Life in the Time of the Dead Sea Scrolls: One of the Greatest Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century Offers an Unfiltered Glimpse into Life in Judea and Galilee 2,000 Years Ago

By Spencer, Steven | ROM Magazine, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Life in the Time of the Dead Sea Scrolls: One of the Greatest Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century Offers an Unfiltered Glimpse into Life in Judea and Galilee 2,000 Years Ago


Spencer, Steven, ROM Magazine


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Two thousand years ago, the people of Judea and Galilee were locked in a simmering conflict with the Roman authorities that ruled their lands. It was a conflict that would lead to two rebellions, one in the first century CE and one in the second. Both ended in disaster for the Jewish people, and initiated a period of exile and loss that would last for 20 centuries At the same time, and in the same lands, walked a man from the town of Nazareth, a preacher of a kind, who was perceived in different ways--as a reformer, a healer, and a leader, among other things. Fearing him as a catalyst for revolt, the Romans executed him. Most of his followers would come to believe that he was, in some sense, the deity himself in human guise.

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In June, selections of the most important and the only original texts that still exist from that time, the Dead Sea Scrolls, will be coming to the ROM. Discovered in the 1940s and 1950s, the scrolls opened a clear new window on our knowledge of life at the turn of the millennium 2,000 years ago.

Before that there were only ancient texts copied and re-copied over and over, through the centuries. There was Philo, a Jewish man of first-century Alexandria, for example, who wrote books about his religion, in part to explain it to his Greek-speaking contemporaries. More famously there was Josephus, a first-century Judean who wrote several books about his people, including an account of the First Revolt, which resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

These texts tell us about beliefs and events dating from the period in which post-Temple Judaism and Christianity took form. They are critical to our understanding of the establishment of these two religions.

But none of these texts exists in its original state. We have copies of copies, many times over. Very few extant examples of these texts date from before the 8th century CE; most others date from centuries later. What opportunity--and temptation!--there must have been for subtle alteration, discreet omission, and careful addition, to suit a political or theological agenda of a particular time. How can we be sure that someone did not tamper with the text?

In truth, there was no way to tell, unless an obvious stylistic aberration revealed a reworking--until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. For 2,000 years they lay hidden in caves, left by people who never returned for them. That the scrolls survived at all is astonishing. Even more astounding, they date from precisely the years in which early Judaism and Christianity were beginning to take form. The scrolls include all but one of the books of the Hebrew Bible, offering an unprecedented opportunity to compare them to much later extant examples. Just as amazing, though, the scrolls provide evidence of decidedly unconventional Jewish beliefs and practices at that time, offering a completely unlooked-for window into the diversity and internal stresses of a people under siege. The world that saw the birth of the two religions was far more fluid and varied than was previously thought, characterized by the coexistence of several communities of religious interpretation, all claiming ancient Israel as their heritage.

The tale of the discovery and retrieval of the scrolls is a fascinating one, beginning with a Bedouin looking for an errant goat. The discovery led to clandestine digging by Bedouin tribesmen, dangerous forays by archaeologists and scholars during the war of 1948, the surprisingly pecuniary tendencies of a bishop, quiet arrangements with shadowy merchants and dealers in antiquities, frantic fundraising in North America and elsewhere, and finally the gradual gathering of the scrolls in a single place in Jerusalem. It is a miracle of tenacity, generosity, and detective work that nearly all the known parchment scrolls today inhabit a single institution in Jerusalem, the Israel Museum. …

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