St. Matthew's Episcopal

Dancing with the Dead Sea Scrolls

Posted on: November 29th, 2011 by Robin Jarrell

Caves of Qumran next to the Dead Sea

Gracious heavens!  It was dark in there.  And chilly.  I bent down and shielded my eyes as if I were in a movie:  hovering over a precious bit of dust saved from the ten commandments inside the ark of the covenant,  peering over the glass-enclosed light-sensitive/climate-controlled motion-sensored case that contained  a three thousand year old  scrap of scroll from Qumran.  I felt like it knew my thoughts.  Could ascertain my every move.  All I could think was:   Dang!  The writing is so, well, so  … small.  Tiny, in fact.  Miniscule.  How is this possible?

These were, after all, the famed Dead Sea Scrolls.  These are, after all, the monumental life-changing discoveries on parchment (and copper, too) that have forever changed the way Biblical scholars think about Palestine in the First Century.

Because of these scrolls, the New Testament will never be the same.

It was the day before Thanksgiving and I was standing in the Times Square Discovery Channel Exhibit rooms on 44th street between 5th and 6th Avenues in New York City where just a mere month ago I had come with my family to see the Harry Potter Movie Set extravaganza.  As if Harry weren’t enough, we also treated ourselves to an amazing display at this same center with the artifacts from the destruction of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.  (During the short preliminary film that introduced the exhibit, my eldest daughter hardly contained her delight as she discovered that the Volcano actually erupted on August 24 – a date only one day removed from her younger sibling’s birthday).  Sorry, I digress.

Back to the scrolls:

In 1947, the same year it is rumored that a flying saucer probably crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico, a young Muslim shepherd on the other side of the planet was trying to find a lost sheep.  Thinking one of his charges had fallen into a hole, he cast a stone into an abandoned cave and heard only the sound of pottery shattering.

Pottery.  As in scores and scores of jars containing an entire library of some 972 texts in the Wadi along the shores of the Dead Sea known as Khirbet Qumran in Israel.  Eleven whole caves, high up in the rocks.   Scrolls of varying lengths (and some just worm-eaten scraps, really) of texts that have given us probably more questions than answers.  But all scribes know it is better to thank Rilke, than to curse the darkness.  Or, something like that.

Anyway, on this particular day, one day away from the Macy’s parade and guests coming over and everyone overdosing on food, I was able to bend my head down and peek into a glass and really, truly see the work of the scribes who simply copied.  In the rounded uncials and graciously maneuvered aleph-bet’s I saw their heroic attempts at keeping hope alive in that day and age.

I will tell you some of what I saw:  a pesher on the prophet Habakkuk.  A paragraph on the Community Rule.  A snippet of a Psalm.  A tiny piece of the Greek recension from the Book of Daniel.

But more than this:  I saw the hand of God.

I’ve been to Dublin, Ireland and have seen with my own eyes the Book of Kells – a scribal wonder of artistry and calligraphy that beautifully represents the New Testament far beyond anything I have or will ever lay my eyes upon.

But, now I have seen the light.

In the Dead Sea Scrolls I have seen in those small manuscript fragments the fervor and intensity of faith written out.   I don’t know if the scribes were “sectarians” who were furious with the co-opting of the second Temple by Roman collaborators and who retreated to the Dead Sea to keep their own secrets.  Or aged rabbis furiously trying to save what they could of the scripture that they knew and loved.  Or even well-to-do Hellenized philanthropists who dutifully hid all that was precious in their library far away inside the cliff-caves above their villa.  That hardly matters.  Because I have witnessed the soul of those who would give us the wonders of their engagement with the Divine by means of their craft and with their pen, in parchment and with vision and immaculate detail.  I was awestruck by the sheer majesty, by the care described through such tiny, meticulous work.  “Not even the rain,” as the poet ee cummings writes, “has such small hands.”

There, etched onto animal skin, I saw a stark sense of love even in the face of desperation – a striving not borne of want or even need, but a celebration for the creative spark once given by the creator and now joyously returned by the hand of the scribe.  In these scrolls, I witnessed a kind of birth in bringing text into the world – the marks on parchment once and for all giving testament to the amorphous vagaries of the mind’s spoken word in a last ditch effort to make something permanent that could be set down on parchment.  It didn’t need to be beautiful.  It didn’t need to be at all:  but it was.  And it is.

I’ve often thought the “Dead Sea Scrolls” were misnamed.  Seeing them in person, they look very much alive.








All trademarks and copyrighted material are the property of their respective owners. Copyright © 2009-2021 St. Matthew's Episcopal; Sunbury, PA. All Rights Reserved.