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Judi's Journal

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The Dead Sea Scrolls: All because a boy lost a goat

By Judi Siegal

In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd boy went on a quest to search for a lost goat. In the harsh, dry desert region that was his home, the boy naturally assumed the goat had left the herd in search of water. What the shepherd ultimately discovered was to become one of the most significant archeological finds of all time and although the goat may not have found water to drink, the discovery nevertheless would be the spiritual fountain from which three monotheistic religions would drink and be nourished.

What the Bedouin boy discovered on that fateful day was a cave located in the Dead Sea Area of Israel in a region called Qumran. There buried for centuries in clay jars were ancient manuscripts of huge historical importance which give us a glimpse of life during the Second Temple period, 520 BCE-70 C.E, when the Romans destroyed the Temple and the Jews were sent into exile, the exile lasting until the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. They were called the Dead Sea Scrolls and ever since their discovery, they have proved to be a challenge for linguists, theologians, paleontologists and others who, even after many years since their unearthing, have studied and labored over the manuscripts and fragments in order to decipher their meanings.

Professor E.L. Sukenik of the Hebrew University purchased the original seven scrolls, which are now housed in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, clandestinely, due the politics of the impending War of Independence, from an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem. The remaining four scrolls were purchased by Yigael Yadin in 1954 as a result of an ad placed in the Wall Street Journal. The purchase price was $250,000 part of which was paid for by philanthropist, D.S. Gotesman, whose heirs sponsored the construction of the Shrine of the Book museum where they are now housed.

The seven scrolls are Isaiah A, Isaiah B, the Habakkuk Commentary, the Thanksgiving Scroll, The Community Rule, the War Rule, and the Genesis Apocryphon, this one being in Aramaic. What is so significant about the scrolls and others which were found in other cases in the Qumran region, is what these texts reveal to us about the people who wrote them and their lives and times.

Ultimately, the Dead Sea Area was to reveal manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible that were 1,000 years older than any other previously discovered. The startling fact that was revealed showed that the writings were practically identical to today’s Hebrew Bible, virtually unchanged through the centuries. This is of tremendous importance to Judaism, a text-based faith and to its millions of adherents for which the Torah and other sacred literature form a basis for belief and practice.

The scrolls also give us a window into the times of early Christianity since many of the scrolls were written during the time of Jesus. Scholars have now concluded that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was even more diverse as originally thought and that there were many ideas and movements at the time that influenced Jesus’ thoughts and actions. There are literary similarities between the Gospels and the Scrolls, which would indicate Jesus’ contact point with the Judaism of his day. These ideas were to shape not only Christianity but Judaism as well and were to have a profound effect on world history as a result.

Many of the scrolls are thought to have been written by as ascetic sect of Judaism called the Essenes. This splinter group of Jews were dissatisfied with the ruling priestly class of the day and retreated to the wilderness to await the End of Days. They believed the world was in a struggle with the Sons of Light (goodness) and the Sons of Darkness (evil) and this struggle would bring the End of Days or Messianic Times. Some scholars believe that the Essenes were a Hassidic, i.e. pietistic sect. No doubt some of these people were martyred on the top of Massada. There are other scholars that believe the Esssenes were early Christians because of the apocalyptic nature of their writings. With the impending destruction of the Temple and the oppression of the Romans as well as the ruling priestly class, which they considered corrupt, these people certainly felt the End of Days was near and their writings reveal this concept. They also show us the strict, ascetic life style complete with ritual bathing and prayer. Archeology in the area has unearthed ruins of mikvehs (ritual baths) and areas of communal worship and living quarters.

In all, 800 documents were found in various caves in the area and while some are almost complete like the Isaiah scroll, many are in fragments. There are about 100,000 fragments in all and scholars are painstakingly trying to piece them together. Most of the scrolls are on parchment, i.e. dried animal skins and some of these scrolls when unrolled can stretch as much as 30 feet. The scrolls were written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek with the text done in columns. The scrolls contain all of the Hebrew Bible except the Book of Esther and a few other writings formally only known in Greek or in other languages but now found in Hebrew as well as other writings which were completely unknown.

The tremendous treasure is housed mostly in Jerusalem but some scrolls are to be found in Jordan and Europe. Scholars are given access to the scrolls in order to learn their secrets and slack their thirst at the fount of knowledge. All because a Bedouin boy lost a goat.