Treading Cautiously at Qumran

HonusWagnerCardImagine yourself walking around with some buddies and your dogs out in the woods. To pass the time, you start throwing rocks at trees to see if you can get one to land in a hole or split the imaginary uprights of the tree branches or whatever.[1]

Now imagine that one of the rocks makes it inside a tree hole and causes a loud crashing noise. You ignore it, and a few days later one of your buddies goes back out in the woods to that tree to investigate what caused that noise. And lo and behold, he makes one of the greatest discoveries of rare baseball cards of all time.

Hidden in the tree is a metal case containing several Mickey Mantle rookie cards, a handful of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and – the jackpot – multiple Honus Wagner T206 cards. Some are in mint condition, some are not, but either way, this collection of rare cards is priceless. Your buddy hides some of the cards and sheepishly tells you something vague about “finding something out in the woods,” and then he hits the road. Suspicious, you start looking around the other trees in the vicinity, and you find more card collections. Some are grubby and hard to read, others are less pristine versions of what was already found (though at this point you don’t actually know what your buddy, who has now found his way to a back-alley card dealer with serious cashflow, has in his possession from the first tree), and a few are cards of players you’ve never heard of. Curious, you make your way into town toting these boxes of miscellaneous cards, wondering what exactly you have found.

Fast forward a few months. You and your buddy are caught up in a card collectors scandal of the ages. You did not know when you found them, but this stash of cards belonged to a mysterious group of baseball fanatics living in the woods years ago but which has since disappeared without explanation. And what you have found – apart from the priceless cards of familiar players and the scraps of other cards that are lesser known (which are important in their own right) – is nothing short of a conspiracy of global proportions. The baseball experts are clamoring for access to the cards that you dug up, which has the potential to turn the professional sports world upside down forever. Teams of explorers descend upon the woods looking around at all the other trees to find more. It’s a madhouse (well, at least for baseball nerds).

Why? On those cards are players, baseball teams, positions, and batting statistics that the world has never seen before. Literally: no one knows who they are. Who are these players? What positions are they referring to? Where did these teams go? Has Major League Baseball been covering this up for over a century? What does this all mean? How do we understand the dead ball era or the Black Sox or Moneyball or gambling scandals or the steroid era in light of these new findings? Some cry, “It’s no big deal, nothing to see here.” Others cry, “It’s a cover-up! Find them!”

That, in a nutshell, is the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Well, at least one version of it.

Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls

Screen shot 2013-08-05 at 7.34.51 PM
Snapshot of the Great Isaiah Scroll

Since the days surrounding their discovery, the Dead Sea Scrolls (hereafter, “DSS” or “Scrolls”) have stimulated a whole spectrum of public and ecclesiastic reactions, media firestorms, conspiracy theories, scholarly careers made or undone, and so forth. The very name itself conjures up something Indiana Jones would go on some quest to find. As part of my research in New Testament (both for my dissertation and beyond), I will be interacting with the Scrolls quite a bit, so it seems appropriate to provide a quick summary of the Dead Sea Scrolls before I move on.[2] I tend to have a fairly tame understanding of the Scrolls and their implications for biblical studies, and I am also far from an expert, so I will try to be as judicious as possible to paint a view of the Scrolls that “keeps it in the fairway,” so to speak.

I will break this mini-series into two separate posts:

Part 1: What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Part 2: Why do the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter?



[1] Admittedly, this illustration resonates more with guys, since we tend to invent competitions involving throwing objects far more frequently than the ladies.

[2] Even though this is probably the 12,947th summary of the DSS written. Okay, maybe not that many.

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