THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS
Dear Mother and Sisters, when Mother asked me to prepare a talk on The Dead Sea Scrolls I did not anticipate any difficulty but it has not been as easy as I expected. In fact it took me some time to decide how all embracing the talk should be. If I were to spend time talking about the many differing ideas which the ‘experts’ have regarding who wrote the Scrolls or if I were to spend time talking about the arguing which took place regarding who should own the scrolls and who should have the job of interpreting them then we could be here for many hours. So rather then become involved with such archaeological politics I have decided to concentrate on the basic story, one which I find convincing and which I came to understand on my three visits to the Qumran site and the caves of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Each of my three Holy-Land pilgrimages was led by Brother Dennis Robert, a De La Salle Brother, who had been to the Holy Land over one hundred times. He was extremely knowledgeable which makes me confident to relate things as he explained them.
I must point out that this first part of my talk is almost all pure plagiarism. I’m copying from a book on The Dead Sea Scrolls. I couldn’t improve on it so I may as well tell you what someone else has written.
In late 1946 or early 1947 a young Bedouin shepherd stumbled across something extraordinary while scrambling among the rocky cliffs that rise just behind a terrace of land on which stood a group of ancient ruins, known as Qumran, by the shores of the Dead Sea.
As the story goes, he was looking for a stray goat when he noticed a couple of openings high up in the rocks. He peered down into the darkness but could see nothing, so he threw in some stones. Then, as they crashed down inside, he heard the sound of breaking pottery. As the day was coming to an end, he had his two cousins herded the rest of the flock down from the escarpment, intending to return for a closer look at the cave to discover whether they had found anything valuable.
A day or so later one of the cousins woke early and climbed back up to the site. He cleared some rocks away and wriggled down into the cave. Inside he found a number of ancient pottery jars, most of which were empty although a few contained musty old scrolls of parchment wrapped in cloth which, over the next few days, he and his companions removed. Being poor illiterate shepherds they must have been disappointed for they had not found anything that they could recognize as valuable.
Apparently the scrolls were taken back to the shepherd’s Bedouin camp and left dangling from a tent pole of no great interest to anybody. It was even rumoured that some of the parchment was used for kindling cooking fires – every archaeologist’s nightmare. By the time the Bedouin’s thought of trying to sell them they were left with just seven crumbling scrolls.
Eventually the two older cousins took the scrolls to nearby Bethlehem. Nobody they spoke to had any idea what these battered bits of parchment could be and probably cared even less. Somebody suggested taking them to a local cobbler, who might give them a few pence and use them for shoe repairs. So off they went to the cobbler who also happened to be a part-time antique dealer. He was a bit more sophisticated than his Bedouin clients and realised that the scrolls might be worth something: He paid the two Bedouins £5 and also agreed to become their agent for any subsequent finds. As it would turn out £5 was an extremely small payment but to the Bedouins it would have been a massive amount of money and they no doubt went away very happy and with the enticement of finding more.
The cobbler was a Syrian Orthodox Christian and feeling that these parchments may be valuable he mentioned them to the Metropolitan of St. Mark’s Syrian Church in Jerusalem. After various delays amid fears for the authenticity of the items on offer, the Metropolitan bought the scrolls for £24.
By now word had got around and other Bedouins were investigating the inside of caves. So another well-respected archaeologist who worked at the New Hebrew University in Jerusalem had been offered two fairly complete ancient scrolls and some fragments by another antique dealer. He immediately realised with astonishment that the scrolls were not only authentic but truly ancient, dating anytime from the Second Temple period (about 430 BC). He came by this belief due to the similarity of the script to inscriptions on graves which he had studied. This was a discovery of immense importance, for nothing similar had ever been found before – indeed, in the harsh dry climate it was assumed that manuscripts from this period could not possibly have survived. One can well imagine his hand, trembling with excitement as he examined the scrolls. He immediately purchased them and a few months later obtained a further scroll. Amongst the items he had purchased was a complete copy of the book of Isaiah.
