Jerusalem (population 800,000) is the holy city for the three main Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s located on a plateau surrounded by valleys. If you head southeast from the city, the terrain becomes increasingly rocky and desolate. About 21 miles (34 km) from Jerusalem, near the northwest edge of the Dead Sea – the lowest body of water on earth – is an ancient site known as Khirbet Qumran. There are steep cliffs surrounding Qumran, with a series of small caves poked into the cliffs. And within these caves were discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The scrolls are a collection of 972 texts that date to the first few centuries BCE (BC) and CE (AD). Some of the texts are non-biblical, some are manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament to Christians), and they comprise the earliest known writings of Second Temple Judaism. One scroll is an entire copy of the Book of Isaiah. The scrolls lay hidden in darkness for 2,000 years until being discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in 1946. Then for the next several decades they were painstakingly pieced together and eventually published.
Last Sunday I had the opportunity to view a small part of the scrolls at the Cincinnati Museum Center. The exhibit is subtitled “Life and Faith in Ancient Times,” apropos because many of the scrolls offer clues about the type of society in which the scrolls were conceived. Many historians think the scrolls formed the library of a long-extinct Jewish sect called the Essenes, who left the more mainstream Jewish faith to practice a more ascetic form of Judaism (although the true authors of the scrolls may never be known).
It’s hard to describe the feeling: peering into a thick glass case at ancient, torn parchment that existed before, during, and after the time of Christ. Just gazing on a few shreds of browned goatskin, with faint but precise Hebrew (or Aramaic) lettering from the Book of Numbers: “…May the Lord make his face to shine upon you.” It sent shivers up my spine. Until the discovery of the scrolls, the oldest known Hebrew Bible manuscript dated to the 10th century. So the Dead Sea Scrolls were a leap back of 1,000 years.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority is currently digitizing the Dead Sea Scrolls. The exhibit in Cincinnati will run until April 14. The scrolls will be rotated out in sets until then.