A portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls will go on display this week at the Science Museum, with intriguing, competing theories about just who wrote them.
Back in 1947, a Bedouin shepherd was searching for a lost goat in the hills by the Dead Sea. He threw a rock into a cave, perhaps to startle out an animal, and heard the sound of breaking pottery. When he entered the cave, he found 10 ceramic jars and a treasure — a collection of ancient Jewish manuscripts dating to the time of Jesus.
At least, that's how the story goes. When it comes to the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is more mystery than certainty.
"The great question about the scrolls is: Who wrote them? And there is no answer yet," said Mike Day, a senior vice president at the Science Museum of Minnesota, where a major exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls opens this week. By incorporating new archaeological finds and recent scholarship, the exhibit is the first to fully present two competing theories: Were the scrolls written and collected by an ultra-religious Jewish group living in the desert? Or were the manuscripts smuggled out of Jerusalem on the eve of the Roman invasion in A.D. 70 and hidden for safekeeping in the wilderness?
"We could just tell one side and create a tight little story about who created the scrolls, but that wouldn't be telling the science," said Ed Fleming, the museum's curator of archaeology, who worked with other staff and Israeli authorities to design the exhibit.
It is the 10th time in the past decade that scrolls in Israel's keeping have been loaned to a North American museum.
Even without the lively debate over their origins, the scrolls have massive appeal. They include the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. Some have called their discovery the most important archaeological find of the 20th century.
During the next seven months, "The Dead Sea Scrolls: Words That Changed the World" will display 15 scroll fragments on loan from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, along with dozens of ancient artifacts — many on public display for the first time
Still, more than half a century after their discovery in the Judean Desert, no one knows who copied these ancient texts or how they got there.
"They're very romantic," said Michael Wise, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and ancient languages at Northwestern College in Roseville and a Dead Sea Scrolls expert who acted as an adviser for the exhibit. "It's sort of like movies. There is a great quest. You go out into the desert and you find these treasures. You open them up, and they lead you farther and farther on more adventures. In a sense, that's the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a nutshell. It's kind of an 'Indiana Jones' thing."
THE ESSENE THEORY
After the discovery, scientists and Bedouins scrambled over the rocky hillsides and found 10 more caves containing fragments of what turned out to be more than 900 manuscripts.
It took decades for the scrolls to be pieced together, studied and published. About a quarter of them were identified as portions of the Bible. Every book in the Old Testament is represented, often in multiple versions, with the exception of Esther. (Previously, the oldest copy of the Hebrew Bible was a medieval manuscript from the 10th century.)
But most of the scrolls are not Scripture. They include never-before-seen Jewish religious writings and texts like Enoch and Jubilees, which became part of the Roman Catholic, but not Protestant and Hebrew, canon. And there are many documents that seem to be written by an unnamed Jewish sect that rejected the leaders of the Jerusalem Temple.
"They believed the End of Days was imminent," said Alex Jassen, an assistant professor of early Judaism at the University of Minnesota and a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar who also acted as an exhibit adviser. "They were the die-hards who said, we are going to go live in the desert, where we will not be subjected to what they call the 'polluted Temple.' Now, who these guys are, that's the million-dollar question."
Early scholars thought they were the Essenes, a group referred to by several Roman-era writers. Excavations in the 1950s at the nearby ancient
But Fleming of the Science Museum believes the Essene theory is "unraveling."
"Really there is no serious evidence, in my mind," he said.
Handwriting analysis suggests the manuscripts were written by several hundred people, too many to have lived in one location. And the texts represent more than one community's point of view.
Jassen subscribes to a variation on this theory — that a religious group lived and wrote at Qumran but also brought manuscripts from other groups and places. When the Romans threatened their community, they hid their library in the caves.
"I think the evidence seems to be pretty strong that this is a unified collection that represents the distinct library of a community of ancient Jews who were quite devout in their observance of Jewish law and ritual," he said.
