Pieces of Religious History
Placek, Collette, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
A shepherd boy's chance find has shed light on a link between Christianity and Judaism - and today some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display right here in the Chicago area.
An eerie, howling silence drifts through 11 crumbling limestone caves several miles east of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea. Visitors to this desert region, known as Qumran, describe it as utterly desolate - almost haunting - especially if they have trekked to the site alone to watch the evening sunset.
It is here, in 1947, a shepherd boy searched for a stray sheep by throwing a rock into the darkness of one of these caves. Expecting to hear the bleating of his lost animal, he heard, instead, the shattering of pottery. Upon inspection, the boy discovered a clay jar, inside of which was a strange, rolled-up document, written on a piece of leather. Little did the youth realize his timely toss would result in one of the most phenomenal archaeological finds of the 20th century: the treasured Dead Sea Scrolls.
Moreover, no one could have predicted the explosion of interest these priceless manuscripts would generate, the questions they would raise, or the questions they would irrefutably answer.
Chicagoans are privileged to view some of these scrolls now at the Field Museum through June 11 - they are not on a world tour but grace Chicago exclusively this spring. The parent collection of about 800 manuscripts remains at the Shrine of the Book and the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, preserved and guarded by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Next to the caves of Qumran, shielded by steep cliffs, are the ancient ruins of a small 2,000-year-old community of Jews called the Essenes. With reed pens and ink, Essene scribes produced the Dead Sea Scrolls by copying existing biblical books with amazing accuracy onto the hides of sheep, goat and gazelle.
The unearthed scrolls (the last of which were retrieved in 1956) contain all the books of the Hebrew Bible except the book of Esther. Many of the manuscripts contain extra-biblical texts: Bible commentaries, literary works, and descriptions of Qumran life. Some were written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and a couple were coded cryptically. One scroll was made of copper and is actually a treasure map detailing 64 secret locations where booty could be found.
In the summer of 1989, 42 years after the shepherd boy's discovery, scholar Nathan Jastram, former chairman of the theology/philosophy department at Concordia University, River Forest, entered a cage elevator in the Rockefeller Museum. It transported him to the museum's lower floor and back in time to the age of the Essenes. Jastram was one of only 20 scholars worldwide permitted to handle the scrolls at that time.
His mission was to help reconstruct the book of Numbers and publish its contents as his doctoral thesis, under the direction of Harvard's distinguished Frank Moore Cross, a leader in the field.
"Before going to Jerusalem, I spent months poring over infrared photographs of this particular manuscript," Jastram said. "The style of the handwriting, the shapes of fragments, and the problem readings were etched in my memory and crowded my dreams."
Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found disintegrated into hundreds of fragments in the caves; they would need to be reconstructed by experts, such as Jastram. In the bowels of the museum, Jastram donned silk-like gloves and pieced together about 200 fragments, some the size of a penny, during the next several months. Jastram extracted as much information as he could, knowing that exposure of the scrolls to light and touch would leave them in a little worse shape than when he started.
"The goal is to get just as much information as possible so you don't miss anything at this stage. Because if you miss it now, it may be gone forever."
He inspected the facts before him like a detective.
"The evidence itself constrains you," Jastram remarked. …