My Mystic Dead Sea Scrolls Experience

John McManamy Health Guide
  • You may think this blog is about the Dead Sea Scrolls. It's really about connectedness and healing:

     

    It's going on 1:30 Tuesday morning when I arrive in San Diego from the DBSA Conference in Orlando. The temperature is a perfect 70 degrees, with the right humidity. For the first time in six days, the outdoors is not the enemy. I can breathe. I am not drenched in sweat. Despite the horrors of transcontinental flying and the fact that my biological clock is telling me it will soon be five in the morning on the east coast, I am feeling restored and energized. I check into a nearby hotel and am out like a light.

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    My housemate comes by to collect me at 11. We grab an early lunch, then head over to the San Diego Natural History Museum. On special exhibit is the Dead Sea Scrolls. I'm expecting to see a few over-rated bits of desiccated parchment. What I behold equates to a profound religious experience.

     

    The first round of exhibits sets the scene. In 1947, a Bedouin herder happened upon a collection of writings dating 200 years before Christ, stored in pottery hidden in a desert cave. Archaeologists subsequently came upon more Scrolls secreted in a total of 11 caves near the Dead Sea. Years of intrigue followed, as the Israeli government secretly acquired precious fragments from private collectors. Then more intrigue during the secretive and drawn-out scholarship and collation phase. It wasn't until mid 90s that the complete collection, representing assembled fragments from 900 documents, was made available to scholars and the public.

     

    More exhibits recreate the community that may have been responsible for the Scrolls. These are assumed to be the Essenes, a monkish Jewish sect operating in competition with the ruling Temple priests and the nascent rabbinical movement. Although the Essenes did not survive intact, scholars believe that they significantly influenced both Christianity and Judaism. The discovery of inkwells in the nearby archaeological site of Qumran lends credence to the theory that the Scrolls were penned "on location" by a religious community.

     

    Scholars also believe that the Scrolls came to be secreted in the nearby caves as a result of the failed Jewish revolt that resulted in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple 70 years after the birth of Christ. It is around this time that Qumran was abandoned for good.

     

    We are now in the basement of the Museum. The air is chilled. The lights are low. I behold two scraps of parchment. It is from the Book of Leviticus, part of God's instructions to Moses. These fragments form part of the oldest surviving evidence of a tradition that has survived against all odds - from Pharaoh to Hitler - a tradition that has profoundly molded how we think and feel and behave. They represent a significant part of who we are and where we came from.

     

    In a darkened chilled room, I squint at faded ink on darkened parchment and feel a connection through time to an anonymous scribe laboring in the hot sun. Their community is doomed, living on borrowed time. Yet again, Israel is about to be dealt a blow by God, this time through the agency of the Romans.

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    Other scrolls shed additional light on ancient Jewish history. There are fragments from the Book of Isaiah. Seven hundred years prior to the fall of the Temple, Isaiah prophesied the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the hands of the Assyrians, described as the staff of God's wrath. But Isaiah also prophesied hope. It is this uneasy dualism that underpins the Jewish Scriptures and the Jewish faith.

     

    I light upon a piece of Deuteronomy. Significantly, fragments from 32 copies from this Book of the Bible were found in the caves of Qumran. Deuteronomy represents God's final instructions to Moses, prior to His people entering the Promised Land (without Moses). Don't screw up, God instructs His people through Moses, in so many words. Of course, God's people screw up, with devastating consequences. One can interpret the entire rest of the Jewish Scriptures as a Deuteronomy morality play.

     

    Think of the Jewish Bible as an attempt to come to grips with the ancient question of why bad things happen to good people.

     

    But in another exhibit case is a fragment from the War Scroll. The War Scroll represents a Qumran original. Like Revelation in the Christian Bible, the War Scroll foretells of the final battle between good and evil. This particular Scroll also resonates with the hopeful passages from Isaiah. Righteousness will be rewarded. Good will triumph.

     

    Yes, bad things happen to good people, but all in service to a higher purpose. We may lack the capacity to understand, but we need to trust in God.

     

    But the anonymous scribes of Qumran were living on borrowed time. Nevertheless, God never delivers a blow without providing a healing. Rome may have scattered Israel to the winds, but the seeds of an ancient and venerable tradition that refused to die took root in new lands, within different cultures and even different faiths.

     

    If we cast aside our ethnic and sectarian biases for just a moment, we are able to behold enduring wisdom and insight that binds us all, that unites all six billion of us. We are connected. We are one. Yesterday, in a darkened museum basement, squinting at bits of ancient parchment, I experienced a profound sense of connection and healing. I emerged into the light feeling rejuvenated and reborn, not exhausted and jet-lagged.

     

    I looked at my watch and was amazed to discover that two hours had passed. I had lost all sense of time in there. Rush hour would be starting soon. It was time to head home.

     

Published On: August 15, 2007