Dead Sea Scrolls at 75

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For as you pick up the Holy Bible, God’s Word to you and for you in Christ, the words of the prophet Isaiah echo in your ears, "The Word of the Lord Endures Forever."

“They won’t let me cross the border into Jordan. Ibrahim will have to lead you. See you in a few days.”

Those were the words of our tour guide as we prepared to leave Israel and spend the weekend in the country of Jordan. We were on a tour of the Holy Land a few years ago with Pastor Nabil Nour, originally from Israel but also an American citizen. Though he had his US passport, he had forgotten to bring his Israeli passport and was denied entry into Jordan. After no small amount of sweating, negotiating, and hand-wringing, it was finally decided. One of the local guides named Ibrahim would be the one to lead us.

After the initial confusion at the border, we settled into our usual travel routine, and everything went pretty smoothly. At the hotel that evening, the Dead Sea Scrolls came up in conversation for some reason, and Ibrahim made an off-handed comment about being there at the time they were discovered. My antennae immediately went up, and I was determined to find out more about what he knew. So the following day, en route to Petra, I made sure to sit right next to him on the bus. I’m so glad I did.

He told me about how one of the local Bedouin boys had been tending goats near the Dead Sea. After one of the goats had strayed, he looked up to see a cave that he hadn’t noticed before. He threw a stone into the cave and heard a strange sound, so he and a friend climbed up to investigate. Inside they found a number of clay jars that had scrolls inside. They weren’t sure what they had found but knew it might be worth something, so they brought the scrolls along with them back to the black market in Bethlehem.

One of Ibrahim’s relatives was the dealer the boys brought the scrolls to in Bethlehem. Like Ibrahim, he was Syriac and thought that the writing might be ancient Syriac. It definitely was not Arabic. So he had someone he knew from a local monastery take a look. He determined that it was indeed Hebrew writing and after some bartering and back and forth, bought the first few scrolls for around fifty pounds. Fifty pounds! And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Dead Sea Scrolls include fragments from every book of the Old Testament except for the Book of Esther. They comprise more than 800 documents in total. They predate by 8 to 11 centuries the oldest previously known Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible. It is no doubt one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.

Later in our trip, we went to Qumran, the desert community of the Essenes, where most of the scrolls were probably written and placed in clay jars for safekeeping. And then on to Jerusalem and the Shrine of the Book, where many of the scrolls are displayed, along with the piece de resistance, the Great Isaiah Scroll, all 66 chapters of it.

In this 75th anniversary year of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, my hope is that every believer and non-believer alike is able to one day enter that sacred space and make the slow walk around the great scroll. But even if that opportunity never arises, you have something far better awaiting you in the next room or in the palm of your hand. For as you pick up the Holy Bible, God’s Word to you and for you in Christ, the words of the prophet Isaiah echo in your ears, “The Word of the Lord Endures Forever.”