Been there, done that, got the keychain…
(Original Post) My Night Watch APP classmates and I are going downtown today to see the Dead Sea Scrolls on exhibit. I am totally jazzed about this. There is going to be something so cool about looking at a scroll that’s the closest thing to the original document of Isaiah as exists on planet earth. It kind of helps me understand why people in the Middle Ages freaked out so much over relics… There’s something about staring at a little piece of history in the faith that is terribly exciting (and I haven’t even seen the stuff yet!). I will update this post later today with how it went, and hopefully my camera batteries will last long enough to turn up some interesting pictures.
(Update:) Okay, so my camera batteries died after 3 pictures. I couldn’t take pictures of any of the exhibit, anyway (I figured that would be the case), but I got a couple shots of us in the vicinity of the exhibit. I also tracked down a picture of one of the fragments we viewed (gotta love Google).
It was so terrifically cool! The evening started off on a postive note as the four of us APP Night Watchers found out that Jesus really likes us. A lot. As in, we got there just in time to buy tickets for the last tour of the day — and not just any tickets, but the last four tickets of the day. Below you can see C.J. getting the absolute last ticket available for today. The other photo is Alison and Sarah-Beth as we wait in the lobby for him to finish his purchase.
I was a little nervous at first about the exhibit as they handed us our little audio-handset dealie. We wandered through a room or two with history of Israel and the Dead Sea area, as well as some history on the discovery and preservation of the documents. (Here I must insert a useless, but astounding fact: When resarchers first got their hands on the Dead Sea Scrolls, they tried to piece them together using cellophane tape. No lie. I’m not trained in ancient documents, but even I know that sounds like a tremendously bad idea. Two thousand year old document + Scotch tape = disaster.) Next, we were shown a film about the history and discovery of the scrolls, courtesy of Fox 4 news and the generous donations of a bunch of rich people and businesses who made the exhibit possible. The next rooms were full of all kinds of artifacts from the Qumran settlement, and information about the Essenes who lived there. All of it was very interesting, but I began to wonder if there were actually any scrolls on display.
Eventually, we got to them. And oh, man was it cool.
The fragments were all kept in two dimly lit rooms, stored in three or four-inch deep cases with a little window just big enough to see the document inside. Since long exposure to light would destroy them, they would be lit up by soft lights inside their case at about 30 seconds or so at a time, and then left dark for 30 seconds or so.
The documents were breathtaking. The Hebrew was written in a gorgeous, neat hand, in nearly perfect straight lines and columns. Beside each display hung a floor-length banner with information on the fragment, where and when it was found, what it contained, and the history and significance of that particular piece. Some were biblical, some were apocryphal or pseudopigraphical. One was a commentary on the book of Isaiah. Some had to do with the lifestyle protocols that the Essenes lived by — as did the one pictured below.
This is a little piece of the 4Q258 document. It’s titled the “Community Rule.” It seems to specifically deal with ritual law for the Essenes… it’s not biblical, but I loved this little hymn that was attached to it:
7 And in all my existence it shall be the precept engraved [on my tongue like fruit of eu]logy and the portion [of my lips. I will sing] 8 with knowledge and for the glory of God shall all my music be, the strumming of my harp for his ho[ly order, and the whistle] 9 [of my lips I shall ad]just to its correct scale. [At the onset of] day [and ni]ght I shall enter the covenant 10 [of God, and when evening and morning arrive I shall repeat his precepts;] and while they last I shall go back 11 […] my sins are before my eyes, like graven laws, my sins [like graven laws. But to God I shall say: “My justice,” and to the Most High: “Foundation of my well-being,” “Source of knowings,”] “place of holiness” “peak [of glory,” “all powerful one of eternal majesty…]*
By far, my favorite displays were fragments of Deuteronomy and the Psalms. There was something so awe-inspiring about staring at this dark, tattered piece of papyrus, seeing words on it I can’t even read, but knowing, This is the Word of God. And it’s 2000 years old. Jesus was alive when this stuff was being recorded. Maybe He wasn’t even born yet. And here it is, the Word of God, unchanged. It connected me so much with how real the Word was. This was the handwriting of real scribes. This little chunk of papyrus was really two thousand years old. And way back then, there were people who loved it and cherished it and treasured it as the very words of God.
The fragment from Psalm 135-136 blew my mind the most. It was from a copy of the Psalms that was not in the same order as we have it in our Bible — meaning that it was still in the process of being edited into a final work when it was copied in Qumran! This copy was so old, that it wasn’t yet the final set-in-stone book of the Bible that it is today.
The coolest part of the fragment was seeing the tetragrammaton (the name YHWH) in the text. Jewish people did not say the name of God at all, to ensure that they were not going to accidentally take His name in vain. So the scribes who copied over the scriptures were sure to write God’s name in a different style than the rest of the writing, in order that people reading the scrolls aloud would not accidentally speak the name of God. The different style of writing was an automatic alert to the reader, to avoid having him crusing along on auto-pilot and unintentionally “taking the Lord’s name in vain” by saying it.
This is an excerpt from Psalm 119 (not one of the documents we saw) where you can see the tetragrammaton — note the little blue arrow.
So the four of us students were huddled around Psalm 136 — which is all about praising the Lord for His goodness and His mercy which endures forever. The whole fragment was sprinked with the name of God — every time I saw the symbol , my heart leapt a little. I thought, That’s His name! There He is! I don’t speak a word of Hebrew, but it was exciting to see my God in this ancient document. It was all about Him.
I was also stirred by thinking of the amazing sovereignty of God. He took a quirky little band of reclusive Essenes with a bit of a religious spirit, living in the arid desert because it was about as ascetic a place to live as one could possibly get. Because they lived in that arid desert, their scribal work survived nearly two millennia of aging, to be unearthed by a skeptical society and to proclaim to it the truth and goodness of God. And here I was in Kansas City, Missouri, getting to see a little piece of that testimony. It was a glorious thing. Anyone in the KC area, you should definitely go. It’s amazing.
*Martinez, Florentino Garcia, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 1994