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the Bible and its books are not meant to be read as a fairy tale – in addition to being God’s divine word, they are historical documents.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: Forming mind and heart in faith

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

People tell me pretty regularly that we should not over-intellectualizing the faith — making the Church simply about ideas, doctrines, and rules. I agree that this can be a problem, but we also have to guard seriously against an opposite problem — emotionalizing and privatizing faith. We are blessed with a reasonable faith that can be studied in harmony with the truth of the natural world. Faith and reason strengthen one another, together leading our minds to conform to the mind of the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. In the midst of a secularism which pits science against the faith, it is important that we form our minds in the truth. Being rooted in the truth of our faith does not lead to abstract ideas, but to an encounter with the living God which sets our hearts on fire with His love.

The Dominicans have a long history of teaching the faith, founded originally to preach to those who had fallen into the dualistic heresy of Albigensian and producing the Common Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The papal theologian, who advised the pope, by tradition comes from St. Dominic’s Order. One of the most renown Dominicans teaching in the United States, Father Thomas Joseph White, has recently been called to Rome to teach at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of the Dominicans. Father White, though a profound scholar, has produced a clear and accessible overview of the Catholic faith.

Father White’s book, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Catholic University of America Press, 2017) offers a serious overview of the Catholic faith. It is not a scholarly work, but one that does challenge us to enter more deeply into the theological tradition of the Church, flowing from the Bible and Catechism, the Fathers, and especially the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Part of the genius of the book is how it uses the theological tradition to address contemporary concerns such as evolution, sexual ethics, and relativism. The book contains seven major sections—Reason and Revelation, God and Trinity, Creation and the Human Person, Incarnation and Atonement, the Church, Social Doctrine, and the Last Things—as well as a robust epilogue on prayer.

Father White challenges us to “to be an intellectual. . . to seek to see into the depths of reality” (1). As intellectual beings, we have been created in the image of God and are called to enter into his truth and life. Therefore, White reminds us that “every person has to accept risk in truth’s call to us. Even religious indifference is a kind of risk, perhaps the greatest of all, for if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained. The mind is reason’s instrument, but the heart its seat” (5). Therefore, the ultimate questions lead the mind into prayerful contemplation of the truth. Theology cannot remain an intellectual enterprise alone, but must lead us to encounter God in prayer: “Prayer is grounded in our natural desire for the truth. When we pray we are trying to find God, to praise him, and to see all things realistically in light of him. In a sense, then, prayer stems from a search for perspective” (288).

Our faith forms us as a whole person and shapes our feelings and desires according to what is highest. Father White rightly points out that “heart and intelligence go together” (49). When it comes to God, intellectual theory is not enough, as he calls us to know him in a “concrete, personal, affective relationship” (48). This does not mean that we can dispense with theology. Quite to the contrary, “we want to get right who God is, and what the mystery of Christ is, so that we can be in living contact with divine love” (42). God speaks to us so that we may come to know him by exercising our minds to know the truth given us through the Church (36).

Knowing God is the work a lifetime and our eternal vocation. We can strengthen our faith by studying theological truths and deepening our capacity to contemplate divine things. Father White’s book will help us all to be theologians, entering into the practice of theology as faith seeking understanding. As we come to know God more, it should lead us to fall in love with him more deeply, strengthening our relationship with him and preparing us to see him face to face.