What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Aaron Lambert

One of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time is coming to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science March 16, and it has deep roots in the Christian faith.

The Dead Sea Scrolls stand as a crucial link between the modern age and the Church’s roots in history. Many skeptics of religion, especially Christianity, scoff at the idea that the Bible and its books are not meant to be read as a fairy tale – in addition to being God’s divine word, they are historical documents. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls reinforces this fact indisputably.

The scrolls were discovered almost by chance in the mid-1940s. An Arab shepherd searching for a lost sheep discovered a cave in the limestone cliffs on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, around the site of Qumran in Israel. His curiosity led him to cast a stone into the cave, and to his surprise, the sound of breaking pottery greeted him back. It’s not known if he ever found his lost sheep, but needless to say, he found something much greater.

The clay jars housed seven nearly intact ancient manuscripts which, it would be discovered later, were only part of the remains of over 900 manuscripts that scholars dated to have been written between 250 B.C. and 68 A.D.

Upon their initial discovery, three of the scrolls were sold to a Bethlehem antiquities dealer (one of which was a full manuscript of the Book of Isaiah), while the other four were sold to another antiquities dealer. When Hebrew University professor Eliezer Lipa Sukenik caught wind of the Scroll’s discovery through an Armenian antiquities dealer, he became intrigued and decided to investigate the significance of the finds himself.

He wrote of his reaction to opening the Scrolls for the first time and the revelation that these manuscripts were 1,000 years older than any existing Biblical text in his diary:

“My hands shook as I started to unwrap one of them. I read a few sentences. It was written in beautiful Biblical Hebrew. The language was like that of the Psalms, but the text was unknown to me. I looked and looked, and I suddenly had the feeling that I was privileged by destiny to gaze upon a Hebrew scroll which had not been read for more than 2,000 years.”

When the scrolls were found, they were stored in clay jars such as this one (Photos provided)

It took several years for scholars to authenticate the Scrolls, but once they were deemed authentic in the early 1950s, further excavations took place around the site of the initial discovery and 11 other caves containing more scrolls were discovered.

The history of how the Scrolls were discovered is a fascinating story in and of itself, but one that pales in comparison to the contents of the Scrolls. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are religious works, divided by scholars into “Biblical” and “Non-Biblical” compositions.

Each of the manuscripts provide a fascinating glimpse into the ancient time period before Christ walked the earth and even during, but the perhaps the most striking of all the documents contained is the representation of the entirety of the Old Testament of Sacred Scripture (except for Esther) in the original Hebrew. Also present are translations of scriptural text into Aramaic and Greek, including the books of the Apocrypha, which are considered canonical in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Tradition but are not part of the Hebrew Bible.

The exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science will feature 10 of the scrolls on display at a time, and among those will be a portion of the Book of Isaiah and the Psalms.

Was it pure coincidence or divine intervention that led to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Judge for yourself beginning March 16.

Dead Sea Scrolls
March 16 – Sept. 3
Tickets: dmns.org/dead-sea-scrolls

COMING UP: Getting ready for Synod-2018

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The headline on the March 3 story at the CRUX website was certainly arresting — “Cardinal on charges of rigged synods: ‘There was no maneuvering!’” The cardinal in question was Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and not only were his voluble comments striking, they were also a bit disconcerting. Did I simply imagine the uproar on the floor of the Synod on October 16, 2014, as bishop after bishop protested an interim report generated by Baldisseri and his colleague, Archbishop Bruno Forte, that did not reflect the discussions of the previous two weeks? Were the complaints about the suffocating Synod procedures Cardinal Baldisseri outlined prior to Synod-2015 an illusion? Didn’t thirteen cardinals write Pope Francis in the most respectful terms, suggesting alterations in those procedures to ensure the open discussion the Pope insisted he wanted?

But, hey, memory is a tricky thing, and this is the season of mercy, so let’s let bygones be bygones and concentrate now on Synod-2018, which will discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment. Those are very important topics. The Church in the United States has had some success addressing them, despite challenging cultural circumstances; so perhaps some American leaders in youth ministry and vocational discernment could be invited to Synod-2018 to enrich its discussion, on the Synod floor and off it (where is where most of the interesting conversations at these affairs take place).

Curtis Martin is the founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which is arguably the most creative campus ministry initiative in the post-Vatican II Church. FOCUS sends recent college graduates back to campuses as missionaries and has had such success in the U.S. that FOCUS missionaries are now working in Europe. There’s a lot the bishops at Synod-2018 could learn from Mr. Martin’s experience.

Then there’s Anna Halpine, president of the World Youth Alliance: a network of pro-life young people all over the world, who witness to the joy of the Gospel and the Gospel of life in an extraordinary variety of social and cultural settings. WYA has also designed and deployed innovative educational programs and women’s health centers that, building out from the Church’s teaching on the inalienable dignity of the human person, offer life-affirming alternatives to the moral emptiness of too many elementary school curricula and the death-dealing work of Planned Parenthood on campuses. Surely there’s something to be shared at the Synod from this remarkable enterprise.

Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa was the director of campus ministry at Texas A&M for eleven years, where St. Mary’s Catholic Center has set the gold standard in traditional campus ministry and created a model for others to emulate. Over the past twenty years, Konderla and his predecessors have fostered more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than that school with the golden dome in northwest Indiana, while helping many Aggie men and women prepare for fruitful and faithful Catholic marriages. Bishop Konderla would make a very apt papal nominee to Synod-2018.

Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has taken up the mantle of the late Dr. Don Briel in creating a robust, integrated Catholic Studies program on his growing campus. Shea’s goal, like Briel’s, is to form mature young men and women intellectually, spiritually, and liturgically, so that they can be, in the twenty-first century, Pope Francis’s “Church permanently in mission.” He has things to say about how to do this, and Synod-2018 should hear them.

Then there is Father Thomas Joseph White, OP, a banjo-playing, bourbon-appreciating theologian of distinction who (with his Dominican brother, Father Dominic Legge) has created the Thomistic Institute, to bring serious Catholic ideas to prestigious universities across the U.S. The Institute’s lectures and seminars fill the intellectual vacuum evident on so many campuses today — the vacuum where thought about the deep truths inscribed in the world and in us used to be. Father White is being redeployed by his community to Rome this Fall, so he’ll be a #64 bus ride away from the Vatican. The Synod fathers should meet him, and perhaps he and Cardinal Baldisseri, an accomplished pianist, could jam.  

So by all means, let’s have “no maneuvering” at Synod-2018. But let’s also have some American expertise there, for the good of the whole Church.