Did you know that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of the oldest known copies of the books of the Bible? Now you can see them for yourselves and learn an amazing amount about the Bible, its authors, how it was put together and about the life and times in ancient Judaism before and after Jesus.
You can learn all of this by visiting the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia between now and October 14, where you can enjoy “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times.” The clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania and I had the privilege of touring the exhibit on Tuesday. It was fascinating, and I urge you to go.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient manuscripts that were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves near Qumran, not far from the shores of the Dead Sea in Israel. The scrolls were accidentally discovered when a shepherd boy saw one of his goats disappear into a cave on the side of cliff. He climbed down and threw a stone into the cave, hoping to encourage his goat to come out.
Instead, he heard the sound of broken pottery. He managed to enter the cave and discovered hundreds of scrolls safely stored in clay jars. Many had been damaged, and a large portion of the scrolls were no longer in tact.
The scrolls date from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. In addition to including some of the oldest copies of various books of the Bible, they include hymns, prayers and psalms not found in the Bible.
Most of the scrolls were written on leather parchment. Other texts were written on papyrus (reed paper). One scroll, known as the Copper Scroll, is inscribed on copper.
Altogether over 100,000 fragments of ancient texts were found, and scholars have pieced them together in over 900 separate documents. It is widely believed that the scrolls were created by members of the Essene sect, a group of Jews who broke away from mainstream Judaism. They lived in a communal setting similar in many ways to a monastery in the desert of Israel.
When the Romans invaded their community around 68 B.C., the Essenes hid manuscripts in nearby caves. The ruins of Qumran, near the base of the caves where the scrolls were discovered, are believed to be the home of the ancient Essenes. Some scholars believe that John the Baptist and Jesus spent time living and learning among the Essenes, especially as their teaching and preaching reflect some of the Essene theology.
The biblical manuscripts comprise some 200 copies of biblical books, representing the earliest known copies that we have of the biblical text in the world. Some of the apocryphal books that were found had never been known before.
Other texts are sectarian texts that include biblical commentary, religious legal writings, liturgical prayers and compositions that predict a coming apocalypse. After the early discovers of the manuscripts sold them to an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem, the scrolls were actually advertised for sale in the Wall Street Journal.
Fortunately, they were purchased and now reside under the care and the custody of the Israel Antiquities Authority. A few of the scrolls are in Jordan and in Europe. Now you can walk around displays in the Franklin Institute and see these very same scrolls.
Listen to the audio tour. Take your time and read as many displays as you can. Bring family members, friends or members of your Bible study. Purchase a book in the shop as you leave and enhance your knowledge and love of the Bible.