Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls

In 1947 on the western shores of the Dead Sea a young Bedouin boy known as Muhammed the Wolf was tending to his herd of goats. He was part of a band of hearty adventurers who were smuggling goats from Transjordan into Palestine. This required that they take the long way around to avoid the Jordan Bridge and the customs officers who guarded it.

The route they chose took them through a barren ravine known to the Arabs as Qumran to the spring waters of the oasis at Ain Feshkha. Being a good shepherd Muhammed chased after one of his goats that had strayed up a cliff and got lost. When he found the goat he noticed the opening of a cave in the cliff wall. Curious, but wary of the snakes that would often hide from the heat of the sun in such caves, Muhammed simply threw a stone into the dark cave opening. He was intrigued when he heard the stone make a sharp crack but decided to tell his friends before he went into the cave.

Muhammed returned a while later with a friend of his and the two Bedouin boys found they could not resist exploring the cave, snakes or no snakes. What they discovered inside was collection of several large clay jars and the fragments of several others. Muhammed and his friend were fascinated and could only guess at what treasures might be hidden inside the mysterious jars. With visions of a Princes gold and jewels in their eyes the two boys lifted the lid off one of the great jars and with eager anticipation looked inside.

What they found inside was certainly a treasure but not the hoard of silver and gold they had dreamed of. Instead, the jars contained thin scrolls wrapped in linen that had been coated with pitch and wax. Remarkably, the scrolls were still legible, but the boys could not read the strange manuscripts as they were not written in Arabic. Muhammed and his friend decided their unusual find might still be worth something at the bazaar in Bethlehem.

As the story goes the Bedouins sold a few samples of the scrolls to a merchant in Bethlahem for a mere 20 Pounds, though some say it was 50. Oddly, the next several years saw the samples of the scrolls pass through many hands yet there was little interest in them. Finally, the scrolls were recognized for their incredible historical significance and most of them now reside in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.

What are now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of about 900 scrolls including many from several other caves in the same area. Notably among them are the only know Biblical texts dated before 100 AD as well as the Isaiah scroll, The Manual of Discipline, The Copper Scroll and a commentary on the Book Habakkuk. Most of the texts are written in Hebrew, some are written in Aramaic and a few are written in Koine Greek.

The significance of The Dead Sea Scrolls is difficult to estimate as their are still some questions about their exact date of origin. There is also some debate about the way access to the scrolls has been restricted. But there can be no doubt about their effect on our interpretation of the ancient manuscripts.


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