A total of eleven caves were excavated one containing the remains of 566 scrolls. Other caves had far fewer scrolls and some had only remnants. A few of the caves had previously been troglodyte (cave dwellers) homes. It is thought that some of the caves had been previously been visited probably by Bedouins as far back as the 1920’s. They would have been harvesting bat droppings to use as fertilizer. In desert conditions every bit of help is need to get anything to grow. While they were in the caves they would have seen the scrolls and not realising their value would have taken them for covering tents, making sandals or even, horror of horrors, lighting fires. It is fortunate that they only discovered one or two of the caves.
Before we proceed to find out more about the scrolls and how they were interpreted we should learn about who wrote them. They were known as the Essenes although they never used that name themselves. They called themselves ‘The Community’. No-one knows where the word ‘Essenes’ comes from. There are many theories as to how that name came into being. We could easily spend a quarter of an hour delving into it but I suggest that we move on to more interesting matters. Who were the Essenes and how had they come to take up a life of writing the scrolls? The best explanation is that in about 430 BC, after the Israelites had been in exile for seventy years, Cyrus the King of Persia issued a proclamation that they should return to their country and rebuild their temple. In the Book of Ezra and Nehemiah we read about the return and rebuilding. Seventy years is a long time and during that time some of the form of Temple worship had been misinterpreted and those who wanted to return to the original pure form of worship found that unacceptable. We can clearly understand this by looking at what is happening today in our church. It is only forty-five years since the Second Vatican Council which led to the arguments about the Latin Mass versus the Mass in the vernacular. Pope Benedict XVI has hopefully brought those arguments to an end by officially reinstating the Latin Mass. Yet an elderly retired priest living in our Parish has had to go on a refresher course so that he can Offer Mass in Latin. If that can happen in forty-five years think what it must have been like in seventy years.
Those who were dissatisfied by the Temple Worship came from all sides of Jewish life; The Sadducees, The Pharisees, The Scribes and the Zealots. It is likely that they commenced by forming small groups in the places where they lived but eventually they came together and formed a community. It helps us to understand how that happened if we think of how Fountains Abbey started. Some Benedictine monks in the Abbey of St Mary’s York left their abbey as they wanted a more harsh discipline. They were given land at Fountains and not only built the beautiful Abbey but eventually were accepted into the Cistercian Order. So we had history repeating itself.
The Essenes moved to a plateau near the Dead Sea now know as Qumran. At that time the site would be a solitary place where they could live as a quiet and separate community. It is assumed that having nothing else to occupy themselves they started to copy the scriptures and other tracts which interested them.
After the scrolls had been discovered the archaeologists got to work uncovering the site. Previously visitors had seen the ancient remains and assumed it was some kind of Israelite fortress but what the archaeologists discovered was what we now accept as buildings of a monastic type community. It was ascertained that the monastic buildings were not the first use of the site but that there had been activity there from as far back at the first Temple in 950 B.C. and following on from the Essenes the site had probably been used by the Romans defending the Eastern edge of their territory.
The archaeologists discovered workshops, a water system, a kitchen and pantry containing more than a thousand eating–bowls in tumbled stacks, jars, jugs, neatly arranged into sets of a dozen, a large hall which may have served as a refectory, a scriptorium where the scrolls would have been written including three inkwells, a tannery, a library and several workshops including a kiln and a pottery. There was a split in the fabric of the buildings and that was thought to have been caused by an earthquake in 31 B.C. Cleanliness was a major factor in the Community and so there were several bathing areas. Brother Dennis Robert said that when writing the scrolls they would leave a blank space where the word ‘God’ should have been written. Then, when the scroll was complete, they would have a ritual bath before returning to the scroll and adding the word ‘God’.
Anyone wanting to join the Community was accepted with a one-year period of probation before they were admitted to ritual ablutions that formed a key element of the Essene practice. Candidates were given a white robe to wear. If the probation year was passed satisfactorily, a further two years of initiation followed, culminating in a ceremony in which an oath of fidelity was taken. Then the initiate was finally allowed to participate in the fellowship that ate meals together. Those virtually sacramental meals , open to initiates, were prepared by priests following strict purity laws. The meals were eaten twice daily followed by prayers. After the oath of fidelity had been accepted any serious transgression of the rules resulted in permanent expulsion after judgement by a court.
