What I went through to meet a biblical scribe

[Originally posted on our Writing Center blog]

(Parts of Psalm 119, found in Cave 11 and dating to the first century.)

I’ve studied biblical languages, taken biblical studies courses, stared at many a facsimile of biblical manuscripts, but there’s nothing as powerful as being in the presence of original ink on original parchment from two thousand plus years ago. So when I heard that a few of the Dead Sea Scrolls were coming to Seattle (to the Pacific Science Center), I knew I had to go see them. And I was really going just to see them. I actually cared less for what these particular fragments were saying or what they meant to modern day textual critics as much as for simply being in their presence.

If you don’t know already, the Dead Sea Scrolls are almost 900 documents, including texts from the Hebrew Bible, found in remote caves near the Dead Sea in the late 1940s and 1950s. They date from the 250 BCE to about 70 CE* – basically before and during the time of Jesus. Before these discoveries, the oldest extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dated from the early middle ages, around 900 CE (although we do have New Testament manuscripts that go back to the first and second centuries CE). So if you’re a scholar, these discoveries are the finds of the millennium. They do wonders for your ability to tell the accuracy of the received text of the Torah, Prophets, Psalms, etc, as well as for your ability to better understand Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, both of which began just after these manuscripts were placed in these caves.

For me, I’d studied long enough already. So, when I found myself stuck behind clumps of people loitering around the first displays (you know – the ones showing facsimiles of the nearby Qumran settlement’s pottery, textiles, etc), I was frustrated. I figured, “To hec with this stuff! I want to see the scrolls!” So, like a doctor anxious to find the heart attack victim, I weaved my way through the people, hardly glancing at the other exhibits, until I got to the last room — “The Library.” As if I wouldn’t’ve been reverent anyway, the near-darkness told me I was entering a place of ancient human presences.

People were lingering here too, but I silently congratulated them for being in the right place. The first exhibit was labeled appropriately “Genesis.” A large banner described the fragment’s context and provided an enlarged facsimile, a transcription in modern Hebrew, and an English translation. This was Genesis 1:18-27, inscribed during the 1st century BCE. I bent over the glass case to get my face as close as possible. I was surprised at how small the writing was – much smaller than I expected. But just as my eyes started focusing on the letters, the case went dark! I had been THIS close to shaking hands with my first biblical scribe when his hand had been abruptly pulled away from me. I felt around the glass looking for the “on” button, but there was none. Turned out the display cases were set to expose the fragments to light only for a few minutes at a time.

Successive displays were labeled Exodus, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Psalms, followed by the non-biblical writings: War Rule, Community Rule, Hosea Commentary, Calendrical Document, and Pseudo-Ezekiel. And it wasn’t long before the glass cases had me trained so that whenever one of them turned on, I jumped to, like Pavlov’s dog, to get my reward.

I spent most of my time with the Psalms scroll. This one was more than a fragment; it was several columns of a full scroll. It was also the youngest of the scrolls at this exhibit, dating from the first century of the common era. For all we know, it could’ve been copied when Jesus was chatting with Peter on the Sea of Galilee. I must’ve gone back to it five times, wanting another fix, another moment near this ink and animal hide. I could see where the scribe had switched from his everyday Hebrew script into a proto-Hebrew not used since the 7th century BCE. It would be like us typing a whole paper in Times New Roman except for one certain word that we typed in 12th century Anglo-Saxon. I don’t know why we would ever do that, but for this scribe, it was a way to show high reverence for the name of God — “YHWH” (literally, “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be”). Our modern English Old Testaments do something similar when they translate “Yahweh” as “the LORD” (the capital letters indicating that it was “Yahweh” in the original Hebrew). And modern Jews will say Hashem (meaning The Name) in everyday conversation and Adonai (meaning Lord) when praying. But never “Yahweh.”

Here’s an example (the arrow points to the name YHWH in paleo Hebrew). This is Psalm 119:59-64, the last verse being “The earth is filled with your love, YHWH; teach me your decrees.” If you look closely at the photograph at the top of this post, you might be able to pick out seven times the scribe writes YHWH in ancient script (ancient to him, really ancient to us) — all are in the top right column: two in line 2; one each in lines 5, 6 and 7; and two in line 9.

Finally I’d met my first biblical scribes. I held my hands behind my back and my head as close to the glass as I could (always aware that too much weight on the glass would set off an alarm and a security guard hurrying in my direction). I’d “been with” some 2100 year old men whose God was more real, more important to them than all other parts of their lives combined. But, again, it wasn’t their words. I’d already learned their words in my books and facsimiles. It was their human presence. They were real people, and being near their handwriting, their animal hides scratched using a bird feather and carbon black ink, brought me nearer to them. And, for me, that meant feeling nearer also to their faith. I guess you never know what’ll happen when you shake hands with another writer (or scribe in this case) — either over coffee or over 2000 years: you might just end up affected by their presence as well as what they wrote.

Postscript: On our way back from Seattle we had to spend Sunday night in North Bend when Snoqualmie pass was closed due to hail, snow, and more than one accident. And the next morning, on our way back into Yakima on I-82, we were caught for over an hour behind another accident. Thanks to Andrea and Brad who covered for me yesterday until I finally arrived very late for work around 1:30pm. I thought, Oh, well, all this just to have seen some ancient handwriting. But I think it was worth it.

* BCE stands for “Before the Common Era” (corresponding to BC) and CE for “Common Era” (corresponding to AD).

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