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The Dead Sea SCrolls

Two thousand years ago mass-produced books did not exist. Knowledge was handed down from generation to generation either orally, or in fragile, handwritten documents.

Because of that only fragments of the knowledge of that time survives today: inscriptions on stone, a few papyrus and parchment fragments. Creating an image of the distant past is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing.

But between 1947 and 1956, an enormous number of puzzle pieces were found in 11 caves near the ruins of an ancient settlement at Hirbet Qumran, nine miles south of Jericho in what is now the West Bank. In all, more than 15,000 leather and papyrus documents (and a few records punched on strips of copper) were discovered.

These documents became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and for years much of what they contained was shrouded in mystery, because only a handful of scholars had access to them. But on Thursday of last week, the publication of almost all of the scrolls in book form by the Oxford University Press was announced at a press conference at the New York Public Library.

Thirty-seven large-sized volumes have been published so far, and15 more are ready for publication.

The first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in a cave by Bedouins; neighboring caves were then excavated by archaeologists. The manuscripts, written at various times between about 200 B.C. and 68 A.D, appear to have belonged to the library of a previously unknown Jewish religious brotherhood. The site was sacked in 68, possibly by the army of the Roman general Vespasian, which had been sent to put down a Jewish rebellion; the documents were probably hidden away in anticipation of the attack.

The scrolls contain manuals of discipline for the community, hymnbooks, biblical commentaries, apocalyptic writings, two of the oldest known copies of the Book of Isaiah, and fragments of very book in the Hebrew Bible except for the book of Esther. There’s a fanciful paraphrase of the Book of Genesis, and several books of the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha (which aren’t part of the Hebrew Bible) in the original languages of Hebrew and Aramaic–previously, the only versions of those books known were in Greek, Latin and other languages.

The manuals of discipline show that the brotherhood saw itself as an idealized House of Israel, preparing the way for the imminent coming of the kingdom of God and the day of judgment. It seems to have been organized along communistic lines. Members underwent probation for two to three years, and held ranks that indicated their degree of purity. Promotions and demotions in rank were put to a vote on an annual basis. Three priests, aided by 12 elders, were the spiritual leaders; on the secular side, the community was divided into chapters, each with its own overseer, under a prince who ruled the entire community.

The study of the Torah was mandatory, and the community felt it alone knew the correct interpretation, because it had been handed down from generation to generation by a series of “correct expositors” or “”teachers of righteousness.” They expected their era to end with the coming of a new expositor and prophet, and also had prophecies of a final war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have great religious importance because they include some of the oldest manuscripts known for the various books of the Old Testament–manuscripts which vary only slightly from later one, an indication that what we have today is essentially identical to what was originally written.

The manuscripts were put under the control of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which allowed only a handful of scholars complete access. As a result, although the longer, more complete scrolls were published fairly early on, the pace of publication of the smaller fragments was painfully slow for years, frustrating a generation of scholars and leading to conspiracy theories; some people thought the fragments contained shocking information that would shake the faith of Jews and Christians. (They don’t.)

In 1991 scholars at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, used a published concordance and a computer to reconstruct the text of one of the unreleased scrolls. That same month, officials at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, began granting unrestricted access to their complete set of photographs of the scrolls. That, in turn, led the scholars at the Israeli Antiquities Authority to finally grant unrestricted access to all unpublished material, and push ahead with the publication effort that culminated in last week’s announcement.

Professor Emmanuel Tov, editor-in-chief of the international committee in charge of publishing the scrolls, said the team used desktop computers, laser printers, digital photography and e-mail to get the scrolls ready for publication. Multispectral imaging made visible writing on the fragments which could no longer be read by the naked eye.

Do such ancient documents have anything to say to us today?

The scholars working on them believe so. At the New York press conference, the editorial dedicated one of the scrolls, a Hebrew song of Thanksgiving, to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and the city of New York to commemorate heroism in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

As Richard Sheirer, director of the mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, said as he accepted the scroll, “The scrolls are of enormous historical value not only to scholars but to those of us who feel that history is prolonged, to give us the opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of people 2,000 years ago and…to look at the world in a new light every day.”

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