The Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith Alive

December 17, 2012
Last week, I went on a one day pilgrimage with about fifty people from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to the Cincinnati Museum Center to see an exhibition entitled, “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times.” Allow me to quote from the museum’s webpage to give you some background information on the exhibit: 
In 1947, a shepherd stumbled upon a hidden cave along the shore of the Dead Sea. Concealed inside were ancient scrolls that had not been seen for 2,000 years. After extensive excavation, a total of 972 remarkably preserved scrolls were found, including the earliest Biblical texts ever discovered. Now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, they have been called the most significant archaeological find of the last century…. 

With an “audio tour” in hand (and ear), I spent a good two and a half hours making my way through the exhibit. There was a lot to see. Besides some of the actual scroll texts themselves, there were numerous archeological artifacts, imaginative recreations of houses and palaces, and a long exhibit describing the whole history of the finding of the scrolls, the subterfuge and political maneuvering around the question of ownership, and the recent scholarly arguments about who should have access to the scrolls for study. I found it all very fascinating.
But the highlight was pretty much towards the end of the exhibit when I got to see parts of the actual scrolls. The fragments are shown around a large circular table in the middle of an exhibition room. One can travel clockwise or counter-clockwise, jump around from fragment to fragment depending on the number of people looking, and spend as long as politeness and available time allows, gazing and reading. 
The fragments are all under a thick piece of glass but set-up in such a way that you can put your face right down to the glass and touch the glass if you want. The museum staff doesn’t seem to mind. I found myself with my extremely limited and mostly forgotten knowledge of Hebrew, scanning right to left, only able to pick out the more obvious words like the Tetragrammaton or “Adonai.” There was a fragment of a text from the Book of Genesis (part of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife), a fragment of Psalm 119, and a long fragment from the Book of Daniel. There were pieces from some of the non-canonical Wisdom literature and a text of a communal code of life. There was even a deed agreement granting a lease on a parcel of land owned by one man to another. All of this was written out in the neatest of lines, for the most part clearly legible.
I spent a lot of time over the text from Psalm 119. I can’t remember the exact fragment as the psalm itself is a long one and repetitive in parts but it is a psalm with which I am quite familiar since the Church prays it a lot in the Daytime Office of the Liturgy of the Hours. I was able to kneel down and raise my glasses above my forehead so as to see the Hebrew text more clearly. I ran my finger across, right to left, line by line, tracing the almost perfectly straight rows of text. I wish I could have pronounced the Hebrew as I did so but my silent perusal had to suffice. When I finished I turned to the translation that was present just to the left of the fragment. I read it and then armed with English words in my head, I turned to the Word of God once again, right to left, line by line.
Here in front of me was a text that some nameless scribe from over two thousand years ago had copied out so clearly and beautifully. The written word itself was a thing of beauty. I wonder if, like the present day painters of icons, the scribe prayed as he wrote or did he see his writing as an act of prayer and worship in itself. Whatever may have been, I found myself in a place of prayer and worship for a few moments at least as I studied this ancient text. It is a wonder to me that those words which were the scribe and his community’s words prayer to God are the words of prayer and worship for me and my community as well. While the scribe copied and read these word through the prism of his Hebrew faith, I read them now through the lens of that tradition and the faith I have in the Lord Jesus Christ.  This text may have been hidden for two thousand years in one the driest and deadest place on earth but the life that breaths in the Word of God itself was not something extinguished but something to be given new life and light today.