Dead Sea Scrolls help understand biblical texts

  • May 22, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Not long after the time of Christ, a mysterious, ancient community carefully placed rolled manuscripts in clay jars and stored them in caves that remained forgotten in the desert for two millennia.

It is widely believed the scrolls were written by a fringe religious group called Essenes, but there is no proof of that or, indeed, irrefutable proof that the Essenes actually existed.

No, this isn’t the plot of the latest Dan Brown novel. It’s just part of the mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Sixteen of the approximately 900 Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts will be on display at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum from June 27 to Jan. 3, with eight on display at a time, rotated over a three-month period. Four scrolls will be seen in public for the first time, including the Book of Daniel.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century. Created from 250 B.C to AD 68, they comprise original texts of the books of the Old Testament written largely on parchment in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. They were uncovered between 1946 and 1956 in several caves along bluffs overlooking the Dead Sea.

University of Toronto archeologist Robert Mason said despite there being no archeological evidence of the Essenes’ existence — a fact that has raised questions about the scrolls’ authenticity — it’s still worthwhile to see the scrolls up close. He said it’s important to “keep an open mind” about them.

Mason and Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins addressed more than 300 students, business professionals and parishioners who packed the Newman Centre Chapel May 12 for an introductory lecture about the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The popular theory is the scrolls came from the Essenes, a priestly, monastic community related to the Pharisees and Sadduccees who were “sort of a bunch of hippies,” Mason explained.

“There is no archeological evidence of the existence of the Essenes at all,” he said.

But he said he opts for a balanced approach to the debate.

“Basically, my approach is I’m an archeologist. The dirt never lies. The earth never lies,” he said.

“The challenge is to see how the texts fit into the overall Old Testament narrative.”

Collins said the exhibit presents a unique opportunity to see ancient texts which could have a Christian connection — if not literally, perhaps contextually speaking.

“It helps us to understand a great deal about the context of the word of the Lord but doesn’t directly speak to us of Jesus,” he said.

Collins is a Scripture scholar and studied in Jerusalem, where he saw copies of the scrolls in the Shrine of the Book.

He said the scrolls give people a sense of the Bible and let us assess the accuracy of biblical translations when contemporary interpretations are matched against the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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