Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together (Dead Sea scrolls)

My birthday occurred not too long ago, and while some people in my family claim I'm a difficult person to shop for, I don't think that's necessarily the case. This is based on the fact that everyone that gave me a gift managed to find a really good one, and the one person who picked an item on my Amazon wish list was my sister, who got me Robert Alter's translation of the Torah, and it was she who turned me on to Alter in the first place. She also got me a copy of a book by Douglas Adams (not that Douglas Adams) about how in order to properly appreciate the Bible, you have to see the humor in it. Both excellent books. While I did get great gifts from everyone, I of course prefer to focus on the more Biblically-oriented gifts here, and the gift that I particularly wanted to focus on was the one I finally got to enjoy this weekend: Admission to the San Diego Museum of Natural History's exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It was exciting to get to see this exhibit, but it was also full of few surprises, many of which highlighted the fact that I have repeatedly admitted: that I'm not an expert on history. I thought the scrolls were discovered in the 1890's and dated from the 3rd century B.C. It turns out they date from the 2nd century B.C. and were discovered in the late 1940's. Other than the dates, I did get the details of the discovery (Bedouin shepherd boy throws rocks into a cave and hears the sound of breaking pottery. He investigates and finds clay pots full of ancient parchment scrolls.) and the creation (A pre-Christian highly devout Jewish community living in an isolated city apparently spent much of their time copying and storing important Biblical, non-Biblical and pseudo-Biblical documents.) of the scrolls.

One of the biggest surprises for me was the size of the scrolls. When I was a child going to synagogue, our Torahs usually were rather large scrolls, say about two feet high or so, printed in nice, large Hebrew block script. I expected to see something similar, but at least among those on display in San Diego, most were tiny little scrolls just a few inches high with tiny writing in an older Hebrew script that I found difficult to read. Other specimens of Hebrew Scripture from the 10th century that were on display with the scrolls were perfectly easy to read, showing that the written form of Hebrew has changed virtually not at all in the last millennium. (Actually, even the script used in the Dead Sea scrolls is only about as different from modern Hebrew writing as modern English writing is different from scripts about 500 years ago.)

One of the things that of course Christians like to stress about the scrolls is that when compared with the Bible of today, the accuracy of transmission through the last 2,000 years is remarkably good. On the other hand however, some Christians might be a bit shocked to find out that it's not 100% accurate. I worry sometimes, no, a lot of the time that when the church is teaching people that the Bible is "perfect", that they don't explain what they mean by that. Clearly if one is to mean anything by saying that the Bible is "perfect", then perfection is a subjective thing. For instance, the last Bible I owned had a printing error in it (that I found, that is; surely it had more than one!) and I expect that if I had the time to go over my current Bible with a fine-toothed comb, I'd find an error or two there as well. Both ancient scribes and modern Bible publishers are very careful, but they at least are not "perfect".

The Dead Sea scrolls contain quite a number of interesting documents of a few categories. I think a lot of people think that the scrolls are a copy of the Bible, but in fact, there are very many copies of various Biblical books represented in the scrolls, portions from the Book of Psalms being most prominent. Most likely, many copies were made of the Psalms to be used as hymnals. In addition to accepted Biblical texts however, there are a number of apocryphal books found among the scrolls. The book of Enoch is actually one of most popular books among the scrolls, which is a book written as though it were penned by Noah's grandfather. The book was however written in Aramaic, which is a much more modern language than Hebrew, and nobody seems to really believe that it's genuine, nor that it should be an official part of the Bible, although it is quoted extensively in the Epistle of Jude. Enoch talks a lot about the Nephilim, and it may be where some of the more extensive theories about Genesis 6 come from.

The scrolls also contain numerous documents not in the least bit Biblical, although most of them have a distinct Biblical flavor to them, including a document about the coming Messiah that Jesus himself quotes in Matthew 11:5. I've never heard that this passage was a quote before, so it may be that this is a newly-found document; I know they're pulling out fragments and reassembling more scrolls all the time. Also on display was a section of the Copper Scroll, a very unusual document that I found quite amusing, as it seems possible if not likely that the contents of the scroll are some sort of elaborate prank. (I don't know why someone would go through so much trouble for a prank, but the idea amuses me.)

Something else that was interesting was the occasional stylistic choice made by a scribe on how to write God's name. As you may or may not know, in Hebrew, God's name is YHVH, written without vowels. Sometimes, even those consonants are considered to be too Holy to write, and in the Dead Sea scrolls, there were a couple interesting documents reflecting this. One document showed a place where the scribe had replaced the letters with "····", just four dots that the reader was left to understand represented "the Name". In another document, God's name was written in Paleo-Hebrew, an even older writing style that had fallen out of use centuries before the people of Qumran made the scrolls.

Anyway, it was a very interesting display, not just because I obviously have an interest in all things Biblical, but also for the fact that these are handwritten documents made by people who have been gone for over 2,000 years. In addition to my spiritual side, it appeals to my interests in archaeology, linguistics, typography and culture. If you get a chance to see it, it's certainly worth the time and money.

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