"Pottery and Papyrus,"

A Look at the Dead Sea Scrolls and Particularly the "Great Isaiah Scroll,"

by Karen Speerstra, AlCW Scope, 1977

Note: The author begins with childhood's reminiscences of 1947. Well, I have some reminiscences too of 1947, but they were not so carefree as the author's. My dad has just died in a plane crash along with my young uncle in his twenties. We were left fatherless, in a large family, with a mother who had to trust God for provision for us and everything to come. We were in a shack or cabin, temporarily housing us, until my father could finish building our new home in Washington State. Of course, the beautiful new home was impossible now, and so we had to endure the long, cold, wet winter in this shack on the hillside overlooking the city of Puyallup. Without a father, it became very dreary, indeed. I was a five year old, unable to process the disaster to our family. I did not have faith in God for this trial, as my mother did. Little did I know that great events were simultaneously unfolding far off over in Israel at that time, a land I knew nothing about and could not have comprehended, though I learned about Jesus at Sunday School at a very young age. How those events would impact my life, I had no idea at that time. Now I know a little more. God had a great work in the long hiddenness of this golden treasure of the Scrolls, and used mere children, a couple Bedouin boys, to discover the treasure so it could be shared with the whole world. As the author points out, all the boys got for their epic discovery was about $60, yet the Scrolls were priceless. It is so mysterious how God operates at times, how events that bring so much darkness and dreariness, even hopelessness, yet are turned by His hand to hold golden promise and even treasure itself!

We do not know if the author is still living, but we certainly appreciate her fine article, and know that our readers will too.--Ed.

During the winter of 1947 some of us were too busy sliding and making snowmen to be concerned about what was going on in other parts of the world. We could not have guessed that winter that a young Bedouin boy, herding his goats in the rocky cliffs along the Dead Sea's rugged shores, had found something very important.

He may have been chasing one of his goats or just throwing stones for fun, but when one of his stones landed in a hole, he heard the sound of shattered pottery. Curious about the cave and hoping to find hidden treasure, he and his friend climbed the dangerous rock wall and entered a remote cave containing rows of tall jars. Eight of the jars were empty but the ninth was filled with dirt and something wrapped in greenish cloth. The brittle bundles were crumbly, smelly, and certainly not hidden treasures--or were they?

John Trever, who first made a thorough investigation of all the material found in that area, thought what the Bedouin boy carried down the cliffs that wintry morning was the "Great Isaiah Scroll" as well as the "Habbukuk Commentary" and the "Manual of Discipline."

The boys' Bedouin chief, who didn't think the writing looked like Arabic script, decided to take them to nearby Bethlehem to sell them on the black market. A cobbler [shoe maker] named Khalil Iskander Shahin, or Kando, a Syrian, thought the writing was ancient Syriac. From Bethlehem the scrolls found their way to Jerusalem where the Archbiship of a Syrian Orthodox church determined the writing to be an ancient Hebrew script.

Paleography, the comparative study of scripts, indicates that the leather and papyrus scrolls were written between 300 B.C. and 70 A.D. The manuscripts were older than the pottery which was found to be from the first century after Christ. Later, after Professor Willard Libby invented the Carbon 14 process of dating material with a sensitive Geiger counter instrument, the linen wrappings were found to be dated from 167 B.C. to 233 A.D.

At any rate, the scrolls were about 2000 years old and extremely valuable. The Bedouin boys received only about $60 from their find. Four scrolls sold in 1954 for $250,000 and at one point the purchasers were prepared to offer up to $400,000 for the "Great Isaiah Scroll" alone.

This scroll, also called "The St. mark's Isaiah Scroll" because it was taken to the Monastery of St. Mark in Old Jerusalem, is the oldest of the seven original "Dead Sea Scrolls."

Until it was found, the oldest Hebrew biblical manuscripts which we possessed were about a thousand years old. They resembled each other very closely, because almost all of them were based on the work of Jewish scholars called Masoretes. These scholars, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for "tradition," were active in the period from 500-800 A.D., preserving and standardizing the text of the Hebrew Bible. Gradually, almost all the manuscripts had disappeared except those which contained their "Masoretic text."

Old Testament scholars had no way of judging how well the Masoretes had done their work [and skeptics thought they had real grounds for attacking the legitimacy and authenticity of the World of God because of these late texts! Many Christians doubted and lost their faith because of such skeptics and their books that questioned or even rejected the Bible's inerrancy--Ed]. Had they always chosen the most reliable readings, so that what they passed along was as much like the original as possible? The St. Mark's Isaiah Scroll provides part of the answer. It takes us back more than a thousand years behind what had been the earliest manuscripts of the book of Isaiah, to a time before the Masoretes did their work.

