QUMRAN, DEAD SEA – Again and again, I face the reality of the world against my perceptions. These can be great matters (faith vs. scripture vs. interpretation vs. geography) or more prosaic expectations from Ancient History 101 textbooks.
A quick review of Dead Sea 101. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found by Bedouin Muhammed Edh-Dhib and others after World War II, and in subsequent years more scrolls were found and the Qumran town unearthed. It was arguably one of the greatest architectural finds in history, and it all happened in our time. At any time during the process of their discovery, the scrolls, now mostly at the Israeli Museum, could have been destroyed or lost, or forgotten yet again.
The history book image of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Qumran is of dry, stone caves tucked in mountains, out in the wild Judean desert far away from Jerusalem. Yet what is there does not match up; it is a tourist site, easily reached by motor coach from Jerusalem.
The Qumran caves are in a well-groomed, well-planned, well-preserved, well-protected, well-interpreted, well-landscaped and well-maintained Israeli National Park near, well, the Dead Sea, in the Judean Desert. It is not an “exciting” place, and there is little to actually “see” but some ruins and caves. In photos, one sees the caves, but when you get there, you see the tourist infrastructure first.
But there is nothing that can be done about that. It would be impossible and unfair and silly to have the site of one of the greatest archaeological finds hidden for only a few, with no bathrooms and tourists run amok. When I look at the caves, they are completely barren, and as long as I do not turn around, they look timeless. And when the hot, dry breezes gust up ever so slightly, I get the sensation of Holy Land “timelessness” I am seeking. I do not think it is conjured, though I do think it is helped by the presence of our group leader, The Rev. Dr. Andrew Mayes, who points out the details of which cave was which.
Mayes’ Holy Land? Challenging Questions from the Biblical Landscape, published by Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, is all about finding the “holy” in a modern Holy Land. As we walk about about, Mayes continues to not only tell us the history, but to ask us what it means.
This rescues me from the grip of my typical tourist mindset, which is to sort of “conjure” my time in a place until I feel the “right” feeling. Here at Qumran, because it is so different than my reality, I just start to look at it for today and the moment, beginning with the gorgeous yellow bougainvillea at the entrance.
So much of this all seems Providential, how they were found, and how these sites are prepared so that the faithful can see and understand what happened here, not only 2,000 years ago, but in the 1940s, when that Bedouin went snooping about and decided to see what these papers were worth back in the city.
The astonishing thing of Qumran is that a few scraps of parchment and papyrus and copper survived 2,000 years, and inform our current understanding of the Bible. That’s the draw of Qumran. Here, we can see the fragility of what we call “civilization” and how it survived, even in the hands of an uneducated Muslim.
Today, the Scrolls are carefully preserved in Jerusalem (with some in Jordan), and have been digitized. But they are one raucous war away from destruction.
Still, Who and Why?
While there is evidence of early settlement, the main era of the place is the early Judeo-Christian era. The dominant theory is that it was a home to the Essene Jewish sect, which had a scriptorium on the site, which is visible. There are other theories out on Wikipedia; there is no need for me to go into them all as I am not qualified to judge. Readers need to investigate all, and judge for themselves.
Archaeologist John Romer’s Testament (video below) includes a 1988 segment on the Dead Sea Scrolls. His theory is that the documents were taken for preservation to Qumran when Jerusalem fell to the Romans.
That is quite a romantic theory, and one that makes sense to me, though it would seem to reason that, a, there would be many sects of Jews in the desert after the fall of Rome in the desert, and b, if Jerusalem was under attack, Jews would have taken their history with them and hid it somewhere. After all, when you have to evacuate for a hurricane or fire (or end of a civilization!), the main thing you take, after your children, are your scrap books and legal documents.
We can all argue about different theories, but what is readily apparent is that the Bible is not some conjured up document in the Vatican. It is history.
The YouTube version of Testament has Romer’s theory, and includes an evocative black and white Warner Pathe newsreel of the restoration process. It’s 13 minutes long, but well worth watching. While watching again, I wish I had Romer’s stylish Indy Jones Egyptologist hat, which looks to be a bit of theater, except when I realize Romer IS an Egyptologist.