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Seeing the Scrolls

(See photos here)

By Charlene Scott Myers
Southwest Kansas Catholic

I have written several stories about the Dead Sea scrolls since I floated years ago in the sea’s thickly salt-clogged waters, looking up at the cliff caves where the scrolls were found in Israel.

But never did I think I actually would see the scrolls with my own eyes, which happened recently when my husband Dave and I visited an exhibit of 10 of 20 scrolls displayed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in downtown Denver. (The other 10 scrolls were displayed at a different time.)

The scrolls had never before been on public display, and span nearly 185 years, with copies made as early as 125 BCE.  The Isaiah scroll is one of the latest copies discovered.

The building was clogged with the curious public, but a kindly man from the museum gave us a private tour, explaining the history of each scroll on display as we strolled past these remains of antiquity.

The scrolls had been written and stuffed into large jars by religious men—Essene monks—a sect of Second Temple Judaism who fled the attacks of Jews and others in Jerusalem and lived in a desert community they named Qumran that was destroyed in 68 CE (Christian Era). More than 900 remarkably preserved scrolls were recovered.

During my visit to Israel, some of my companions and I climbed the huge rocks leading up to one of the caves and peered into the darkest darkness I’ve ever seen.  Of course, there were no pots or parchment of any sort left inside the cave.

Discovered by a young Bedouin boy in 1947 when his goat scampered up the rocks and into one of the caves, the huge pots we saw at the museum contained manuscripts of the Book of Isaiah, older by a thousand years than any previously known Hebrew copy of the Old Testament! The Book of Isaiah is one of the more common Dead Sea scroll texts.

The dawn of civilization arose in the region of Israel more than a million years ago and became the birthplace of some of the world’s leading religions.  There are more than 30,000 known archaeological sites throughout Israel, a tiny sliver of land that can be crossed by car from top to bottom in only four hours!

The Denver museum featured 2,000-year-old parchments and scraps of parchments found in Israel’s caves above the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956.  Following their discovery, historians in the 1950s pieced the scraps back together using cellophane tape.

The majority of the scrolls are non-Biblical, representing religious legal writings, prayer texts and predictions of a future apocalypse. Even recipes are included among the scrolls!

Some 1,200 silver shekels (coins) were unearthed at Qumran, and many copies of the Book of Isaiah were discovered in the caves. A few were on display at the exhibit, as were a pair of leather sandals worn by one of the Jewish rebels who fought in vain against Roman forces and chose to kill their families and themselves rather than surrender at the nearby desert fortress of Masada in 73 CE.

The Jewish religious men at Qumran believed the last days were coming at any time, and readied themselves by prayer, study and cleanliness, bathing twice a day in small pools of water.  Qumran was destroyed in 68 CE (Christian Era), but when we visited the area, we walked among the rooms of its stony remains as we did at the better preserved mountain fortress of Masada.

Among the ancient pieces of pottery from Israel displayed at the Denver museum were huge collared-rim storage jars called “Pithos,” dating from the Iron Age I (11th century BCE).  These enormous pots were found in the remains of four-room houses in Canaan’s central hill country.

As for the scrolls on exhibit at the museum, 27 percent were written in Greek, although 10 scrolls were copies of the Hebrew community’s writings. NASA has a digital library where a digitized process allows viewers to “see writings we never could see before.”

A discovery made in Cave 4 in 1952 produced a “War Rule,” a six-line fragment, known as the Sefer ha-Milhamah, commonly referred to as the “Pierced Messiah” text, which refers to a Messiah from the Branch of David (whom we know as our Savior Jesus Christ), and also to a judgment and a killing, both of which He experienced.

One Hebrew scroll on parchment includes as many as 51 psalms, but their order does not correspond to the present version of the Hebrew Bible, and the scroll contains psalms not found in the present version. 

The text names King David as author of the psalms, reinforcing his reputation as the greatest of poets!

One scroll contains a lease agreement belonging to Eliezer ben Shmuel, a farmer who lived in Ein Gedi. (I visited this small part of Israel that looks like Paradise, and we have named a picnic area in our backyard “Ein Gedi!). The land changing hands in Israel was owned by the government of Simeon Bar Kokhba, leader of the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans (132-135 CE). The document refers to Bar Kokhba as the “Prince of Israel.”

One parchment, the book of Enoch, was written in Aramaic and found in Cave 4, dating back to between 100 and 50 BCE.  Enoch is mentioned in the book of Genesis, where he is reported to “Walk with God,” as we all would like to walk.




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