Monday, October 12, 2009
I suppose it could well be called the most significant archeological find in history. But then, such judgments betray certain presuppositions about the world. For those of us who consider the Bible a sacred book with profound implications and eternal consequence, then the discovery (just over sixty years ago) of two thousand year old scrolls containing significant remnants of just about every book we Christians call the “Old Testament,” ranks right up there as a breakthrough for all time. The treasure sat for two millennia, untouched in the caves of Qumran.
The story of the find itself near the Dead Sea is enough to fill a couple of good books (and it has). Scholars debate some of the assumptions related to the ruins located nearby. While the New Testament does not mention the “Essenes,” Josephus (the first century historian) does. They appear to be a sect of Judaism, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. But they were a particularly separatist group, purist, ultra-conservatives, who believed that the mainstream denominations were hopelessly watered down, polluted by the world. In their attempts to accommodate modern culture, religious leaders who ranked high on the social scale had abandoned the true faith, according to the sect. The Essenes were vocal in their critique, and built little enclaves designed to cut themselves off from the contaminating influences of pluralism.
One of the most remote of those enclaves they located near the barren Dead Sea. The harsh climate and intense heat and relentless sun allowed for the kind of isolation that heightened spiritual sensitivities. They held to strict rules requiring steadfast obedience, and they revered the holy texts. The members with the most honored skill were scribes. They believed that the words they put on the parchment had eternal value. They believed that calamity – a great and terrible cataclysm – was eminent. They were determined to preserve these precious words and phrases for future generations, and protect them from a ruthless and pagan attack, sure to come.
So, they created a scriptorium in the desert heat. They spent their days carefully copying the sacred texts. They prepared parchment and papyrus. Quills with tips as nibs. Ink that would last. They fired clay pots, jars to protect and contain the scrolls. They dug great spaces in caves as cool, protected storage places. Their work went unnoticed in the bustling city of Jerusalem just over the mountain.
When the Romans marched into the desert region with their legions slaughtering everyone associated with Judaism in their path, they leveled the little community of Qumran. The fate of the occupants is unknown, though it can be assumed that those who did not escape into the desert were cut down in 70CE as the army passed through. The troops kept only the rich cisterns as a fresh water supply. The massive army focused on Masada, further south, where some of the most notable rebels from Jerusalem had taken control of the Roman outpost situated high on a natural and well-protected plateau. The ten year long resistance of this brave band of insurgents would become the stuff of Israeli legend.
Remarkably, the Romans, who were determined to pillage whatever wealth they could find and destroy whatever vestiges of religious life left behind, never stumbled across those caves. And then, even more remarkably, for the full twenty centuries that followed, as treasure-hunters of every sort from every age combed through the ancient desert hills and cliffs like the California Gold Rush, the treasures of the scrolls in clay jars tucked away in the caves built the by the Essenes were never found.
Until 1947 when a Bedouin shepherd boy tossed a stone through an opening in the ground and heard the shatter of a clay pot echo inside. The discovery coincided with the United Nations vote that made Israel an independent nation state.
That was over sixty years ago. That small find on the desert led to more than two hundred other scrolls. The sheer volume of ancient scroll material is staggering. At first, the scrolls were managed by a hand-full of hardened, unscrupulous dealers in ancient artifacts. Soon, credible archeologists and university researches realized the enormous treasure that had been unearthed. The best dating technologies were employed to certify the age of the scrolls. Scholars agreed. The scrolls were made between 150 BCE and 50 CE, putting them smack dab at the time of Jesus and the tumultuous first century in and around Jerusalem.
The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls is filled with drama and intrigue. Perhaps for us, the greatest significance is they way in which it confirms the preservation and accuracy of the text of the Bible for thousands of years.
Dr. George Giacumakis, with more than a little help from his friends, will be unveiling a state-of-the-art facsimile, the fourth of its kind world-wide, painstakingly crafted in London by the world’s foremost technicians and scholars, the twenty-three foot long Great Isaiah Scroll. Thanks to the high-quality images of photographs taken shortly after this treasure was removed from its container over fifty years ago, the scroll looks just as it did as the scholars got their first look. The genuine papyrus, carefully stitched just as the artisans sewed them together two thousand years ago, is clear and readable. It contains the entire book of Isaiah.
The event will be held this Saturday night at the Great Park Neighborhood in Irvine, near the site of the proposed Museum of Biblical and Sacred Writings.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009