Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dead Sea Scrolls and me

Today was an out of the ordinary, fun day for me.  I took off this morning for St. Paul, MN and the Science Museum of Minnesota to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit.  I love driving, I love driving through Iowa and it was an absolutely gorgeous day. 

I have been reading about and caring about the Scrolls since the late 70s / early 80s when there was still a lot of controversy regarding who owned them and when there were still many of the scrolls in private hands and not allowed out for researchers to study.  Yes, there was a day that I thought I wanted to be an archeologist.  25 years later, I've managed to release that desire - my knees would retaliate in some awful way, of that I'm certain.

The first thing that I saw, though, was the IMAX film "Arabia," filmed by a young Saudi Arabian man who has spent years in the US at film school.  He returned to his home and explored the land, the people, the history and the future.  If you get a chance to experience this film, grab it.  I learned a lot. It was fascinating to see how different western civilization looks from varying perspectives.  I'm guessing that a lot of what I was taught in high school about the beginnings of education, science, etc., is just plain wrong.  That was exciting!!!  (No, I'm not kidding - it was really exciting to see how we continue to change our outlook on history as we learn more and more.)

The exhibit itself was very well done.  There is a lot of history in that area and it has to be nearly impossible for us as Americans to comprehend the incredible depths that it plumbs.  The people of that area saw Jerusalem as the center of the world.  Three major continents / land masses meet there: Asia, Africa and Europe.  The cradle of civilization is in that area, major empires came from that area and all managed to interact with that tiny space we know as Israel. 

However, as short a period of time as our American history spans, as Christians, we reach back into ancient Judaism and the beginning of time, so tracing this history brings me great excitement.  The first portion of the exhibit attempts to explain the time period, religious implications, people and area surrounding the Scrolls.  I suppose it was a little frustrating for me as I kept thinking that I knew this stuff and I just wanted to spend time with the fragments themselves.  But, there were some great pieces of information that I was able to glean from the historical journey.

In the film "Arabia," the young man explained how a Bedouin's word is sacred.  They don't lie and they don't steal from you because their lives wouldn't permit it.  This honesty they pass down to their children.  He also described them much like the American cowboy ... a comparison I think both would enjoy.  Those words struck me as I walked through the exhibit.  Oral tradition versus written tradition brings a lot of misunderstandings to outsiders.  For us, when something is written down, it becomes real ... heck, sometimes it becomes law.  But, for those who don't read and write - the word is their bond.  Fancy writing seems mystical and difficult to understand and is something to not be trusted.  Bedouins were nomadic and could not carry large sheaves of papyri or parchment, so story telling had to be trusted.  It was such a way of life for them and for all of the nomadic tribes in that area.

Now, the Scrolls are obviously written forms of scripture.  They were written between 250 BC and 68 AD.  There is still a lot of controversy over whether or not they comprise one library, written at Qumran by a single group or multiple libraries gathered together when maybe the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD. 

The Scrolls were written in three different languages - Hebrew (largest percentage), Aramaic and Greek.  For those who study those languages, these have been a phenomenal resource.

Further historical research and study is even bringing into question information that has, for 30 years, pointed to the Essenes living in Qumran.  It is possible that Qumran may have been a pottery making center, not a colony for this religious group.

I love the way we allow our view of history to change as we learn more about it.  We always have to be open to change. 

I finally got through all of the historical stuff and began seeing bits of rope and pieces of textiles that had been discovered in the caves.  The scroll fragments were getting closer.  Finally, I saw the door that led into a darkened room and I knew I was there.  I pretty much skipped the last part of the exhibit, I was so excited.  It was just more bits and pieces of pottery, fabric and coins.  I wanted to see parchment that had been written upon during the years Jesus walked on the earth!

When I walked into the room and approached the first cabinet, I looked at the wall panel and read that I was looking at a fragment from Jeremiah.  I was undone.  Tears filled my eyes and I fought them back so that I could read.  I moved to the next cabinet and discovered a fragment from Psalm 17-18, then to a piece from Deuteronomy.  There were pieces from a Hymn of Praise - The Thanksgiving Scroll and pieces from what is known as Community Rule - a set of rules for living.  As I moved past each one, I couldn't actually see much of the tiny fragments because of the way the lighting exists, but each had a large panel display with the fragments and translation.

I'd seen what I had come to see, but I couldn't be done.  I sat down on benches in the center of the space and pulled out my notebook to write some thoughts down as people moved back and forth around me.

"Overwhelming awe at the realization of what lies before me."

The scroll fragments were tiny little things, much smaller than I envisioned.  Imagine taking pieces from your Bible.  Unless you have giant-sized words in your Bible, those bits and pieces are pretty small.

Amazing things have happened in the study of the Scrolls as technology continues to progress.  They are able to enhance areas that look blank because of the faded ink, to discover characters that we are unable to see with the naked eye, thus filling out many questionable areas of the scrolls.  There is DNA testing being done on the hides as they discover which fragments come from the same animal or whether the animals come from the same region.  Awesome amounts of information is being uncovered every day.

When I finally left the exhibit, I walked back to my car.  I sat down, pulled out keys and other things I had stuffed in my pockets and finally released all of the tears I had been holding back.  I get it that I'm more emotional than most, but today I stood amidst pieces of history that reach back to Jesus Christ.  Not only are these wonderful pieces of history, but these scrolls have transformed the way we look at Scripture.  Before these were discovered, the earliest pieces of the Bible came from one thousand years later!

I'm exhausted - that was a lot of driving.  While I am so thankful that I took the time to see this Exhibit, it only reminds me of how much more I want.  This wasn't nearly enough for me.  I want to immerse myself in these ancient words in any language that I can so that I can fully comprehend ... as much as possible ... what God says to His people through the written word.

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