I Think There’s Something Written On Here

Dead Sea Scroll fragments

Everybody likes a mystery

Let’s say you’re digging in your garden. After a few minutes you strike something hard and up from the soil comes a piece of broken pottery. In one version of this story, it’s smooth, blank, and uniformly colored green. In the second version of the story, someone took that same green pottery and used a hard pointed object to scratch words on it, so you can read several phrases. Would one of these versions of the story be more interesting than the other?

I believe for most people the pottery with the writing would be more interesting. There is something about writing that fascinates us, that adds an extra layer of meaning to whatever the writing is on, especially when we find it in somewhat mysterious circumstances. And writing does, both literally and figuratively, add another layer of meaning.

Even if the pottery merely had the name of the city where it was made stamped on the bottom, it would be slightly more interesting than if it were blank. Or the object might have some foreign writing: 中文 (Chinese), милочка (Russian), γράμματα (Greek), which would be more mysterious, but still interesting.

Suppose the object you found was not pottery, but broken fragments of papyrus, looking something like paper, colored brown, and with dark lines of writing, אַל-תּוֹסְףְּ. Without those lines of writing, what would you have? Basically, a pile of ruined papyrus.

With the writing, however, what you might have is the Dead Sea Scrolls. This week I had an unusual opportunity to go to Philadelphia for a couple of nights, and when I got there, I found that the Franklin Institute had an exhibit on the scrolls, with samples on display. Naturally I went, in spite of the expensive entrance fee, because, you know, it was the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I imagine that the very best of the scrolls would not be put on a plane and sent to a foreign museum, but we did have ten samples on display for viewing. They were small, mostly broken into multiple fragments, and in such a dim light down in the case that they couldn’t be seen very clearly. Visually, they were pretty underwhelming. I would compare most of what I saw as looking like broken pieces of dark brown autumn leaves.

The story of how the scrolls were found in caves beginning in 1946 is interesting, and the arguments about them may be interesting. People pay attention to those things, but in the end none of that is the real point. Even the objects themselves, although they are being carefully preserved, after sloppiness in the beginning, are not the real point. Without the writing, what was found would just be jars full of blank papyrus that got spoiled. What is important about the Dead Sea Scrolls is the information they contain because of the writing.

Most visitors would probably not find those broken little pieces of papyrus very interesting to look at, except that we know. These are the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they have writing on them, and there are people who are reading that writing. There is information here, knowledge, revelations, shifts in how we understand the past, what we know about Judaism, how that affects our understanding of the Bible. It is the writing that makes the difference.

It is that magic of writing that gives these scrolls such profound meaning that we create large museum exhibits about the world that created them.

1 Comment

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One response to “I Think There’s Something Written On Here

  1. This reminds me of that Russian submarine that went down and entombed its grew some years ago. Many of those aboard chose to write notes to loved ones and to those who would discover their words long after they had died. Writing was one of their last acts (of despair?), It’s an act that is repreated in every mining disaster, in every astronaut lost in space. Writing is what survives us when our own dust is left in jars of clay.

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