Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dead Sea Scrolls

My mother-in-law and I went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls this afternoon - those fragments of scrolls hidden away by (likely) the Qumran settlement of (possibly) Essene Jews in the first century C.E.

I was impressed with the extraordinary build-up in the exhibit to actually viewing the scroll fragments. The vast bulk of the exhibit was a crash-course tour of the Dead Sea geography, archeology, paleography, DNA and spectrum analysis, and the political, social and religious situation in first-century Palestine. I was exhausted before even seeing the scrolls - but the inculcation served its purpose: to convey the profound significance of the finding of these documents.

My first (and enduring) impression of the scrolls was... they're so small. They were tiny things! The ones I looked at were barely five inches high, and the letters written on them were miniscule. Presumably this was because parchment and vellum were so hard to come by, the desert spiritualists had to stretch their meager resources as far as they could go - nothing but the most sacred words could be afforded the value of being put down in writing. (It is like allowing students one 3x5 card for notes on a tough exam - they'll write almost illegibly small in order to fit everything in.)

And then I thought of me blogging about them. Here, in today's world, words are cheaper than the proverbial dime-a-dozen. Almost everyone is literate, and words are everywhere - we have so many ways to convey words that they've almost entirely lost their value. Emails and two-inch thick Sunday newspapers are perfect examples - we hardly read or remember anything we get in them. And now blogs - where people put their idlest thoughts out for public viewing - add a whole new angle on the worthless word problem.

Here I was standing in the presence of two-thousand year old fragments of texts countless numbers of people worked to produce and pore over, that represent so much work and effort poured into such tiny things, scraps that meant the world (and more) to the Qumran community. How can I pay reverence to such significance? It is beyond my abilities, it seems, as a 21st-century Westerner - words are virtually worthless. I have a greater sense of the time and care put into the animal skins that served as the medium for the message. I felt so unworthy, so handicapped, to appreciate them.

Part of me feels like I didn't.

One other interesting note was that the Qumran community was so insistent on purity, and as a consequence carefully avoided pronouncing the name of God (YHWH), instead substituting "Adonai" (Lord) or something similar, they changed the script when writing YHWH, so that you wouldn't just mindlessly read it accidentally. It was fun to see the crowd try and find the YHWHs in the texts - completely unintelligible except that it was different from the surrounding (also unintelligible) text.

I came out feeling like I missed something - I felt I should have been feeling like I had a more profound encounter. In the end, though, they were just parchment fragments - fascinating for their historical implications, their archaeologial significance... but not particularly thrilling in themselves. (I feel bad even writing this... why?)

But I did enjoy the tour, the education, and seeing the actual scrolls. I suppose it will be a conversation starter if nothing else.

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  • Hi i just surfed in searching for interesting facts on Essenes in the blogs.
    you have a cool blog. Do keep up the good work. I'll be back for more. i live
    far from where you live. its nice to be able to see what people from across
    the world thinks.

    On a related note perhaps you might find the following article interesting.
    we are currently doing a series of posts on essenes and their culture and i'll
    like to hear your take on the subject via comments. See ya there....

    Facts on Essene Culture

    Warm Regards from the Other Side of the Moon.
    Bijoy Cletus - Kerala, India

    By Blogger Biby Cletus, at 10:56 AM  

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