America Art/Architecture Books/Library California Culture Holidays My Family Photography Science & Technology Social The World Travel Writing

God’s Word from Antiquity

Dead Sea Scrolls

One of the highlights of our being in San Diego last week was Thursday evening when we drove to the Natural History Museum in beautiful Balboa Park and viewed the stunning display of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

As you probably know, the The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin herders on the shores of Israel’s Dead Sea in 1947, and is considered one of the most important archaeological finds in recent history. After the original discovery, archaeologists took charge of the area and between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves near Khirbet Qumran they found thousands of fragments which they pieced together into over 900 separate documents including biblical books, hymns, prayers, and other important writings.

4Q41-981. A Dead Sea Scroll manuscript. Photo courtesy IAA
4Q41-981. A Dead Sea Scroll manuscript.
Courtesy IAA. Click on image for larger view.

The Dead Sea Scrolls date from 250 BCE to 68 CE. Among them are some 230 biblical manuscripts representing nearly every book in the Hebrew Bible; more than 1000 years older than any previously known copies. There are also apocryphal manuscripts (texts excluded from the biblical canon) previously known only in translation or not at all.

Jars with lids, ©IAA
Jars with lids, © IAA

Most scholars believe the scrolls were copied and composed by a group that broke away from mainstream Judaism to live a communal life at Qumran. This group, known to us from ancient writers, saw themselves as the “true Israel” and viewed those living in Jerusalem, including the priesthood at the Temple, as corrupt. The sectarian scrolls—non-biblical texts—reflect a wide variety of literary genres: biblical commentary, religious legal writings, liturgical (prayer) texts, and compositions that predict a coming apocalypse. They reveal the fascinating transition between the ancient religion of the Bible and Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

CoinWhen the Romans invaded Qumran around 68 CE, the community hid their manuscripts in nearby caves. Their brand of Judaism did not survive the destruction, though many of their practices made their way into both Judaism and Christianity.

When we first entered the exhibit we were handed ear phones and paraphernalia that enabled us to go at our own pace from exhibit to exhibit and to hear clear descriptions of the material. Beautiful, large pictures and other displays of the fauna and flora of Israel were mounted on the handsome walls as we neared the actual scrolls. The scrolls was beautifully presented, and although the lighting is dim so as to prevent damage to these documents, the scrolls themselves were adequately illuminated and situated at a comfortable height and angle so that one could properly examine them. The movement of the people slowed as we stood near the treasures and gazed at the ancient, precious writings. A profound quiet and sense of reverence pervaded the atmosphere.

I was struck by the phylacteries and the infinitesimal writings therein. I saw displayed Holy Writings from the books of Nahum, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Deuteronomy and parts of the Ten Commandments. Non-Biblical writings included community rules which set down guiding principles for the lives of the people of the settlement where were found the scrolls:

Where do we fit in God’s plan? How should we live our lives? How will the world end? What will happen to us?

It was last week in San Diego, yet from antiquity, that I was profoundly moved again by God’s Word. As I stared at those ancient fragments and considered the fine and careful strokes with which some long-stilled hand had scribed His Word, I was deeply stirred.


My devotional blog is here.