90,000 Miles to Me

11,004 Miles • Dead Sea Scrolls

After my winter hibernation, I set out at the end of March for round two of the Grand Adventure. My first stop was visiting a friend near Denver. 

While there I took the first opportunity to use my new multi-museum membership (see Christmas post) at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. It is an impressive museum, but the draw for me was their special exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls which opened recently. My membership got me into DMNS for free, though I had to pay nine dollars for the Dead Sea Scrolls special exhibit ticket. Nine dollars to see actual Dead Sea Scrolls? Worth. It.

I was a little worried that the exhibit would be just the scrolls themselves, with no lead up, and that I would find it anti-clamactic, so I tried to not distract myself too much with other exhibits while waiting for my turn (the tickets were in timed groups), to mentally prepare. It is a secular museum so I wasn’t expecting an encounter with the mystical or some sort of religious experience, but, well, it’s the DEAD SEA SCROLLS and I was expecting an encounter with the mystical or some sort of religious experience.

It wasn’t that, but it was a very well put together exhibit. I needn’t have worried about walking directly into a room with the scrolls without any context or build-up. They had a nice intro about where the scrolls were found and a little about how they were dug out, and then several rooms with pottery, coins, and all sorts of objects from the region and the time when the scrolls were written, including a 3 ton block from the Western Wall in Jerusalem that fell in 70 AD. This all helped put them in context and to give a feel for the historical and spiritual importance of the scrolls. Because of the time period when they were written, the exhibit focused mostly on the Jewish, but also a little on the Christian, with a couple brief mentions of the Muslim, religions, for whom these writings are a testimony of life, culture, and religious significance.

After all, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest copies that we have of many books of the Bible, written between 200 BC and 70 AD. The scrolls had been stored in caves near the shore of the Dead Sea, near the site of the ancient settlement of Qumran, around 2000 years ago. Whether they were intentionally left, forgotten, or their protectors were forced to abandon them, is unknown, but there they stayed, unseen and untouched, until 1947.

On the eve of Israel’s becoming an independent nation, Bedouin goat herders wandered into one of the caves and found an ancient vase with several old scrolls inside. One of them was part of the book of Isaiah, prophesying Israel’s nationhood.

This one discovery led to a flurry of international interest and the whole region being searched for additional scrolls. Ultimately, thousands of fragments from more than 900 remarkably preserved scrolls were recovered from 19 caves.

Unfortunately, the first years of the scrolls’ return to light were not very good for their health. Many of the scholars who first studied them were Biblical experts (from all the major faith backgrounds) who had no training in handling ancient manuscripts, and they treated them quite roughly. The exhibit showed pictures of men working in brightly sunlit rooms (light is terrible for old manuscripts), pouring over the fragments with lit cigarettes in their hands. Many of the fragments were taped together with scotch tape or even the glue from the back of postage stamps.

Needless to say, the scrolls fared better in the two thousand years that they spent in caves, sometimes in pots and sometimes covered by bat guano, than they did in those first few years in the hands of Biblical scholars who revered them. The experts in ancient manuscripts who eventually took over have spent a lot of time trying to undo that early damage, and have instituted strict controls for such rare exhibits as this one to ensure that they are not damaged any more. (Photography was strictly forbidden throughout the exhibit, so sorry, no photos in this post.)

The scrolls were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and cover a wide variety of documents, including books of the Bible as well as records of laws, customs, and beliefs in the ancient Middle East. This is also where the “apocryphal gospels” come from that have gained some popularity in the past decades.

The exhibit tried to show the range of documents in the collection, including fragments from Isaiah and Exodus, three Psalms, a deed for the transfer of land, a father’s last lessons to his sons detailing a priest’s duties and privileges, and rules for purity in a monastic-type community. There were ten sections of scrolls on display.

I was personally intrigued by one from the book of Enoch. This text is part of the Pseudepigrapha, a collection of texts with the names of famous Biblical characters, but written by others. Enoch is mentioned in those early genealogies of the book of Genesis, and all it says about him is that he “walked with God.” It is purely this that intrigued me, and apparently many others throughout the ages; the plaque explained that there have been many stories written about how Enoch “walked with God.” Oh, how my heart years for that.

Each display had a little window that you could look into and see the actual scroll fragment or fragments that belonged together, along with an enlarged photo of them, the English translation, and a little bit about the context. For example, about the community that wrote the purity laws, that fathers’ “last lessons” were common documents in that era, that Simeon Bar Kokhba—leader of the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 132–135 BC—was in power at the time of the land transfer, etc.

What I found most surprising was the size of the fragments and the writing. I was expecting the fragments to be small, or at least smallish, and I’ve seen pictures before like the ones at the top of this page, but I hadn’t realized how much those photos have been enlarged. Not only were the fragments themselves tiny, the writing on them was minuscule!

Okay, parchment is difficult to make and therefore valuable, so they wanted to save space. Fine, I get that, but wow! The writing on most of the scrolls was about size one or two font. And not only that, it was absolutely, brilliantly clear and even. Perfectly legible doesn’t even begin to do it justice. I honestly think that the best of the quality pen manufacturers today would have a hard time producing a pen that would rival how tiny and precise that lettering was. No ink blots, no wider or thinner lines where there shouldn’t be any, no light spots or variation in tone or clarity of the ink. The parchment was damaged with age and wear in places, but the writing was almost flawless. This does not come across well in the official photos.

I want to know what they were using to write with, and how they made their ink! There was a distinct lack of information on this topic that makes me very sad. As someone who has used dip pens for years, I am shocked and awed by what they were able to produce, especially at that size.

To be fair, I expect the Biblical documents to be written by their best scribes, so I’m not surprised (but am still impressed) that the lettering is perfectly even and straight and letters are formed with remarkable consistency, etc. But to be able to do so with that precision at that size, makes me marvel at the materials they used and I want to learn more.

Also to be fair, the non-Biblical documents would not have been reserved for their best scribes, and though the handwriting is more variable, there were still none of the smudges, ink blots, unwanted variable thicknesses, etc. that I would have expected in something as routine as, for instance, a land deed. Which tells me again that their materials were just as precise as their best scribes. SO HOW DID THEY DO IT?

I would like to know.