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The Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran: Why they’re important

Most Bible students are familiar with the archaeological discovery in 1947* of the Dead Sea Scrolls but may not be clear as to why this was such an important find.   It’s because this discovery – called the greatest manuscript uncovering of all time — provides a priceless look into the history of Judaism, how the Hebrew Bible developed and the beginnings of Christianity.

After Bedouin shepherds happened upon some of the jars containing the papyrus and leather scrolls (primarily written in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and Greek), the manuscripts went through a process of being authenticated.  Now most scholars tend to agree that they date from about 250 B.C. to 68 A.D. , and their thousands of fragments are still being poured over with the latest scientific techniques, to learn their content.

This cache of scrolls, now referred to as “The Dead Sea Scrolls”, has come from a number of caves in the area and simultaneously gone through a circuitous journey of ownership.  A number of them are now safely ensconced in museums such as Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book, and the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman.

The over 900 manuscripts are divided into three major categories:  those that are part of the Hebrew canon (or Old Testament to Christians);  the sectarian, applying to those peculiar to the residents of Qumran in terms of their doctrine; and other texts that range from legal documents to prayers to comments on Biblical books.

Entrance to Cave 11, Qumran. Photo courtesy of The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.

Who were the people of this Qumran area?  Many scholars believe they are the Jewish religious group, the Essenes, such as those two Biblical Jewish groups: the Pharisees and Sadducees.   The Jewish historian Josephus wrote of them in the 2nd century A.D., explaining they were a celibate people but that is still debated.  The longer both the Essenes and these manuscripts are studied the more questions arise, such as were the Essenes’ beliefs similar to those of early Christian groups?  Or were they more devoted to legal rules focused on cultic purity?

One of the outcomes of all this scholarly debate is a new field called ‘social archaeology’ which, according to the Bible History Daily, is ‘an established field of research which uses archaeological records to reconstruct the belief system and social organization of past societies.’

Some of the scrolls’ titles include:   the Rule of the Community, the War Scroll, a copy of the book of Isaiah, Thanksgiving Hymns, the Genesis Apocryphon, the Copper Scroll and a number of the Hebrew Scriptures’ prophetic books such as Nahum and Habakkuk, and more.  And a majority of scholars believe the scrolls to have been written by those living at Qumran who placed them in local caves, vs. being brought from Jerusalem, for example.

An international team of Biblical scholars and linguists have worked decades to make them available now in various published editions.  The main ones have been brought together in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book but are also occasionally part of traveling exhibits.  I recall the moment I stood in front of my first glimpse of a scroll at the San Diego Natural History Museum and read the translation of a line from that fragment that exactly matched a Bible verse I had read that morning.  Wow!

The Scrolls reveal how much humanity longs to understand God, writes about God and our experience with the Almighty, encouraging us to acknowledge an unseen Creator who men and women have long recognized and yearned to know, for centuries.

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Masada: Herod, Heroes and Sacrifice


Masada, the Hebrew word for “fortress,” is a perfect description of the Biblical site where Herod the Great had one of his summer palaces. If you’ve traveled to Israel to stand on this dusty summit and know what’s behind the historical mountaintop, the site grips your imagination like few others.

Located in the East Judean desert close to the Dead Sea, Masada served Herod’s concerns for protection during his 33-year reign (36 BCE -4 CE). The Jews would rather have killed him than be ruled by him so building a desert fortress high on a rocky mountain made sense for a king consumed by fears of angry subjects.

But Masada’s roots began a century earlier (c. 100 BCE) when Jews newly liberated from the Greek Seleucids, began building its initial structures. Herod knew from his experience as a general sent to recapture the site from rebels, just how impregnable this mountain could be.

When Herod took Masada for his own, he focused first on ensuring a water supply by building twelve huge cisterns carved into cliffs. Designed to capture potential floodwaters that flowed through nearby wadis, the cisterns made Masada possible. What a sight to glimpse this Northern Palace constructed on three natural terraces that included storehouses, a bathhouse, shaded courtyards, staircases and colonnades –all revealing Herod’s almost obsessive concern for security.

By the time Herod completed his building project, Masada was fortified with a wall almost a mile long and 30’ wide, 70 rooms embedded within the wall, 30 towers and two gates. A defensive infrastructure indeed!

