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Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit explores Christianity and Judaism

Published: September 13, 2013
Section: News

In a three-hour session on Sunday, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Ph.D. candidate Jamie Bryson gave a presentation on the Dead Sea Scrolls to complement the exhibition currently on display at the Museum of Science. Bryson recounted the story of their 1946 discovery in what is now the West Bank, subsequent transfers of ownership and efforts by archaeologists to piece them together. He also spoke extensively of the search to understand who exactly wrote the scrolls and what help they can provide in understanding the development of Judaism and Christianity 2,000 years ago.

In a presentation displayed on a large screen in front of about 50 people, Bryson used images and videos to tell the audience about the discovery of the scrolls. The first of the Qumran caves was accidentally discovered by a Bedouin shepherd boy, but many parties would ultimately handle them, including a Bethlehem cobbler, an Orthodox Metropolitan and international archaeologists. The volatile political situation would cause serious difficulties, as the scrolls were discovered on the eve of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Eventually, most of the scrolls and scroll fragments came into the custody of the Israeli government, and they may be found today in Jerusalem.

Of the 900 manuscripts, 206 were copies of books of the Hebrew Bible. Bryson explained that the books found most often were likely the most important to the people who used the scrolls. For example, the original five books of the Torah were especially popular, with about 20 copies of Genesis and 30 of Deuteronomy. The Book of Esther, the origin of the holiday of Purim, however, was not found at all. There were some texts found from books that did not make it into the final version of the Hebrew Bible. These include the Apocrypha, which are treated separately today due to their non-Hebrew origins, although Catholic and Orthodox Christians regard them as fully canonical.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was significant from an archaeological standpoint because they are the earliest known surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible. Before 1946, this title went to the 10th century Aleppo Codex and the 11th century Leningrad Codex, which is the basis for the current Hebrew Bible. In contrast, assorted parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls date anywhere from as early as the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE. Bryson pointed out multiple intriguing differences between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Leningrad Codex. The latter had vowels written out while the former, like contemporary literary Hebrew, left them out. The older scrolls also contain variations in spelling, chronological details and some expanded text that no longer exists in today’s Hebrew Bible. Also, the name of one scroll is written in Paleo-Hebrew, an alphabet that had fallen out of common use by the fifth century BCE, when the Jewish people began to adopt the Aramaic alphabet.

Many of the other scrolls featured writings specific to the sect that used them, including legal texts, a solar calendar, scriptural commentaries and liturgy. Although there is no clear consensus on the identity of the scrolls’ origin, the dominant theory is that they were written by the Essenes of Qumran, a group that sought to escape the “spiritual corruption” of the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem. This all-male group grew only through recruitment, and they lived a communal lifestyle in the harsh climate of the Judean desert. Bryson mentioned some alternative views, however, such as the possibility that some of the scrolls were brought by priests fleeing the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman military in 70 CE or the theory that the community belonged to the Sadducees, a largely upper-class sect that believed in absolute free will in contrast with the deterministic Essenes.

Bryson concluded by drawing some parallels between the Judaism of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christianity, which would form at this time period. He found mention of a “son of God,” an idea previously thought to be entirely foreign to Judaism. There is also an obsession with the imminent arrival of the Messiah, possibly even two Messiahs. Though the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls were not themselves Christian, these documents give much insight into the cultural atmosphere in which Christianity emerged. The Judaism of the Second Temple period was very fluid, and there were many radically different sects and clashing ideologies within the religion. Through the accounts of prayers and customs, scholars have learned much about the development of modern Judaism. While the specifics of Jewish prayer services were very different at this time, there are ways that make evident how their existence parallels Jewish religious practices today.

The lecture occurred in the forum of the Mandel Center for the Humanities and attracted a wide range of people. Many were older adults who were invited through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Brandeis (BOLLI). Avi Bernstein, the director of BOLLI, provided the introduction and closing remarks to the event. A significant portion of the attendees were Brandeis alumni. Only five current Brandeis students attended, mostly graduate students, despite the fact that the event was open and free to all students.