The monastic comparison continues in that the Essenes held all their property in common. New members were required to hand over all their property and earnings to the superiors. To provide for their daily needs, a steward issued food and clothing as required as well as organizing the care of the sick and the elderly. From what can be gleaned from the ancient writings, we also know that they were extremely frugal in their daily lifestyle – their diet was quite Spartan and they did not wear new clothes until the old ones had worn out. Apart from their writings the main occupation of the Essenes was agriculture, whilst commerce and the manufacture of weapons were strictly forbidden.
We tend to think that all the scrolls discovered at Qumran were Biblical but in fact only 40% of the findings were Biblical or with a Biblical theme. The other 60% covered a variety of themes. The 40% which had a Biblical content covered all the books of the Old Testament except for Malachi, Esther and Maccabees the reason being that those books were not in existence when the scrolls were written. In some of the writings the writers had taken some liberties with the truth of the Bible as we know it. As an example; in some of the writings they had not included the story of Jacob’s lie to his father that he was Esau. Hence they were attempting to get rid of what we might term ‘the offensive sections’ in the Bible.
The 60% of no-biblical scrolls included The Temple Scroll. This was a well preserved scroll some 27 feet in length. It imagined the construction and regulation of a vast ideal temple and the sacrifices to be performed there. Its authors viewed it as a supplement or addition to the first five books of the Old Testament.
Many of the non-Biblical scrolls were connected to the Jewish religious laws. Some dealt with everyday matters that would have been of interest to the ordinary pious Jew of the period, while others seem to relate more to the duties and concerns of the priests serving in the Temple in Jerusalem. At that time there were two calendars operating The Sadducees favoured the Solar Calendar whereas the Pharisees favoured the Lunar Calendar. (That answers the question as to how Jesus held the Passover on the Thursday when the next day was also the Passover. Jesus was following the Pharisees lunar calendar whereas the next day was the Passover for the Sadducees.) The writers of the scrolls favoured the Sadducees solar calendar and in the scroll writings they castigate their opponents for using the wrong calendar.
Another non biblical scroll was the ‘Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice’ also called the ‘Angelic Liturgy’ Some copies of this scroll were even discovered by archaeologists at Massada where the epic final battle took place when the Jews made their last stand and committed mass-suicide rather than be captured by the Romans.
Then there was a scroll called ‘The Rule of the Community’ which is the name they called themselves. Cave One contained several sets of rules governing the Community. One of them was reasonably well preserved. Other copies were found in Caves four and five so they obviously took these rules very seriously and wanted to make sure that whatever problems might overtake them the rules would have a chance of being saved.
There was just one scroll which was written on copper. It contained details of the whereabouts of hidden treasure. It is assumed that this copper scroll was smuggled out of Jerusalem as it was under attack. It gave locations of where sixty-four items of precious metals and Temple artefacts are hidden. Sadly none of the locations have been discovered and no hidden treasure has come to light.
The Suez Crisis in 1956 led to problems which not only slowed down the work of interpretation of the scrolls but led to their deterioration. For safety the scrolls were transferred from Jerusalem to Bank vaults in the Jordanian Capital of Amman. When they were returned a year later they had deteriorated due to the inappropriate storage conditions. Some of the smaller fragments had mildew on them. For a safety some of the scrolls were removed to the U.S.A. We can imagine our Jewish Brethren being very unhappy that their historical documents had been taken out of the country. Happily they were eventually returned.
Problems led to a misunderstandings and rumours. What had happened was that the work of interpreting the scrolls had been handed entirely to Christians which seems totally unreasonable when we consider that the discoveries had taken place on Jewish soil and were all related to the Old Testament. Initially the scrolls were passed to four scholars who were Catholic priest. That led to libellous comments that, on behalf of the Catholic Church, the priests would try to hide anything controversial about the Roman Catholic church. In an attempt to counter the criticism the team was increased by six young but inexperienced members but even these were all Christian, three Catholic and three Anglican. So the rumours continued. Even after the six day war in 1967 when the Jews had taken over the whole of Jerusalem the investigation of the scrolls was still in Christian hands and it was not until 1991 that the whole project was placed in the hands of a Jewish Professor.
