The Dead Sea Scrolls

POSTED BY: holzapfel

02/08/10


This past month Andrew Lawler published an essay on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Smithsonian magazine (“Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?” [January 2010]: 40–47). The media likes controversy, and Lawler highlights it in this interesting essay.

Since the first discoveries in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the imagination of the public, including Latter-day Saints. The importance of these textual discoveries on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea can hardly be overestimated. They open an important window onto the past, particularly for the period when the paucity of sources made it frustrating for scholars attempting to reconstruct the Jewish world during the intertestamental period. They also illuminate the world of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, although it is doubtful that either of them spent time at the site where the scrolls were copied.

In the end, some 800 manuscripts were found in eleven caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Among them were the oldest copies of the Old Testament, except for the book of Esther. Additionally, numerous unknown texts were discovered at the site, increasing our appreciation for the complex and interesting world of Second Temple Judaism. Most of the manuscripts are written with square Hebrew characters (Aramaic or Assyrian script), but a few manuscripts exhibit what scholars call the Paleo-Hebrew script. The dating of the manuscript range from as early as 300 BC until just before the Romans destroyed the site in AD 68.

From the very beginning, many scholars believed those who collected, copied, and hid the massive library were the Essenes, a first-century Jewish sect known only, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, by what other people had written about them. Scholars never unanimously accepted the identification, although a majority has done so reasoning that it as the best explanation for the documents and the site.

In the latest installment of the debate, some consensus has been reached. There is almost universal agreement that many of the scrolls found at the Dead Sea were not produced at the Dead Sea site. One of the current theories, highlighted in Lawler’s article, is that Jews fleeing the advancing Roman army during the Jewish War gathered at Qumran, a fort, and brought with them the writings they felt were sacred and important. This proposal suggest that “the scrolls reflect not just the views of a single dissident group [Essenes] . . . but a wider tapestry of Jewish thought” (p. 44).

If anyone ever wanted to get inside the world of academia to see how scholars deal with controversial topics, this essay will surprise and depress you as it highlights the intrigues of one such debate. In the end, the debate concerning who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls will continue to attract attention, but it will most likely never be resolved, leading us to consider the possibilities.


Finding Herod’s Tomb

POSTED BY: holzapfel

09/09/09


dr-h-blog_smaller1The Smithsonian magazine featured an interesting article by Barbara Kreiger on King Herod this past month (see “Finding Herod’s Tomb,” [August 2009]: 36–43). Last year, Ehud Netzer, a famous Israeli archeologist, announced that he had found Herod’s tomb (see RSC blog posting for December 12, 2008)—a startling news report that caught the attention of scholars and the popular media.

Archeologists have been looking for this tomb for a very long time. In this latest update of its discovery, Kreiger provides a wonderful word-picture of the Herodium (the fortress-palace of Herod in the Judean wilderness some seven miles south of Jerusalem) and some stunning photographs, including one of the reconstructed royal sarcophagus Netzer found (see p. 39)

In addition to telling an engaging story, the article provides a view of the original mausoleum reconstructed by Netzer himself (pp. 41–42). He estimates that it was a seven-story building located about halfway up the artificial mountain Herod built for his largest palace-fortress. So dominant was the site in antiquity, that the inhabitants of Jerusalem could see it. This is simply amazing!

When I lived in Jerusalem (1997–98) some 250,000 people visited the Herodium each year. We took our BYU students there each semester. I felt like I was walking up the hill myself as I read this article. Kreiger not only captures the lay of the land in her well-written essay, but also captures the tension that permeates the air today: “I see Arab villages and Israeli settlements in three directions” (p. 39). The conflict between Arab villagers and Israeli settlers has virtually stopped all tourism to the site today. “But to the east,” she continues, “cultivation abruptly stops as the desert exerts its authority, plummeting out of sight to the Dead Sea, then rising again as the mountains of Jordan” (p. 39). The conflict between wilderness and civilization is as real as the conflict between to people who claim ownership of the land. Standing at the Herodium and viewing the scene only heightens one’s awe at what Herod did here when he built his fortress-palace and then built his mausoleum.

In the end, no matter what one thinks of Herod, one must surely admit that Herod was one of the greatest builders in antiquity. His tomb and his fortress-place in the Judean desert demonstrate that fact. The work of Ehud Netzer provides us another window into the world of the first century—a world dominated by kingdoms and rulers who had a different vision than that of Jesus of Nazareth.