On Wednesday I got to see the Dead Sea Scrolls for the third time. I went with some folks from our church on a trip organized by the good folks of the Renville County Historical Society. We went to the Science Museum in Minneapolis. You can read about the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, and the exhibit we saw, here.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, for those of you who are not familiar with them, are the most important archaeological find of the 20th century. They prove that what Christians have said all along — that God’s Word has not changed through the ages, that He has preserved it inviolate from the cunning and furious attacks of men — is irrefutably true. They are copies of manuscripts of several kinds — many of them books of the Bible — that are 1000 years older than the earliest copies we had before. And they proved that the Bible hadn’t changed. That’s huge. It’s verifiable scientific evidence that God’s Word has not been altered, futzed with, fiddled with, or changed wholesale. Every so often God allows a huge archaeological find, or lots of little ones, that shows unbelievers that what He says is true. This isn’t converting — only the Word itself does that — but it can lay some groundwork. Such finds also encourage the faithful by demonstrating that what their God says is true. He cannot lie.
The exhibit was very nice, although the one in Milwaukee was better (and the Shrine of the Book, in Jerusalem, was better yet — but that’s stiff competition.) The Science Museum’s exhibit was still full of useful and interesting information. There were displays on the history of Israel, artifacts from that time, displays about Qumran, where they found the scrolls, how such scrolls were made and stored, etc. Then the piece de resistance — the scrolls themselves. I got to see 2000 year old fragments up close. I could even read a few words off one of them. There was part of Genesis chapter 48, a portion of Leviticus, a fragment from the book of Enoch (an apocryphal book never accepted by the Jews — basically religious fiction to fill in the blanks in Bible stories), parts of a psalm not in the Bible (actually just a poem someone wrote that copied the style of a psalm — it’s not like God left out any of His Word), and finally a portion of the community rule, which describes the worship life and order of the year for the group.
We actually don’t know a lot about the Dead Sea Scrolls, who wrote them, or why, which adds immeasurably to their mystery and allure. Those who wrote or collected the scrolls (maybe both) seem to have been a separatist Jewish group that disagreed with the Pharisees and the Sadducees and went off to live in the desert to wait for the end of the world. They weren’t as cultlike as that makes them sound — they were waiting for the great final battle at the end of time, where the sons of light would crush the sons of darkness. If you’ve ever read Revelation or Daniel, that’s similar to the general tone of their thought. We had no idea these people had even existed until the Scrolls were found. Many identify the inhabitants of Qumran with the Essenes, a Jewish sect mentioned by ancient contemporaries, but that ID is by no means conclusive. Scholars will be spending their careers arguing about these scrolls and their erstwhile owners for decades to come. Enormous amounts of guesswork and assumption goes into the scholars’ work, which is in turn picked apart by other scholars’ contrary guesswork.
The title of this post comes from the title of one of the manuscripts found at Qumran. It echoes through my head sometimes. Like the scrolls themselves, the phrase simultaneously conceals and reveals. It promises to tell you secrets, but you never quite find out all of what those secrets are. The Dead Sea Scrolls are scraps of papyrus and leather, inked with lines of Hebrew script, but there’s so much more there — and so much more that’s been lost. The simple characters on the aged skins reveal their stories, but an entire world of history and knowledge is behind those stark characters. Much of it we’ll never know. That’s part of why they fascinate me — because as much as they have added to our knowledge of the Scriptures and of the world where Christianity was born (and they have added immensely), there’s still more they could tell us. But we can’t get at it.
God be praised that our hope does not rest on such ancient scraps of skin or paper, but on the Word made flesh, in whom are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” His story, and the story of why He had to come, is the real “secret of the way things are.”