In September 2012, I had the opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in person. I love being part of a church that has an interest in God’s Word. I pastor a church that places a high premium on studying God’s Word and on learning about Christianity and about God. I am always amazed at the questions people have, the subjects they wish to study, and the ideas they bring to me as their pastor. One couple in August mentioned to me that they saw the Dead Sea Scrolls were available as an exhibit at the Franklin Institute and wondered if I’d be interested in taking a group down to Philadelphia to see them.
If I’m interested?! Oh yeah! I’m more than interested. As many of you know, I have extensively studied the original languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek. I’ve tried to get into an Aramaic class, but it was cancelled for an ungodly lack of interest! So I bought the books hoping to one day learn on my own. Suffice it to say, I’m pretty well informed about the DSS and count it an honor to see them in person. And that is what this wonderful couple brought to my attention.
So on Thursday, a group of four of us total, although more wanted to participate, jumped into a van and headed down. I was so excited I couldn’t really contain myself very well. We talked about them the whole way down and discussed their significance even before we got there. I must say, I was in my own element that night, and these other three blessed saints probably thought I was either a know-it-all or a show-off. I couldn’t help it. This is such a rare thing to see.
For those who are less familiar with the DSS, they are a collection of fragments and manuscripts that date back as far as 400 BC and contain sometimes parts or whole books of the Old Testament and the OT Apocrypha (The writings between the OT and NT). There are papyrus, parchment and copper scrolls with a varying ranger of Hebrew, Aramaic, and even Greek scrolls. They were discovered in 1947, almost perfectly preserved in the caves around Qumran, which is where the Dead Sea is, hence the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This was a very exciting and special opportunity because since these scrolls have been found and excavated in 1947, they have not been available to scholars until at least the early 90’s, which made it impossible for people who knew what they were doing to view them and examine them, let alone for someone like me to get a look at them! So here I am, close to Philadelphia and these scrolls happened to be in reach. So we went, and we all had a good time, and I tried to keep my mouth shut, but my people started asking me questions. I felt obligated, since they said, “Self-guided tour” to answer them.
It was such a privilege to see these scrolls. The Institute had about 10 of the scrolls, though there are many more. They had a fragment or section from each of the major sections of the collection, from Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah and also some extra-biblical scrolls such as ones from Esdras and some other Pseudopegripha. They were arranged under climate control on a circular table as the central exhibit. Unfortunately, no photography of any kind was allowed in the room, so I did not get any pictures of them. However, there were two other rooms full of artifacts from Israel, and that was neat in and of itself. You can see some of these exhibits from the pictures on my Facebook wall.
The writing on these tiny fragments of parchment impressed me the most. This writing was so small. I’m already legally blind. If I was a scribe copying scrolls by candlelight in these caves many years ago, I’d have gone blind for sure! It was fun to look at the originals in the climate controlled windows on the table, barely exposed to light because it could damage these millennia-old manuscripts. It was hard for someone like me to see them, but I could make out some of the lettering. It was much easier to view the digitally photographed and magnified versions on the table of the scroll sections I was seeing. I could read some of those, and that might have been the greatest joy, to know that my learning in Hebrew could help me read even these!
The other parts were also interesting. They had a ton of jars. As you came into the first exhibit, there were three mammoth jars, and we talked in our little group about the michvah jars that Jesus would have used in John 2 to turn the water into wine. I showed them that those jars were even bigger than these, and I was pretty sure I could have fit in these jars. There’s a picture of me standing behind a couple of them. Another key moment was when we found out that one of the stones from the second temple that had fallen from higher up in the wall was also there. This stone was there to touch. Most of what we saw was encased, and you weren’t allowed to touch it. But this stone was a huge thing, about four feet high, that you could touch. It was pretty cool to touch something that was destroyed in 70 AD!
As I begin to think about all of the ways that God has preserved His Word for so many centuries, and how He has guided even in these little matters, so that we can see today some of the oldest copies of original works of the Holy Spirit in the Bible’s composition through human authors, I am impressed to say the least. God’s Word does not return void. It always hits the mark, and it will last throughout the ages because God has superintended its preservation.
I have studied for many years how the Old and New Testament manuscripts have been guarded from a multiplicity of dangers and destructive forces. And I understand the privilege that was before me on Thursday. We need to have a healthy love of God’s Word. What I mean by that is that it is possible to worship the Bible rather than its Author. When you are standing before documents that are dated to the 400s BC, and you live in 2012 AD, we’re talking a document that is over 2,400 years old! That’s astounding that it is even still in front of you!
A person could begin to worship that document because it’s been around so long. That is no different than worshipping the sun or the moon or the mountains or rocks or even water. All of these things are very ancient things. Worshipping the Bible comes at the cost of revering it above the one who wrote it. It is worshipping God’s words rather than God Himself. We lose focus of what He has said when we are concerned with the mode of its arrival to us. It is indeed incredible what the manuscripts have been through, but they are actually quite frail. What is strong is the Word of the Lord to you today. That is fresh and it brings life and freedom!
Worshipping the Bible is something that is done when we are more impressed with these fragments and manuscripts than we are when we recognize God speaking to us through His Word, His Church and His Spirit. We must be careful to honor the Bible without losing focus of its function in our lives. The moment the Bible becomes more than the written words of God to us, for us to ponder, we are on dangerous ground. We honor the Bible because it bears the words of our Lord in it.
But there is also another dangerous extreme, to not honor the Bible enough. I’m always impressed especially with Muslims who put the Quran highest on the book shelves by itself. They would never put it on the ground. They would never put other books beside or on top of it. It has its own place. Now, I think that could get a little too extreme, but they clearly honor that book. My favorite image is of the Bible that is torn and tattered, not because someone dumped it in a puddle outside in the parking lot, but because they have so poured over its life-giving words that the binding and pages are worn with use. That is honoring the Word.
We don’t honor the Bible by enclosing it in a plastic vacuumed bag or encasing it on a shelf all on its own, or by prominently placing it in our living room or bedroom. We honor the Word by diving in it every spare moment, searching for a new word from God, a new communication from the Living Word. Let us honor the Living Word by reading the written Word and allowing the Holy Spirit to bring light and revelation to our souls that we might serve God more until He returns. And when you get an opportunity to see how God has so preserved His word, taking that opportunity may give you a whole new level of awe and reverence for Him and His Word too!