JERUSALEM LIBRARY THEORY
But what about the Copper Scroll? Perhaps the most mystifying scroll found in the caves was written on actual copper. It seems to describe treasures from the Temple and to give directions to where they are hidden.
(The Copper Scroll won't be on display in St. Paul, but a piece of it is on loan to the Milwaukee Public Museum, which recently opened its own Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, drawing on collections in Jordan and elsewhere.)
This strange scroll has given rise to a very different theory, first proposed by University of Chicago professor Norman Golb, who has been invited to lecture at the Science Museum in conjunction with this exhibit.
"All scholars are in agreement that the scrolls were put in the caves at the time of war with Rome," said Wise, who worked with Golb in Chicago and has published several books on the scrolls, including "The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered." Wise believes the Copper Scroll was sneaked out of Jerusalem along with other Dead Sea Scrolls in A.D. 70, just before the Romans quashed a Jewish revolt and destroyed the Temple.
"The city was falling, and it was very predictable what would happen because it had happened in the past," Wise said. "The Romans would pillage the Temple. And they would take away all this plunder — gold and silver bullions, and coins, and precious books and valuable items, including the breastplate of the high priest.
"All this would be lost. So they made a plan, and this plan would be known to very few. They spirited the material out in tunnels — tunnels we know existed — under the Temple and out beyond the walls of the city, out beyond the Roman lines and out into the wilderness."
It sounds very "Indiana Jones," but the theory has not gained widespread support.
"Most people still are of the opinion that this is a single community's library," said Jassen, who has a good-natured, ongoing debate with Wise. "The Jerusalem library theory is more or less discounted by most people working in the field."
But there also is growing skepticism about whether a group of scribes actually lived at Qumran. Israeli archaeologists who recently finished a new round of excavations believe it was a fortress and later a pottery-manufacturing center.
"If a sect was living there, they were making a lot of pottery," Fleming said.
The Science Museum exhibit is the first to present the scrolls separately from artifacts found at Qumran, in order to avoid giving an impression that the two had anything to do with each other. The exhibit also will include many artifacts from Qumran never previously displayed — including pottery, Roman arrowheads, ink jars, jewelry and textiles, such as tunics, furniture covers and fabric scroll wraps. Visitors will even get to see coins, sandals and 2,000-year-old olive pits.
"The artifacts are incredibly important," said Joseph Imholte, the museum's director of special exhibitions. "The scrolls tell us about religious practices, but they don't tell us what people wore, what they ate. The artifacts fill in the story."
To continue the story into the modern era, the exhibition will conclude with a display about contemporary scribes who are working on the illuminated St. John's Bible commissioned by St. John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn.
DOES THE DEBATE MATTER?
In the end, does it really matter where the scrolls came from or how they got there? The importance of the manuscripts is not in dispute. They provide a glimpse into a time when what we know today as the Bible was not yet formed, when there was debate about which texts should be included in the canon and which excluded.
"If the Bible was regarded as the word of God, then essentially, at this time, the word of God was regarded as fluid," Jassen said. "That might be unsettling for people today to think about, but this is stepping back in time before you can say what is definitive."
"They have different editions circulating, and no one seemed to care," added Wise. "It's we who care. It was not important to them."
At the same time, while the individual books that make up today's Bible may have been in flux, the Dead Sea Scrolls also show that the texts themselves have remained remarkably stable.
The few differences from modern Scripture are interesting. For example, Psalms in the Dead Sea Scrolls are arranged in a different order than in the Bible. There are a handful of extra psalms. There are two versions of the book of Jeremiah, one longer, one shorter. And there is a copy of Samuel that contains an additional paragraph about Saul that some scholars think was omitted from the Bible because of a scribe's error.
Other scrolls shed light on how the ancients viewed religious questions we still grapple with — the nature of prophesy, who is the Messiah, should Jews intermarry, should faithful people live apart from others or in the midst of other people?
But many visitors to the Science Museum will probably come simply to behold the pieces of parchment, these ancient copies that are as close as we can get to the original Bible.
