Saturday, June 17, 2006

A Modest Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls - Part I

Many of us have some vague ideas about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Desert caves, Bedouins, clay jars, old writings about -- what, exactly? That was about as far as my knowledge extended until I went to a lecture a couple of weeks ago that preceeded a guided tour of the museum exhibit in which a fragment of one of them is displayed. I love a great "Mystery of History," so indulge me in this brief summary of what I've learned (and credit goes to the seminary professor/parish priest from whom I've learned a tremendous amount about scriptural criticism and interpretation in the classes he has offered for laypeople over the years):

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of about 800 manuscripts, found between 1947 and 1956 in the caves of Qumran, on the northwest side of the Dead Sea. They are handwritten, mostly on animal skins, some on papyrus and, while none bear authors' names (as was traditional at the time) or internal dates, they have been dated (and yes, you can google them and discover that they have been carbon-dated) from 200 BCE - 100 CE, largely by their parallels to histories written by Philo and Josephus.

The leading hypothesis about the Scrolls is that they constituted the library of the Essenes, a Jewish sect of the first century, contemporaneous with the life of Christ. They contain no reference to Jesus or his followers, but they do contain most of the books of the Hebrew Bible, including multiple copies of many of them, and a number of books not known before that describe the life of the Essene community.

The discovery of the Scrolls and the dawning understanding of what they represent is a great adventure tale: from a young Bedouin shepherd throwing rocks in a cave and running away when he heard the sound of something breaking, to the return trip and discovery of the first seven scrolls, to the baffled Syrian archbishop who bought four of them for $100 and the equally confused professor at Hebrew University who purchased the other three, to the Johns Hopkins manuscript expert who immediately recognized them as the "greatest manuscript discovery of all time," to the race to the caves by scholars and Bedouins as the word leaked out that something of value might be hidden in them, to the 15,000 fragments carted off -- many by Bedouins to marketplaces -- and painstakingly retrieved over many subsequent years, to the Wall Street Journal ad that brought the Syrian archbishop a rather large return on his initial $100 investment. The original seven scrolls are now all in Israel, except for the small fragment that came to us handcuffed to its caretaker and under 24/7 guard in the museum.

Why does anyone care? Stay tuned. . .


Stacy said...

Actually, I'm very interested! Glad to see this is Part I. I'll be checking back for more entries.

Judith said...

A very good brief summary of a complex (and controversial) topic. I'm looking forward to reading more.

Kathryn said...

You succinctly summed up the extent of my knowledge in the first part of your entry. I am fascinated. How long will it be there?