What’s more interesting, the Dead Sea Scrolls or Manhattan’s Central Park on a spring weekend, my friend Becky Mercier asked, after Megan Wood Heldman and I visited both Sunday, April 1, 2012.  “Too close to call,” we both replied.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the “most important archaeological find of the 20th Century.”

They contain the oldest versions of all the books of the Old Testament except Esther, the rules and messianic beliefs of the ascetic society that wrote them, and the first known Biblical commentaries.

We learned most of what we know about the Roman occupation of Judea, the tremendous religious ferment at the time, and the final years of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem – Jesus’s time – from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Scroll fragment

The scrolls were hidden in clay jars, in caves by the Dead Sea, and discovered by accident in 1947 by a Bedouin Arab shepherd.  In the driest climate on earth, the leather, papyrus and parchment scrolls were remarkably well preserved, with many large enough for scholars to read, and many more not much bigger than floor sweepings.  Ever since, scholars have been piecing the smaller fragments together, by hand at first, now with computers.

Megan, a church-going, spiritual Christian believer, joined my temple and me for a one-day visit to New York, where a few of the scrolls were on temporary display at the Discovery Museum.  Normally, they are housed in Jerusalem, under strictly controlled light and climate conditions.

Scroll fragments

“Welcome to New York City,” our museum guide told us. “We don’t judge your beliefs here, just your shoes.”

We learned the strange story of how the scrolls got from an illiterate, nomadic Arab to a part-time antiquities dealer to a Catholic monastery, and finally to Elazar Sukeinick, head of Biblical archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the first person to recognize how valuable they were.

When his opinion was confirmed by William Albright of Johns Hopkins, the world’s foremost Biblical archaeologist at the time, Dr. Sukeinick bought them on behalf of the new Israeli government (500,000 Jews at the time), which provided the money even though it was fighting for its life with its 50 million Arab neighbors.

In fact, the scrolls came into Jewish hands, and the Jewish section of Jerusalem, on the very day in 1947 that the United Nations voted to create a Jewish state in half of Palestine.

The Ongoing Controversy

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

On the bus ride down, Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Concord NH’s Temple Beth Jacob, who organized the trip, showed us a TV documentary that covered the ongoing controversy over publication and access to the Scrolls.

Early on, they were turned over to a group of eight mostly Catholic Bible scholars . They allegedly prevent other scholars from examining the Scrolls, and suppress publication of pictures, interpretations, and translations. When one dies, he passes his membership on to his chosen successor like his own personal property.

Rabbi Nafshi explained that the Scrolls are a problem for many Christians, not Jews.

“Though the versions of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are  almost identical to the one we have today, there are differences, some substantial.  If your belief system is based on the Bible being the literal spoken word of God, those differences are a problem.  When Jews see a different version or interpretation, we just say, ‘That’s interesting.”

See Part 2, Sunday in the Park With Megan



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