Cincinnati played an important role in unraveling the mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls since they were first discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947. It was Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College researcher Ben Zion Wacholder who created the first translation of the scrolls in 1991 at a time when the Israel Antiquities Authority was keeping a tight grip on their release for study by biblical scholars.
Wacholder had secretly obtained a concordance, or index, of all the words in the scrolls and used a computer to reconstruct the unpublished texts of more than 500 of the 900 plus scrolls that had been found more than 40 years prior. As a result of the publication of A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls in four volumes, the Antiquities Authority agreed to lift the restrictions on accessibility to the scrolls, the original biblical manuscripts that are considered the most significant archaeological find of the last century.
“What was controversial was that people couldn’t get ahold of them,” said associate professor of theology and department chair Sarah Melcher, whose expertise includes study of the scrolls. “He got the concordance and pieced together what they would all look like and then everyone knew what they said.”
Melcher was the guest speaker at the Loyola Lunch seminar on Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Center for Mission and Identity in Fenwick Place on campus. As a scholar of the scrolls, Melcher detailed the content of the manuscripts and the significance of their discovery and translation, made possible by the work of Cincinnati’s Wacholder.
“What we’ve learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls is the canon, the sacred text, had not been fixed at the time they were written,” she said. “You can tell this because the manuscript we’ve used is part of this (original) family of text. So there were three families of texts and the one that became the authoritative version has not been determined yet.”
About a quarter of the scrolls contain biblical texts that are considered the oldest copies in existence, she said. Bible translations in existence today used a manuscript of the Hebrew Bible that was copied in the year 1008 CE (Common Era after Jesus’ death), many centuries removed from the time the scrolls are thought to have been written between 400 and 300 BCE (before the Common Era).
“It was an incredible discovery for biblical scholars,” she said.
The scrolls are on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center through April 14. The collection of 972 texts was discovered in a series of 11 caves between 1946 and 1956 on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in the community of Khirbet Qumran and are identified with a Jewish sect called the Essenes. The scrolls are handwritten in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Nabataean, most on parchment but some on papyrus and one n copper. In addition to the biblical manuscripts, other manuscripts include psalms and sectarian writings that reflect issues of importance for the Essene community including rules about community behavior, law, war and blessings. Qumran was destroyed by Romans around the year 68 CE and is now known as the West Bank.
Melcher said these additional texts have shed light on cultural elements of the Qumran community. For example, she said the people valued purity and insisted on ritual bathing before taking their noon meal. And they always gathered together as a community for the meal.
“They cared about purity of worship and of the self and being free from sin and they thought things in the Jerusalem temple were not going well,” she said. One of the manuscripts is a letter from a leader of the sect to the priest in charge in Jerusalem taking issue with their calendar and methods of worship. “Things were unraveling in the second century BC.”
The scrolls on display at the Museum Center are housed in a 25-foot-diameter Communal Scroll Table, which protects the scrolls and is the main showpiece of the exhibition. Because they are so fragile, the scrolls may be displayed for only three months at a time before they must “rest” in complete darkness for a year. The new rotation includes scrolls of Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah Commentary, Book of War, Aramaic Levi, Pseudo-Ezekiel, Apocryphal Lamentations, Papyrus Bar, Community Rule and Leviticus/Numbers.
The exhibit, Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times, is the most comprehensive collection of ancient artifacts from Israel ever organized, including one of the largest collections of the priceless 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls. The exhibition was created by the Israel Antiquities Authority from the collections of the Israel National Treasures and produced by Discovery Times Square and The Franklin Institute.