After the scientific discoveries, the archaeology, the displays of how ancient ink was made from minerals and scroll parchment from animal skins, after the videos showing how scientists pieced together scroll fragments and used carbon dating, after all this, visitors finally will enter a last, dimly lit, octagonal room. The shape is meant to evoke the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, where the scrolls were first stored.
There will be five glowing cases, each containing a separate scroll fragment.
Hava Katz, chief curator of national treasures at the Israel Antiquities Authority, likens it to a shrine.
And at that point, the scientific debates will be left far behind.
"Science will tell us what we know about the scrolls," Day said. "But it's culture and faith that give them meaning."
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
IF YOU GO
What: "The Dead Sea Scrolls: Words That Changed the World"
When: Friday-Oct. 24
Where: Science Museum of Minnesota, 120 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
Cost: $28 for adults; $22 for children and seniors. Tickets must be reserved for specific date and time.
Details: 651-221-9444 or smm.org
WHAT'S IN THE DISPLAY?
"My eyes fail with watching for thy promise; I ask, 'When wilt thou comfort me?'
For I have become a wineskin in the smoke, yet I have not forgotten thy statutes.
How long must thy servant endure? When wilt thou judge those who persecute me?
Godless men have dug pitfalls for me, men who do not conform to thy law.
All thy commandments are sure; they persecute me with falsehood; help me!"
This translation from a first century copy of Psalm 119, written in ancient Hebrew, is among five Dead Sea Scrolls fragments going on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota this week, along with two other fragments of the Bible from Genesis and Isaiah.
The fourth scroll fragment on display is from what scholars call the Damascus Document, a collection of rules attributed to an early Jewish sect. The fifth fragment is from the Temple Scroll, instructions for worship at the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
The scrolls will be replaced every three months with a new set of five, for a total of 15 fragments over the course of the exhibit. This is done to limit the time the ancient texts are exposed to light.
— Maja Beckstrom
STRIDES IN CONSERVATION: HEY, NO SMOKING NEAR THE SCROLLS!
TIMELINE OF THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS
970-930 B.C.: King Solomon is said to have built the First Temple in Jerusalem.
586 B.C.: The First Temple is destroyed and the Jews are exiled to Babylonia.
520 B.C.: The Jews return and begin to build the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
250 B.C.-A.D. 70: Manuscripts now known collectively as the Dead Sea Scrolls are likely written and later hidden in caves near the Dead Sea.
160 B.C.: Qumran community founded.
A.D. 51-52: The apostle Paul is believed to have written his letter to the Thessalonians and Christianity emerges as an offshoot of Judaism.
66-70: Anger over corruption and taxes leads to a Jewish revolt that is quashed by Rome.
68: The ancient settlement of Qumran is destroyed or abandoned.
70: The Romans destroy the Second Temple. With the center of Jewish worship in ruins, written scripture becomes the new focus of Jewish faith.
1947: A Bedouin shepherd discovers three manuscripts in a cave by the Dead Sea.
1948: Scientists and Bedouins race to find more scrolls, searching hundreds of caves in the Judaean Desert.
1952: The famous Copper Scroll, a list of Temple treasures, is discovered. Also, Bedouins stumble on Cave 4, which contains nearly two-thirds of all the Dead Sea Scroll fragments.
1952-1956: Most of the scrolls and artifacts find their way to Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, where an editorial team assembles to translate and publish the texts.
1954: An advertisement is placed June 1 in the Wall Street Journal to sell four scroll fragments: "Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC, are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group." The scrolls are anonymously purchased for Israel for $250,000.
1965: The Shrine of the Book, a museum to display the scrolls, opens in West Jerusalem with a display of Isaiah.
1987: Scholars without access to the scrolls call for the release of unpublished manuscripts.
1993: The Dead Sea Scrolls start touring the world and arrive at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. New excavations begin at Qumran.
2010: The scrolls make their 13th visit to the United States and first visit to Minnesota at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The exhibit opens Friday.