But the history that has filtered into the collective memory happened 75 years after Herod’s death when the first Jewish revolt against the Romans began for the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. Jewish Zealots fled to Masada with their families and held out three long years as Rome’s Tenth Legion found increasingly clever ways to penetrate the fortress.

Using thousands of Jewish prisoners of war, Roman General Silva constructed a rampart and finally a battering ramp that breached the walls, only to find the rebels had just died. Jewish leader, Elazar ben Yair, convinced the men to kill their wives and children, then commit mass suicide themselves, related by two surviving women. As ben Yair told them:

Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom (Jewish Virtual Library).

Mini-series starring Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss.

A 1981 television mini-series, “Masada”, captures the conflict movingly. But best of all is a bonus feature at the film’s beginning of an officer’s swearing-in ceremony for those serving in today’s Israeli military.

Masada continues to symbolize the ultimate Jewish resistance.

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Christ Jesus’ home at Capernaum

Welcome to another video blog from a recent trip to Israel.

“He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea…”.

So writes Matthew in 4:13, introducing the reader to this central location of Christ Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee. Capernaum is located on the northwest shore of the Galilean Sea, a beautiful site in calm weather and a treacherous one when rough seas churn.  Although only about 1500 people and 13 acres in size in the first century, Capernaum has found its way into the Christian’s vocabulary as a center for the healing ministry of Jesus Christ — from Peter’s mother in law, to the man with evil spirits, to the centurion’s servant.  Enjoy this brief journey to the heart of the Master’s Galilean ministry.

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Sailing on the iconic Sea of Galilee

One of the most loved sights of the Gospel’s many locations is the Sea of Galilee.  Whether we recall Jesus walking over its stormy seas to calm the disciples’ fear, or directing them to cast their nets ‘on the right side’, this was a place where the Master preached, taught and healed.

BibleRoad’s video blog is an invitation to join us as we navigate its calm waters on a magnificent Fall day.  You’ll get a feel for the surrounding hills and views as we sail on the northern end of what is actually a very large lake in the Galilee region of Israel.   An experience always to be cherished, you will witness one of the crew casting a net similar to what the disciples would have used, gleaming in the bright sun as it’s weighted net fell below the water line seeking a catch.

Please feel free to share your insights on the below (and share this post with fellow travelers). We love hearing from you.

A fellow traveler,

Madelon

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Tel Megiddo

The subject of this month’s video blog is Megiddo, one of the richest, most diverse archaeological sites in Israel and perhaps the entire Middle East. Megiddo means “Hebrew” in English, an appropriate name for a site that marks not only so many of Israel’s layers of civilizations, but those that existed back to 6000 BCE, long before either Biblical ancient Israel was established or the modern country of Israel was formed in 1948.

Located at the foot of Mt. Carmel, Megiddo occupies a strategic site both militarily and economically, located along an international commercial highway. That’s why it became one of the most important centers in the country and makes a fascinating stop on a tour of Northern Israel as one approaches the Galilee region.

Megiddo’s various archaeological digs show twenty different strata from before Egypt’s Middle Kingdom in 2000 BCE, through King David’s reign around 1000 BCE, through the Alexander the Great conquering by Greeks, through Roman times to the 4th century CE.

It’s not a small thing to look deep into the shaft of stone and descend dozens of steps and several hundred feet to move through these various strata. You’ll see a hearty group of explorers in the video clip, going down, down, down and then through the famous tunnel that enabled ancient Israelites to survive enemy attacks because they were able to still get water from outside the city walls, undetected.

What makes this more than just a pile of rocks that we should care about? By finding jugs and bowls, ax heads and spearheads, domestic structures and temple remains, city gates and more, we gain a more accurate understanding of what life was like in the Biblical period as well as prove the veracity of Scriptural accounts that were inaccurately dismissed as fiction in earlier times. Just one example is discovery of the remains of Solomon’s stables from the 9th century BCE.

So enjoy your armchair tour of Megiddo and let us know what you think in the comments below. We appreciate hearing from you.

Note: And don’t forget to forward this to your Bible-loving friends so they too can subscribe to the Bible Roads free monthly blog. They will then have access to the same free overview of the Old Testament in streaming video available to all subscribers. (If you haven’t seen it yet and are a current subscriber, go to the top of the page after signing into your account where you’ll see the link to the 17 minute (!) overview of the Old Testament for immediate viewing.)

Happy digging!

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