Viewing the Word of God

I stopped by to read the original Dead Sea Scrolls today. They're on tour, opening for Jars of Clay right now, at the Pacific Science Center.

Unfortunately as you enter you're told no pictures. Evidently the works are copyrighted. I asked, "By who? God?" Actually, it's the Israeli Antiquities Department, and the exhibit has a strong pro-Israeli feel to it, with a large section devoted to the wonders of modern Israel, and a smaller section devoted to the Bedouin discoverers of the scrolls. And there was a great written emphasis on the importance of using "BCE" and "CE"- as if there is any less cultural bias in calling the "common era" that which is has become common only in the West.

There is a lot of exhibits on how the scrolls were found and their provenance. The walk takes you through methods of determining age, like DNA and radiometric testing; the differences between papyrus and animal skins; and some interesting discussion of the Dead Sea and saline deposits, which allowed the scrolls to still exist after 2,000 years. One of the most interesting exhibits in the early portion to me was the 2,000 year old comb. The lower teeth are for combing out tangles. The upper are for combing out nits. Also I liked that there are sandals that still exist after 2,000 years, especially since my modern shoes in the best of cases only last ten years.

After an hour you reach the main point of the exhibit. In subdued lighting you wander through the fragments on display, using the portable audioguides and reading the extensive script. The lights of the displays flicker on and off so as to protect the fragile manuscripts. Though they are made of more durable animal skins they still can't last forever. Even after their discovery it was found years later that the tape used to piece them together was tearing them apart. The one exception is the copper scrolls, indicating a vast treasure at Qumran, as yet still undiscovered.

Pictured below is a fragment of Ezekiel, one of the most interesting books to the Qumran community, judging by the number of copies discovered. They also really liked Isaiah, Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy. The fragment from Isaiah was from 2nd Isaiah, as I recall. Some were sectarian works, describing how to perform Essene rituals. There were also apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works on display, like the War Rule , which described how the Essenes would one day rise up and destroy the infidels, ushering in the Kingdom of God. It made me glad that their vision didn't become reality, but how close we came to that kind of religion.

For there are more hints in the pseudepigraphical works of a desire for Son of God, who would rule over the land, bringing war, and then eternal peace. There was also a prophecy of the Seed of David to come. It indicated that the hopes found in the current Bible were in the general cultural milieu of the time, a desire for a coming king in line with the kings of old. This is especially true in Pseudo-Daniel and Pseudo-Ezekiel. But as with the Jews at the time of Jesus, the Essenes would have found him quite disappointing. For he refused the path of retribution over the Roman authorities, instead choosing something much more difficult.

To large measure these documents are the same as the Septuagint, though they follow the Masoretic more closely. Some, obviously, like the Psalms, indicate more textual differences, being that they were poetry, and less exacting in language. This is seen in all the footnotes for alternate readings one finds in one's Bible when reading through the Psalms and other poetry. But it is encouraging to see how well preserved our documents are, with only occasional differences in a letter or word, even after 2,000 years. Indeed, when accounting for the larger size of the Bible against the Qur'an, the degree of textual variance is the same. (Actually, it's a little higher in the Qur'an, but not at a statistically relevant level.) It gives a degree of confidence in the Word of God.

I must confess a certain thrill, at seeing these documents which have played such a role in revealing to us our holy texts. To think of people reading over these texts 2,000 years ago, contemplating God's message, trying to understand what God had to say to them. The highest moment was coming to part of Exodus, and seeing the Tetragrammaton on display there in the center leaf, and at least in three other places in that fragment. The very name of God, too holy to be truly written, there, 2,000 years ago.


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