If the Bible is the greatest story ever told, the tale of the Dead Sea Scrolls runs a close second.
Laced with intrigue, it illuminates Judeo-Christian tradition and offers fascinating insights into the faith, fears and daily activities of people living under Roman rule at the dawn of the Common Era (C.E.).
Twenty seven of the approximately 900 existing scrolls are on display in San Diego’s Natural History Museum through Dec. 31. The exhibit chronicles the discovery of the scrolls in caves east of Jerusalem and explains the scientific method used to date them.
Curated by Risa Levitt Kohn, a San Diego State University religious studies professor, and director of SDSU’s Jewish Studies Program, the exhibit mines the most current academic thinking on the link between the scrolls – written 2,000 years ago – and modern religious dogma.
Who wrote the scrolls?
By the end of this year, when the scrolls return to their permanent homes in Israel and Jordan, approximately 400,000 people will have viewed the San Diego exhibition. They will have learned that these ancient scripts date from 250 B.C.E. to 68 C.E.
As the oldest known translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament to Christians), the Dead Sea Scrolls predate other existing copies by 1,000 years. The uniform rows of Hebrew and Aramaic letters are a physical link to the original biblical texts that have never been found and may no longer exist. Many scroll passages from Psalms, Isaiah and Deuteronomy are surprisingly close in wording to modern versions of the Bible and the Torah.
But who wrote these ancient texts and why they were hidden in caves overlooking the Dead Sea are questions that continue to divide biblical scholars.
Since the discovery of the first scroll fragments by Bedouin goat herders in the late 1940s, researchers from around the world have studied this vast collection of religious and secular texts. Many, though not all, believe the scrolls were composed by a religious group that rejected mainstream Judaism and left Jerusalem to live at Qumran, the site closest to where the scrolls were discovered.
Evidence for this theory rests in scientific tests on the soil composition of the clay scroll jars. The tests proved that most of the jars were made locally in Qumran and four other nearby sites. With further testing, researchers are hoping to match DNA from the goat-skin scrolls to the bones of goats buried near Qumran.
The community of the scrolls
Biblical scholars know several things about the authors of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, according to SDSU’s Levitt Kohn. These scribes believed that the biblical texts they were transcribing contained hidden messages and secrets about their future, secrets only the righteous – like themselves – could decipher.
Most scholars also believe the Qumran community was responsible for hiding a number of scrolls in nearby caves when the Romans invaded Jerusalem and outlying settlements around 70 C.E. Others suggest the scrolls were hidden by Jews fleeing the Roman siege.
A virtual, interactive model of Qumran created by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, (and on display with the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit) suggests that the site was built, settled and abandoned.
Later, it was reoccupied, expanded and repurposed by people engaged in agriculture and light industrial activity, according to the UCLA researchers, William M. Schniedewind, chair of Near Eastern languages and cultures, and his doctoral student, Robert Cargill.
Despite what scholars know about Qumran, the community of the scrolls defies any neat religious classification, Levitt Kohn observed.
“As the scrolls were written, different communities of (biblical) interpretation lived side by side. Each thought of itself as Israel. Even the earliest Christians identified themselves as Israel. The authors of the scrolls refer to themselves as the remnant of Israel,” she said.
“Twenty years ago, we would have separated these groups by historically neat and tidy terms such as Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots. In fact, there probably were more similarities than differences among the various communities living in this period.”
Researchers agree the Dead Sea Scrolls emerged during a period of intense religious and social ferment. New ideas arose, struggled for dominance and gradually diverged to form the tenets of modern Judaism and of Christianity.
But the traditional notion of a linear progression from the ancient Israelite religions to Christianity is one that many scroll scholars now reject. Instead, they envision what Levitt Kohn calls a “soup of ideas,” from which many religious communities interpreted the biblical past according to their own unique beliefs.
“The scrolls have entirely changed our understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism,” said UCLA’s Schniedewind, who holds the Kershaw Chair of Ancient Eastern Mediterranean Studies.
Schniedwind said texts like the “4QSon of God” text and the “Messianic Apocalypse” show that Christianity emerged from Judaisms of the Second Temple period.
“We now see more clearly the complexity of Judaism in the days of the early Rabbis and Jesus. The scrolls provide insight into the variety of Judaisms (existing) during that Second Temple period. As a result, Christianity doesn’t seem so unique.”
What the scrolls tell us
Clearly, the Dead Sea Scrolls tell an intriguing story of Judeo-Christian kinship. At a deeper level of analysis, the scrolls also demonstrate that religious communities have always found strength, affirmation and identity in scripture.
Around the time Jesus lived, many religious communities awaited a messiah who would end suffering and raise the dead.
A biblical text foretelling the fall of Assyria, for example, was transposed by the scroll writers to refer to the Pharisees, a group of Jews despised by the community of the scrolls. Likewise, the scroll writers applied Isaiah’s prophecy about the end of the world to their own uncertain times.
“People were acutely aware of the political instability of the times,” said Levitt Kohn, who has co-authored (with SDSU Religious Studies Chair, Rebecca Moore) “A Portable God: the Origin of Judaism and Christianity.”
“They wondered how the world would end and how they could lead their lives in the meantime. Things haven’t changed much. Those concerns are still on people’s minds.”
And the Dead Sea Scrolls are still a reminder of the common threads that bind civilizations throughout history.
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