The identification of the manuscripts was relatively easy when they contained the text of Old Testament books or other works previously known. But many of the books from the Qumran library are Jewish religious writings previously unheard of. From what can be read of their contents, they have been given such titles as “Description of the New Jerusalem,” “Liturgy of the Tongues of Fire” and “Words of the Book spoken by Michael to the Angels.”
The most important finds for Christian scholarship are manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, of the Apocryphal books on the margin of the Old Testament, and of writings that illustrate the beliefs and organization of the sect to which this collection belonged, and throw light on the background of the New Testament. We now have copies of Old Testament books about a 1,000 years older and nearer to the originals than any previously known — manuscripts actually in use in Palestine during the lifetime of Jesus. Most of these are very similar to the text of our printed Hebrew Bibles, so that we can see how carefully the later copyists did their work. But there are also some manuscripts that differ considerably in detail (though not in substance) from the traditional form, much as the Greek version of the Old Testament differs. These will help to clear up obscurities in the traditional text where it has suffered copyists’ errors.
The Apocryphal books come from the inter-testamental period; sometimes, they have been accepted as scripture and sometimes they have not. The Epistle of Jude quotes from the Book of Enoch as if it were in the Bible. These books had come down to us only in later translation. Now large parts of them have come to light in the original Hebrew or Aramaic.
It seems probable that the Jewish religious community, from whose library the Qumran scrolls have come, was part of the Essene movement. The Essenes are unmentioned in the New Testament, but from what was already known about them from ancient authors, it was seen that they had real affinities in beliefs and organization with the primitive Church. This has become even more evident from the new discoveries although the claim made by some that Christianity was only a derivative from Essenism is nonsense. Both groups thought of themselves as the faithful remnant and the people of the New Covenant, and applied to their own situation and experience the prophecies of the Old Testament. Both believed that men could be cleansed of sin, not by religious ceremonies, but only by the justifying grace of God. Both were profoundly concerned with the constant moral struggle in the heart of man, where “the flesh lusted against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” Each followed a righteous Teacher to whom had been revealed the meaning of the ancient prophecy. Many phrases and ideas in the Scrolls sound like echoes of the New Testament — “The children of light,” “the poor in spirit,” “witnesses of the truth,” “the community,” “men of God’s favour.” The crucial difference is that though the Covenanters’ “Teacher of Righteousness” was persecuted and died, there is no suggestion that he was the Son of God who died an atoning death. There is no Resurrection faith. The Scrolls show us, not the source, but the background of Christian beginnings.
One day, soon after my arrival, Father de Vaux drove me to see the excavated ruins of the Qumran community’s headquarters. Near the mouth of the Jordan, we turned off the road onto a rough track by the Dead Sea shore. We drove across the plain for about a mile; then de Vaux put the old station wagon into low gear and charged up a home-made “road” to a terrace that was about 200-feet high and jutted out at the base of the frowning sandstone cliffs. Here were the buildings where the Covenanters lived, worked and prayed, until the Roman army came and burned their “monastery” in the Spring of the year of our Lord 68. Here were their council chamber and their assembly hall, their cisterns for ritual baths and the room where they sat at long tables of plastered brick to copy their sacred writings. They had hidden their precious scrolls one far-off day when disaster threatened, “in dens and caves of the earth.”
A razor-back ridge jutted out from the terrace to overhang a deep ravine. Along this, we scrambled almost to its end and then down some rough-cut steps to a hole through which we dropped into Cave Four. This cave had been enlarged by human hands. The roof was domed, and in the walls were blacked niches for lamps. Through one aperture, one looked down into the ravine through another to the lazy blue of the Dead Sea. Here on the floor, a heap of precious manuscripts, liking our day with the time of Christ, had lain for nearly 19 centuries, slowly disintegrating in the dusty silence.This story first appeared in
The United Church Observer's June 2017 issue with the title "Seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls." For more of The Observer's award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.
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