I wrote some quick personal reactions to the “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times” exhibit when I first saw it. Now my full article is up at the National Catholic Register. It’s a good exhibit, and if you’re in the Philadelphia region, you need to check it out, or check in this fall to see if it’s continuing it’s tour across America. Maybe it will land at a museum near you.
Here’s a bit of the story:
PHILADELPHIA — A small selection of the Dead Sea Scrolls is touring America, supported by the largest set of Holy Land artifacts ever to travel outside of Israel. Following a successful run in New York, the touring exhibit, called “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times,” will be at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia until October. Its next stop has not yet been determined.
At the heart of the exhibit: 20 pieces from texts discovered in caves overlooking the Dead Sea.
In 1946 (or possibly 1947), a Bedouin shepherd threw a rock into a cave and heard something smash. He was disappointed to find crumbling scrolls, along with some of the pottery in which they had been stored, rather than treasure, but the scrolls themselves would prove to be one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century.
By 1956, 11 more caves were discovered and explored, resulting in the recovery of more than 100,000 fragments from 900-plus different documents.
Catholics were involved in the process from early on, with Dominican Father Roland de Vaux leading the project and heading up the excavation of the nearby settlement of Qumran. It was Father de Vaux who made the link between the scrolls, Qumran and a community of ascetic Jews called the Essenes.
Described by Josephus, Philo and Pliny the Elder, the Essenes were a Jewish sect that flourished perhaps as early as 200 years before the birth of Christ and seemed to have faded away following the Jewish Revolt. At some point, most likely during the uprising against Rome, the scrolls were secreted away in the caves for protection, and when the community was lost, they were forgotten until their discovery 1,900 years later. (Although this is the dominant theory, some scholars take sharp exception to this interpretation of the evidence of the scrolls and the remains at Qumran.)
The finds shed important light on a period of Jewish history and life in which Christianity also began to grow. The scrolls included pieces of every Old Testament text except for Esther, and thus are particularly important for understanding the textual history of the Bible.
As Father Patrick Brady, chair of the Department of Sacred Scripture at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, observes, “The Bible was a handwritten text, and, over centuries, copying errors creep into the text. The oldest Old Testament manuscripts that we possessed before the discovery dated to the eighth century A.D. The Dead Sea Scrolls offer us manuscripts, some of which date back to 200 B.C. The DSS documents include things written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Among them were parts of three Deuterocanonical documents: Sirach written in Hebrew, Tobit written in Aramaic and Hebrew, and part of Baruch in Greek. These discoveries show the fluidity of the canon at that time.”
The find also included texts by the community, scriptural commentaries and other writings which illuminate the life of the people who made and treasured the scrolls. They form a vital part of understanding the life of first-century Judaism, the textual history of the scriptural canon, and the fertile religious soil in which the Church took root and grew.
As Father Brady says, “They allow us to see how some Jews lived, thought and worshipped in the first century and broaden our understanding of the Messianic and eschatological expectations of Judaism when Jesus began to preach and teach about the Kingdom of God.”