After ensuring that the rest of his flock was securely bedded down at a small oasis, the Bedouin shepherd boy set out in search of a capricious goat who apparently thought he knew better than his master.
Unfortunately, goats are nimble little cusses, and the boy, knowing this, found himself scrambling along a steep cliff edge above the desert floor. He paused momentarily to admire the incredible view across the desert, toward the Dead Sea and the mountains beyond. The sun was setting which was at once both mesmerizingly beautiful and terrifying, knowing that dark would soon be upon him. Darkness in the wilderness meant wild animals and roving bands of thieves.
Bending his spry frame around a crumbling limestone outcropping, he shuffled along a thin ledge not much wider than his small, leather-wrapped feet. Looking up, the boy saw a modest cave just a few feet above him, but easily 100 feet above the desert below. Carefully, one finger hold, one toehold at a time, he inched his way to the lip of the cave and pulled himself up with no insignificant effort. Tossing a stone into the darkness, rather than hearing it bounce off of bare stone walls as expected, he was surprised to hear the breaking of clay.
Exploring deeper into the cave, he found dozens of clay jars. The cave appeared to be long since abandoned and the jars were clearly from another era. Forgetting about his goat, he opened one jar then another, wondering what he would find. Most of them were empty. But then one jar, closed tightly with a lid, felt different. After struggling momentarily to open it, he gasped in astonishment and delight to see a carefully rolled scroll stored safely inside.
The boy had just uncovered the oldest known biblical manuscripts. Today we call them the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The ensuing years revealed ten more caves, the Caves of Qumran, that contained hundreds of ancient scrolls. In fact, there were over 1000 texts in total, covering the entire Old Testament with the exception of the Book of Esther, along with numerous Bible-like texts that were never canonized into today’s Bible. Dozens of scrolls were discovered that appear to be Psalms written by King David himself, but long lost to the desert. Most of the biblical texts were perfectly identical to what we have today, confirming the validity of the Hebrew sources used to create all of our current “versions.” A few varied slightly, creating exciting opportunities for the theologians and archaeologists to enter into new and endless debates over authenticity.
Years of painstaking analysis by both secular and religious authorities, based on the parchment and papyrus used, ingredients in the ink, and the writing stylization among other factors, suggest that the scrolls were written between 408 BCE and 318 CE by Essenes or Zadokites (Jewish sects).
No matter how one looked at it, the scrolls found by a hapless Bedouin shepherd child represented the most important archaeological discovery in centuries.
For further reading about these ancient scrolls, I would recommend the following web sources:
Questions for thought
What is it about antiquity, such as these ancient scrolls, that captures our attention and imagination?
Many of the Biblical texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls are identical or nearly identical to the texts we use today. Yet they were written, in some cases, centuries before today’s texts. How does this influence your level of trust of the Bible?
Other texts were discovered that appear to be “biblical”, such as the putative Psalms of David, but they were not canonized in the early centuries after Christ. What should Christians do with these additional texts? How should we treat them?
Lord God, your dealings with humanity throughout history are captivating. The adventures of Indiana Jones pale in comparison to the adventure you took that young Bedouin boy on decades ago. Reveal to us, Father, your will for our lives and our faith with regards to these ancient manuscripts. Ultimately, though, may our faith always be centered directly on you rather than some historical account of you. In the name of Jesus we ask these things, amen.