Dawn Unity Viewpoints

Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few hours at the new Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, which opened to much discussion this past year. The museum’s mission it to illuminate the central role of the Bible in our cultural and historical narrative, with the hope of assuring its continued impact. This last piece, in particular, has garnered the most discussion and debate. Whatever your feelings, the museum itself is a most impressive display.

During my visit, I had more than a fair share of pride as I watched a steady stream of people marvel at the display of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

One passerby paused in awe of the displayed fragment from the Bible. “These words have been preserved for thousands of years and are the same words that we study in our Bible! Incredible!”

I agree. That these words have survived and been passed along for generation after generation, by both Jew and Christian alike, is remarkable.

Of course, this is only part of the marvel of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In total, the Dead Sea Scrolls include parts of every book in the Hebrew Bible other than Esther, texts canonized in the Catholic Bible referred to as the Apocrypha, and close to two hundred remains of ancient sacred sectarian texts. These sectarian texts are of particular interest because they provide clues to one of the most interesting and hotly debated issues in Biblical Archeology: who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Some scholars believe these scrolls are the recovered remains of the official library of the Temple in Jerusalem. According to this theory, with the threat of destruction at the hands of the Roman Empire looming, the library of the Jerusalem Temple was deposited and hidden in the caves of Qumran. Another theory posits that when the original Temple Priests (descendants of the biblical figure, Zadok) were removed from their official positions in the Temple, some took refuge in nearby Qumran, where they wrote and collected the scrolls. However, the most widely held view of the scrolls is that they were written by a break-off Jewish sect that stressed asceticism and ritual purity, known as the Essenes. Among those who attribute the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Essenes is a group of scholars who wonder if none other than John the Baptist was born in Qumran and educated with these very scrolls.

While the authorship of these scrolls is clouded in mystery, the majesty and wonder associated with them is clear. These scrolls represent the oldest significant collection of biblical texts in the original Hebrew by more than one thousand years. These texts were written between the years 170 BCE to 68 CE! And because these scrolls were written at the same time that the Rabbis cultivated contemporary Judaism and Jesus gave rise to Christianity, they provide us a unique window into the world where Judeo-Christianity was born.

Recently, the Jewish people celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, during which we commemorate the revelation of God to Moses and the Israelite people at Mount Sinai. In preparation for this holiday several years ago, for the first time in its history, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem displayed a section of the Dead Sea Scrolls containing the Ten Commandments. Roughly two thousand years ago the scribe recorded these words hopeful that its teachings would mold and shape society. If the Museum of the Bible provides any indication, I would say his efforts were most successful!

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