Closer than Ever to the Breath of God
When I visited the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit in Philadelphia in June, I started fidgeting almost immediately. The exhibit (at the Franklin Institute, running through October 14) begins by walking visitors through a display of archeological treasures (some 600, according to the publicity) from Israel’s history, dating from 1200 B.C. to A.D. 68. I had come to look at the Scrolls, and here I was wading knee deep through the ancient archeology.
There is a method in the exhibit’s madness, of course. For one, such history puts the Scrolls in the larger historical context. I’m guessing that the curators also recognized that having non-Dead Sea Scroll treasures would attract visitors who may not have much interest in the Scrolls alone.
All well and good, but I’d come for the Scrolls—where the heck were they?
From Cave to Museum
Scholars asked a similar question when they were first discovered in 1947—where had they been all this time?
Well, they sat in caves dark and numinous near the Dead Sea. One day a Bedouin shepherd threw a stone into a cave, and he and his cousin heard the sound of pottery breaking. But descending darkness prevented exploring the cave immediately. Some days later, the cousin, Muhammed edh-Dhib, returned and discovered seven scrolls in pottery jars, which later were identified as the Isaiah Scroll, Habakkuk Commentary, and the Community Rule. He took them back to the camp to show to his family, hanging the scrolls on a tent pole until they figured out what to do with them. Eventually, he took the scrolls to a dealer in Bethlehem, who thought them worthless, but he finally found a buyer for three of the scrolls (for which he received the equivalent of about $30 U.S.). Within months key manuscripts were in the hands of experts, who recognized their ancient origin.
For the next decade, archeologists and Bedouins descended on the area known as Qumran to investigate the many caves that lay in that stretch of dry, desert climate near the Dead Sea, the search finally coming to an end in 1956. When all is said and done, they found (depending on who’s doing the counting ) over 100,000 fragments, from pieces the size of a fingernail to scrolls many feet long, that make up some 900 separate documents.
The scrolls are mostly extra-biblical documents, but about 20 to 25 percent are the earliest known surviving copies of some portion of every book of the Hebrew Bible. They are dated between 250 B.C. and A.D. 68, and are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Nabataean, mostly on parchment, some on papyrus, and one on copper. The scrolls were the property of a religious community, the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes, though some scholars have other ideas about the nature of this community.
Today the vast majority of the Scrolls are housed in Israel at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, but eight can be seen at Southwestern Baptist Seminary and another five at Azusa Pacific University, among other places. From time to time, the Israeli authorities put the Scrolls on display, and at the Franklin Museum in Philadelphia, the display is said to be “the largest collection of ancient artifacts ever to tour outside of Israel.”
I rushed through the vast bulk of those ancient artifacts—iron arrowheads from 8th century Lachish, pottery fragments from 10th-century B.C. Jerusalem, and a clay altar from 10th-century B.C. Hazor, among others—and final found myself in a room, dark and numinous. The few Scrolls on display were set in a large circular glass case, framed in individual panels, gently lit from the sides. To one side of the Scroll was an enlarged copy of the Hebrew text, which on the Scroll original could only be barely discerned, so murky and small were the fragments in some cases.