Friday, June 11, 2010

The olden days…

Last Sunday, a sizable group of Plymouth Creekers saw an exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls. First impression: Wow, the term ‘scrolls’ is rather generous. I’d have gone with “Dead Sea Puzzle Pieces”…

But before I go further, some context. In the 1940’s, some Bedouin teenagers were goofing around cliffs along the Dead Sea’s coast, in what’s currently known as the West Bank (or Judea, Israel, or the Occupied Territories- depending on your political/ethnic heritage; life is less than simple in that geographic locale nowadays…as ever). Soon, they found caves in these cliffs, and as you might expect when goofing-around-teenagers discover caves, someone fell in, landing on ancient clay pots.

Things got very interesting. It took awhile for folk to grasp fully the impact of the boys’ discovery, but we soon learned many of these ancient pots held scrolls of Jewish Scripture, written in Hebrew. There were other artifacts, testifying to a once-significant community on that Dead Sea Shore. But the scrolls are what stood out. Because once analyzed and dated- 150 BCE-70 CE- it turns out these scrolls were the oldest written (Hebrew) copies of the Hebrew Bible in existence. By over 1000 years.

Now they’re in Minnesota, at the Science Museum. Well, some are. They didn’t bring any actual ‘scrolls,’ simply 6-7 pieces of ancient parchment/papyrus (with tiny text) that had once been part of larger scrolls (other artifacts found in the caves- pots, utensils, fabrics- made the journey). The Dead Sea caves did contain full scrolls, of course, but those don’t travel. Such ancient, important, delicate documents must be handled carefully in sensitive environments. Still, I’d hoped they’d bring at least one section of scroll bigger than pieces of paper you get at the DMV when asked to ‘take a number’.

Enough whining, though, because I enjoyed the trip. In fact, it was an honor to see such an important discovery up close. Sure, they’re not as captivating as, say, if a professor discovered a living descendant of Jesus’ love affair with Mary Magdalene. Nevertheless, these scrolls and many artifacts have given us crucial, unexpected insights into Jesus’ cultural milieu, and the varieties of religious conviction he dealt with. The basic lesson- Jesus’ world was very different than ours.

For instance, one scroll fragment was from Deuteronomy. Now, most texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls match word-for-word with other ancient sources (indeed, that’s one of the remarkable parts of this discovery- textual consistency in Scripture across time), but sometimes they differ. In significant ways. Like in this Deuteronomy passage, the author refers to the gods. Plural. In our Bible, the same passage, based on writings from the 900s, talks about God. Singular. Seems there were editorial changes made to the Bible over the years, and that this scripture’s original writer didn’t believe in only One God.

That might seem shocking to some, but Bible teachers have long claimed that Biblical and non-Biblical sources show that monotheism- the awareness of One God- developed slowly, over centuries. In Jesus’ day, this idea wasn’t fully accepted, among Romans, of course, and as we now know, among some Jewish leaders. But doesn’t that mean the Bible’s untrustworthy? No! Rather, I believe it shows that God knows us well enough to reveal Godself slowly, according the limitations of our time and culture. That some Biblical authors didn’t know God as One God, but rather one god among many, doesn’t prove their religious impotence. It proves God’s patience- i.e. they did their faithful best. Hopefully, after millennia, we’ve come to know God better, but that process hasn’t ended. We’ll never know God fully, this side of paradise, even though “we’re fully known (1 Cor. 13).” As our sisters and brothers in the United Church of Christ put it, “God is still speaking.”

Amen! God didn’t stop revealing Godself before Jesus came. God didn’t stop with Jesus. And hopefully, when our faith descendants look back on our time and the artifacts they find (Dead Sea iPod?), they’ll- a) know God better than we do, but b) believe we did our faithful best when we had the chance. I think that’s a Dead Sea Scrolls Legacy worth promoting.

Grace and Peace,


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