We have to consider how the age of the scrolls was understood. It was done by carbon dating. I am not knowledgeable in this area of science but as I understand it everything is made of atoms and over a period of time they deteriorate. By testing their deteriorating it is possible to estimate a possible age. There are some complications because the carbon dating would show the age of the goat or sheep skins when the animals were killed but they could have had several years of preparation before they were ready for use a scrolls.
Then there is what is known as palaeography; a word I haven’t previously come across. It is the study of ancient writings but more than that because, looking at two documents, it attempts to determine whether they were written at the same time or at different times maybe many years apart. How does it do that?
If I were to attempt to speak English as it was spoken in medieval times it would sound very different from the way we speak today. But in a much shorter time limit
if we go back only thirty years from now words like Web Site – Google – Internet - Broadband and Dot Com were unknown. Now they are in every day use. The scrolls were written during a period of about 320 years from 250 BC to 70 AD and by changes in the words used those interpreting the writings were able to determine the period in which they were written. I suspect this is referring to the 60% of non-biblical scrolls rather than the Biblical ones.
Those interpreting the scrolls were able to determine scrolls from different caves which may have been written by the same person. Very simply this was done by comparing the writing much as we would recognise each others had writing.
By combining the palaeography with the carbon dating and the different hand writing the experts came to an understanding of who wrote what and when.
So the experts whose work it was to interpret the scrolls had an immense task ahead of them. Few of the scrolls were complete works of Biblical books. Most of what they had to work with were thousands of pieces which had disintegrated during their time in the caves or pieces which had broken off from the main scrolls which the Bedouin had recovered from the caves. The Bedouin were not practiced in making such recovery and they would not have thought to pick up the scraps which fell away from the scrolls. Later, when the caves were inspected by archaeologists, the scraps were discovered and then had to be matched to the scrolls to which they belonged. A massive jigsaw puzzle which would be beyond the expertise of any except those who knew the probable value of what they might discover. Imagine a jigsaw having 50,000 pieces which need to be put together and not only do they not belong to the same jigsaw but to maybe fifty different jigsaws and few of the jigsaws has the full set of pieces. What dedication, determination and patience it must have required!
In researching the Dead Sea Scrolls some of the reference books made mention of John the Baptist and Jesus although none of the scrolls mention their names. It is possible (just possible) that John’s life in the desert prior to his mission of baptising could have brought him in contact with the Essenes. John’s ascetic life would have endeared him to them. But once he left the desert to preach his message of
‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Make straight the way of the Lord.’
he would not have been regarded as a member of the Community.
Regarding Jesus it is true to say that whilst the Qumran Community was not on the shortest route from Jerusalem to Jericho it would only have taken a slightly longer route to pass by the Essenes Monastery. Did Jesus ever go there? Jesus way of life did not accord with the Essenes Community so the only possibility is if Jesus called as he was passing by. They would certainly have agreed with Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Priests for their hypocrisy. But they would not have agreed with Jesus who told us to ‘love your enemies’. In their ‘Community Scroll’ the Essenes were repeatedly encouraged to ‘hate, curse and pray for the destruction of their enemies’. A complete contradiction to the teaching of Jesus.
We are left with the question ‘did the scrolls offer any different interpretation to the Scriptures?’ From all that I have read the answer is ‘No’. If any differences had been found we would have learned of them very quickly. Our belief is that the Scriptures are the inspired word of God and what the Dead Sea Scrolls have done is to show that our belief is true.
Finally we ask the question; ‘why were the scrolls left in the caves’. There are two possible reasons. Firstly when a scroll was completed it would need storing and the caves provided a perfect place; probably even more perfect than the Essense could have imagined when we consider the length of time the scrolls survived. The second sad reason is that the scrolls would have been hidden away from their enemies the Romans who, soon after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, would have attacked the Essenes and totally annihilated them.
Dear Mother and Sisters. Thank you for listening.