In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd boy was in the Judean wilderness southeast of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea, taking care of some of his family’s flock of goats, when one of the goats wandered off. The limestone cliffs there are studded with dozens of small caves, and the boy didn’t feel like climbing up there to look in every cave, so he started throwing rocks into the caves, figuring he could hit the goat and drive it out. But he was startled when one of his throws brought a “crash” of breaking pottery.
He had just made the most important historical find of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The scrolls opened for us a window into the past, to a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who lived in the desert community of Qumran, near the NW corner of the Dead Sea. Not as large as other, better known groups from the time of Christ like the Pharisees or Sadducees, the Essenes believed in strict personal holiness, sexual purity, and rejected wealth and worldly pursuits. They practiced daily immersion as a symbol of purity, and lived as a separate community, calling themselves the “Sons of Light” and looking for the Messiah.
John the Baptist may well have been their most famous member.
They had a large collection of Biblical and non-Biblical scrolls, which they studied regularly. So, when they saw Jerusalem destroyed in AD 70, they took their precious scrolls, put them in large clay jars, and hid them in the caves above their community. They were pretty much scattered by the Roman occupation, and so the scrolls sat in those jars, in that dry desert heat, for nearly 2000 years.
The scrolls are important for Biblical scholarship because before their discovery, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts only dated back to about AD 1000 – that’s over 1400 years since the last book of the Old Testament was written. That’s a long time, skeptics said – too long to have any faith that the Old Testament (or Tanakh, in Jewish terms) could be trusted to be reliable.
Most of the scrolls,with a few notable exceptions, had deteriorated to being no more than fragments, a few inches in size. But scholars were still able to read them, to piece them together, and to determine which OT books they represented. And they found parts of every book of the Hebrew scriptures except Esther. Carbon dating and other methods confirmed that some of the scrolls were as old as 200 BC.
When they compared the text of the scrolls to that of known Hebrew manuscripts, they found, after 1,200 years of hand-copying, over 95% agreement between the documents! And a majority of the differences represented only variations in spelling or other minor changes; none of the variations involved any texts with doctrinal significance.
There is currently a major exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls and related historical material at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Thanks to my friend James Rike for letting me know about it!) So this past Saturday, Kathy and I were part of a group from our Investigators Bible Study class at Beltway to make the trip to Fort Worth the view the exhibit. In my opinion, it’s well worth the $25 ticket price.
First, you go through a tour of historical artifacts from that period in world and Israel history. There are old oil lamps, coins, ossuary boxes for holding human bones, and many other fascinating items on display. All of these things set the historical stage for the scrolls. Then you see several facsimiles – exact copies – of some of the scrolls, to show you what to notice in the real thing. At this point, you’re ushered in to watch a short video, further putting the scrolls into their proper place in history and Biblical scholarship. Finally, you’re led in to see the scrolls themselves.
Kathy pointed out that it was a good thing they had the other exhibits and videos first, to help you understand the importance of what you’re seeing, because otherwise the scrolls themselves can be somewhat – underwhelming. For one thing, they’re not really scrolls anymore – they’re mostly fragments now, only a few inches in size. Also, they’re kept in dark cases, with only minimal light, to prevent further fading. But it was still fascinating; more so because many of the items on display had never been put up for public viewing anywhere before.
I’ve been to the actual museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem, but I was really moved and impressed by the excellence of this exhibit. I thought one of the most fascinating parts was to notice the wrinkling and cracking of the ancient leather parchment; it looked just like the wrinkling of an old leather glove. Same thing with the plant fibers of those documents written on papyrus.
In addition to the DSS, they also had numerous artifacts of the New Testament and historically significant editions of the Bible – including two pages of the oldest known copy of the letters of Paul, from the papyrus p46, dating back to about the year 175. And much, much more.
Finally, just outside the museum, you can walk through a re-creation of part of the Qumran dig site, with actual pieces of 2000 year old pottery fragments on the ground, donated by the Smithsonian Museum. The fragments are from the Tel Gema historical site in SW Israel, and everyone is allowed to keep one piece of pottery.
If you have any interest in how we got the Bible, archeology, or world history, I strongly recommend a visit. The exhibit continues until January 13; their website is www.seethescrolls.com.
One final thought: perhaps the single most important discovery of the DSS was a near-perfect copy of the book of Isaiah. So hear again the words of the prophet, from Isaiah 40:8 – “The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”