor who did a lot of work with refugees after World War II. I thought it would be interesting to be able to talk to people from all walks of life," he says.
He first learned Hebrew so he could better understand the Old Testament, he says. His passion for the study of ancient civilizations has placed his career as an eye surgeon on hold, even though there is virtually no paycheck for the work he loves.
He hopes to continue to pursue the vast amount of information still out there waiting to be revealed, he adds.
"There's just so much history in the Middle East disappearing as these manuscripts disappear," Wilson says.

If you go:
What: Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit
Where: Latter Day Saints Kirtland Visitors' Center, 7800 Kirtland-Chardon Road, Kirtland, near Cleveland
When: Now through May 15, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily and 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays
Cost: Free
Details: The exhibit includes pictures and facsimiles of scrolls, including one about 20 foot long of the Isaiah scroll from Cave 1 of Qumran, and headphones for self-guided tours. For further information, contact the center at 440-256-9805 or go online at
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