Saturday, July 21, 2007

Travel: Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit in San Diego



What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls were initially discovered by Bedouin herders and then by archaeologists between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves near Khirbet Qumran, on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea in Israel. Thousands of fragments were discovered and pieced together into over 900 separate documents including biblical books, hymns, prayers, and other important writings.

quote source: http://www.sdnhm.org/scrolls/history.html

How old are they?

Within a fairly short time after their discovery, historical, paleographic, and linguistic evidence, as well as carbon-14 dating, established that the scrolls and the Qumran ruin dated from the third century B.C.E. to 68 C.E. They were indeed ancient!

quote source: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/intr.html

Who wrote them?

The word “Essene” is never distinctly mentioned in the scrolls. How, then, can we attribute either the writings or the sites of the Judaean Desert to the Essenes? The argument in favour of this ascription is supported by the tripartite division of Judaism referred to in Qumran writings (for example, in the Nahum Commentary), into Ephraim, Menasseh and Judah, corresponding to the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. As the Essenes refer to themselves in the scrolls as Judah, it is clear who they regarded themselves to be. Moreover, their religious concepts and beliefs as attested in the scrolls conform to those recorded in contemporary writings and stand in sharp contrast to those of the other known Jewish groups.

quote source: http://www.antiquities.org.il/article_Item_eng.asp?sec_id=44&subj_id=195&id=461&module_id=#as

However, there is disagreement in the scholarly community over the extent the Essenes were responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Although this evidence is accepted by the majority of scholars in identifying the Essenes with the Qumran settlement and the manuscripts found in the surrounding caves, some scholars remain unconvinced. Some propose that the site was a military garrison or even a winter villa. The scrolls are viewed as an eclectic collection, neither necessarily inscribed in the Dead Sea area nor sectarian in nature, perhaps even the remains of the library of the Temple in Jerusalem. Other scholars view the texts as the writings of forerunners or even followers of Jesus – Jewish Christians – who still observed Jewish law.

quote source: http://www.antiquities.org.il/article_Item_eng.asp?sec_id=44&subj_id=195&id=461&module_id=#as

The scholars at University of Chicago appear to be one center of thought investigating alternative views.

Their web page has several detailed articles of why they doubt the Qumran theory of authorship.

This item was their response to the exhibit of the DSS at Seattle's Pacific Science Center.

Yet in the past decade members of the reading public have become increasingly aware of a growing controversy over the nature and origin of the Scrolls. The new, opposing view, developed particularly in the wake of additional manuscript discoveries in that same Judaean Wilderness made in the 1950s and 1960s, is that the Scrolls reflect religious and social ideas of various groups within ancient Judaism, that Khirbet Qumran was not a religious site either of Essenes or others, and that the hiding of the Scrolls in the caves arose out of the need of the Jews of Jerusalem, circa 68/69 C.E., to sequester their manuscripts and other valued possessions when they became aware that the Romans intended to besiege and invade the city.

quote source: http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/is/deadseascrolls.html

Why are the Dead Sea Scrolls important?

The scrolls comprise, among other things, the oldest copies of the Bible in existence. The Qumran scrolls date from approximately 250 B.C. to about 65 A.D., and at some other locations to about 135 A.D. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest existing manuscripts of parts of the Hebrew Bible came from about 800-1,000 A.D. The oldest complete copy of the Hebrew Bible, the Leningrad Codex, dates to 1008 A.D. This means that the Dead Sea Scrolls give us texts of the Bible which were copied more than 1000 years earlier than any others now in existence!

The scrolls are also important because they have enabled scholars to gather an immense amount of information about how the Bible was written and how it was transmitted from generation to generation. In many cases the scrolls show a remarkable similarity to the text of the Hebrew Bible currently in use. In some cases differences between the scrolls and the traditional Hebrew text help explain difficulties in the present Hebrew Bible, and most modern translations of the Bible (such as the NIV) incorporate some of the new information from the scrolls.

Another crucial feature of the scrolls is the picture they portray of the Judaism of Jesus’ day. The scrolls show that Judaism in that period was more diverse than was once thought, and the literary parallels between the Gospels and the literature of Qumran demonstrate several instructive points of contact between Jesus’ teaching and the Judaism of his day.

quote source: http://www.deadseascrollsfoundation.com/about_the_scrolls.htm

Personal reflections

I do hope someday to visit Israel and the various places in the Middle East described in the Scriptures of the monotheistic religions. Until then, I have to be content with a pilgrimage to an exhibit like this.

My feelings about this exhibit grows from the fact that there is so much interest in them. The items themselves vary in their beauty. Some are in pretty decent shape and you can read the lovely script work of the scribe who wrote them. Others are quite hard to read as the wear and tear on the scrolls have made the lettering difficult to see. Some items are fairly intact while others are fragmentary. People are fascinated by them partly for what they are but mostly for what they represent.

No matter which theory of authorship you subscribe to, somebody 2000 years ago decided these things were worth making copies of and since their discovery in 1947, many scholars have painstakingly preserved them and studied them. The ideas embedded in the Hebrew Bible have stood the test of time such that today, I can sit and read an English translation of the text that is essentially the same as what the scribe worked on 2000 or so years ago!

At a personal level, I think the mystery of this connection through continuity hit home to me as I saw 11Q10 (the fifth scroll in the exhibit) which is an Aramaic translation of the Book of Job. The item is six small fragments that to be honest look like small pieces of burnt toast! But I thought about what it once was like... a whole scroll ... the delicate labor of love of a scribe. What must have been on his mind as his pen scratched those letters onto the parchment? I have been writing about Job in my "devotional thoughts" feature in this blog. I wrestle with the ideas in the book and its relationship to my life of faith. 2000 years ago, a scribe was at a table writing and probably thinking the same things.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Robert said...

Hello, I believe you may be interested in an article I have just read entitled "Christian fundamentalism and the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego," which calls our attention to the involvement of members of several fundamentalist organizations in setting the agenda of the current exhibit.

http://www.nowpublic.com/christian_fundamentalism_and_dead_sea_scrolls_san_diego

5:51 PM  
Blogger Rene said...

Thanks for dropping by.

In my post, under the section, who wrote the scrolls, I mention that there are two positions: (1) the materials were prepared largely by the Essenes of the Qumran community and represents their library or (2) the materials were the Jerusalem temple library (of which some have Essene flavor) and they were spirited away prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and that the Qumran community had little to nothing to do with them.

I agree it is unfortunate that the SD Museum as well as other locales that have hosted this exhibit have been reluctant to allow the alternative hypothesis to get some hearing. I think they should be more open about that aspect of the inner workings of academics!

On the other issue of "Christian fundamentalist" involvement with the exhibit, I urge caution that people don't engage in "ad hominem" reasoning.

By that logic, who is qualified to study the scrolls? Would "atheists" or "agnostics" be better qualified to study the scrolls? Would their "bias" be counted against them as well?

In the final analysis, it is a community of scholars with differing perspectives and hopefully all with intellectual honesty that will debate and digest the findings which they should be open about sharing with the public.

7:58 PM  

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