Monday, October 25, 2010

Dead Sea Scrolls

A few fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been on exhibit at the Science Museum in St. Paul for the past seven months, but for some reason, we waited until the last day of the show to see them. (Maybe it was the stiff $28 entry fee.) We might have missed the exhibit entirely except I was helping friends lay a limestone walkway through another friend’s back yard on Saturday morning. At one point Fran came walking by with a slab of stone about 1 by 2 feet in dimension cradled in the crook of her arm. I said, “Fran, do you know who you look like? Moses.”

“Yes, indeed,” she replied, raising an eyebrow. “And judging from what I see written on this tablet, you’re in deep trouble.” Then she brought up the subject of the scrolls. Weren’t they leaving town soon?

—a gray Sunday morning when we probably should have been in church. To tell you the truth, I haven’t been to church (except for weddings, funerals, and Christmas pageants) for a very long time. There were few people out on the street in downtown St. Paul at that hour. (Maybe everyone else was at church.) The line at the museum was modest. By 9:45 we were being ushered into the first room of one of the most interesting, informative, and well-designed exhibits I’ve seen in recent years.

My very sketchy understanding of the scrolls incorporated an extreme sect, the Essenes; a specific locale, Qumram; and a collection of texts that were found in caves above the Dead Sea by shepherds in the years immediately following WWII. I had no idea there was such radical disagreement among scholars as to the actual connections between these aspects of the story.

For example, some scholars believe that the town of Qumram wasn’t a religious community at all, but rather a pottery factory, a military garrison, or an aristocrat’s estate. Some scholars think that the Essenes wrote the scrolls, while others, with greater cogency, I think, find it impossible to believe that a collection of scrolls numbering more than nine hundred, all but a few of which are in different handwriting, were produced by a single small community.

That leaves open the possibility that the Essenes gathered the scrolls from many sources, or that the scrolls were hidden away by temple priests from Jerusalem (a scant thirteen miles way.)

Most of the exhibit was devoted to providing background to the discovery. For example, in one video display the successive empires that ruled over Jerusalem were graphically depicted by waves of color oozing across a map—the Hittites, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians (Alexander the Great, don’t you know?), the Romans, the Ottomans, the Caliphate, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Seljuqs, and so on. Another video screen offered a bird’s eye view of what an individual approaching and entering the Temple in Jerusalem in its heyday would have seen every step of the way.

There were exhibits about the work scribes do, and displays of 2,000-year-old fabric, sheep sheers, perfume bottles, and tall clay jars of the type many of the scrolls were found in. One large diorama made clear how the fresh water flowing in various directions off the hills above the Dead Sea was channeled to good use by the residents of Qumram. Another explained why Jewish sects who built their religious year on different calendars—solar or lunar—got into trouble as they all tried to make use of the same temple for holidays. One large display made it easy to follow the track of the scrolls from the time they were discovered, offered for sale, and latched onto by covetous and proprietary scholars, to the moment decades later when they were finally made available to the world at large.

Finally, two hours after we’d entered the exhibit hall, we found ourselves in the room containing the scrolls themselves. I wouldn’t say that it was disappointing. But the lighting was very low, and the five fragments on display were in heavy cases faintly illuminated by inset florescent lights. All of them were small—about the size (and shape) of an orange peel. But when you bent over to get a closer look, the light from inside the case began to shine in your eyes, making the writing even harder to see.

I’d don’t read Hebrew or Aramaic, so I guess it doesn’t matter whether I could see the lettering well or not. A young couple wearing purple jerseys with Favre on the back were leaning over (and on) one of the cases, and I heard the man say, “Look here, honey. If you read it upside down it says kick.”

One of the reasons we went to the exhibit, of course, was to see the fragments themselves, in the flesh. Otherwise, we’d spend the rest of our lives saying, “I can’t believe we never went to see them.” Information is easy to come by: I have a few books lying around on the subject of the scrolls that I haven’t read. But to see one of the scrolls themselves. Right there in front of you. I was hoping for a moment of frisson, as the centuries fell away and the sheer presence of an artifact that Jesus or Paul or one of the disciples might have read or touched made itself felt. It came to me in a flicker or two, like a bulb that’s about to go out. No matter. The really significant thing about a scroll is that it preserves thought via language.

One thing the exhibit itself, fascinating though it was, failed to clarify is what new things we’ve learned due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. All of the Old Testament books except Ester were found among them, thus taking us back a thousand years from the ninth-century texts that were hitherto the earliest extant. Yet the texts found in the caves at Qumram are evidently almost the same as the ones we’re familiar with—a testament to the skill of scribes across the centuries, I guess.

Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in any case, are less interesting than the books of the Bible. They seem to be routinely focused on peccadillos of conduct and cleanliness. I know this because that afternoon I pulled a copy of The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English off the shelf and started to read through them. Lots of stuff about elders and community organization and hierarchies and punishments. For example:

No man shall form any association for buying or selling without informing the guardian of the camp…

A man who falls asleep during a session of the Congregation shall be punished for thirty days…

No man shall bathe in dirty water or in water too shallow to cover a man…

There shall be one thousand cubits between the camp and the latrine…

… may not touch the liquids of the Congregation, for these render unclean the basket and the figs and the pomegranates if their juices ooze out when he squeezes them…
And so on. There are also beautiful hymns of thanksgiving, benedictions, and other poetic fragments, to be sure, and the scrolls have given Biblical scholars the opportunity to flesh out the astonishing variety of views and practices espoused by contending Jewish sects during the period before the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. Yet I came away from a half hour of perusing these texts with the feeling that the scribes and priests (and later rabbis) who assembled the Jewish canon upon which the Christian Old Testament is largely based did a pretty good job of editing the material.

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