There were many differences between the St. Mark's manuscript and theMasoretic text of Isaiah in matters of spelling and grammatical forms [which are not really substantive changes to the Bible text--Ed.]. But the content and substance were the same. The Masoretes had done their work well [though today I still see on the Educational channel on TV our U.S. school teachers parroting to their classes what professors had told them, that these monastic scribes were faulty and not very reliable transcribers!--Ed.]. At least for Isaiah (and, we suspect, for the rest of the Old Testament), we have essentially the same text as that used by the Jewish people in the time of Jesus. The Isaiah Scroll is 9 1/2 to 10 1/2 inches wide and written in 54 columns of Hebrew on 17 sheets of leather sewn into a 25 foot long scroll.

Accounts vary concerning the tangled web of these valuable scrolls and the 40,000 scraps and fragments collected from other caves in the area of the Judean wilderness called "Wadi Qumran." "Wadi" is an Arab word for a dry ravine which turns into a waterway during the rainy season. Wadi Qumran, a deep, severe ravine, ends so abruptly at the Dead Seat that it becomes a waterfall [which is dry most of the year, but suddenly comes to life, which beautifully pictures the long gestation period of the Scrolls in the dark and dry caves, until brought forth into the light, to erupt into a cascading waterfall of living meaning for the study of the Bible!--Ed.]. Lumped together and called "The Dead Sea Scrolls," the writings are still being assessed, translated, and fitted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Naturally, we wonder what those leather rolls, like ancient caterpillars waiting to be cracked out of their clay cocoons, mean for us. How do these writings, widely accepted now as having been written by a group of Jews called the Essenes, concern us?

Digging in the Qumran ruins began during the summer of 1949. Archeologists knew about them and thought they were ruins of an old Roman fort. What they uncovered was a monastery--a school. A community of dedicated Jews lived out in the desert for about 100 years before Jesus was born until A.D. 68. Some of the Essenes lived a monastic existence. Others lived in cities, perhaps throughout the whole Middle East. The Essenes discouraged marriage but didn't forbid it and women were respected members. The Essenes, who were Jews, but definitely not Zealots, Pharisees, or Sadducees, believed that the Messiah would come during their time. It is possible that the men and women who called themselves Essenes may have prepared a fertile ground for Christ's ministry. Some claim it is very likely that John the Baptist was associated with the Essenes out of the wilderness and chose, rather than a cloistered existence, to be one who went out to meet people, preparing the way of the Messiah. Even though the New Testament contains no reference to the Essenes, many authorities feel it's a safe assumption that the first Christians had contact with the sect.

The Essenes, whose name perhaps means "Expectancy," anticipated and prepared for the kingdom of God. Both the Essenes and the early Christians lived in a spirit of love and unity. Both believed in a resurrection, reverenced the Jewish scriptures, tolerated no slavery, held common property, and community meals--broke bread together as opposed to the usual way of observing the Passover, and devoted themselves to prayer and teaching. The ritual bathing of the Qumran sect--a cleansing by the Spirit of Truth--is indicated by some scholars as being the basis for John the Baptist's baptizing [some commentators even went so far as to claim that Christ was an Essene, but this view is not much held today, as Jesus lived during his boyhood in Nazareth and undoubtedly helped his father in the family's carpentry-masontry business and grew to manhood, a usual Jewish manhood, without there being one mention of his joining any group or sect, and then embarked on this public ministry, which is all well documented in the Gospels--Ed.]. Whatever the conjectured similarities, it is a fact that the community of Jews was flourishing during Jesus' life.

From the Qumran literature, half of which has yet to be published, we have 125 Old Testament manuscripts, including every book except Esther, often in many copies and several languages. Fragments of the Book of Samuel date back to the third century B.C. Daniel is one of the youngest books. Most are 1,000 years older than any previously known Hebrew manuscripts.

Besides the biblical texts there are many apocryphal works which were kept separate from the old Testament because there is so much doubt about the genuineness of their content. There are also other documents, commentaries, and thanksgiving psalms that echo the language of the Bible.

One of the scrolls called, "Manual of Discipline," is remarkably similar to what is called the "Damascus Document" of "Zadokite Document." Zadok was the priest who annointed David and was the high priest of the temple. This particular scroll was found in a library repository of documents near Alexandria, Egypt, around 1879. Some scholars feel there was a relationship between the Egyptian and Qumran communities.

Some feel that perhaps John, our most mystical biblical writer, was influenced by the Essene community. Much of the symbolism found in the book of John and in Revelation is similar to the language used in the Dead Sea Scrolls [but this does not prove anything of a direct connection, of course--Ed.].

The Qumran literature refers to documents which haven't even been found yet and because of vandals and other destruction, they may never be found.

The Essene documents change nothing that we already believe about the uniqueness of Christ. If anything, they strengthen, confirm, and enrich that which we already know.--Karen Speerstra

The Emmaus Walk Bible School Home

Format only: (c) 2009, Butterfly Productions, All Rights Reserved