Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Book Review

"Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls" (Hershel Shanks ed.) - Whenever people start talking about "copy errors" in the Bible, I'm quick to mention the Isaiah scroll from the Dead Sea.

For those who aren't familiar with the story, before the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered (in 1947), the oldest copy of Isaiah was from about 800 CE (in other words, after the Catholic Church came to hold substantial political power).

Isaiah is a good book to use, because it contains so many (and so many popular) Messianic prophecies. Skeptics could assert that the Church had changed Isaiah to match the New Testament, and there was no hard proof otherwise.

Until a nearly intact scroll of Isaiah (twenty-two feet long!) was found in the Dead Sea caverns. This copy of Isaiah matched (with only small copy errors) our copy. And is dated to before 70 CE (destruction of the temple in Jerusalem). Nearly 800 years of copying with no (significant) errors!

Given how often I retell this story, I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the Dead Sea scrolls. This book is a collection of articles from the "Biblical Archaeology Review", and covers many aspects of the story; including a lot of the political intrigue of obtaining the scrolls, and infighting among scroll scholars.

For me, the most interesting part was a description of how a new science of scroll reconstruction has been created by the find. In one cave, there were thousands and thousands of tiny pieces of scrolls. A scientist (Hartmut Stegemann) proposed a method for aligning the pieces based on the repetition of (usually damage, but also scribe mark and stitch) patterns through the rolled layers of the scroll. There is a picture of the aligned pieces, with notes showing the water damage or chew marks. It is really quite remarkable!

Perhaps the saddest part has been the pride of the scholars trusted with publishing the scroll information. Forty years had passed (the book is from 1992), and many scrolls were still unpublished. There has been a lot of academic machinations (tenure, attracting students, publishing glory) driving these delays. There is an interesting story about how an early computer was used to convert a (grudgingly) published concordance into a full reconstruction of an unpublished text! Oh, the outrage! :)


TheDen said...

Hey Ned,

Great post. I think learning about the Dead Sea Scrolls is always fascinating.

Why did you use the "C.E." here?. I find that interesting because that's usually the term that non-Christians (i.e. Jews/Atheists/Muslims) use to mark the years.

The book you read must have been written by someone Jewish and used the "C.E." (Common Era) terminology and you used it.

As Christians, we should use "A.D." (Anno Domini--The Year of Our Lord) as it's a type of evangelization.

nedbrek said...

The editor certainly favored CE, but some articles used AD.

I use CE in public forums as a concession that our society is no longer Christian. To assert Godly things into our un-Godly society is, at best, hypocritical.